The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Weak starter

IPlayWithFood's picture
IPlayWithFood

Weak starter

Quick question - if my starter peaks (i.e. doubles after a 1:2:2 feeding) within 12 hours at room temperature, should it be expected to raise an entire loaf of bread to double with 10% inoculation within 3 hours? I simply don't understand how, unless everyone's starter doubles within 3-4h, bread dough can double within that time, especially with the addition of salt slowing down the fermentation process?

I just want to make sure my starter is functioning properly as it should, because so far all my bakes which have succeeded have involved very very long proof and ferment times (including time in the fridge, where I think my starter continues working its lazy way through the dough..), and anything I've tried to do within the span of a day falls flat. I read a lot in recipes about people having dough rise to double or triple, and that has never happened to me before. I read too about starters tripling or quadrupling, likewise have never encountered such beasties. I don't think I've ever come close to overproofing loaves before - everything is underproofed or the dough turns into a puddle by way of autolysis before it can properly proof.

My starter was grown with cheap UK supermarket (Tesco) flour, and has recently been feeding on some whole wheat flour as well (up to 50% of the feed, so the same as the initial starter weight since I feed 1:2:2), but I have stopped doing that since it seems to acidify my whole starter mixture and break down dough stupidly quick.If it turns out, as I suspect, that I have a very weak starter, how do I go about getting it stronger? I am currently upping the feeding ratio to 1:5:5 and crossing my fingers hoping for the best, but any additional suggestions would be welcome!

bikeprof's picture
bikeprof

A few things stand out:

- if your starter doubles in 12hrs regularly, that suggests it is plenty healthy

- you can bias your starter for leavening (yeast over LAB acid production) by, as you say, upping the feeding ratio, and/or decreasing the hydration a bit, shortening the feeding schedule (as in going 2x/day) for an extended number of refreshments, lowering the temp a bit (there are limits on the usefulness of all these factors though)

- BUT - are you building a levain from your starter?  Doing so, and using 15-20% of the total flour weight in your formula, is pretty typical for artisan breads that get 3-4hrs bulk fermentation.

- Also realize that doubling might never happen, especially if you continue to give your dough folds throughout the bulk, even more so if the hydration is really high. 

- Finally, off the top of my head...check your temps...as these time frames typically assume a temp window around 76-82F

IPlayWithFood's picture
IPlayWithFood

I was thinking about it, if my 100% hydration starter fed 1:2:2 doubles in 12h, that is effectively a 20% inoculation by flour weight as it is, and that is in a high-hydration environment. Shouldn't I then expect that any dough inoculated at 20% or lower will then take at least 12h to double? Especially given that my doughs will be made at 70-75% hydration, maximum. I still don't see how a 15-20% inoculation (be it with a levain or starter) is going to get my 12-h-double-time starter to leaven a loaf in any less than 12h.

At any rate, it seems I have managed to get a double out of a 1:4:3 feeding within about 9h, so hopefully this marks the beginning of greater starter activity..

IPlayWithFood's picture
IPlayWithFood

Have done a 15% levain built from 5g/75g/75g left overnight (so 155g 100% starter into 485flour/365water) But this doesn't seem to help! By the time my bread has proofed (3.5h on the counter @70F or so, overnight in the fridge and 4h in a pilot light oven final proofing) there is way too much acid in the dough (dough is not overproofed since crumb is nice and open and crust is nice and brown, and may actually be on the verge of underproofed since I still get a bit of springback when I poke it, but it collapses into a pancake because of insufficient gluten strength when turned out) - I still think, despite the fact that my starter doubles in 12h, there is too much LAB:yeast!

Why do you say that the usefulness of starter-biasing factors is limited?

Lechem's picture
Lechem (not verified)

"By the time my bread has proofed (3.5h on the counter @70F or so, overnight in the fridge and 4h in a pilot light oven final proofing)"

Do you mean 3.5 hours for the bulk ferment before placing into the fridge. Then shaping an final proofing for 4 hours?

IPlayWithFood's picture
IPlayWithFood

Ah sorry was unclear there - the final proof, post-shape, was the entire overnight/pilot light. I.e. when I took it out of the fridge it was hardly proofed at all (poke test/volumetric increase) so I left it to keep proofing at a warmer temperature til it had gone to about 1.8x/was springing back just slightly with a poke test. Will post the crumb when I cut into it in an hour - the dough pancaked on the pan (about 0.5in tall), and rose by about an inch during the bake.

Lechem's picture
Lechem (not verified)

And you've increased your starter to a higher percentage plus you've been feeding your starter good feeds with it peaking within 12 hours without any issues.

No issues in the starter should equal no issues within the dough.

I still think you're overestimating the timings and really think you should try cutting back.

IPlayWithFood's picture
IPlayWithFood

Is this overproofed then?

Baking at a lower proof gave me the one I sent a picture of previously

And the reason why I have been proofing for longer is because shorter proofs have given me tighter crumbs at the bottom and larger caverns at the top (have posted this bottom picture in another thread!).

Lechem's picture
Lechem (not verified)

Your starter is puzzling and from what you describe the handling of the dough doesn't make much more sense. But the final loaf looks very nice.

IPlayWithFood's picture
IPlayWithFood

There must be something I'm doing wrong since all my scores never seem to open up the way everyone else's (and my own previous breads at ~63% hydration) does, as well as the fact that my bread hardly gets any lift/oven-spring and the edges go out instead of up.

E.g. this

As opposed to this (taken from dmsnyder)

I wonder if it is my shaping, though I swear I am getting that gluten as tight as it can go pre-final-proof, and it seems to me more to be that the dough just refuses to take a sheathe (the doughs at lower hydrations seem to sheathe just fine, so I do know what I'm looking for in comparison). My dough seems to be handling like how other people's (Mac's SFBI video and Trevor's Rubaud mixing video) 80-85% hydration doughs handle, but I find that strange since this is 50% WW and I never go above 75%, so this should be more manageable than it seems..

(another picture of the end of a loaf from dough which was proofed for shorter - didn't seem to help with the ovenspring though! They look like biscotti!)

GrinChaser's picture
GrinChaser

I've been trying to get a more even crumb and a nice oven spring in a similar recipe - 50% whole wheat and high hydration. It got so frustrating that I gave up about a year ago. I've just built a new starter, but need kids' end-of-the-year activities to give me a break so I can get back to sourdough baking. I will be following this thread closely. I hope you will keep reporting back with your experiments. Good luck!

IPlayWithFood's picture
IPlayWithFood

So I saved my starter by feeding it with larger starter:flour ratios, and increased the fermentation activity in my loaf by using larger inoculations (25% of the flour weight in the starter built from 5% fed 1:4:4 12h before), and my dough has stopped degrading. Here's a picture of my 50% WW 75%hydr loaf - maybe a tad underproofed, but it seems to have sprang more.

bikeprof's picture
bikeprof

Spammy - you have a lot going on here (as we all do when baking), and your woes could be from a lot of things.  You might want to start a new thread, clearly spelling out your formula, process, and results, with pictures, to get more focused help.

But to try to address what you've put out there...

1. Your logic on inoculation ratios is basically on track...which is why you shouldn't get too attached to the ratios and times that others put out, but rather, watch and get to know your own starter and doughs.  Just as an illustration (not a prescription), the inoculation rates for my starter and levain are typically around 6-8% of flour weight, and my doughs are inoculated at about 17% right now, using significantly warmer water for the final dough with hydrations mostly in the mid 70's. 

1.5 Don't get too hung up on this one factor explaining the issues with the final loaf...I can't count the number of times I obsessed on something that made no sense only to find that there was a good explanation for what was going on, I just didn't see it. 

2. Your breads do look a bit overproofed, so dialing back the proofing time seems warranted (and I'd personally recommend not warming them up, but baking right out of the fridge, as they handle and score much more easily cold).  BUT, those loaves are not super far off.

3.  On shaping...Mac and Trevor are both great models, keep at it.  Perhaps there are issues transfering your loaves to the pan/oven???  The profile of your loaves, including the underproofed white loaves, suggests something is up, and its not JUST overproofing.

4.  The other issues you might be have may be flour related...I've had bags that just had too much enzyme activity for get anything right (very rare, but it does happen).

5. Back to the starter and the limits on my previous suggestions...I say all those factors have limits simply to head off reaction like: "well, if lowering hydration in my starter favors yeast, I will make a REALLY REALLY stiff starter and get a ton of leavening".  That isn't going to be helpful. 

6. You might want to dial back the whole wheat, and perhaps the hydration a bit, until you get things ironed out...but I'd pick a formula and stick with it, as changing lots of variables at a time make trouble-shooting really hard.

IPlayWithFood's picture
IPlayWithFood

Thanks for the very detailed diagnosis and comments!

1-1.5. The reason why I have settled on the starter as an issue (in addition to perhaps insufficient gluten development and shaping) is after a very very long conversation with Abe (Lechem) and multiple trials and errors changing different conditions and variables to see what might be up. The biggest discrepancy seems so far to be the behaviour of my starter.

2. I've always wondered, and have yet to find a definitive answer, what does an overproofed loaf look like? What does an underproofed one? I have had many different theorems, have read many different threads, and don't seem to find an explanation that fits them all together.

3. My loaves are overturned from the proofing basket onto a cookie pan which is put into a pre-heated oven on the lowest rack, which is changed to bottom heat only for the first 5-10min or so to encourage ovenspring and discourage the top from drying out too quickly. At the point where they are turned out they immediately start sagging ('pancaking'), and more so in the first 5min in the oven.

4. I have gone through many different varieties of flour from supermarket all the way to specialized Canadian bread flour used by others here to great success, and had enough recurring issues to make me think the flour is not it.

5. I have indeed started keeping 75% hydration rather than 100% hydration starters in an attempt to encourage that.

6. I have made lower-hydration loaves successfully (albeit all with long stints in the fridge and none made and baked within the span of a day), I think the ironing necessary is precisely with the changes I am trying to make - how to increase the hydration and reduce my fermentation times. I am hence baking the same formula (485g 50/50 and 365ml water) over and over again til I figure this out! (Though I have tried baking a wholly white-wheat one and dropping the hydration by 5%, and it exhibited almost all the same issues - which is another thing that made me think it was my starter at fault..)

IPlayWithFood's picture
IPlayWithFood

Have converted my liquid starter to a stiff one, just made a new loaf which I think has held together pretty admirably, though my lack of ovenspring remains!

70g 75% young starter (slightly underripe) into 82g flour (50%WW)/61g water, to get a total of 122g/91ml. This fermented til peak, which took about 9 hours.

I then 'autolysed' 363g flour (50%WW)/254ml water/8g salt for 4h (kept the salt in because I had to be away from the house for a period of time longer than 2h), and added the ripe 233g levain/starter to this, bringing the hydration to 71%. Kneaded with the Rubaud method for about 10-15min until the dough was very extensible and supple. This was bulk fermented at about 26deg for 3.5h (threw in two stretch&folds somewhere in the first hour and a half, and once more just before taking it out of the bowl) before being pre-shaped, rested, final-shaped and left on the counter for 4.5h. At that point I couldn't bake it yet but it had gone to about 1.8x (poke test was still springing back), so I put it into the fridge, then took it out and baked it 2.5h later.

I think I overproofed it by this point, since ovenspring was dismal despite a nice obvious gluten sheathe (rather distinct from my scoring)

I am glad that now the dough does not fall into slop like it used to, and also that it seems my starter is finally able to overproof things under 12h. Will try again with a shorter proofing time, aiming to err on the side of underproofing, if I do err. The crumb, at least, is decent.

As ever, comments very welcome (:

DesigningWoman's picture
DesigningWoman

Congratulations, you must be very pleased.

Enjoy every crumb.