The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter runny and no longer doubling

Skelley's picture
Skelley

Starter runny and no longer doubling

Hi everyone,

I have a sourdough starter, which I brought to life in April using the King Arthur recipe. She has been making delicious loaves. I’ve been keeping her on the counter and feeding her pretty much daily at a 1:1:1 ratio with AP flour. Occasionally I’ll feed her twice a day if I’m doing more baking and, every once in a blue moon, I will skip a day.

Within the last week or two, I’ve noticed that the consistency is very runny. Instead of a thick, cake batter consistency, it’s more like thin pancake batter. My last loaf also didn’t rise as it should. My starter is also starting to collapse well before doubling in size. She is bubbly and smells wonderful, though. 

The only thing that’s changed really is the weather. I live in the South where it’s hot and humid, but our home is air conditioned at 75 degrees. 


I keep her covered with a washcloth fastened by a rubber band. 

Any thoughts on what I’m doing wrong or what I could be doing differently? I worked so hard on establishing her and keeping her alive and I don’t want to lose all of my hard work! 

Thank you. 

Mr Immortal's picture
Mr Immortal

It could simply be that your starter has become active enough that it requires either higher ratio feedings or more frequent feedings.

 

Try a day or three feeding at a 1:2:2 or even 1:3:3 ratio.

Skelley's picture
Skelley

Thank you - I will try that tomorrow! 

Mr Immortal's picture
Mr Immortal

You’re welcome 😁

Please keep us posted, so that we know how it went.

Good luck! 

phaz's picture
phaz

At 111 feed ratio once a day and 75F, may have thrown your starter out of balance. 122 is closer to what it would need for once a day feeding. Slowly over time it crossed over to the too acidic side. Take a small amount and feed 132 (sfw) for a few days and it'll be good again. Don't be afraid to stir it well whenever your near it. Enjoy!

Skelley's picture
Skelley

Thank you so much! A question, though, from

this novice baker - doesn’t the starter need to be fed equal parts flour and water? Or did I misinterpret that “rule”?! 

also, When you say stir whenever I near it, do you mean after it’s doubled in volume, while it’s in more or a resting phase? 

I fed 1:2:2 this morning and the volume only increased by maybe a 1/3. 😞

Mr Immortal's picture
Mr Immortal

It may take a few feedings at the new ratio to get your starter back to its whipped-pudding-like  consistency.

 

The idea of equal parts flour&water is really just a function of maintaining the 100% hydration level of the overall starter.  By Increasing the ratio from 1:1:1 to 1:2:2, you are still feeding an equal amount of flour and water (therefore maintaining the 100% hydration).  But even though you’re maintaining the hydration level, you are also increasing the amount of food source that each yeast cell has access to.

 

The idea of “doubling”, in regards to a starter, is less about a starter actually physically doubling in between feedings, and more about a starter’s overall ability to rise to at least double its post-feeding bulk.  As long as it’s able to double, it doesn’t matter if it actually does (if, for example, you are periodically stirring it).

 

Also worth noting is that “doubling” and “peaking” are two different things.  It’s a mistake to assume that a starter is ready to use or to feed just because it has reached the point where it has doubled, as many starters increase in bulk well past the point of doubling.  A starter hasn’t peaked until it stops increasing in bulk.

 

As for stirring:  now that we know that it isn’t absolutely imperative that a starter actually doubles (as long as we know that it’s capable of doubling), you can do a stirring at any point.  Since yeasts are immobile, they can only process the food sources that are directly adjacent to them.  Stirring redistributes both the yeasts and the food sources, allowing for more growth of microorganisms and more fermentation of the flour present.  This can also stretch out the timing of a starter’s peak.  If you stir a starter before it has peaked, you simply push back the peak to a later time.  If you stir a starter right after it’s peak, you will often see a second rise (and also a second peak).  Doing this too often, however, can change the balance between yeasts and lactic acid bacteria.

 

Ultimately, a starter is a living breathing organism.  With time and observation, you’ll learn to recognize its moods and it’s needs. 

Skelley's picture
Skelley

Wow. So much great information here for me to digest! - I cannot thank you enough. 

phaz's picture
phaz

You can feed whatever ratios you like, there is no real rule. It boils down to how much time you want to spend on your starter. The less food you give it, the more time you'll spend on it and vice versa. I would say the 111 ratio can be handy if worried about the math of hydration percentage. Not being one who frets over 68.53882% hydration instead of 70% I've never really paid much attention to set ratios.

It can take a bit to get back to normal. If it's on the thicker side it'll be easier to see the bubbly stringy goodness when it happens. Enjoy!

Stirring - whenever is good, but, it's good to remember how much it's risen each time it's stirred if you're worried about the did it double/triple thing.

Skelley's picture
Skelley

Thank you, Phaz! Gosh I still have so much to learn. So with respect to hydration, does the % hydration of your starter affect the bread in any way?  And if the %hydration doesn’t matter, why bother weighing?

lastly, does the consistency even matter? I think I assumed I wanted a thicker consistency, but does that matter? TIA! 

phaz's picture
phaz

Hydration - it's importance depends on the baker. Some live by it, some don't. I happen to be one who doesn't. But, I do use dough of different consistency (hydration) for different proposes. Bagels at 75% hydration just isn't right, neither is a yeast donut at 50% so I do vary a bit. And here's the benefit of a scale - you'll get to know the difference (look and feel) between different hydration levels much faster with one then without - and once you have that feel - the scale will sit in a drawer. 

Does starter hydration make a difference in a dough - yes it will change the numbers, but, logically, as the starter amount is usually a small portion of a formula, the end effect will also be small. I don't lose sleep over a 2-3% difference, you shouldn't either. 

Hmmm - that make me think - variations in flour (brand to brand and even batch to batch) will change consistent even with exactly the same hydration level. Maybe we should be testing viscosity instead of just going by a hydration%. Eh, that would be a pain.

Consistency - of a starter matters. To thin won't hold air bubbles, and those trapped air bubbles cause rising. If looking for rising or peaking, we should be looking at how high was the peak, it'll be easier to see when thicker. 

 So much to learn - would ya believe - if you can gain a little understanding of 4 or 5 concepts - you'd be a master. It's really not that complicated. I like to say things are only as complicated as you make them to be, so don't make things complicated. And I can't believe I went this long without coffee! Question everything - Enjoy!

SassyPants's picture
SassyPants

After you've got your starter back to a healthy place, you might consider keeping it in the fridge between bakings otherwise you'll create a lot of discard. I'll make up a couple days worth of starter, let it rise a while and then pop it in the fridge. You can use it right from the fridge with warmer water.

Skelley's picture
Skelley

I had NO idea that you could use starter right from the fridge in bread. Can you tell me a little more about how that works?!

 I thought refrigeration made the starter dormant, and that you needed to feed it a few times out of the fridge to “wake it up” before baking. I probably bake a loaf every 2-3 days so I’ve been struggling to figure out the right storage And maintenance. I will say I do use the discard a lot - we have a large family and I make things like muffins and sourdough pizza dough weekly, so having a decent amount of discard isn’t a bad thing! 

phaz's picture
phaz

If in the fridge a short time (days), no problem, when you get into weeks, best to tlc it for a day or 2 just in case. Storage - long term (weeks/months), fridge. Short term doesn't need storage. The trick there is start small and as you feed you build up to what you need. I came up with a kinda formula for this if baking on a regular schedule ie. every x number of days. Divide the amount of starter you'll need by x and work backwards, like so

You need 200g starter every 4 days

Day 3 200/4= 50

Day 2 50/4= 12.5 

Start with 12.5/4 = jar scraping

There we have the amount we need every 4 days. We started small and feed or way up to what we need, no discard so no waste, and were also maintaining a healthy vibrant starter with a daily feed schedule (of about 122 - 122 is an average ratio for once a day). Even easier, just throw in 100g flour and water right off and stir a couple times a day (I'm a fan of easy). Enjoy!

SassyPants's picture
SassyPants

I'm dittoing Phaz- if the structure of your starter seems good in the fridge, go for it. If it looks like soup, give it some TLC. 

How long you can go likely depends on a lot of factors. My 100% hydration starter is good for maybe 3 or 4 days. I had a very stiff levain in my fridge for at least 10 days and tried it and it worked just fine.

Skelley's picture
Skelley

I wanted to thank you all for your helping to educate me. After a few days of 1:2:2 feedings my starter is back to where it should be and the oven spring in my loaves is so much better! 

I’m going to play with the refrigerator storage a bit and see what happens. 

if I leave t my starter out on the counter, can I continue with daily 1:2:2 feedings? 

and if I move to the fridge, I’m assuming I should feed it before moving to the refrigerator? 

Mr Immortal's picture
Mr Immortal

You can continue with daily 1:2:2 feedings if kept outside of the fridge, although you may reach a point where your starter requires an even higher ratio.  This is a good thing, as it denotes that you starter continues to grow in strength.  If you notice that the 1:2:2 ratio is allowing your starter to peak in 4 to 6 hours, you may wish to consider either moving to two (or even 3) feedings per day, or a higher ratio (1:3:3 or 1:5:5). 

At this point, unless you are baking every day, the fridge might be a better option.  If you go that route, most people say to feed it, and then let it set out for an hour or so prior to putting it in the fridge.  The fridge won’t make your starter go dormant, but it will slow it’s activity a great deal.   

Benito's picture
Benito

I used to do this, feed my starter, leave it out on the counter for a few hours, then place it in the fridge for 1 to 2 weeks before using it again.  What my experience was with my fridge at 3ºC was that I was diluting the starter and making it weaker.  I found that at the temperature of my fridge, the yeast activity has essentially non existent but the LAB are active, so my starter had lots of acid and not enough yeast in it so then it would take quite a few feedings to get it fully active again.

Instead what I’ve recently been doing and is working so far, is feeding the starter and letting it rise fully to peak and then putting it in the fridge.  Now after 1 week in the fridge I’ve been able to take it out and build a levain in one feed and have a very active starter right out of the fridge.  Then another week later still able to do the same.

I don’t think I’ll do the feed, leave out for a few hours but not to peak then refrigerate any longer.  Of course your results may vary.
Benny