The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Sourdough starter: wit's end!

differengenera's picture

Sourdough starter: wit's end!

Hello all, been trying to get my sourdough starter to work for the past five weeks and I feel like I'm getting nowhere. I've been doing 100% hydration with wholemeal flour and bottled water, I was getting reliable 100% -120% increases a few weeks ago, but it never proofed any bread whenever I tried to use it. It started to smell very strongly of vinegar two weeks ago, which I thought was due to my kitchen getting colder, so I started keeping it in the hot press and feeding it twice a day (I discard all but 150g, then put in 150g of wholemeal flour, equal amount of water each time). It is reliably very very bubbly, and begins to develop bubbles almost immediately after a feeding but will not, ever ever, proof any bread even a bit. After a slight reprieve the vinegar smell has returned with a vengeance. My question is, apart from a general request for guidance, encouragement from amateurs, what is the longest you've ever spent cultivating a starter, what was the missing ingredient?

differengenera's picture

oh, and, while I'm at it, part of the reason for my angst is, no matter how enormous of a rise i've gotten out of the starter none of it has ever, ever, ever passed the float test. anyway, any help v much appreciated!

BaniJP's picture

It's strange it doesn't pass the float test even though it's super bubbly and increases in volume that much. Maybe a factor that isn't too obvious.

About the smell: it's perfectly normal to smell sour and vinagary, maybe even like bread and wine. If it smells like vinegar, but doesn't burn your nose as much as actual vinegar, it's fine. Your will get used to the smell. But every starter is different. What you shouldn't smell is stuff like rancid, moldy or similar. But that's very unlikely to happen because the conditions are extremely hostile to bad microorganisms.

In starters there are three main bacteria: wild yeast, lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and acetic acid bacteria (AAB). All those have different optimal working temperatures: LAB is I think 21-25°C, so about room temperature. AAB is 30°C and above. Wild yeast I don't know. So depending on how sour you want your starter to taste, you can adjust with temperature. But as I said, smells like vinegar and strong acidity are normal. 

Can you maybe brief us your recipe? Maybe we can find the culprit there :)

differengenera's picture

thanks for the feedback on the smell, i've taken it out of the hotpress, which is on the stuffier side and left it in the kitchen for a bit instead. growth is up to 80% - 100% increase and less pungent.

the recipe i'm using is a multiseed sourdough one i found on youtube, i gave it another go today and on the second proof the dough still hasn't budged :( 

Bread1965's picture

Think of feeding wholemeal like having a shot of vodka to get a fast buzz.. vs AP or bread flour as having a long slow beer.. I don't know the right way to say this technically but your starter is basically burning up all the food fuel fast.. and then if you put it in a very warm spot then the yeast will burn through the fresh wholemeal even faster.... the vinegar smell comes about because after a while it starts to get hungry and is well past peak.. I'd also feed 1:2:2.. so say 50 starter: 100 flour and 100 water..  if you're going to feed 2x day (ie: 12 hours apart) then 1:1:1 isn't enough feed for that length of time.. AP and bread flours will get consumed more slowly by your starter. Use the starter in bread when it at least doubles (or more) after feeding which should be within around 6 hours if feeding 1:2:2 at normal room temp.. and you may even want to feed 1:3:3 if you're feeding 12 hours apart depending on your starter strength, room temp and flour used.. you could even do a three way experiment to compare .. feed three batches 1:1:1 and 1:2:2 and 1:3:3 - all in the same spot and using the same flour - it's a good learning exercise.. bake happy!

differengenera's picture

ah interesting, the wholemeal and temperature advice, that squares with what a lot of what i've been observing. i'e taken it out of the hotpress and brought it into the kitchen to get a more steady schedule from it

Maverick's picture

What bread formula are you using. The fact that it isn't working in bread recipes means we need to look at your process.

In terms of feeding, what does your starter look like when you feed it? Is it at rising, at peak, just starting to fall, or totally fallen? Are you feeding twice a day, once a day, or what? At 5 weeks, a 1:1:1 ratio is usually not enough. If you want some strong yeast, then you should be feeding just after it starts to fall. Also, giving it a stir here and there will help. Strong vinegar smell means it is really hungry. A slight one is fine.

I suggest looking over the phases in this post (also the most reliable method of making  a starter from scratch in my opinion... but  since you already started, it is not worth starting all over):

My starters are always strong by 2 weeks at the most. I have used the above method several times after moving, taking breaks, etc.

differengenera's picture

the formula is, if i'm using the lingo correctly, 1:1:1. so if there's 50g starter i add 50g flour and 50ml water, twice a day, ~12 hours apart each time. should i be feeding it more than that, even if i haven't got a rise out of it at all at this stage?

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

and what temperature is It?    What is your room temp?

taste your starter and give us a report on how it tastes.

Describe the thickness of the starter.  How thin or thick is it?

and yes, I ask a lot of questions.  :)

try this... take 10g of starter and add 40g water and 50g flour.  Pack into the bottom of a tall straight sided glass and cover.  Mark the level and let it ferment at 76°F  what does it do at 4 hrs, and after?  Mark the level every hour after.  Do not stir but uncover every so often to take in aroma changes.  Notice any bubbles on side of the glass.  How do they change as time goes by?  (These questions are more for taking your own notes although we are also curious.)  

  If your starter is peaking and more than tripled, you have 90g of starter to test into a loaf (save 10g to feed for more starter). 

One small loaf might be a 1,2,3 sourdough.     90g starter, 180g water and 270g flour. 1 slightly rounded teaspoon salt (2%).  

If you need more starter for your recipe, test with 20g starter, 80g water and 100g flour instead.  Think positive and have your recipe ready, just in case.  :)

differengenera's picture

multiseed loafthank you everyone who offered advice and helped out! just on a whim i threw this together with my discard earlier and i got what i think is a pretty decent result! certainly enough to encourage me that i'm at least capable of starting a starter.