The Fresh Loaf

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Troubleshooting: Sourdough starter is not doubling

modo's picture
modo

Troubleshooting: Sourdough starter is not doubling

I've been interested in making my own bread for a while now. I finally decided to try and make my own yeast rather than buy one. This starter began on Tuesday, Sept 17th. The first week of this starter was in the 70s and 80s, but now this week we've dropped to 60s during the day. When it gets that cold, I leave the starter in the microwave for more insulation. The flour I use is whole wheat and was milled sometime in March of this year. I do weigh everything and tend to follow a ratio of 1:1:1, although 1:2:2 will probably be what I will start following. I feed every twelve hours.

Here's a summary of how it has been doing:

Day 1: Some minor bubbling, good signs.

Day 2: Explosion of activity, definitely doubled in size and overflowed out of the jar.

Days 3-5: Bad bacteria settled in; little to no rise with an awful smell (I know this is normal). Started feeding every twelve hours.

Day 6: Smell was fine, marginal rise.

Day 7-9: Consistently rising a quarter to a third up, but will move no further. Smell is yeasty and good through most of the rise but has a sharp vinegar smell and a thin layer of hooch closer to the next feeding time.

Day 10 (today): It was really cold last night, so I left it for the day to keep rising. Similar activity to days 7-9.

 

I know this starter won't be fully mature for a while now but I want to make sure there are no issues with it. If there are, I'd like to correct them. I'm only worried since most resources I've seen say that by now, it should be doubling in size.

Anne Ng's picture
Anne Ng

I would suggest try 1:2:2 and extend the feeding cycle. And if you want to further extend the feeding cycle to 24hrs, you can use a 50/50 blend of whole wheat and white flour. The white flour would usually slow things down a little bit. 

The starter is supposed to smell vinegary, and it needs the acidity to boost the activities of the yeasts and good bacterias. So let it go sour in the first week or so. When the yeasties settle down, you can adjust the acidity to your preference. 

It would also be helpful if you keep an eye on it and keep recording its activities for one day. If the surface is domed, then it still have heights to gain. If the surface is concave, then it has eaten all its food. Try feeding when it is just starting to fall. That would maximize the amount of organisms striving. 

modo's picture
modo

That makes sense. I knew that upping it to 1:2:2 was coming up soon. Temps have dropped a lot recently, so it takes a lot longer to do what it did a week earlier. It's been sticking between 68-70 now. I've put a heating pad near it to help it out at night.

I normally try to keep an eye on it but the top always looks domed to me, even after 12 hours. The only reason why I give another feeding is because of the small layer of hooch that starts forming. Should I just let it go if there is still some hooch there?

Anne Ng's picture
Anne Ng

Does the hooch smells alcoholic? It may be hard to detect when combined with the smell of vinegar and yeast, but usually it would smell like nail polish remover. If that's the case then yes, it's time to feed your starter.

However this usually happens when it has totally fallen and stayed flat for a while. And it never happened to me within 12 hrs of feeding whole wheat 1:1:1 at 79F room temperature, 65% humidity so I think the liquid may not be actual hooch. 

What is the consistency of your starter? If it is a 100% hydration whole wheat starter it usually would flow slowly if you tipped your jar. I am guessing if somehow your whole wheat flour is very good at absorbing water, then the hooch may form before the gluten structure falls. But I have never encountered that so I wouldn't know. 

If you are curious about the feeding cycle you can split your starter into 2 jars. Feed one every 12hrs and the other every 24hrs. Mark the 12hr height and see if it actually gets higher after 12hrs. Then you can adjust your feeding cycle accordingly. 

modo's picture
modo

The hooch doesn't to me, just very sharp vinegar smell. It's a lighter color, not dark. Maybe it's water? I just assumed it was hooch.

When I feed the starter, it is thick and clumpy. It does take forever to come out of the jar. I had that happen yesterday morning when I was going to feed it and decided to leave it there for another 12 hours. Normally when it's ready to be fed, it's ropy and stretches a lot with evidence of bubbling.

When I feed, I'll put the discard in a jar with a cover and leave it until the next feeding to check to see if something changed between the two. I normally don't see a change except for the discard has a milder smell (like regular flour/bread) while the starter is sharper and more vinegary. 

It normally rises and has bubbles it just doesn't double like it's supposed to. It started getting colder around the time the bad bacteria was going away, so it might just miss warmer temperatures.

Anne Ng's picture
Anne Ng

The starter rise because the yeasts and bacterias metabolize and produce gas, while flour mixed with water creates a gluten structure to retain the gas. So if you scoop the starter, you interrupt the scaffolding for the gas. Even if you leave it for longer and it is producing gas in the process, it probably won't grow any taller. 

This is why I suggested the side to side comparison. You can feed your original starter, and after mixing, scoop half of it into another container and mark the volume. 

The fact that the discard smelt milder than the starter may indicate your yeasts need more time than your bacterias. That way leaving it unfed for 24hrs would boost the yeast population. 

I honestly don't know what the liquid might be. But in the first couple of weeks a new starter can behave very differently. So don't worry too much (they say starters won't grow when you are staring), usually they are very resilient and will strive through! 

modo's picture
modo

I have given it two days with 1:2:2 ratio and 24 hour feeding schedule, plus I added a heating pad. It is nearly doubling in 12 hours (I feed it at night and go to bed, so it might be less than 12 hours)! I think all I have to do now is watch it more carefully and see how long it takes to rise in order to adjust to what it needs. Thanks for the help!

Anne Ng's picture
Anne Ng

That's awesome! Now you maybe eager to try your first sourdough bread, if you are not very familiar with making high hydration bread I would suggest you try this 123 sourdough recipe by DanAyo on TFL. This actually a very nice basic sourdough recipe, and I've made this with multiple variations, with walnuts, honey, brown sugar, milk, 25% whole wheat, shaped into sandwich loafs, Hokkaido 3 mountain milk bread, braid and sprinkled with nuts for a fancier look, etc, all of them turn out GREAT! And Dan is very helpful in this forum too! 

Congrats and happy baking! 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

And react well to your starter. Cooler temps slow fermentation a lot and you may find a 1:2:2 starter feeding is too much flour without the heating pad. What temp is the starter or room without it?  There are direct relationships between temp and fermentation.  Most starter recipes don't mention temp.  It is important.

Hunt for warm areas in the apt or house to ferment the starter (and dough) with passive heat.  Near water heaters or under the sink or above the refrigerator or near computer or a cupboard that seems to be warmer than the others.  Naturally you need to protect these places from starter accidents when the starter may flow over its container, so keep a bowl or bucket under it if you park it near electronics or on a speaker or tv or hard to clean places.  

Beginning starters require more warmth than well established starters but they all like warmth.  As your starter establishes itself, you can slowly drop temps with the feeding to slow it down or raise the temp to speed it up.  I suggest warm at first soon after a feed to get the pH lower and the beasties happy then lower the temp to slow them down until the next use or feeding.  As the days go by, you may start noticing the fermentation and peaking happening faster (all things being equal) this is also normal and continues until the bacteria and yeast adapt to the amount of food you give them.  It is also a good time to set up a feeding schedule that you like.

For a 24 hour feeding, get the starter established for a12 hour feeding first, then feed and keep warm until you notice some fermentation, then let it cool and coast until the 24 hrs is up.  If the starter feels too stiff and doesn't smell mature enough, skip a feed or warm it up before the next feeding making sure it got ripe before adding more water and flour.    

Thoughts: if your climate is cool you may want to look into high hydration or very wet starters with high water content.  What happens is that you keep a larger portion of starter going, say in a gallon jar, with lots of water on a countertop or pantry. This doesn't rise but ferments to effervescent and one uses more starter in the recipe and less plain water.  Often only starter and flour to make up the dough.  Keep in mind that in cool temps, everything slows down so even raising a bulk rise may take days.  In China when my room temp was 15° C I would speed up fermentation by putting the bowl of dough (or starter) into a clean trash bag, tie it up tight but bag loose and tuck it under the covers with me as I watched tv or slept. I would also sometimes park a cardboard box in the sunshine and wrap the starter in a towel and put it inside with a thermometer to get a ball park estimate of the time needed.  

Carrying a small starter inside a breast pocket is also another way of keeping it warm.  Then at night don't feed and just leave it out to slow down the fermentation.  Use in the morning into dough. There are so many many ways to play with starters and their fermentation.  

modo's picture
modo

The room has been staying near 67-69 degrees (19-21 C). I keep it in a corner that is away from windows/drafts and limits the amount of air flow (to keep it warm). It also happens to sit on the fridge/microwave, so it's probably in its warmest spot aside from me holding it all the time. With the heater, my estimate is that the starter is closer to 75 degrees (24 C). 

For the first 12 hours, I've had the jar closer to the heating pad then I move it a bit higher so it gets residual heat but not as much. I've found the 24 hours have led to less liquid sitting on the top and it has less of a vinegar smell. When you smell it, it starts as a yeasty/bread/flour smell with a hint of vinegar afterwards.

I have bread books on reserve at the library so I will see what they say on high hydration starters and whether it might work out better for me to move towards that. It does get very cold here in winters as they last, 7-8 months of the year and -20 degrees (-29 C) happens every winter, although we did have less common temperatures like -40 degrees (-40 C) last year.

While I am not in any rush to make bread with my starter (I probably won't have time until the one month mark for it anyway), what are good signs to see for a starter being strong enough to be in a loaf of bread? I see some conflicting answers and it seems to be case by case sometimes.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Will help a lot. I think you can keep it warn the whole 24 hours if you want to.  That will shorten the waiting.  Up to you.  With the cool off time after 12 hours, I'd count the days as half days.  So 4 days waiting is actually 2 days in starter developement.  Right now the liquid on top sounds like simple separation, water is lighter than flour so the flour sinks. When yeast get more active they will stir the starter with their bubbles and the clear liquid turns cloudy while the flour part changes color, getting brighter more like very light pinkish tan with rye flour.  It is ever so slight.

If you make a starter and not stir it just letting the yeast and bacteria work on the dry flour under the water added on top, you can see layers of starter development as the water slowly penetrates the top of the flour and works down.  Where are those photos?  

See that dark layer in the middle?  That's wet rye flour, above it is fermenting rye flour changing color and above it cloudy sour water with yeast bubbles rising to the top.  The top layer was very rugged and bumpy at first but as the days went by, it leveled itself out.  I think I stirred it adding more water, the next day and got an active doubling starter that made a successful loaf.  Took about 6 days at 76°F on the TV ...sometimes I like to break all the fussy "rules. "  ...except the temp guide.  Cooler, under 75°F will almost double the time to two weeks.  65°F may take a month and a lot of patience.

 

Ways to tell if strong enough.....it should be able to be mixed wth flour to about the same consistency as bread dough and be able to rise.  Sourdough can take longer than instant yeast so don't rush it.  A starter should taste like wet flour when feeding and then change and get more sour as it matures.  This is dependent on temp and type of flour and dough.  Taste the starter as it ferments, you can carefully monitor it that way.

A sour starter won't always make sour bread  because (if you think of your bread dough as a big starter) you bake the dough before it gets too sour mature.  You deflate just before the dough doubles with folding and the trap the remaining gas thru shaping.  If the dough is overproofed, then, bang! You get more mature starter!  If the bacteria are overabundant in the starter and the yeast pop. low, the dough will be very sour before it rises enough to bake. Then the job turns to maintenance tweaks to get the yeast population to where it can raise dough more efficiently. 

Your starter sounds like it's getting ready to jump up to a bigger yeast population level.  Be sure to let the starter peak, and start to fall before feeding again fresh flour and water.  You can also discard part of it to keep it at a manageable size.  

modo's picture
modo

I figured I would give an update by pictures. This doubled in less than 6 hours (I got up earlier to check) and it's doing well. It even has some bubbles accumulating on top. Interesting how a tiny change will make it grow exponentially. I'll have to post an update on bread once I get around to it.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

knock it down and watch it rise again.  Maybe add a little flour to thicken it up, about a heaping spoonful.  Mix well, cover and keep warm.   :).   ...and we had fun fun fun till her daddy took her starter a way aye aye.