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Little or no rise in bulk fermentation/proofing stages

macnmum's picture

Little or no rise in bulk fermentation/proofing stages

Weak starters/underproofed loaves????

I've been baking  sourdough bread off and on for about 6 months now, trying various techniques and recipes. So far, I've had only modest success; my loaves taste good, but are lacking in the crumb department and don't seem to get a good rise.   After some psuedo-scientific experimenting over the past two weeks, taking great care with timing, temperature and building gluten structure with laminating, stretching and folding, I am coming to the conclusion that the chief problem may be with inadequate yeast activity.  I'm thinking this for two reasons:

First, it seems to me that my starter or levain seem to take abnormally long to mature.  My usual starter is made with a 1 part starter/2 parts water/2 parts flour, using 50% bread flour,25% rye and 25% whole wheat.   I use the same mix for my levain.  Today, I experimented with another jar of starter feeding it  only bread flour to see if there was a difference.  As the photo shows, the starter with the whole grains has larger bubbles, but the overall increase in volume is about the same as for the plain bread flour.  But what is most notable is that it took 9 HOURS at an ambient room temperature of about 74 degrees for these babies to double in size and I suspect there's still plenty of food left for them to continue growing for hours more before deflating, because on occasion I've forgotten to put my starter in the fridge once it gets a good feed to put it in suspended animation until I want to bake again and have discovered it on the countertop after 24 hours, when it has finally tripled in size AND not yet deflated.    At the warmer temperature inside my oven with the light on and door cracked (at least 84 degrees), it usually takes at least 6 hours to double in size.  

The second reason I suspect slow yeast activity is that after my bulk ferment of up up to 6-8 hours, there is often still no appreciable rise in the dough and no visible bubbles on the surface or sides, despite a consistent dough temperature of 76-78 degrees.   I will get decent oven spring when baked, after a long overnight refrigerated proof/retard however.  

SO....if I"m right, what is the best way for me to compensate for this?   Simply add a WHOLE lot more time to the process to let my levain ripen and the dough to rise a bit before the long retard in the refrigerator?    I fear this could turn baking into a three day marathon, however.   Perhaps, make my  levain with a higher share of starter in it?  maybe 1 part starter to one part water and one part flour?   Use more levain in the dough?   

I should note that I have tried over the past months a variety of things to strengthen the starter...different feeding ratios, different temperatures, feeding regularly for 2-3 days before making the levain on the day I make my dough, etc.  As noted above, a warmer ambient temp in an unheated oven does speed things up at the levain stage, but putting the dough in the oven with just the light on for part of the bulk fermentation or proofing before a long overnight refrigerated proofing/retard made no difference over a 6 hour period  

Suggestions, please?  I'm getting frustrated.  

Anon2's picture
Anon2 (not verified)

Your starter build is 1:2:2 and takes 9 hours to double which granted is slow. Before we delve more deeply into your starter can you answer this... If your high inoculation starter build takes 9 hours to double then why would a more modest starter to flour ratio in the final dough only get 6-8 hours? 

Perhaps use your starter as an indicator of what to expect in the final dough. Why not try a starter build overnight then come morning make the dough and don't move on to shaping until you see significant activity. However long that takes and you have all day. This is not the answer you're looking for but it will be a step in the right direction. Can you get a good bread out of the starter at this given moment in trying to read the starter and judging the dough? 

If your starter rises then so should your bread. Once you've tried that and get a decent result then it's just a question of how to speed it up. If it's not a step in the right direction then it might be a few steps back when troubleshooting the starter itself. 

P.s. If your starter is capable of tripling then don't use when doubled but wait till it's tripled. Aim to have the starter ready and peaked by morning so start the starter build a bit earlier if need be. Also your starter jars have sloping walls which slightly widen so what looks like doubling can actually be more. 

AkitoTakagi's picture

Hi, I'm also a newbie, and I just want to gather information to widen my knowledge and perspective. Do you have white starter? And you stated above that feeding 1:2:2 and it took 9 hours to double is considered slow, how much you feed you white starter and how long does it take to rise at peak? Is it doubling or tripling or even quadrupling? I have young white starter and I'm still on progress to make it stronger. I'd be glad if you can share some information :)

AkitoTakagi's picture

whoops I mean I am a newbie (delete the "also" word) and sorry if you receive anything about report, because when I tried to reply your comment, I clicked the "report" button and realized what I did, then quickly clicked again the "undo report". why they put those two buttons side by side, lol. I hope I'm not causing you any trouble. :)

Anon2's picture
Anon2 (not verified)

Perhaps it just needs more time. Starters after maturing continue to grow in strength and gain in flavour over the coming weeks. My starter procedure is as follows...

I have a 60% hydration whole wheat starter (hydration can change depending on flour being used but it's a stiff dough). I'll do a feed of something like 1:3:5, so it's a healthier feed than yours with the starter being 20%, and allow it to peak before refrigerating. When it comes to baking I'll take a little off to build a pre-ferment taking into account the hydration of my starter and adding a little extra water to make it 100% hydration if that's what I'm after. 

Perhaps you can try a similar procedure using bread flour and keeping it 100% hydration. Try a feed of 1:5:5 and wait for it to peak then refrigerate. It can last a week or two in the fridge (although bearing in mind it is 100% hydration and bread flour so it'll not last as long as mine between feeds so if you want catch it a little before peaking and it'll last longer but you still want it active and bubbly). Take a little off each time to build pre-ferments and re-feed your starter when it runs low or hooch starts to build up. 

Healthy feeds = healthy starter and I believe in refrigerating starters only when they are active and have built up a good yeast population. When building a levain it springs to life. 1:2:2 can easily double in 4-6 hours and if warm sometimes quicker. And even when doubled it still has a lot more life left in it. I often go by how it smells as well. If it doesn't have that lovely aroma yet then wait. 


phaz's picture

Starter sounds like the issue, but I'd say more like weak which will make it slow. Improper amount of food is the usual cause, over time a little bit one way or the other will cause inconsistencies in, well everything down the line.

Whatever your frequency of feed is - the ideal would be to have a little rise left in the starter at the end of the cycle.

Too much rise = too much food = weaker over time.

No rise and/or getting thin and watery = not enough food (by a lot) = big problems with whatever you use it with.

As there appears be an abundance of food right now, just stir it often (a time or 2 a day is fine - and always recommended) and try to keep to the above guideline. This should concentrate it ie make it stronger. Things may be closer to the timings you're expecting. It shouldn't take long to straighten out.Enjoy!


BXMurphy's picture

Abe and Phaz are absolutely correct.

My only two cents is to make your life easier. Use disposable plastic cups from the supermarket. You know, those cheap, translucent kind.

Get a new, clean cup. Scoop or pour half of your exhausted starter into the new cup and throw the old cup and exhausted starter away. Or do whatever you want with the old stuff.

Then concentrate on the new cup with half of the old starter in it. Then build it up with whatever combination of flour and water ratios that fits your schedule... to make it sing and dance to the tune you want to play.

All that cleaning and discarding gets tedious. Just chuck it quickly and move on to strengthening your starter the way Phaz and Abe said.

It made my life easier. I hope it helps you, too.


dbazuin's picture

There is al so much plastic soup in the world without adding this cups to it. 

I use glass weck containers.  
With every feed or levain build i just get a clean one.  

gerhard's picture

old jam jars that I use for storage and refreshing the sourdough culture. When I switch jars I just fill the used one with water to soak and then run it through the dishwasher next time it is used, really no effort involved in keeping it clean.

dbazuin's picture

The weck ones are not expensive and the come with a very easy to use lid. 

phaz's picture

Pickle jars - a nice size, and you'll find that to get a pickle out of a jar, you gotta have a wide mouth, and that's essential with a starter.

Cleaning - if a starter is strong and in balance, not necessary. Enjoy!

dbazuin's picture

Maybe it is not necessary but I prefer to do it. 
I have always a few clean ones handy. 
I have 5 small ones just the right size for ± 100 gram levain and a bigger one that can cotain about 200 gram.