The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Flat sourdough

ahuitt's picture

Flat sourdough

I have been nursing a sourdough starter since this summer. I initially followed PR's instructions from ABED and then started following a modified feeding schedule in line with the one in Laurel's Kitchen's desem instructions. So, I feed a little on Monday, let it sit on the counter for a few hours before going back to the fridge, a little more on Wednesday, sit on the counter until doubled, (maybe 12 hours later), and then mix the final dough. I suppose my problem comes in the proofing stage because I do an overnight retard, giving it plenty of time for the bulk fermentation. But, I could be way off base. It seems over-proofed from the moment I pull it out. I do stretch and folds as it ferments, but I can get no surface tension when shaping it. I keep stretching and folding and hoping for more tension and gluten-resistence and get none. Any suggestions?

I've had great success with Floyd's Honey Whole Wheat bread, so I'm about to give up on the sourdough and just make yeast bread for now. ;) I hate to give up that easily, though! I've probably had at least six bad bakes like the one in the picture above. The flavor is good, but that is a pitiful-looking loaf, isn't it?? For what it's worth, I think the breads have gotten progressively worse with the life of the starter.

pongze's picture

Check out this thread and the link to Debra Wink's post about thiol compounds:

I had a problem similar to what you describe after I had neglected my starter in the refrigerator for a few weeks.  I began refreshing my starter on my kitchen counter twice a day for about 3 days and it was as good as ever afterwards.  At this point, I usually bring my starter out of the refrigerator about 1 day before I'm going to make my levain and refresh it a couple of times at room temperature.

Xenophon's picture

Could you post the recipe used (including the composition of the starter used and hydration of the final dough+ fraction of starter used)?  What's the temperature in your final proofing environment?

FWIW:  I've only been working with sourdough starter for the past 5 months but get great results now.  However, this was after I gave it a try a year earlier and ended up with dense bricks then let things rest for a while.  In retrospect, the issue lay with my starter.  My rye sourdough starter (100% hydration) when taken out of the fridge (4 centigrade) then fed with rye flour and water and left to rest at around 24 centigrade now typically doubles in 4 hours.  


Bottom line I think is we need some more info but I've got the feeling your starter is sluggish.  Don't give up, if I could manage it then anyone can and the results are really worthwhile, vastly superior to straight dough commercial yeast breads imho.


rottenfood's picture

ahuitt, I was completely convinced I just lived in an area that was hostile to 'sour' bacteria. 'Kept my starter in the fridge, refreshing once or twice/wk. I had read that once its gone, its gone. Like pongze, I pulled it out to room temp, fed daily. Mine took about 5 days to really come back strong, but I was amazed that the sour came back also. 'Made me quite happy. His/her practice of taking from the fridge a day or so before bake for a refresh regimen has also helped my loaves alot.

I've made my share of bricks - especially when attempting whole grains. Its just now *starting* to work. I found I tend to over ferment and over proof so that the gluten is exhausted when it comes time to bakes. That may or may not be true for you, but it would make me watch the dough carefully and give it a poke ever 15-30 min. after the first couple hours. If it takes 2-4 seconds for a 1/2" poke to fill back out - it needs to bake right then (have oven fully hot).

'Hope you get the joy soon. If I had to eat commercially yeasted bread, I'd prob. stop eating bread.

ahuitt's picture

Thanks for your offers to help! I have read lots on here, from BBA and ABED, King Arthur Flour, etc. but head knowledge is obviously not enough! I need help. I have a really hard time reading this dough...

Two of my goals in feeding my sourdough are 1) to keep it low maintenance and 2) to avoid throwing away starter. Those may be part of my problem!

So, I have kept 86 g in the fridge in a plastic container. I had been doing PR's suggestion of pulling it out and refreshing the mother starter, then building the bread starter, and then mixing the dough. His instructions never made complete sense to me, though - those pages seem like they weren't edited well, if you'll pardon me for saying so. It almost seems like part of the paragraph was inserted without intention... ;) So, I kind of lost confidence in whether I was doing it "right," especially since I was getting lazy bread out of it.

That led me to trying another low-maintenance feeding method. I've tried to keep it a firm starter like PR recommends. If you'll see my feeding schedule below, I think you'll discover I have a starter at about a 58% hydration level.  Tell me if I've calculated that incorrectly.

Here's the schedule I've come up with after seeing something similar in Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book:

Monday: To 86 g refrigerated "Mother Starter," add 51 g flour and 36 g water. Let sit on counter for 6 hours before returning to fridge. (173 g total)

Thursday: To 173 g starter, add 215 g flour and 152 g water. (540 g total) Let sit on counter overnight, or until doubled.

Friday: Remove 454 g for final dough and return 86 g to fridge. (I used Excel and a little old-school algebra to back into these numbers.) To 454 g starter, knead in 448 g flour, 308 g water, and 17 g salt. Stretch and fold in 10-minute increments for one hour. Let rest on counter for 2 more hours before returning to fridge overnight.

Saturday: Remove dough and let come to room temp for 2 hours. Shape and let rise for 2 more hours. Bake at 425 degrees for 27 minutes.

I'm looking forward to learning your thoughts!

dabrownman's picture

starter for the amount of flour in the dough.   I like the total levain to be between 10-20% of the total eight of the flour and water in the dough.  If your starter is active, it will make things happen very quickly of the temperature is 70 F in the kitchen.   It could be your flat dough is the result of too much time after the huge amount of starter hits the dough.

I store 100g of rye starter at 66% hydration in the fridge - for up to 4 weeks without feeding and take out what I need every week to make a levain and put the rest back in the fridge .  I only bake a loaf of bread, around 1,000g, of Fridays.  I take 15 g of starter out of the mother on Tuesday and do a 3 stage levain build with it ending up with 150 g of full strength starter at 100% hydration levain after 8 hours  The 15g of starter has 9 g of rye flour and 6 g of water.  The first feeding of whole grain flour is double the initial flour amoiunt with an equal amount of water - 12 g each making 39 g total.  I keep the levain on a heating pad in the winter at 82 F.

2 hours later I feed it double the amount again or 24 g each of flour and water making  87 g total levain.  In 6 hours it will double and I give it it's last feeding of 32 g flour and 31 g of water.  Once it has risen 25% I refrigerate it for 24 hours to improve the sour.  If you don't want to do this them you could start the levain build on Wednesday for an earl morning Friday bake if you also plan on refrigerating your shaped loaf overnight for 12 hours like i do and bake it straight out of the fridge.

The next day I take the levain out fo the fridge and let it finish doubling in volume on the heating pad.  Then it os ready to raise a 1,000 g loaf of bread and deliver a sour taste. 

I call this the no muss, no fuss, no waste, no maintenance starter t5hat is also very sour.  When you get down to your last 20-30 grams just build it back up to double the amount as usual and split it 6 hours after the 2 feeding - after it has doubled.  Use half to make a loaf of bread as usual and stiffen the other half up to 66% hydration for your next batch of storage starter. Once it has risen 25% after the 3rd feeding them refrigerate it as your mother.  

After much starter trial and error, this is what works best for my needs.   The key is making sure that you use whole grains and that your  stored starter is at is peak, doubling after the 2nd feeding in 6 hours before feeding it the last time,.making it stiff and then refrigerte it at the 25% rise mark after the 3rd feeding. 

If for some reason the starter ( or levains for that matter) doesn't double after the 2nd feeding in 6 hours then i toss the 2nd feeding amount just feed it again like it was the 2nd stage until it does double. You don't want to be refrigerating a weak starter for 3-4 weeks.

Hope this helps

Hope this helps .  

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

"I think the breads have gotten progressively worse with the life of the starter."

Then something is off with the starter!  The yeast numbers need perking up.  :)

ahuitt's picture

Thanks for al of your helpful comments. For further clarification, here is a link to the recipe I've been using: 

What I have attempted to do is keep what he calls the mother starter in the fridge and essentially refresh it and then build it to the 454 g of levain he calls for in the final dough recipe. Am I misunderstanding the refreshing process? If you'll look back to my original post, I've been thinking of Monday as the "refresh," Thursday as the levain build and fermentation, and Friday as the final dough. Does that help? I'm curious to know if you still think the ratios are off, dabrown, after seeing what I'm going for. maybe I'll try your feeding process next. I did add rye on my most recent feeding round. I really like your suggestion for feeding again if Stage 2 doesn't double within 6 hours. You are all such artisans and everyone has a different technique which is wonderful. 

My starter smells nice and sour. 

 So, what's my next step with what I have? feed it, I know, but how often and when to bake? You'll probably all have a different thought! Thank you!!

ahuitt's picture

Hmmm... I don't know if it has a yeasty smell. It does grow when fed, but definitely not in the 6 hours that dabrown suggested. I assume that it must have some life if that's the case??

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Find a warm spot where the starter can rise, above 75°F or 24°C and below 85°F or 30°C.  Take a tablespoon of starter, double or triple the water.  Feed your starter (enough flour so that it smells and tastes like wet flour, no sour, no yeast.  Stir up well into a soft dough or thick batter and pack into a narrow see thru container, cover and allow to rise to it's maximum volume.  Remove a tablespoon at peak (or a little after) and repeat the feeding.  Time your starter from mixing to peaking.  Each time you do this, the yeast numbers will increase in the starter.  Don't feed more often than every 6 hours.

At first it may take anywhere from 12 to 24 hrs, so be patient and watch for when the starter slows down, levels out and decreases in volume,  the yeast smells should increase.  With each consecutive feeding the starter should be quicker to recover and rise sooner.  When you are down to peaking about every 12 hrs, put it on a 12 hour schedule for ease of watching.

If you find it peaking out at 8 hrs,  give it more flour for the next feed (or less starter, try half a tablespoon) to stretch out the activity for 12 hours and see how it handles the extra food.  Always reduce to just a tablespoon or less of active peaked starter while growing yeast in a warm (above 23°C) environment.  For cooler temps, more starter may be needed to inoculate flour and water to get the same rise times.  

Now that you've been watching the starter more, you should be able to tell and estimate when it is about a third risen, half risen, etc.  Place the active starter in the fridge after feeding and it is about a third to half risen.  The starter will hold out easily for a week of storage if not several weeks with food to munch on.   When preparing for use, think of removing a portion, building the starter so it peaks out, at maximum yeast level for mixing into a recipe.  Depending on the recipe, that would be the day before mixing up the main dough.

Experiment with the starter build for sour, not the refrigerated mother starter.  

The refrigerated starter can be stored longer and used well into the following weeks so that one starter batch can provide inoculum for several loaves.  Replace when more starter is needed.  

ahuitt's picture

Thank you for the instructions. I'll hop on it and report back after a few days!

ahuitt's picture

Thanks, chris319, for your comments and questions. I have assumed there was yeast present since the starter and levain did double, albeit slowly. That is simply a newbie assumption. Maybe something else is causing it to double? I don't know that there is no detectable yeast presence - I simply don't know what wild yeast smells like yet since I'm just embarking on this sourdough adventure. :) Is it that beer-y smell? If yes, then it has had that smell. I smelled more sour than yeasty today, however, when I took it out to follow Mini Oven's instructions. So, maybe I've killed them off. What do you think is the best next step, chris319?

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Cleaning out the fridge and decided to give it one last feed a 1:2:2 ratio.  

Let me tell you about this starter, it is one of several that have been sent to me, it didn't develop yeast and was running entirely on Bacterial action.  It rose rapidly when fed large amounts of flour, too rapidly, and has an aroma at first pleasing and then in a short time, like a bad perfume, makes me sick of smelling it.  But the starter was already several months old and rather set in it's ways. To do a 1:10:10 feeding actually encouraged the bacteria, what strain? I have no idea but it didn't seem right and took ages (like a wine) to come around to something good smelling.  That might work for wine but won't work for a bread dough.  I don't let my dough ferment for weeks if I want bread on the table.  The starter never had taken that next step to develop yeast when it was a baby and I do believe it was from too much love and flour in the beginning during the first crucial weeks.  It happens.  I think this is what Chris319 is making reference to.  (It could also be that the yeast that did develop thrives only in extreme acidic conditions, so my detection of it is outside my working perimeters.)

Since the yeast have shown themselves before, they will more than likely show up again. Try both.  1) A big feeding and 2) set some older starter aside to just sit for a few days.  That way you cover both bases, High pH stimulation and Low pH sorting (sorting itself out.)

I have a wheat (from rye) starter here that also doesn't want to get yeasty.  I suddenly started feeding a virgin rye starter wheat.  It's cheesy and mild but can't raise anything.  But great flavour so I use it as a flavouring and add commercial yeast when I want the dough raised.  It also seems set in it's ways but incredibly stable.  It smells wonderful but in no way yeasty and unaffected by starving, small or large amounts of wheat flour.  These exceptions remind me that all starters are not alike and keep me humble.  Some can be changed quickly and others won't change much.  

Starting up a new starter is also much easier than it was the very first time.  You know more about starters no matter what that first outcome.  If you can't get a old starter to preform for you (rid yourself of the frustration) start another one (perhaps a different method) keeping them separate while fixing the old one.  

Keep some instant yeast around to save your loaf when needed, always nice to have something to fall back on and it is not cheating.  Not in my book.  

ahuitt's picture

I had already dumped all but the 1T when I read the comments about trying Chris319's way AND your way, MiniOven. That was a great idea, and I would have loved to try it. Now, I'll just have to see what happens with this one. I fed the 1T and stirred it down after 12 hours at which point it had risen about 150%. By last night, the starter had risen about 175% (from the original mark) and was still there this morning, so I dumped all but 1T again and did a 1:2:2 feed. I'm using rye, by the way. It's growing slowly and smells yeasty. I guess I'll see if the growth seems faster after each feeding and, if not, back off on the feedings for a day or two. Thanks for all of your help. I've gone back and read some of the other starter rehab postings now that I know that was my problem with the flat sourdough. I'll keep checking around there and let you know how it works out!!

Capn Dub's picture
Capn Dub

" I do stretch and folds as it ferments, but I can get no surface tension when shaping it. I keep stretching and folding and hoping for more tension and gluten-resistence and get none"

The overnight retard shouldn't result in over-proofing; a lot of people keep their dough in the fridge for two or three days before shaping and baking.  If the gluten seems wimpy when you take it out of the fridge, then the problem is more likely 1) under-development, or 2) over-development.  From what you describe in the quote above, I would say it is probably #2.

How is the gluten before you start the retard?  It should be pretty well developed before you put it in the fridge, but only just.  Overworking it will make just as good manhole covers as underworking.

ahuitt's picture

From what I know, I don't think I'm overworking it. It starts out very slack and stays very slack. I sense a little tension by the fourth turn on each stretch-and-fold, but I don't *think* I'm breaking the gluten strands. When I wrote the line quoted above, I made it sound like I keep stretching and folding and stretching and folding at one time -- what I should have written was that I do one complete stretch-and-fold every ten minutes for 40 minutes, as instructed in the recipe, and then maybe one or two more before going to bed. Since the pain au levain formula is so much wetter than Floyd's commercially-yeasted Honey Whole Wheat bread I make and because I haven't gotten to know my starter well, I've got two unknown variables. I suppose one thing I could try is making the dough with the optional commercial yeast and at least get to know the feel of that wetter dough. Hmmm... Thanks for your help, Capn Dub. 

ahuitt's picture

I've been feeding my starter and watching it double before dumping all but 1T and then doing a 1:2:2 feeding. The time to peak seems to be decreasing which is good. I think it's under 12 hours now. I couldn't bear to wait any longer before trying another bake, so yesterday, I mixed up PR's ABED levain (using 71 g mother starter, 142 g flour, 85 g whole wheat, & 151.5 g water), and then the dough later in the day, and baked it this morning. Here's a photo. It's definitely got a little more volume than the photo I posted above. However, I need to keep up the work with my starter intervention program, so this is just an intermediate step - I couldn't help myself. :)

Latest Sourdough Bake

I still don't feel like I got a great deal of surface tension, but I suppose it was enough for a serviceable loaf. I'll keep feeding my starter and keep it out of the fridge for a few more weeks for good measure. I realize now that I should have "gotten to know it" before I started refrigerating it. :) 

One thing I think I've learned is that the starter stays at its peak for a long time - do you all experience that? I feared that if I didn't sit and watch it hit that peak and immediately mix it into the dough, that it would deflate and be useless. Now, I see that it peaks and stays at the same mark for a number of hours. Does that mean it's still got enough oomph for baking if I mix the final dough within that time frame?

ahuitt's picture

Thanks for posting again, chris319. I have definitely smelled yeast. I'm not "stressed" out anymore about my loaf not rising because I know I have your great idea in my back pocket! I'm just sharing my intermediate steps. But, it sounds like you see potential for more lift - is that correct?

I haven't fed my starter in a couple of days, actually. I tried baking yesterday knowing that it was too early, but just wanted to experiment, simply because I was curious. It's now like a science experiment to me. So, know that I was just having fun and not ignoring your comments. 

What would you suggest as the next step after leaving the starter alone for a few days? I understand that you replenish what you remove as you bake, is that correct? So, how often do you bake? If I'm a once-a-week baker, what "plan" would you suggest?