The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Nancy Silverton Starter Troubleshooting

anthonyv23's picture

Nancy Silverton Starter Troubleshooting

Hi All:

Just joined this site because I am looking for some help. I've scoured the internet and been on quite a few blogs, reading about starters and this seems like the best resource for me. I have recently completed Day 15 of Nancy Silverton's Sourdough Starter from her La Brea Bakery Book. It's the starter with the grapes. I've read a couple of posts but can't really find anything that will help me in troubleshooting my particular issue.

So here's what is happening: After Day 15, I discarded most of the starter and saved 9 ounces (as she says to do). And I have been feeding it 28 ounces of bread flour plus 19.5 ounces of filtered water per day. I am feeding once a day at this point, which she claims is OK. Each morning, I'm dumping everything but 9 ounces and starting over.

To make a long story short, this is the 3rd or 4th attempt at making this starter and each time I fail. Basically, the starter never seems to get off the ground - it bubbles, it might foam, but ultimately (and each day), it separates and looks like it leaves hooch. I am a former professional baker, but haven't dabbled with starters until recently. 

After Day 15 this time, I decided to try and bake with it, just to see what would happen. I didn't make it too far, as I realized the dough I made (also her recipe) wasn't rising. The starter smells good, the dough smelled good. It tastes fine - could be a little more sour in my opinion, but it certainly doesn't smell alcohol-ish or off. However, it is not producing the CO2. 

Can someone offer any advice to help me get this starter strong enough to start working? I'd really rather get it going than dump it.  Let me know if there are any additional details needed; I have pretty extensive notes from the process.

Thank you!

DanAyo's picture

I nothing new thing about Nancy’s starter methods, but I can say that you can build a much smaller starter. The entire weight of my starter is 32 grams, whch is slightly over an once. If I figure right, your starter is 3.5 pounds. That's a lot of flour.

You say it isn’t raising your bread. are you aware the sourdough breads take considerably longer to rise? Maybe your starter is good. Just throwing that out.

What flour or whole grain(s) are you feeding the starter?

What temperature is the room where you keep the starter?

When you feed once per day, has the starter fallen in height?

How much does it rise between feedings, and how high does it rise in comparison to the original height?

If you can, send pictures that may be a great help.


UPDATE - I watched a YouTube of her procedure. I have no doubt her method works, but it is an uncommon method on this site. But be assured, we can help. 

Anthony, are you able to upload images while posting? If not, the site admin may have to set you up. I tried to send you a private message, but it also is not set up. If you want these features let me know and I’ll get with Floyd and request you be given these rights.

I tried to Private Message you to offer to send (if you live in the US) you some of my starter if you wanted to go that route.



anthonyv23's picture

Hi Dan,

Let me see if I can answer some of your questions. 

So first of all, that video you probably watched on youtube is the one where Julia Child introduces her and Nancy does a little demo. It's not an accurate representation of the entire process of her starter recipe, unfortunately. And yes, you are correct, there is a massive amount of starter. I'm actually working in a gallon tub. LOL. That's what her recipe calls for though so I'm just following her writing. And it is extremely high hydration too, FYI.

Yes, I know it takes much longer for starter to rise bread than yeast. That's not the issue; I know the starter is not yet fully active.

I'm feeding the starter unbleached white bread flour (usually KA brand) because that is the only flour Nancy's recipe called for. I do have Rye flour at home. I am keeping the starter between 74-78*F. The room is typically 74*F but it may drop to 70*F overnight. I try to keep it as warm as possible and when I test the temperature, it's typically between 73-74.5*F. 

It is not rising and falling. It has a high hydration, so that could be why. I do get some foaming on the top when I leave it overnight. However, that's about it. 

I can send some pictures. I am going to try and see if I can reduce the amount overall and feed it differently to get it active. I think her recipe is just wildly out of proportion. I'm sure it works for some, but it hasn't worked for me in 4 attempts. And you can imagine, going through 5 lb bags of KA bread flour like water gets expensive! 


DanAyo's picture

Anthony, you can really jump starter your starter if you raise the temperature. I think your temp is on the cool side for a new starter. 72-82F will make a huge difference. Maybe in your oven with the light left on? 82F is not too hot.

Also, since the microbes originate in the food, whole grains, especially whole rye fuels your starter as if it were on steriods. The microbes live on the whole grain, very similar to the way they live on grapes.

I’m not faulting grapes, but many experts rely completely on the yeast derived form the wheat itself.

I look forward to reading that your starter is active and healthy.


anthonyv23's picture

Thanks Dan. I actually have a proof setting on my convection oven and now that I've scaled down the amount of starter, I can actually fit the jar in there. So I am going to do that and keep it around 80-82 like you suggested. I once had a starter I killed by accident, but prior to that, I kept it similarly and it worked great. I'm not a fan of Nancy's method - I've tried it enough to know it's not the best out there, but I want to salvage what I have.

I'll keep you posted. thanks for your help!

BobBoule's picture

is to stir the starter because you throw out the unneeded part, just to make you that you aren't throwing out most of the colony.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

now but still not ready for prime time.  

My experience with new starters and the 1:2:3 ratio is that it takes about 4 hours at 26° C to start rising. After that it will rise to a peak in about 8 to 12 hours, level out and start to indent in the middle of the rising dome before it slowly starts to fall or deflate for the first time. If the new starter shows no resemblance to this pattern, then yes...

"Basically, the starter never seems to get off the ground - it bubbles, it might foam, but ultimately (and each day), it separates and looks like it leaves hooch."

If I remember correctly her starter is a very wet one with high hydration.  It could be too thin to rise.  More info would be great but in the meantime...Taste the "hooch." (or starter) Then spit it out.  Describe.  If bland, don't feed the starter any more flour. Reduce The size of it to just a few ounces and let it work on the abundant amount of food it already has.  Stir as already suggested but keep it about 26° C.  Wait for the acid to build in the starter, may take another day or two.  No flour additions until the pH drops considerably. If you happened to have saved any of the discards, they may be further along than the currently fed culture and worth observing (no feeding yet) at the same time.

This post may be helpful:

anthonyv23's picture

Thank you - these are all great suggestions. I think I am going to combine some of your ideas with Abes. I will taste the starter momentarily. But you are correct, it's extremely high hydration - I get bubbling after feedings, but like I said in my original post...I don't think it's fully active yet. I tried baking with it and it was a total flop. I am keeping it around 78* (26c) - I do agree it works best for me at that temp.

I also have a version of Debra Wink's going (just started) to see if that takes off. 

Thank you again!

Abe's picture

Let me just quickly convert ounces to grams... brb

*A few minutes later and converting a few times to make sure...*

HOW MUCH? Surely I'm mistaken. About 1600 grams?

If I were you my first step would be to find a jar, clean it well, transfer 20g of starter and feed it 40g water + 40g flour trying to include some wholegrain flour. Don't feed again till you see significant activity and then repeat. Or any other more respectable but healthy feed with all the advice given. Most importantly is to time your feeds well. 

I'd also put 100g into the fridge as back up. 

anthonyv23's picture

Hi Abe,

You probably aren't mistaken. It's a massive amount of starter. If you're at all familiar with Nancy's starter recipe, you feed this thing massive amounts of flour and water per day (it is a very high hydration) and each morning, dump out most of it and start again. Frankly, it doesn't work. I've done it 3-4 times already. It's a long process and it just simply hasn't worked for me.

I am going to do what you said about the 20g and 40/40. I have rye flour - how much should I use? Typically, and as her recipe states, I am just using unbleached white bread flour. That's what her recipe called for. However, I also have another jar going of Debra Wink's pineapple starter. My kitchen is starting to look like a laboratory. 


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Try making another loaf and (as the case with high hydration starters) include a massive amount of the starter in the dough.  Water amount will be low if at all.  When you see the starter bubbling, remove some to hydrate the dough flour.  You will want to slowly lower the temperatures ( a degree each day) back down to low 70's for the high hydration starter maintenance once it has shown it can raise bread.  

A cool, wet starter is a slow one if not using a proofer for the dough.  It is very typical to maintain a high hydration starter in a gallon container as it stands days to ferment at low temps.  Raise the temp, one has to pay close attention to starter food supply.  You may be discarding while making the starter, but using what is removed (discard) and following her directions will help.  Most likely, discards can now be used in bread dough and after 12 hours, you can add 2% yeast to boost the dough if wanting to speed it up.  It should make a tasty loaf.  Waiting 24 hours for a bulk rise (starter only) would not be uncommon at low 70's temps. with a high hydration starter.  It just requires a lot of patience.  

The starter will not be rising much but the effervescence and taste of the starter will be more of a guide to fermentation than rising.  What does Silverton say about starter behavior? The tendency of the starter to separate, flour settling after fermentation when activity slows back down?  


mariana's picture

Hi Anthony, 


It might be that you somehow misunderstood  the instructions for the starter that Nancy describes in her book. 


It should never separate. Its consistency is that of "a milk shake or pancake batter" (p.11 in the book). This is how my Nancy Silverton's starter looks: 

About maintenance of the liquid sourdough starter she says: "feed a working starter three times a day... and it's ready to use (after feeding) in 12 hours". (p.12)

Essentially, you feed it three times per day (if it is kept at room temp) like that:  6hrs, 6hrs,12hrs. You can refrigerate it, but then warm it up and again feed three times and it is ready to use in baking.  The feedings at home (as opposed to the bakery) are done in the following manner.

FIrst, you set up a batch of liquid white flour dough with the crushed grapes in it and leave it to stand for 6-10 days undisturbed. 400g crushed red grapes, 800g water, 480g bread flour or strong APF flour. I crush grapes one by one with my fingers on in a bowl with a potato masher. I don't even bother to put grapes in a cheesecloth anymore, I blend them with the flour slurry directly and then strain the slurry in the end.

After 6-10 days you filter it from grapes, take 200g of that slurry (one cup is enough for a home baker) and feed it in the following fashion for 5 days in a row (and also any time you take it out of the fridge to prepare for baking): 


200 г starter 

150г food (60г bread flour or strong all-purpose flour+90г water 25С)

Whip it with a handheld electric mixer or a whisk (300 turns), leave it at 21-24С for 6 hours.



200г starter

170г  food (70г bread flour or strong all-purpose flour +100г water 25С)

Whip it, leave it at 21-24C for 6 hours. 



200г starter from the previous step

190г food (80г bread flour or all-purpose flour + 110г water 25С)

Whip, leave it for 12 hours at 21-24C.  Use it in baking. 

Strong APF is KAF, but Heckers/Ceresota will do as well. The above proportions are good for a dry flour in dry climate. If your flour is moist in humid climate, then add less water to prevent separation of water from the batter. 

During the first 4 days (days 11-14 of starter development, including the first 10 days of the grape stage) it smells like fruity wine, has strong alcoholic smell, and stays flat. Then on the fifth day of feeding (day 15) it suddenly shifts and starts smelling like bread (malted smell, fragrance of freshly baked bread crust) and foams strongly, its gluten becomes strong and resilient (the batter rises and stays risen). This is the signal that the starter is ready. 

This method never fails to give a great starter, the best. 

Once a day feeding is for the stiff starter, a levain/chef.  Nancy says: "to maintain a levain (a ball of stiff sourdough), you have to age the chef (a ball of sourdough from the previous stage) for a minimum of 24 hrs first and then give it its three feedings." ( p12) 

 Besides all of the above, you biggest mistake might have been using the overripe levain/starter for baking bread. Use the below table for guidance, it coincides with Nancy's method for liquid sourdough starter. Taken from the Modernist Bread encyclopaedia. It clearly states that flat liquid levain/sourdough 24 hrs after feeding WILL NOT LEAVEN bread. 


best wishes, 


anthonyv23's picture

Hi Mariana,


Thanks for your post; I appreciate your explanation. Unfortunately, I do not believe I misunderstood the instructions in Nancy's book. My starter constantly separated after that 3rd feeding by the morning. I actually converted it based on the advice of someone else in this forum and it seems to be working well now. It appears strong, it rises after being fed and stays risen for at least 12 hours and then falls. I have also prepared the Debra Wink version separately which is doing great as well. Your starter looks great; I wish mine would have come out like that but it just did not. I tried it so many times I lost count. 



winowino's picture

I've enjoyed your reporting and HIGHLY admire your tenacity and thoroughness. If you have time, and the inclination, please provide a summary of your successful steps. - Frozen in the North