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Sourdough starter doldrums...

ka-bar's picture

Sourdough starter doldrums...

I’m just going to copy and paste the last week of a “new starter” journal I started on my phone. I started it to get my thoughts out and organize them as I agonized at the 8 day mark of starting a starter from scratch. For background, I have baked with sourdough off and on for the last 12 years and have almost no experience with bakers yeast. I’ll do it for a time and set it aside for a time as my interest wanes. I’ve saved starters in the fridge for long periods, or thrown them away and later bummed some from friends. I have never cultured my own. This is also the first time I’ve named a starter. In my desperation, I thought if I personified them, they might feel my concern for their well-being, and decide to thrive. If anyone actually reads this, please forgive the formatting, it was only intended to be an external internal monologue. This is our story thus far:

New starter -



Joe, Day 8, 7:30am - 30g starter, 34g 82* water, 10g rye flour, 20g bread flour


Read a couple articles about starter creation, on The Fresh Loaf, by Debra Wink. If/when I do this again, I’ll follow her advice closely to see if this process can be sped up, or seem more reliable. I just don’t have any experience with this. 


Decided to put the thermometer on the water heater last night, and it seems to maintain a steady 79* temp right near the edge. There seemed to be little to no variation when the water heater was running or idle. Left the budding starter there last night. Temperature readings in the culture at the glass were 81* closest to the flue and 79* away from the flue. That seems about perfect to me, and beats the heck out of the 64* - 72* temperature range in the kitchen. 


I’m hopeful the yeast will take off today. The culture has been slack (no gluten), with tiny bubbles dispersed throughout, and with vinegary hooch? produced, for a couple days. With the rye infusion, higher hydration, and higher temperature on the water heater... well, I’ve got my fingers crossed. I get so crazy when I’m waiting!


10:30pm - seriously, nothing is happening. I might skip a feeding or start feeding 2:1:1 tomorrow. Rye only, no bread flour. 


I think I’ll also start another culture with rye using orange juice for 3 days, following the Debra Wink method I mentioned earlier. 




Joe, Day 9, 7:15am - 40g starter, 20g water, 20g rye


Ok, I just need to reign in my desire to do more. I looked over the Wink method and decided to feed 2:1:1, and see what happens. Seriously, I feel this thing should take off at any moment. It’s lost most of the vinegary smell, so that worries me. It hasn’t been bubbly almost at all, except for a few on top. Still keeping it at 80*. 


My rye is 6 or more months old, maybe I’ll pick up some fresh on my way home from work. 


Geraldough, Day 1, 1:30pm - ok, so I couldn’t help myself. I started a second one using equal parts, by volume, dark rye and orange juice. I didn’t have any pineapple juice. First I went to the store and got new rye flour, because I know I had the old stuff for at least 6 months, and they say whole grains spoil pretty fast. 




Joe, Day 10, 7:30am - 40g starter, 20g water, 20g rye


I decided to switch the water to the remineralized reverse osmosis (filtered) instead of straight tap. I’ve not had problems with our tap water with previous starter maintenance , but I haven’t started from scratch before.


Basically no activity in this culture anymore. I thought I saw little pin hole bubbles in it last night. Who knows. Part of me has written off this one and is glad I started the second one with orange juice. Of course, there’s another part of me that is worried that I’m using orange juice instead of pineapple juice. Lol. 


Geraldough, Day 2, 1:15pm - added 2T rye and 2T orange juice to 2nd culture. No activity here, but that’s totally expected at this point. 




Joe, Day 11, 8:00am - 40g:20g:20g


Still nothing visibly happening with this culture. I wish I knew what was going on in there. 


Geraldough, Day 3, 1:15pm - last feeding of 2T rye and 2T orange juice. There were a few little bubbles in there, but otherwise nothing. I’m hopeful the yeast takes off today. I found a blog where someone does a side by side with water and pineapple juice, and the juice started on day 3. 


10pm - no visible change from either. 




Joe, Day 12, 8am - 40g:20g:20g, no visible change, smells sourer perhaps, I’m not down with tasting raw, as yet uncultured sourdough


Geraldough, Day 4, 2pm - first feed at 40g:20g:20g, using water instead of orange juice. Still no visible activity


6:20 - ok, there is slight bubble activity. Not sure how to feel about it. 




Joe, Day 13, 7:40am - 40g:20g:10g rye:20g KA bread flour


Before stirring down, I could see a bunch of tiny bubbles and a few small bubbles. No evidence of real growth though. Probably I should have left it until later in the day but, again, I couldn’t help myself. I decided to feed with same ratio, but substitute half the rye with bread flour. My thinking here is that I know this bread flour ferments with pronounced sour smelll, and has stronger (more?) gluten than the rye. Hopefully this will help it along? 


Geraldough - after refreshing Joe, I decided that if I can restrain myself, I’ll likely skip this guy’s feeding this afternoon. With that in mind, I pulled him out and stirred him up and cleaned the jar to go back on the water heater. 


Thoughts on the water heater - as locations go, this seems to be fine. I worry about the tank transferring too much heat to the jars, but that may be baseless. Sometimes when I touch the tank it feels warm sometimes cool. Could have more to do with my hand temperature than the tank. The thermometer reads anywhere from 78* to 83*, depending on the time of day, ambient temperature, and shower schedules. I don’t have a good way to read the surface temperature of the tank, nor do I have a rack or trivet that will raise the jars off the tank. Could it be that the jars are too warm? How warm is too warm? When I measure the starter with an instant read, pressed into the bottom of the jars, I get 79* to 81* every time. I suppose I could set them on the kitchen counter during the day, and on the water heater at night. 


I’m frustrated, yet determined, at this point. Joe is approaching the 2 week point with basically no change after an underwhelming yucky phase the second and third day. Geraldough, approaching day 5, didn’t go through a yucky phase thanks to the orange juice, but hasn’t really progressed either. It’s hard not to think I’m doing something wrong but, what else can I do except let nature take its course? Should I be using bottled water instead of tap or reverse osmosis? I thought the reverse osmosis would be fine since we have the remineralizing filter, but I’ve never tested the water’s PH level! Perhaps the remineralization is making it slightly alkaline, thwarting the LAB?


So I looked into the city water quality and PH. I’m not worried about it after the starter is established, since I’ve maintained successful starters in the past, but I am having difficulty getting one started from scratch. So, the San Jose water company’s sources have a PH level of 7.25 - 8.7? Assuming the sources are all mixed up, I’d guess the tap water is actually under 8, since the higher PH water was from an imported source. Theoretically the RO system would get the water close to 7, but then I have the mineral filer that is supposed to raise the PH. Who knows? In all likelihood, there’s nothing wrong with my water. That being said, I’m going to switch to bottled water for Joe. 


2pm - if you bet that I couldn’t leave well enough alone with Geraldough, you win a prize! I picked up some pineapple juice, since we didn’t have more orange juice. I also read that pineapple juice is more predictably acidic than orange juice which will range from 3.5 - 4.5, which makes sense since orange juice will be sweeter or sourer depending on brand. We like less sour. 


Today I didn’t discard any of Geraldough. Instead, I added equal volume pineapple juice and rye. 


The frustrating part is, the desire to toss what I have and start over is strong. What stops me is the knowledge that the yeast could literally take off at any moment. Every minuscule bubble evokes a Pavlovian excitement in me only to be disappointed by my abusive master. 



Joe, Day 14, 9am - unfed 


It’s been 2 weeks and Joe smells like acetone. There was a thin layer of water, not hooch I think, then a skin, and tiny bubbles apparent on sides of jar. I tasted it, because I’m basically willing to risk my life for success, at this point. Pretty dang sour, but I don’t really have anything to compare it to. I started to get concerned about the guys being too warm. The thermometer reads consistently around 80*, but I don’t know how much heat is transferred from sitting on the water heater. To that end, I did find a wire shelf to lift them up for air circulation. 


So I didn’t feed Joe today because I figured maybe he just needs that extra time without dilution to get going. I did stir him up and make a baby Joe. Joe Jr. started as 20g of Joe, plus 10g Crystal Geyser water, 5g rye, and 5g bread flour. I did taste Joe Jr. after dilution, he was on the bland side. I hope that putting the guys on that wire shelf will lower the temp sufficiently to get the yeast reproducing, if that is indeed the problem. I’d take them out of the water heater closet if the warmest spot in my house wasn’t 68* right now. 


It really seems like Joe and Joe Jr. are right on the edge of catching.


I’m using Bob’s Red Mill dark rye. In my past experience it has always seemed sluggish in my starters. I always figured it was a gluten difference from AP or bread flour. Is it possible this is a cause for my problems now? Flour and temperature (well, and me) are the only constants in this experiment. I’ll seek out a different brand later today, and see if that helps. 


ka-bar's picture

So I didn’t refresh Geraldough today. A quick stir and he can contemplate his lack of performance until morning. Really, I just need to get them on the same schedule for my sanity. 

Joe and Joe Jr. both smell the same and pretty good right now. When I stirred Joe earlier today, I pulled off this cohesive skin and tossed it before removing some to create Joe Jr. Later, after the house warmed up, I found a spot, next to the WiFi router that was about 72*. The spot has since warmed to 75*. Right now Joe and Joe Jr. smell good, like fresh, sweet dough, not like flour and water. Joe Jr. developed a few bubbles rather quickly after creation, but hasn’t risen at all. I didn’t taste them at this time. I’m surprised they smell basically the same since I fed Joe Jr., but not Joe. 

Part of me wants to discard Geraldough and Joe and just concentrate on Joe Jr., but “what if?” stops me from being so brash. At this rate, I’m going to have ten “cultures” going and zero sourdough, though. 


I didn’t get any new rye flour today. Since the new stay at home order started here, the lines to get in the store have been prohibitive. Maybe I’ll try tomorrow, right when the store opens. 

BXMurphy's picture

Mix a couple of weeks' supply of flour. Let it be 85% bread flour, 10% dark rye flour and 5% whole wheat.

Feed your weak starter that is just limping along with this nice and healthy flour mixture at 1:4:5.

That means, 1g weak as crap starter, 4g bottled water, 5g beautiful flour mixture. Let it digest for 12 hours (or so).

10x it is better!

10g starter, 40g bottled water, 50g flour mixture.

Thennnn... get your rhythm groove on.


Be consistent. And honest. When are you REALLY going to feed the beast?

Be a swinger!


Yep... it is imperative that you figure out a way to make the flour part of your feeding last until your next feeding. Swing from one feeding to the next.. Because that flour is the food that feeds the beast!

Stick with your normal room temperature because you are the ringmaster of this circus and it is YOUR show. No screwing around!

You can cut the amount of starter for the next 1:4:5 feeding and make it .5:4:5... OR you can up the the flour end to make it 1:4:6 or whatever! Your circus, your monkeys.

The water part is "meh." It's not food but too liquid and you just get a bubbly slop with not much rise. Too little and you can't stir it. You'll be kneading that b!tch.

Either way, screw around with ratios to swing from one feeding to the next but consistency is key and room temperature is paramount at this stage.

How come?

Because temperatures are an essential ingredient but you are new and haven't reached a stage to learn how to manipulate it AND get a starter up and running. Sooo... one thing at a time, right? Use YOUR schedule and YOUR temperature and make the CIRCUS act accordingly.

Anyway, get consistent and be a swinger. Get the feeding to last from one cycle to the next. Get it smelling nice and... well bready good. Get some good bubbles going on and a consistent peak point and declare it "good enough for government work."

Next, work on a bigger side dilly called a levain that will be used to raise a loaf of bread and ready to bake.

And if you don't like that, just hit it with a bat.