The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter is separating in layers and is sluggish

Loafer's picture
Loafer

Starter is separating in layers and is sluggish

My starter is getting a liquid layer that looks like hooch, but it is forming towards the bottom.  From the top, there is a bubbly layer of starter, a claer liquid layer, then a more solid, not bubbly layer of flour on the bottom.  This recurs even after refreshing, I have tried a few times. The starter is mighty sluggish too, even after a couple weeks of repeated refreshings to try and wake it up. I made a loaf of bread today and it took about 6 1/2 hours to rise the first time.  Pretty much unacceptably slow.  Can it be saved?

 -Loafer 

SourdoLady's picture
SourdoLady

It is not that unusual for a new starter to do the separating. I have heard that the leuconistic (sp?) bacteria can cause this, although I have never had it happen to me. What kind of flour are you using, and is your water unchlorinated? Are you dumping out most of the starter before you feed? Stir it vigorously, quite often and feed it morning and evening instead of only once a day. Add a spoonful of rye flour now and then. Give it some more time and see what it does.

It also isn't that unusual for sourdough to take 6 or more hours to rise, especially with a new starter that hasn't acquired a lot of strength yet.

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

How often are you feeding your starter, and what?

Most starter problems can be traced to feeding habits, and in all honesty most home baker's starters are on th ragged edge of death.  Which causes all sorts of inconsistencies, problems and sourdough dropouts.

 

I find that a healthy starter at room temperature needs to be fed at least twice a day, and each feeding should be enough to double the size of the starter.  Also, I prefer to feed 1 part of water and 1 part of flour by weight, or 2 parts of water and 3 parts of flour by volume.  So, if you have 100 grams of starter, it should be fed 50 grams each of water and flour.  If you have a cup of starter, it should be fed about 1/2 cup of water and 3/4 cup of flour.

If your starter is impaired, I like to feed it 3 times a day, enough to triple it's size with each feeding.  Or, if you have 100 grams of starter, add 100 grams each of water and flour.  If you have 1 cup of starter, feed it 1 cup of water and 1 1/2 cups of flour.

 

At either of these feeding schedules, you;ll soon have a swimming pool full of starter, and 12 hours later you'll have two swimming pools full of starter (or 8 hours later you'll have 3 swimming pools full of starter if you are tripling).  As a result, when you are maintaining your starter, you should discard half or 2/3 of it before each feeding to keep the quantities under control.  You may use the discarded starter to make muffins, pizza shells or all sorts of goodies.  Or you can pitch it.  Your call.

I find that the 3x regimen will return most starters to a healthy condition in two or three days.

As to the rising time, 6 1/2 hours isn't unheard of.  Boudin bakery lets their loaves rise 18 to 24 hours.  A lot has to do with the activity level of the starter and the temperature of the dough.  Shoot for about 78F for good dough development, reasonable rise times and good flavor.

 

Again, let us know how often you are feeding your starter, and what.

Mike

 

Loafer's picture
Loafer

Well, I am aware of the need for frequent feedings for optimum health, but all of last year I was doing quite well with two feedings in one day and then a week in the fridge with no feedings.  The next week, on baking day, I would do a refreshment, then remove what I needed for baking and then refresh again.  I would also refresh mid week every other week or so, and would use the discard for waffles, pancakes and some yummy sourdough banana bread.

However, this summer, I left the starter unused for about 6 weeks one period and it hasn't recovered since. 

 When I do feed, I use straight up Gold Medal AP.  I used to use Harvest King, and sometimes used King Arthur organic, but I didn't find there to be very good returns on that, so I feed with regular AP and bake with the fancy stuff. I use filtered water, so there shouldn't be much chlorine in it.

 

-loafer 

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

My comments about feeding frequency did mention 'starters at room temperature.'  When a starter is refrigerated, it doesn't need to be fed, as often.

 

However, when I refrigerate starters I refresh them until they are vigorous, not until they have been fed two times.  When a starter is in the refrigerator, it is slowly dying.  And it may take more than two feedings to restore it to good health.

 

You hadn't mentioned the 6 weeks of being ignored.  Was that at room temperature or in the fridge?  If it was at room temperature, I'd just pitch the starter and start over.

 

If it was in the fridge, it should be recoverable.  I would take a teaspoon or so of your starter, dilute it in a cup of water and add 1 1/2 cups of flour.  Twelve hours later I'd star the 3 times a day feedings and it should be OK in a couple of days.

 

Mike

 

JMonkey's picture
JMonkey

I've found that when I've kept my starter very wet -- as in, 1 cup flour to 1 cup water (about 175-200% hydration) -- I've gotten this kind of separation. I'd recommend feeding it 1 cup flour to 1/2 cup water.

Also, your starter may respond better to larger feedings. For example, you might take 1/4 cup starter and then add 1 cup flour to 1/2 cup water.

For more detail on feeding and maintaining your starter, I'd highly recommend Bill Wraith's article. Bill weighs, as do I, but the concepts are all there for people who work with volume as well.

Loafer's picture
Loafer

Now that I think of it, the ratio may have a great deal to do with it.  When I started my starter (he he he) I did equivalent volumes of flour and water.  But all of last year, I did equivalent weights.  I might have just gotten used to the look and feel of the stiffer starter.  I'll refresh it as described, and go back to equivalent weights, and things should be hunky dory.

 I've got to get it nice and hearty before I build my brick oven! ;)  Someday...

 

-Loafer 

Loafer's picture
Loafer

Mike Avery, I followed your advice, and before I put it in the fridge at the end of the process, it was doing some very active bubbling and doubling in volume in 3 hours!  Thank you. You rock.

 

-Loafer