The Fresh Loaf

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A dead starter?

rozeboosje's picture

A dead starter?

I have a lovely mature starter that is doing rather well, and I'm happy with that one. I just gave it a good feed and I'm planning another bake tomorrow. Happy days.

But recently I decided I wanted to relive the experience of creating a starter from scratch, so I did. I started off with organic wholegrain rye flour and I added water to that. Day 1 was as expected, not much happening. I fed it a bit more organic wholegrain rye. On day 2, it hadn't done much but there were tiny bubbles forming. I fed it some more organic wholegrain rye. At 72 hours it had doubled in size. I fed it some organic white wheat flour. At 84 hours it had doubled in size. I fed it more organic white wheat.

At 96 hours it was flat as a pancake. I fed it at regular intervals for almost 3 days after that, but it was doing NOTHING. Eventually I chucked it down the drain. Like I said, I have a great, mature starter already so I'm not that bothered by this new one failing, but I'm intrigued.

There seemed to be nothing seriously wrong. There was no "pink" or "red" colouration. There was no "hooch" forming - in any case I covered its container with a damp kitchen towel so oxygen could reach the mixture and the yeast didn't need to go anaerobic. There were no unpleasant smells, nothing like "vinegar" or anything like that. It looked and smelled ok to me. Except it was completely inert.


Any ideas, anyone?

clazar123's picture

Sometimes that original crazy activity is more lacto than yeast. The yeasts develop more slowly and can be encouraged by providing a slightly warmer ambient temp (about 80-82 F is ideal). Both lactos and yeasts are necessary for an eventually balanced culture.

So do it again and keep stirring, feeding and keep it warm (top of the fridge is good or a shelf above a stove). Push past the crazy active through the quieter and get to the steady rise. can take about a week or so, esp in the cooler weather. I used to take mine to the office with a little jar of additional flour simply because the temp was held more evenly. My house is very cool and esp at night.

Can be done! Esp rye!

rozeboosje's picture

That sounds like a distinct possibility. I started my mature starter in exactly the same way, but that was back in September. It's winter now so maybe it was just that bit too cold in my kitchen, at least too cold for a baby starter that's not even out of its nappies. My mature starter seems to be rather unaffected by the temperature. Of course some days are a bit slower than others, but it never, ever "stops" altogether.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

that could have been mentioned...  

The temperature of the starter  and  when you say "fed"  there is no mention of amounts fed.  One doesn't need a lot of flour in the beginning.  Discarding was not mentioned but discarding and overfeeding can do more harm than good; constant dilution and raising of pH can delay onset of yeast while the bacteria sort things out.

At this stage, keep it wet, also no mention of the amount of water.  I'm guessing that you are using the same hydration as with your already established (predictable) starter,  I'm hoping it isn't too thick a paste.  Fun to watch expansion but all the bugs need to move around in the suspension.  The aromas of the starter will tell you more about what is going on than rises will. 

The other obvious change is in flour, jumping from rye to organic wheat.  Why not start out with a mixture of both? 

rozeboosje's picture

Yes, but I wasn't taking a "scientific" approach on this one. I'm trying to show people that creating sourdough bread doesn't have to be difficult - I already converted my mum when I went over to Holland over Christmas and I took some of my Monster Raving Loony Starter with me, and back to Ireland, but she's been taking some, too and has now been baking with that ever since. I'm trying to avoid a lot of "technical" talk about hydration, temperature ranges and so on. People can always get immersed in that after they got "hooked". But first I want to show that it's easy enough that anyone can do it.

So when it comes to temperatures I can only say that the starter resided in my kitchen, which is heated along with the rest of the house but with it being winter it can get a bit nippy in the middle of the night. WRT "amounts fed" I would kind of "ballpark" it to try and roughly double what was already there with each feed. WRT "water" I add enough to get a fairly thick puree consistency, but still easy to stir.

But I think the move from rye to wheat may have been my biggest mistake. Maybe I will try this again and steer clear from such shenanigans. Or - as you suggest - start and continue with a mixture from the start.

dabrownman's picture

making starters not made the French or chef way - like Joe Ortiz does.    Day 1 nothing, day two maybe tiny bubbles, day 3 - 4 active with all the wrong organisms. day 5-6 looks dead as a door nail (a good sign the good organisms are starting to win the battle). Day 7 it starts to pick up slowly and continues to for the next few days.  With a little luck you can make bread in 10-14 days,  If you start with a little acid in the mix like OJ or pineapple juice the bad organisms can be held in check somewhat better and be defeated faster by the good wee beasties.  All of these times can be plus or minus a couple of days depending on the temperature too.

I have made bead with the Joe Ortiz way in 4 days using wheat, a bit of cumin and milk in the chef as he demonstrated on Julia Child's Baking with Julia. sweetbird had a great post on her blog here on how to do the Joe Ortiz method.  I followed Joe's method as laid out on Julia's show which can be found and viewed online with a little search,  it also plays quite often on PBS too,

The only rule with starters is -  patience comes to those who wait a long, long time:-)

rozeboosje's picture

Well that explains it. I was still at the "dead as a doornail" stage and I was only just entering Day 7 when my patience ran out. I guess I had forgotten how long it took the first time around. Thankfully THAT starter is still going strong!

ElPanadero's picture

Possibilities for failure:

1.  Using tap water rather than bottled water.  Just not worth the risk if it can be mitigated so easily

2.  Hydration level.  Calvel recommends just 60% hydration initially because a wetter starter can be harder to control and more things can go wrong with it.

3.  Temperature (as Mini stated)

4.  Mixing flours instead of using just one to create a consistent environment.

I created a starter 2 weeks ago using Calvel's 60% hydration method and was up and running in 4-5 days.  However I DID have to go with just rye flour rather than AP flour.

Calvel's method also uses a pinch of salt and malt at the outset to help encourage the right environment.

Though it is possible, I personally would not try to switch flours mid creation.  I would get one flour up and running properly, and then use some of that active starter to seed another starter.    My guess is that you had just reached the stage where it was rising "falsely" from gasses rather than yeasties and then tried to switch flours.   Go with rye as you were, it has never failed for me.   ATB


rozeboosje's picture

Yes, I do use tap water, but I'm lucky to live in an area where the tap water is of exceptional quality, and not adulterated with chlorine and other such additives. I know the tap water is suitable for this here as I created my mature starter with it and it has been going strong ever since on nothing BUT tap water. In fact it's been going SO strong I called it the Monster Raving Loony Starter in its early weeks.

Also, I wanted to show how easy it is to create a starter, so the last thing I want to have to do is work out exact percentages of hydration, closely controlled temperature ranges and so on. The method of a sourdough starter was invented precisely because this kind of fermentation is a ubiquitous and spontaneously occurring thing, that people have been taking advantage of for millennia, and LONG before anybody applied anything remotely like a "scientific" approach to it. Now don't get me wrong; I'm well aware of, and I fully accept that using a scientific approach the results will be MUCH more reliable, consistent and frankly, BETTER, but that wasn't the point of this exercise.

But you do bring up a few good points all the same. I switched flours because I reckoned that after having taken off with the organic wholegrain rye flour the culture might benefit from something "easier to digest" such as organic white flour, but perhaps that was a mistake, and also I could argue that if I wanted to illustrate how easy it is to start a starter, well, then don't start making changes half way through. The original naturally occurring processes would not have had sudden changes in THEIR environments either ;-)



ElPanadero's picture

I don't really see anything scientific here.   To make your starter you're going to lob some flour and water together, plain and simple.  You can choose to pick up a handful of flour and some quantity or other of water and throw that together and hope it works, or, you can measure the quantities. I assume you did the latter and if you're going to measure the quantities then it's no more scientific to measure one quantity than another.  There's no right or wrong set of quantities but varying these will vary the amount of time it takes to achieve the required result.  In the past I've built a starter using equal quantities of flour and water.  2 weeks ago I did it using more flour than water using 75g flour to 45g water.  No science or magic, just a different ratio of quantities.  The addition of salt and malt was new to me (and one of the reasons I was keen to try that method).  It worked just fine.

I should add here that this is all I did, mix flour and water in those quantities with that tiny bit of salt and malt at the outset.  I have no idea whatsoever what my room temperature was, it's pretty cool at the moment I know that !   But I did choose to use bottled water as I have no idea what is in my tap water nor whether it's make up is constant from 1 day to the next.  I didn't see any need to take any risk here as I had some bottles of water oto hand.

Like I said, there are no rights or wrongs really in any of this, there are simply different amounts of times it takes to get a starter up and running and different problems that can be experienced along the way.  The time and the problems can be minimised by taking a few easy precautions it seems but whether it takes 5 days or 15 days, so long as you get what you want, that's what counts.

Personally I honestly think it is a doddle to get a starter going so long as you use a good yeasty grain like rye or wholewheat and have a suitable water supply.


rozeboosje's picture

but some people are easily intimidated. They hear words like "hydration" and they see a few percentages, and they think it's going to be "difficult". That's why I'm trying to steer clear from any hint of a calculation or jargon; I find it's easier to get somebody interested in the more technical aspects of a new hobby when their interest is already piqued. If they decide not to bother because they feel intimidated by a few "big words" we lost a potential fellow baker right from the start :-)

ElPanadero's picture

I hear you sir and you're right.  In fact the jargon and unhelpful terminology often seen in the baking world is one of my bugbears which I've expounded on in other threads recently.  Even in your OP you mentioned "hooch" and "anaerobic" which a beginner might have no idea about.  Maths is a different beast altogether and here I totally agree that we don't want to lose any potential baking enthusiast for the sake of difficulty handling numbers. 

Muskie's picture

FWIW, my house is typically 65F at this time of the year. I use an electric griddle to sit my mason jar on (and my SS proofing bowl) to get my starters or mixtures up to a better temp. You can use an instant thermo, or I use an infra-red thermo gun, to check the temp. Typical griddles go from "MIN" to 200F with several increments. Usually my griddle is ~125F to get my starter to >75F, and you can use things like ceramic plats or silpats to more evenly distribute that heat over the mason jar bottom, or make the difference between the griddle and the jar finer.

Its a lot easier, and cheaper, to make the contents of a jar stay at a higher temperature than the room temp, then bringing up the room temp.