The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What Happened?

mh.thestudio's picture

What Happened?

I've been using this site ever since I started down the road of sourdough, almost one year ago. I am amazed by the member's expertise and abilities I find here. Every question I've had has been answered, and i've never written before because everything I wanted/needed to know could be easily found in your pages. Until now. After a couple of initial disasters (I may just chronicle them here sometime, in order to aid any other newbies), I started making fine bread. Not nearly as lovely as yours, or Chad Robertson's (I'm basically following the Tartine methods), but fine for me. Then, suddenly, in late January, my starters just seemed to give up. I've regenerated them, but I'd like know if any of you experts can tell me what happened and if I can do anything to prevent this in the future.

My first starter is called "Baby".

sourdough starter Baby

Baby has been with me from the beginning. She started as Robertson's 50gm whole wheat flour and 50gm white flour with 100 gm water. At first, I fed her once a day by taking 75 gm of the starter and adding 150 gms flour mix and 150 gms water, as per Chad's instructions. She started off sluggish, and I was going through tons of flour, and I read here about feeding starters twice a day in smaller portions. I also read about the power of rye, so I moved over to 45gm of starter with 15gm BRM ww, 15gm KAF ap, and 15gm BRM dark rye with 45 gm water, feeding her twice a day. Baby took off.

Based on Baby's success (for me. You can see I couldn't shape or score yet),

Early loaf

I made "Newbie", a 100% rye starter. It was happy as could be. I started successfully storing both in the fridge, taking turns pulling one out one week, feeding it for 5 times, then making a loaf. When I'd put one back in the fridge, I'd start with a base starter, say 30 gm, give it 90 gm of water and 100-110 gm flour. I switched Baby over to BRM light Rye for my lighter loaves. Both did fine. Until late January.

Now we've just ended a brutal winter. We had record number of days below zero, and my apartment never quite felt warm. My kitchen is cool year round - it doesn't get much sun, and I keep my place on the cool side year round. But this winter, it was cold in there, until I turned the oven on. Suddenly, both Baby and Newbie weren't rising anything. Including themselves. Calling them sluggish would be a complement. They just sat there. I made a loaf of bread that was as flat as my first miserable attempt at sourdough. I threw it out. The only way I had any successful loaves in February was by adding dry yeast during the autolyse. 

In March I pulled both starters out, nursed Baby back to health by feeding her for over two weeks straight, twice a day. I've made some loaves with only her and they are great. For me.

Bread Made With Baby


Newbie never caught back on, so I started a new, 100% rye starter. Which is doing great.

Newbie Bread

(recent breads are Whole Wheat and 20% Rye from Tartine 3)

So, here are my questions:

  1. Will a 100% rye starter stay strong, or do you need to restart one every few months?
  2. What happened? Was my kitchen too cold? Am I storing my starters in the fridge wrong?
  3. Is there anything I can do to prevent this happening again?

Those are my questions. I know I still need help with shaping and scoring and oven spring, but I'll keep reading all your wise words on those topics. Thanks, in advance, for any help.

dabrownman's picture

Even in the AZ desert I keep a heating pad for these kinds of things in the winter.  At 62 F your starter will be 3 times less vigorouss than it is at 75 F.  What usually takes 4 hours at 75F will take as much as 3 times longer at the lower temperature, 

I keep my stiff (66% hydration) 100 g of rye starter in the fridge all the time for 4 weeks at a crack as I take a small portion of it each week to make a levain and bake with.  When it gets down to 20 g i use 10 to make a levain in 3 builds, 100% hydration, for a bread bake and 10 to make a new batch of starter  that ends up at 66% hydration.

The key to having a good starter that remains strong is to make sure that, before it goes in the fridge, to get it at full strength ans vigorous by doing the build at 82 F, has plenty of food to easily survive 4 weeks in the fridge and not let the pH drop too low.  But doing the final feeding and refrigerating the starter after it rises 25% will usually so the trick as long as it has doubled after the 2nd stage feeding in 4 hours.

Then each week, when you build a levain from it, use a 3 stage build on a heating pad at 82F to make sure that the levain doubles at the end if the 2nd 4 hour build, and again at the end of the 3 rd stage build before using it.

If at any time the starter ot=r levain fails after the 2nd or 3rd stage you just throw away what ever the 2nd stage feeding was, go back ti the 2nd stage feeding, do it again and act as if nothing happened.  If it passed the 2nd and 3 rd stage feeding the starter is good for the fridge or the levain is god for baking bread with it.

In the winter I do the gluten development, ferment and proofing (when not in the fridge for a retard) on a heating pad at 82 F perfect for the yeast but the LAB are still outproducing them.

If you do thongs at room temperature in the winter, things will likely slow down so much that you will think something is wrong with the starter or levain - instead of thinking to get the temperature up much higher.

Happy Baking

MisterTT's picture

probably too low for the starter to develop at the usual pace. It would have been fine, if you'd have fed it less often (when it is ready), but by too frequent feedings at a lower temp you diluted the starter's population of bacteria.

I am actually surprised that you managed to nurse the wheat starter back to health, but not the rye. In my experience, a rye starter is much more vigorous than a wheat one and more hardy as well. It had been sitting unfed in the fridge at 100% hydration for months and it performed as well as one could hope after a couple of feeds.

What you should do is measure the temperature of your kitchen accurately and adjust feeding schedules accordingly. However, one can realize how this is not very convenient, so another thing you can do is raise the temp in some small, enclosed area such as a proofing box. I use my microwave with a big cup of hot water inside. Close the door tight and you can reach a starter temperature exceeding 25C easily, even when the kitchen in cool.

It is helpful to consider this chart in knowing what to expect from your starter:

By the way, I think the spiral score on the first loaf looks great!

mh.thestudio's picture

Both comments are so helpful. Yes, I was just staying "on schedule" and feeding every 12 hours. Now that you mention it, it makes sense that I was diluting the bacteria. The heating pad is a great idea. I did try moving the starter from the top of my fridge (where I normally keep it when it's out) into my oven, and placing a small potwith boiled water in it to warm up the oven. It was so cold this winter, that the pots heat would dissipate within minutes. The heating pad may just get me through another tough winter if it comes along.

When I was searching for the issue I found a post (somewhere) that said you can not maintain a 100% rye starter for long. I love the taste with a 100% rye starter, and noticed a difference when I cut it with white flour. I can't find that post (it was not on Fresh Loaf), but will keep looking and link it here.

The temperature chart is terrific! I've bookmarked it, thanks so much for everything.

mh.thestudio's picture

This is the place that recommended reviving a sluggish starter with plain white flour:

Elsewhere on the site he discusses the difficulty of maintaining pure rye starters. Have you been able to?

MisterTT's picture

maintaining a pure rye starter is a piece of cake. You don't have to do anything special. Feed it, put it in the fridge, if you don't use, feed every couple of months. It's up to you what hydration you want to keep it at. I use 100% just for simplicity and I'm satisfied with the results this yields, but a lot of people go lower/higher.

Andrew Whitley in his book states that he doesn't even feed a rye sourdough, but just scoops some out of the container to bake with and replenishes the stock from a sour build when it gets low.