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Struggling to get my sourdough starter working- Australia

Alanaj81's picture
Alanaj81

Struggling to get my sourdough starter working- Australia

Hello all,

I have twice attempted to create a rye sourdough starter based on the Larousse Book of Bread (Eric Kaiser, I believe). 

I live in North Qld, Australia so my climate is hot & humid generally but since I started my attempts at a starter, I've had my aircon on set at 24° C. 

My first attempt was a big flop, I followed the instructions to the letter & even baked a loaf at day 4 but it didn't rise at all bar very slightly once it went in the oven. After using my starter for baking, I fed it again a couple of times over the next week but I came home the day after its last feed & it had gone mouldy. I think most of the problem was because I wasn't using filtered water and our water is both chlorinated & fluoridated. So I understand my mistake there. 

My second attempt I used filtered water & organic rye flour. I do have to use a little more water at each step though, as it is way too dry (not liquid at all, I wouldn't even call it a paste it was that dry). It was working really well for the first 3 days, it was nice & bubbly/foamy & looked like it was going to work. But then I came to day 4 & it has completely stopped everything. It has pretty much no activity at all, very few pin head sized bubbles. I left it for 2 days & it still hasn't shown any increased activity & definitely nothing like what I saw in the first couple of days. I have fed it today but I am fully expecting to have to throw it out shortly.

I dont understand why everything has come to a screaming halt. Aside from using a tad more water, I have followed everything exactly as the recipe said. 

Is a liquid starter supposed to look really bubbly & active? Should it be rising & falling like I've been reading every other starter does? I have not had any starter rise & fall yet. 

I just dont know what I'm doing wrong. And I'm totally confused as to what to do because everything I'm reading says something different. 

Please help!! I really want to get this starter working so I can start baking bread!! 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Starters normally show an initial burst of activity within the first 3 days. Then very often they seem to go quiet. Perfectly normal! While it looks like nothing is happening rest assured things are going on. What you should be doing at this stage is keep it warm, stir it every now and again and take a rest from feeding it. Over feeding it to try and wake it up is counter productive. If you keep the starter at around 78°F then things should pick up before long but have patience. Once you see some signs of activity then start the feeds but not too much too soon. Once it picks up and bubbles up faster then you increase the amount it's fed and how often it's fed. So according to the rhythm of your starter.

You won't be baking for another week or two. If you keep it at the optimal temperature then it'll be quicker. If it's kept at a colder temperature then it'll slow down.

Alanaj81's picture
Alanaj81

You were right Abe!! And I think it was too cold with my aircon. It's been 2 days since I fed my starter & now it is bubbling nicely. I moved it to my spare room instead of kitchen (it is warmer in the spare room) & wrapped a towel round the bowl & it seems to have done the trick. I'm going to feed it again tonight & then leave it alone again till Saturday where I intend to try baking my first loaf of bread with it. Then I'll feed it again & leave it out till Monday morning to ferment & then stick it in the fridge. 

I am away for 2 weeks, will it be ok without feeding for that time in the fridge? Or should I get the hubby to feed it once while I'm gone? 

Also, how do I wake it up when I'm back in order to bake with it? I imagine it would not be wise to use it straight from the fridge. 

Thank you for any advice you can offer!!

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

It's a bit young and while you're over the worst your starter will benefit from more TLC. Feeding it one more time and baking on Saturday might be too soon. 

However here is a recipe that I've tried and tested. A lovely recipe based on the famous Tartine. Got a nice clear write up and a good place to start. 

This recipe has a 100% sourdough option or a hybrid option where you can choose to add in some yeast. If you're feeling brave then attempt the 100% sourdough. It might not come out perfect but it'll be edible and tasty. Or you can add in the yeast for now and try it again when you get back and your starter is stronger after more feeds. 

While you're away I don't think it'll do much harm, if any at all, if you give it a feed, thicken it up and refrigerate when it begins to show signs of bubbles. You don't want it peaked but 50% risen should be fine. When you come back just carry on with what you're doing now but give it all the time it needs. 

What you could do is split your starter in two and feed one for the fridge, as above, where it can stay for two weeks. And let your hubby take care of the other. 

Alanaj81's picture
Alanaj81

Hello again Abe, thank you so much for responding. 

I will take your advice & not bake with it this weekend. I'll feed it tonight & then again over the weekend & refrigerate it before I leave on Monday. 

Thank you for that recipe. I wont try it yet but have saved it so I can try once my starter is a bit more stable & mature.

You mentioned waiting till it is 50% risen before sticking it in the fridge. I'm not getting any rising, just lots of bubbles. It doesnt appear to have increased in volume at all (in any of my attempts). At least not that I can see from outside my glass bowl. It has seems to have stayed at the same level in the bowl but just gotten bubbly/foamy. Should I be worried? Or is this just a sign that it's still very young? 

Ha ha, I have already split my starter & have a very small jar of starter still going in my kitchen, which I will get my hubby to feed while I'm away. I'll stick the bigger one in the fridge though. Thankfully both are smelling much nicer (last night they smelled very beer like but this morning they are smelling alot more plesant) & bubbling well so fingers crossed I can just keep them alive & going now. 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

It's just woken up so a few days of "stewing" and then reawakening won't show much rise. But bubbles present is a very good step in the right direction.

Question now is what have your feeds been up till now? And have you fed it again yet?

As it continues to mature and your feeds increase it should rise. Depending on how big the feed and hydration you will notice a difference in ow much though.

If your husband does a good job and continues to feed it while you are away for two weeks then that one should be ready to bake with. The one in the fridge will probably need more time once you get back.

Alanaj81's picture
Alanaj81

I have been pretty much been following the book on feedings. I have been using rye flour. I throw away half & then replace half the weight of what is left with equal portions water & flour. Eg, today I fed it again. I had a bit over 300g of starter, so I threw away 150g & then mixed in 75g flour & 75g +1/2 tbsp of water (I find I need a tad more water to keep it looking like the consistency shown in the book). I have been doing that every 2 days.  

Is this the right thing to do? 

It actually smells really nice now. Ha ha, I keep smelling it!! Its got a fruity smell to it now, so I think that is also a good sign. 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

That is a good feed. You don't wish to over do it too quickly. It should begin to show signs of rising. It might just be that it's just woken up but still very young. For now keep up this feeding ratio till it shows more signs of life. But only feed again if it continues to show activity. So go by how it's reacting and not by the clock. Eventually it should bubble up on cue and it will be predictable then you'll know it's ready. Once it gets stronger then you'll need to slowly discard a bit more and increase the feed.

However keeping 300g at any one time is a lot! i'd reduce it to 100g and keep it in a small jar but keep the same feeding ratio.

Don't discard the discard anymore. Add it into other recipes, including yeasted breads, for flavour.

Alanaj81's picture
Alanaj81

Thanks Abe, it is reassuring that I am doing the right thing for now. 

I checked on both my starters this morning & they are still smelling lovely & showing bubbles (little ones so far, but bubbles nonetheless). I'll keep an eye on it & if it is still looking good tomorrow night, I'll feed them again then. If not, I'll let it go a bit longer. 

Thinking about it, I did notice before I fed it last night, that it did look a little puffed (I wouldn't say risen, it was just the surface that looked a tad fluffier & higher than originally. Only by a couple of mm though). Is that all I should expect to see considering it is a 100% hydration liquid starter?

Once I get it to the point where it is bubbling really well & hopefully rising, what would the feedings be then? 

Also, if I collect the discarded starter, do you have any recipes I could use it in? 

Thanks again for all the help!! I appreciate it more than I could say. :)

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

I think discarding half, topping back up what you've taken off and keeping it warm is the best way forward for now. Once every 24 hours providing it's showing some signs of life. A 100% hydration starter should rise. Not as much as a lower hydration starter or one built with stronger flour or one which has a higher ratio of fresh feed but you should be seeing some lift.

Perhaps in the next feed include some wholegrain if you haven't been doing so already and make it a little thicker.

Once it's bubbling up considerably it should be strong enough to do this in 6-8 hours depending on factors like how much fresh feed and how warm it is but that's a good indicator it's firing on all cylinders.

There's no right nor wrong what a correct feed should be. 1:1:1 or higher is considered a good and healthy feed. It also depends on how you use your starter. Are you going to keep it simply as a place to store the yeasts and bacteria then build levains? Or are you going to use it directly in the dough in which case keep a little, feed it however much you need, take off what's going in the recipe and refrigerate till the next time you need it. I use my starter as a petri dish. Just a place to store the little critters. From which i'll build off-shoot starters (levains) each one geared for the recipe i'm doing.

I say once you reach the point of 20% starter to fresh flour and it bubbles up on cue in a normal room temperature in 6 - 8 hours then it's good 'n ready. But then again everyones starter is unique and there are no steadfast rules. You'll have to bake with it eventually and see how it performs. It's also the only way to get to know your starter.

https://www.culturesforhealth.com/learn/sourdough/use-discarded-sourdough-starter/

P.s. for the next feed

Starter one: as you have been doing!

Starter two: Keep 30g and feed it 45g water + 60g flour (including some wholegrain)

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

That looks good. Definitely life in there and smells good too. Carry on with what you're doing.

Alanaj81's picture
Alanaj81

I fed my starter last night like I mentioned & came home today to it looking like the attached pictures. This is the best activity I've seen so far so I think it's going well. Although, you can see from the top, bubbles are starting to poke through but not much yet. It has again gone a little puffy...that's all I can think of to explain it. 

Do you think it looks right so far? 

What is a levain? I was just going to use the starter in the dough as per the Larousse book recipes. I am keeping so much because some of the recipes call for up to 150g of starter, so I'd rather be safe than sorry. 

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by 20% to fresh flour. Should I be increasing the amount of flour I use at each feed? 

Thank you for the link, I'll check them our after dinner tonight. 

And thank you for the suggestion for my next feed. I will give that a try. 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Can be information overload so one step at a time. Put aside what I said before and just concentrate on your two starters with the differing feeds. Easy does it and everything at the right time. After all, good bread needs time.

As a very brief answer to your question just to satisfy your curiosity. A levain is like an off-shoot starter. So a starter is "non specific" i.e. its hydration and flour might not fit the recipe one is doing. So another way to get the yeast and bacteria into the dough is to take a little starter, preferment some of the flour and water so now you have a larger quantity of "starter" more geared for the bread you're baking and  it's strong with a more balanced flavour/acidity.

This way you only keep a little back at any one time, no need to build or keep big quantities, and build preferments for your recipes.

Now put to side what I just told you (you'll understand it better when you actually use the starter) and concentrate on making your starter strong and healthy.

Alanaj81's picture
Alanaj81

Abe, I was hoping to get your advice again, if you don't mind.  

I have been away for almost 2 weeks & am going home soon. I want to get my starter back on track once i get home. 

I put it in the fridge before I left. It was bubbly when it went in but so far my starter doesn't rise much, it only rose by about half a centimetre this last time. 

In order to get it going again, should i get my hubby to take it out of tne fridge the day before i get home? To give it time to warm up & wake up before I get home & feed it? Is that necessary?

Also, I have been reading a lot of sites that say you should feed it every 12 hrs until it starts to double or triple in size over 8 hrs. Only then is it good to use & mature enough to store in the fridge. Should I be doing twice a day feeds?? Does a 100% rye liquid starter need feeding that often? Will it actually double in size eventually if I start feeding it that often? Ive been feeding once every 2 days as I'm using the Eric Kaiser recipe & it says to feed every 2 - 3 days. 

But i do want it to really get going & survive this time, so im willing to try anything. 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Hope you had a good vacation.

Normally the advice is to take it out of the fridge a few hours before feeding so it's warm etc. However what's the difference if you take it out for a few hours to warm up and then feed or feed straight from the fridge and give it extra time to eat it's way through the food? I don't think it's necessary and especially not a whole day beforehand. If you want then an hour or two should be fine but if not then also fine. You can always feed it using warm water.

For now just take it out of the fridge, give it a feed and give it all the time it needs. Don't go too crazy too soon with the feeds either.

Perhaps take off half and top back up. Wait however long it needs to reactivate. If it does well then make the next feed a little more. And so on. Eventually you do want to be able to get it bubbly within 6-8 hours with a healthy feed. Then you'll know it's ready.

Once every two days is fine as long as it's kept in the fridge, or it's taking 2 days to activate (like when it goes quiet around days 4/5). But not the best advice if it is active, bubbling up within 12 hours and not being kept in the fridge.

David R's picture
David R

A semi-random added note: different types of flour, and from different mills etc, can soak up very different amounts of water. It's not your imagination, and you haven't made a stupid mistake or something. As long as when you measure your amounts everything is done by weight, you're on the right track. (Measuring flour by its volume doesn't work well enough for bread.)

Alanaj81's picture
Alanaj81

I'm glad I'm not messing anything up by adding the extra water. I do weigh everything on my digital scales. But I have been adding just a tad more water to get the right consistency (or at least what I think is the right consistency based on pictures & the description of thick batter. 😁