The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

STILL can't get a starter!!!!!!

sourtrout's picture

STILL can't get a starter!!!!!!

So well after 10+ tries here, I still can't get a stable rising starter.


I've tried Ken Forkish, Reinhart, all the other redundant recipes that exist on this site and others and it's just not happening. I feel I'm getting closer, but it just won't stick. I'm going to explain what's happening in my latest-and maybe most successful attempt below. 


I started this batch out with pineapple and whole wheat flour, didn't feed, just let it stand for 36-48 hours. Then I fed this entire amount with about a 2:1:1 premix + water+whole wheat flour (I believe it was 100g mix+50g water+50g WWF).


I let this just stand on my counter with a sealed lid. I didn't see any rise, but one morning I pressed on the cap and realized there was pressure---so it was exhaling Co2. I turned open the cap and sure enough it made the suction sound so there was certainly Co2!

To this boozy and pungent mix I did a 2:1:1 but with WHITE ORGANIC AP FLOUR. So perhaps 100g premix +50g water+50g WHITE ap flour.


It rises, slowly, but doubles+ a little. Fair enough. I let it go for 24 hours; it peaks, is very frothy and bubbly and generally sourdough-starter-looking.


Feed it again, this time it rises SLOWER than last, it just under, or gets right at doubling, then collapses again. Wait about 24 hours during this feed cycle.


I feed it again, same ratio, same ingredients. It rises but FAILS TO DOUBLE and in 12-16 hours it peaks and begins to fall. I see a pattern: every time I feed, it rises less and less.


This is exactly where I stand. After every feeding, switching from WHOLE WHEAT to WHITE, it seems to rise less and less. WHERE IS THE ISSUE HERE?! 


It smells tart, fruity, like a tart apple and I know it's how sourdough is supposed to smell--I've done this before!


What should my next step be? It will be 24 hours since last feed here in about 8 hours. As I've said, it's risen-NOT DOUBLED-and fallen.


Do I feed with some whole wheat flour? Do I just keep going down this road and expect it to double+ again? 


Please, no disrespect, but don't give me directions on how to start a new starter, or to use commercial yeast.

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

To a 1:1:1 feed. See how it fares. The higher the ratio of starter to fresh feed the less it has to eat through and won't rise as much. See what happens over the next few days. If it responds well then up the feed again to 1:2:2. Basically you need to build up strength. 

I'd say go straight into 1:2:2 from the sound of things but don't wish to go too fast too soon. Let's see how the next feed goes. 

WatertownNewbie's picture

Abe is correct. This is exactly what I was going to recommend while reading your post.  The typical ratio for feeding is to give the existing starter at least twice as much new flour and water (i.e., 1:2:2) and perhaps even more (e.g., 1:3:3 or 1:5:5). You have been giving your starter too little new food.  The beasties need fresh nourishment if they are going to thrive.

sourtrout's picture

I will give both of these suggestions a try, but now I'm confused--maybe you can enlighten--

So many posts sort of say the opposite of what you're saying--they say "you're diluting your starter by feeding it too much and too often" but 

now you're saying "you're not feeding it enough"


Can you clarify on this?


Also second, and maybe major, is that I think that the WHOLE WHEAT flour is important here: I did a small feeding of one and I did about 20% WHOLE WHEAT **

**I fed appx. 100g of mature starter 5g WHOLE WHEAT flour, 20g AP flour, and 25g water

I stirred it up, left for work and now that I'm home it is about a centimeter off from doubling. Can anyone speak to the significance of using whole wheat flour here??


Thank you.

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

To help the starter's PH lower which will support the yeasts and bacteria one shouldn't feed too much too soon but now you have a starter you need to "switch gear". Once your starter is established it will benefit from healthier feeds and more often.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

"To this boozy and pungent mix I did a 2:1:1 but with WHITE ORGANIC AP FLOUR. So perhaps 100g premix +50g water+50g WHITE ap flour."

important:  boozy ---->. Implies alcohol being made by yeast. So yeast are there, they are hungry.  Now is the time to give equal amounts of flour to starter amount.  Not less flour.  And I normally just add flour to thicken up the starter with no additional water.  Just use feel and slowly stir and add flour to make a soft puddy or dough. And watch it to peak.   The starter is  no longer on some kind of start-up schedule so forget the 24 hour feedings, you will respond to the starter from now on until it speeds up and into your desired schedule.

"It smells tart, fruity, like a tart apple and I know it's how sourdough is supposed to smell--I've done this before!"

Great news!    You have a starter!   now all you have to do is switch gears to a maintenance schedule that works for you and the starter.  With this aroma, you can use the peaked starter in a bread recipe.  The easiest is to now take off a teaspoon or two and feed it in a new jar giving it at least equal weight of water and enough flour to make a paste, like toothpaste and let it peak.  Use the rest of the starter (or the discard and now a levain) to make a loaf.  You can always work a few teaspoons instant yeast into the dough if it takes more than 18 hours to quickly raise so just see what the home grown yeasts can do.

Important... don't clean the starter jar, even if you made bread from it and from all practical points of view looks empty.  Put a teaspoon of water in it, put a lid on it, shake, label and stick it into the fridge as a backup, just in case you need to go back to it.   You can clean it several days later if need be.  Then all you do is add a spoonful of flour and build once that little bit ferments.

sourtrout's picture

Thank you, but the thing is that this current example is only the most recent. Plenty of times, after raising an 'established' starter that demonstrates these same things, if I feed it 1:1:1 or 1:2:2 or 2:1:1, the results are the same:

It seems like the longer I feed it, no matter the intervals or how much its fed, it rises less and less and less until I feed it one night and the next morning it hasn't risen at all.

I'm beginning to think that I'm building a population of WHOLE WHEAT eating yeasts, then starving them out when I switch to AP or BREAD flour--this seems to be the common denominator to me.

I use high quality King Arthur flours, and right now I'm toying with my usual pathetic jar of starter and realizing I get slightly more rise (though still far less than doubling at this point) if my ratio of flours include WHOLE WHEAT flour. 


Can anyone explain what might be going on? It seems like the whole wheat is very important..

Could it be that I'm destined to nurse a partial whole wheat flour starter? 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

that the different types of wheat flour are different in how they absorb water?  The gluten varies too. If comparing all at 100% hydration there will be a difference in how high they can peak, some can be too wet to rise.  The amount of flour to starter will also make a difference.  Seems to me there is something basic in understanding the starter that you're missing.  One little tidbit of knowledge that will " open the door" for you.  

Whole wheat will absorb more water and could be thicker.  Thicker traps more gas.  Whole flours contain more trace minerals and protein.  Gluten rises with sifting as bran is removed.  Try reducing the starter water or increasing the flour to make the just fed starter more dough like, you can play with the amounts as long as you get lots of yeasty fermentation before feeding again.  Larger occasional feeds, one to ten, promote a bigger yeast population. Changing the flour or starter food can result in the starter culture balking, taking longer to ferment but this is temporary.  A gradual introduction of the new flour with each discard/feeding is often helpful giving the culture time to adjust.

Let's 50% hydration using AP flour, watch the starter not the clock.  This may take longer with the first feeding but fermentation time should shorten when repeated and allowed to rise to peak it will also give you some idea how a more dough like mixture will rise.   Try 65% hydration with the bread flour.  Making these feeding samples with only 20% starter in them.   In other words. One weight starter to 5 weights flour with varying amounts of water.  You can add 5% more water if the starter dough is very stiff.  Knead the starter briefly with your fingers.  Shape into a ball or press flat into like glass jars or drinking glasses to compare. mark levels, note temps, date etc.


clazar123's picture

You verified brand name flours but what water are you using? Tap water? Well water? Bottled water? Try using a bottled spring water to see if that will be helpful. Sometimes either pH, various chemicals (forms of chlorine) or treated water can affect a culture. Usually the yeast like a good mineral bath such as in spring water.

sourtrout's picture

BOTTLED SPRING WATER and since this has been posted, I've started to add 20-30% WHOLE WHEAT flour to the flour when feeding. Still, it is NOT DOUBLING!!


Robin Dobbie's picture
Robin Dobbie

Despite my starters not getting fed regularly at the exact same time every day, temperatures all over the place, they're starting to double in less than 8 hours. The 100% whole wheat one is a little slower, but it holds longer before it collapses. The 80% UAP one collapses if I fart in its general direction. But it did fare pretty well once when I ran out of UAP and put in some 5 or 6 year-old bread flour I found in the deep freezer. Right this second it has slightly more than doubled since I fed it about 6 hours ago. According to some it's ready to rock and roll. I would say it's only been a couple three days since it's been this good and it's a descendant of my forkish attempt which I guess was a little over 3 weeks ago. 

What's the longest try you gave?

I always reserve 20 grams in the same "gross" jar and add 80 grams water. What I do is zero out the scale with nothing on it. I put on a smaller jar and fill with water until I see the exact weight of what one of the starter jars would be with nothing in it, then zero out the scale. When I've removed all but 20 grams the scale will read exactly 20 grams. It seems retarded, but it's a safe way for me to do it since even I can make sense of that plan immediately after waking up or whenever I happen to get around to feeding these things.

After I add the water I swish it around. Using a spatula, I tilt the jar so water can help dissolve as much crap off the sides of the jars as I can. After the sides are "clean" I start stirring at the 20 grams I reserved. When there's not much "solid" remaining, I add whatever the flour I was going to add. After it's mixed up, sometimes I'll moisten a paper towel and clean the top of the jar. I feel like dissolving the reserve in the water before adding fresh flour is a really important step. But I could be wrong.

One of them I add 20 grams whole wheat and 80 grams unbleached AP. The other is 100 grams whole wheat. 

20 reserve

20 whole wheat

80 unbleached all purpose

80 water

About 16-36 hours between feeding. Generally 24 hours. 

sourtrout's picture

The longest I've gone is maybe 10-14 days--now wait--

Before everyone gets all upset I've only put 10 days in to a starter, let me make something clear: by the time I decide to give up on a starter, it has already given up on me.

As I said above, I follow recipes for starters and usually they don't become 'starter' until around day 4-6. By this time, if I'm on track, the starter is bubbling but NOT doubled (I don't think I've ever had a starter double since the last time I did this a few years ago). Starting on, let's say day 5 when I switch to a routine feed, and my starter is -supposedly- established, I feed and it rises, then I feed and it rises less-and less---and less---until there's almost no rise at all-this has been perhaps day 10-12. 

To be honest I've never counted days, but one thing books and recipes DON'T SAY is that as you feed and care for your starter, it will rise less and less. Therefore I haven't seen the need to keep trying on the same starter past this point of diminishing returns.


Somewhere in my routine is a failure. I can't find out where. My newest conspiracy is that maybe I'm over-washing my jars and stirring spoon?

Or maybe I need to use a whisk rather than the handle of the wooden spoon I'm using?

I think this hobby is making me paranoid.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Maybe we will find out the answers...

day 4 or 5... around what temp is the goop?  This would be early for a starter under 26°C   The starter needs more fermenting time.   

A starter that rises progressively less doesn't have enough yeast to maintain its population.  This could be that there are not enough yeast when backslapping as feeds increase and therefore a discard is reducing what little there is Or the young starter is not being fed enough and starving.  A delima as these are completely opposite.  When in doubt, split the growing culture and keep one half going on low 24 hr feeds and the other half on bigger feeds ever 12 hours or so depending on when the starter peaks. A lot depends on ambient temperatures so noting them is important.

 My guess would be the starter is boarder line and still not ready to use.  I would not feed  half of it to push the pH down only stirring around 26°C until it smells yeasty or more like alcohol and then go for a big one to five feeding. It may take a few days if the starter is stubborn (set in its ways with a large higher pH flourishing bacteria.). The rise you are seeing may just be bacteria and feeding it (raising the pH too much with flour) hampers progress into the final stages.  Vigorous stirring several times a day should help.

Robin Dobbie's picture
Robin Dobbie

"Somewhere in my routine is a failure. I can't find out where. My newest conspiracy is that maybe I'm over-washing my jars and stirring spoon?

Or maybe I need to use a whisk rather than the handle of the wooden spoon I'm using?"


I use clean, metal eating spoons and film-finished, wood-handled, silicone spatulas. I don't know if I would use unfinished wood in a fermentation scenario, too much of a possibility of harboring unfriendly beasts. You'll know your wood has a film finish if it's shiny. If it's matte, or dull then it's probably not something I would use because the pores of the wood are likely accessible. I'm absolutely not a clean freak, and I'm not sure it matters, it's just a feeling. I'm sure in the thousands of years of making bread lots of people have used unfinished wood. 

But yeah I don't wash the jars. I just try to keep from having a massive, disgusting buildup of dried goop. I do use different sets of spoons and spatulas per starter. I put some water in the sink with the plug in it, and throw the sticky instruments in there after feeding each starter. I make sure the sticky end of instruments still in use that I set down temporarily don't touch anything. 

clazar123's picture

Sometimes it is very hard to troubleshoot via keyboard. Are there any sourdough bakers nearby that can put "eyes on" ? I would bet there is a remarkably simple explanation-my worst problems usually are, at least.  Whereabouts are you located?

sourtrout's picture

I'm located in Madison WI. There are two bakeries I know which use sourdough, but I don't know if I really want to bring a jar of starter and ask if I can ask the chef to look at my starter. I've thought about going in and asking if I can have or buy a few ounces of their starter, but I've felt determined to get my own one going.

Here is some --maybe-- positive news: I did an experiment this morning where I fed about 200g of 'starter' about 28g each of flour and water. The 28 grams was a random amount; I just spooned in a heaped spoon of flour then added the equivalent weight in water. 

This 'starter' had multiplied itself by about 30% since its last feed 12 hours prior.


I left for work and 8 hours later when I came home it had increased by about 65%! (It was about 200ml high in a jar, and grew to be about 325ml). 

I switched my feedings to a 50/50 of WHOLE WHEAT and AP flour, I think that my sours really like whole wheat; in fact I think that I've created whole wheat yeast but white flour yeasts are intolerant in my starter. 

So, I just removed 40g of starter from this slightly mature 'starter' and replaced it with 20g each of water and flour(s). Let's see what happens.


My plan is to keep doing these tiny feedings as long as I am getting positive rises, then here in maybe 2-3 feedings I'll do a 1:1:1 or a 1:2:2 or a 2:1:1 and hopefully I'll get it to double--but I'm skeptical, very skeptical.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

the current starter attempt was already ripe apple smelling and acting like it had yeast.  This starter needs to be fed more flour and not less flour.  

Ok, in the last comment above you wrote:

"So, I just removed 40g of starter from this slightly mature 'starter' and replaced it with 20g each of water and flour(s). Let's see what happens."

please clarify, did you feed 40 g of starter 20g each water and flour? (2:1:1)  Or did you feed a big 160g of starter 20g each flour and water?   (8:1:1)    

If you fed 160 g starter, then please remove 20 g of that 200g starter (now, don't wait) to a clean jar and add 80 g of of water and 100 g of flour mix.  Be ready with your bread recipe when this (1:4:5) (s:w:f) starter reaches peak and starts to dimple and level out (not double, more than double) in roughly 6 to 12 hours.

You will have 200g of levain.  Use up to 180g of it and save 20g as a mother starter to feed.  It will have 80% hydration and that is just fine for a recipe calling for 100% hydration, just add 20g of additional water to the bread dough as needed -- about one tablespoon. If the starter peaks at an awkward time, tuck it into the refrigerator and use as soon as you can.

It has been my experience that spoons don't matter as long as they have been washed and I prefer glass  (not crystal - may contain lead) for starter jars.  

A simple 1,2,3 sd recipe may be. 150g starter, 300g water, 450g flour  two scant teaspoons table salt - 10g. Hold back some of the water if using AP flour only to see how the dough comes together.  

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I went to Frank Allis Elementary School first and second grade!  Spent some time on the lakes with my Family too!  They changed all the house numbers since then but I did find my house (google) when I traced the way home from school.

 So...having cooler nights yet or enjoying a warm late summer?  If cool at night, feed the starter in the mornings before the day warms up for best results.  Then tuck into the fridge evenings to skip the evening feeding and save on flour.  Discard, use or feed the next morning or however you want to fit it into your schedule. 

richkaimd's picture

You can probably get a starter from a local baker and move on from there.  Heck, I'd send yo some of my own.  Where are you?

lukego's picture

Hey did you ever get to the bottom of this? I've tried and failed for more than two months now. In this time I've started from scratch a few times, used both whole wheat and white flour, tried pineapple juice for the early pH, split across multiple jars to try different feeding schedules and tricks like a dash of vinegar, etc. Nothing has worked. I am so desperate that today I have - I shit you not - baked bread with commercial yeast for the first time.

All this despite having successfully made a starter earlier in the year! I didn't think to save it because, hey, it only took a few days of following the top hit on Google. Oh if only I'd realized how precious that was at the time :)

My attempts have mostly ended up looking like pancake batter and developing a few bubbles on the top but otherwise being lifeless and not smelling very interesting. I would love to develop some new sourdough troubleshooting skills somehow. I am able to measure pH and I have a microscope but I don't know how to put those tools to use...?