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A "Simple" Liquid Starter: The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook

Grigio's picture

A "Simple" Liquid Starter: The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook

I've been a big fan of Jim Lahey for years now: both of his earlier cookbooks have allowed me to produce great bread and pizza.  So when he came out with a new cookbook, The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, which relies on wild yeast I decided I would give sourdough starters a try (again).  

His "simple liquid starter" is the basis for his doughy starter (which he calls a "biga.") It's essentially 1 part flour (APF) to 2 parts room temperature water plus time.  After it rises and falls (in 1 to 5 days), you take a small amount of it  and add APF/water in the same ratio as before. After the new mixture rises and falls, you are ready to mix up a batch of Lahey's "biga" which is used for most of the recipes in the book.

Here's the problem: I have no problem getting the liquid starter started.  Within a day it goes from a soupy paste to separating into flour and water, then fermenting as flour rises, collapses and separates again.  The problem comes when I go to refresh the liquid starter. One day, two days, three, a week later and no action.  

I'm trying again.  The image above is on day two of the "refreshed" liquid starter: seems to be stuck in the separation phase.  

I've read all about using rye flour, pineapple juice and dozens of other methods, but was hoping for some guidance on how to get Lahey's liquid starter to succeed.  I know it's a relatively new book, but wondering if anyone has worked with a similar liquid starter and has any suggestions.    

This is a great site. I've spent countless hours reading and learning, but at times it seems a bit overwhelming.  

What else can I tell you? I'm keeping the starter in a cool room (close to 70 degrees because I read somewhere that the wild yeast didn't like the competition from some bacteria that can dominate at warmer temperatures).  I use unbleached King Arthur APF. 

Also, the starter smells good: it definitely smells like I am headed in the right direction, but this is the third attempt and not particularly hopeful.  

Any suggestions appreciated. 


Felila's picture

One dollar plus a self-addressed stamped envelope and you get a little packet of dried starter. Add that to flour and water and you're ready to go. 

My starter has been going something like ten years, and it started with Friends of Carl.

Lechem's picture
Lechem (not verified)

It does seem very hydrated though and while I've seen many methods for making a starter I haven't seen one as hydrated as this. Are you sure you're following it correctly?

You don't actually have to follow his recipe if you're finding it difficult. Any one will do and one starter is all you need for many different bread recipes.

Take a look at this:

clazar123's picture

Time and Patience. These are the most important ingredients in making bread and natural levain.

I am not familiar with his method but it takes more than a few days using almost any method.

Take a minute to remember what you are doing. You are growing a culture and your jar is the cage. You have to have something in it before you feed it. Don't feed an empty cage. Just stir it several times a day for the next few days. It will start bubbling more and more. THEN start feeding it (daily,at first) and keep stirring it. Don't start discarding half until it rises and falls a few times because every time you do that (at this stage) you are throwing a large chunk of your population out. So let them all stay, eat and multiply. The culture will consist of lactobacillus, other various bacteria and yeasts. You want to make it a friendly environment for the yeasts to grow and undesirables to leave. You do that with temperature and acidity. Acidity can come from pineapple juice and/or lactos.The lactos are your friend and they will produce the needed acid with or without pineapple juice. For a while they will dominate but eventually they settle in with the yeasts as nice, permanent neighbors.

It is easier to build something if you understand what you are building. Imagine being given plans for an unknown object and being told to build it. Kind of like an IKEA cabinet. This culture is like growing a garden. Make a habitable space, plant the seed (mixing flour and water), waiting for growth, weeding out undesirables, once grown-feed and harvest. Same concept. You have to wait for the sequence to unfold and can't jump ahead.

Have fun!

Grigio's picture

Thanks to all here for the advice and encouragement.  I'm going to stick it out and see if I can get the Lahey liquid starter to work, as it is the basis for his "biga" and for his book full of recipes.  

A few more thoughts:

*Lahey states that "[a]fter 1 to 5 days....the flour and water will begin to ferment..." which I mistakenly read to mean that the rise and fall could take place very quickly.  It seems from watching the Teresa videos and reading elsewhere in TFL that whatever happened to my starter on day one, it wasn't full-blown fermentation.  This is the third starter I've tried recently, but will give it more than a week to see if anything happens. 

*I keep hearing the suggestion of stirring which Lahey does not  mention.  In fact he warns that when refreshing the starter it is important to keep sides of the jar clean because "any starter on the wall of the jar may encourage the growth of surface molds."  

*His refreshing appears to be the opposite of the advice above: he calls for keeping only about 10 grams of the fully fermented starter to add to a new mixture of 50g of APF and 100g of water.  I guess it all depends on how you define a "fully fermented" starter.  

Again, thanks to all who responded.  I hope to be able to follow up in a few days with great news.


chocofreta's picture

I have the same problem. I'm stuck in the separation phase and nothing happens. I've followed his instructions perfectly and while I had success with the starter, the refreshed one doesn't become like a batter.

Grigio, did you have any success with yours after all?

Grigio's picture

Chocofreta---It's day 9 and no luck yet with the "refreshed" starter.   I appreciate your feedback as I am wondering what I am doing wrong as well.  I am following Lahey's instructions to a T.

To others suggesting a different starter, here's the deal: I have had great experiences with his previous two books and am still giving him the benefit of the doubt, despite my experience so far.  It's worth noting that the Lahey starter is very hydrated and is ultimately used to create a "stiff starter" which he labels "Jim's Biga" even though it may not technically be a biga.  I am concerned that if I use a standard starter with a different hydration, I am not going to be able to replicate his biga.  It's his biga and not the starter that he maintains and uses for virtually all of the recipes in the new book.  

clazar123's picture

You have to understand what you are trying to accomplish. With flour and water, you have a jar of paste with a few yeast cells that are always present on the wheat flour. What you are doing is trying to grow a culture with a LOT of yeast cells. You want the yeast to eat and reproduce. The thing about yeast is that it is like a beach ball-no arms,legs,flagella,fins or anything else that can move them towards their food. That is why stirring is important. They eat what is next to them and will starve if the food isn't moved closer by stirring.

Another thing is that you don't discard until their population is increased. Otherwise you are throwing half your newly made yeast population away and you need them!

So why discard at all? To "clean the cage". When a goodly amount of yeast grows into a culture, they start leaving waste in the bottom of the cage. Discarding helps keep the cage clean. Kind of like garbage pickup after the parade every day. By then the population is good for your purposes.

I always started with 2 tablespoons any unbleached or wholegrain flour in a small jar (half pint) and kept it covered between stirring so it didn't dry out and flies didn't get in.

Instructions to follow:

Mix flour and water-stir,stir,stir. Keep jar in location that is at least 75F (80-84 is better). Temp. is very important! 

Wait, stir.

Wait, stir. DO NOT FEED.

Do this until it starts bubbling. This might be 4 hours or 4 days. It happens faster with rye flour.

When it starts bubbling very noticeably (not just a few lazy bubbles), THEN feed 1 time without discarding.

Wait, stir. If not many  more bubbles appear-keep stirring without feeding for 6-24 hours. If a lot more bubbles appear then feed without discarding again in 6-12 hours.

If a lot of bubbles have been happening and it gets very active an hour or 2 after this feeding then it is time to start a feeding schedule and cage cleaning (a discard).

6-12 hours after this last feeding, stir and then discard half the starter.

Start your feeding regime and proceed.

Time,patience, stirring.



clazar123's picture

 21-23C (70-75C) you will see some activity.  26-28C (80-84F) It will wake up and grow.

What flour and what water are you using?

A very liquid starter will bubble but not necessarily rise.

You can easily convert a healthy culture (starter) from more to less hydrated. A liquid culture is easier to start.

 because the activity is visible.


Grigio's picture

I'm using King Arthur All Purpose Flour and filtered NYC water.    I still have nothing that looks like the great photos in Lahey's book of the starter rising and falling. Moved to room that is around 74F to see if that helps despite recommendations from some to keep it in a cooler room (I believe the advocates of a cooler temperature argue that yeast can be harmed from overly competitive bacteria that thrive at warmer temperatures).  

Satch12879's picture

Hey everyone, I'm bumping this thread because I had similar problems to that of Grigio regarding the starter's behavior after refreshing the first time.  I went through several attempts to get this to work with a similar lack of results.  Very recently, however, I've had success and it appears that the starter is behaving per Lahey's instructions in the Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook.  I'm not sure if this will be of any help, but I'll give it a shot:

1. I have tried both the unassisted and assisted versions, i.e., a mixture of just flour and water, as well as the use of the yeast bloom rubbed off of a vegetable.  Both fermented and rose at basically the same rate with perhaps the vegetable version going faster.  In my kitchen, this process went off almost like clockwork in three days.  Earlier attempts yielded no additional activity upon refreshment per Lahey's instructions.  In both cases, the starter's aroma was not pleasant, going from boiled cabbage to very ripe cheese.  The "malodorous feet" aroma was also pleasant.  It is my understanding that this is the certain types of bacteria that initially proliferate and will eventually be crowded out once the pH falls, the yeast population establishes itself, and the lactobacillus take over.

2. This latest successful attempt was done with a mixture of flour, water, and the yeast bloom rubbed off organic lacinato kale leaves.  Again, three days later it blew up as described in the book.  After the mixture separated, bloomed, and separated again, I let it sit for another whole day before refreshing.  I believe this was key, as the book talks about refreshing a "fully fermented starter" and that you should refresh once the CO2 bubbles have popped and the pad of displaced flour on top of the separated water has settled back down to the bottom of the jar.

3. I refreshed the starter per the method in the book last night, 10g of fermented starter, 100g water, 50g flour.  I'm using White Lilly AP and Poland Spring.  Refreshment was done at about 5:30p last night.

4. The refreshed mixture separated relatively quickly last night, with some residual bubbles on the surface.  This morning, there was a definite pad of bloom on the surface, full of bubbles, indicating that the starter had been successfully refreshed, a second fermentation had occurred, and things were proceeding apace.  Turnaround was less than 12 hours.  The odor was not like my conventional started that I have been cultivating for the past two weeks.  It is still cheesy, strong, and sulfuric.  Perhaps this is close to what Lahey sees in his biga that he talks about in the book.  I think not, however.

5.  This evening I will refresh again and will report back.

Some tips:

1. Use the vegetable method.  Opt for organic/naturally farmed as the yeast population on the surface is likely more active/less inhibited.  They say to use organic ginger when you're making natural ginger beer as the handling of the ginger in order to get organic certification retains natural yeast on its surface.  It is reasonable to assume it is the same with kale/cabbage/Brussels sprouts.

2. Once the initial mixture bubbles up and pushes the flour to the surface, let it sit a little longer.  Don't be in such a rush to stir and refresh as the initial blooming process hasn't completely finished, yet.

3. It's going to not smell bad, I'm assuming for a while.

sraeburn's picture

thanks for comments on this problem. I have been trying to successfully feed a starter since Christmas when I received Jim Lehey’s Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook. I can start a liquid starter using his flour and water method or his faster method using a fruit or vegetable to wash the bloom off. Both work well for me. When the new starter has fallen and I feed it is where nothing happens for me. I have now tried at least five different starters. The feeding seems to do nothing. HELP!

. A

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

It fails around days 4 or 5?

sraeburn's picture

it always separates and doesn’t do anything else that I can tell.

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Means it's too liquid. To make a starter you don't need any special recipe. You mix the flour and water, provide warmth and time does the rest. 

In a small clean jar mix together...

  • 45g water (tap water which has been boiled and cooled)
  • 45g unbleached flour (if you can get some wholegrain in there too then great, wholegrain rye even better)

Keep the starter as close to 78°F as possible. Don't do anything till it has bubbled up. Might take a day or two. Patience! 

When it bubbles up then proceed as follows...

Discard all but 30g starter (good idea to weigh the jar empty so you know where you are) and then to the remaining 30g feed...

  • 30g water (boiled and cooled)
  • 30g flour (unbleached and preferable some wholegrain) 

From here on in you feed every 24 hours repeating the same feed. Providing it is showing some life. Otherwise...

If it shows a lot of activity within 12 hours (i.e. bubbling up, peaking and beginning to fall) then feed every 12 hours. Slower, but still some activity? - then every 24 hours. No activity? - then skip feeding till it perks up then resume. 

Once your starter shows strength, bubbles up on cue at every feed and can easily peak within 12 hours then increase the feed. For example....

  • 20g starter
  • 40g water
  • 40g flour

Once your starter is strong and predictable and has been doing this for a few days even with the bigger feed then it's ready. 

It's all about warmth, time and patience! If it's kept warm then it should be relatively quick. If it's not warm enough and/or you are impatient and feed too quickly too soon then it will take longer. 

gia2577's picture

Hi Grigio


Im curious how this ended up for you?  I too bought his bought a few weeks ago and cannot seem to get past his simple starter recipe.  I've tried so many times and wasted so much flour.  Its actually quite aggravating.  Im a pretty good cook and baker so its not about following the recipe.  I just cant seem to get the liquid starter going.  The first time it smelt rotten and didn't improve after refreshments and the next god knows how many times it smells like vinegar and doesn't seem to improve or do its business after again refreshments.  I thought I was getting somewhere when i tried the wild yeast from a vegetable/fruit idea ( i used kale and then tried again with red cabbage) and it finally smelt yeasty for a day or two and then turned to vinegar again.  Ive kept it in a warm room, a cool room. a everything room to be honest and nothing seems to get it going.  I've ordered rye flour to see if thats better than king arthur all purpose as i hear it has more microbes.  Any ideas would be wonderful from your experience and if you finally found success? Thank you!

naturaleigh's picture

I feel your pain and frustration.  After many failed attempts in the past, this one worked like a charm and is fairly uncomplicated.  The starter that I 'grew' from a method like this has been going strong a very long while now and makes fantastic loaves, focaccia, rolls, even quick breads (with the discard).  All you need is some bottled water, rye and AP flour, time and patience (as well as some clean jars).  Good Luck!   

naturaleigh's picture

I should add I never bothered checking any temperatures, nor was I able to increase the ambient temperature in my kitchen.  I do always place the jars (I keep two starters going, one white and one wheat) on a thick, woven pad after feedings, which keeps them off of the cold counter and in the winter, I do warm up the water.  Now that my starter is well-established, I use tap water without any issues.  I do use bottled water or de-cholorinated water for my bakes though.  Hope the info helps!

Draper6's picture

I have the same problem with refreshing the starter.  Have you found a solution which enables you make “Jim’s Biga”?