The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Why do I need starter to peak before using?

yeasterman's picture

Why do I need starter to peak before using?

Even if I add my flour and water before it peaks, doesn't the yeast continue to develop in the mixture?  Why does it make a difference?

gerhard's picture

but most people want repeatable methods so if you have a random starting point you are just adding to the unpredictable nature of sourdough.

pall.ecuador's picture

I've been known to use my starter straight from the fridge without refreshing it and adding it to the dough in as little of 2% and having the bulk rise last overnight.  The yeast will reproduce logarithmically and like Gerhard said it throws in one more variable, but the starter is very flexible.  

mariana's picture

If you need yeast, just buy it, you don't need a starter for that. Starters are mostly used because of their sourdough lactic acid bacteria which you can't just buy in stores and sprinkle into your dough.

Otherwise, you are right, while there are live cells of yeast and bacteria, they will propagate until they poison themselves by their own alcohol or just reach the end of their own natural lifespan which is several days long at room temperature. It has nothing to do with the environment - be it sugary water or some kind of dough or the volume of water, foam or dough. 

The difference that the starter peaking makes is in the recipe. If your starter is exactly the same as in the recipe that you are following and the recipe tells you that it has to peak before using, then you follow that recipe. You can't do something else and expect the same result. 

I have never used a recipe where the starter has to peak before using it, though.

Normally, peaking might have something to do with levains made from wheat flour where gluten reaches its end of fermentation tolerance as it stretches to its max. You just can't let it collapse on its own, thus it's time to use it. Or at least to stir it to punch it down and let it rise to the max again... and again... and again... until it is good enough for the use in the recipe: has strong leavening power and plenty of acid load (aroma and taste). 

yeasterman's picture

Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but most recipes require the starter to float in water before using, and they seem to suggest that to be when it's peaking or just after (i.e. when it's most bubbly).  

The reason I'm asking is actually to troubleshoot why my bread doesn't always rise as intended when baking.  It's fine when I use instant yeast but with sourdough, it's always hit and miss.  Given the only difference is in the yeast, I was thinking it might be the starter's issue, but maybe it's also to do with timing.  I still don't know when to stop 1st/2nd stage fermentation and start baking, any tips?  To get a more sour flavour, I normally put the dough covered in the fridge for about 12hrs in addition to the fermentation process though I shave off 1-2hrs fermentation time from the recipe to account for it.

mariana's picture

I am sorry, but no. Not really. Most breads in this world are baked by the bakeries and professional bakers and only one of them that I know uses floating starter test, because he intentionally uses an extremely young immature starter in his breads. It's Chad Robertson from Tartine bakery in San-Francisco. The rest of the bakers use other tests to know that their starters are ready to inoculate dough. 

Anyways, that is not so important. what is important for the new bakers is to use a reliable recipe that suits them. If you wish to bake a consistently good bread use a reliable recipe. The recipe will tell you when to stop 1st and 2nd stages of fermentation and start baking. Since you like your bread dough sit for 12 hrs in the fridge, use Hamelman's recipe for sourdough bread.

It's 12 hrs or so for the starter (it will peak and stay there for several hours at peak), 2hrs bulk fermentation, 2 hrs proof (second fermentation) and then bake. You can insert a 12 hrs refrigeration step into 1st or 2nd fermentation step, if you want to postpone baking or to make your bread more sour. 

Just follow the recipe and you will have a great bread. It's been tested by hundreds of thousands of bakers and everyone is successful. It is simple and always works. Just follow the recipe and make sure your temperature is the same as in the recipe and you will be golden.

Temperature is the key. If the recipe requires a certain temperature of fermentation that you cannot guarantee in your kitchen, then find a recipe where fermentation is going at the same temperature as in your kitchen. 

Here's an example of how to bake it. This recipe contains 10% of whole wheat of whole rye flour besides white bread flour, but if you want it to be a purely white flour bread you can bake it just with one kind of flour as well, no problem.


The recipe I linked above doesn't cover the meaning of 'mature starter' for you, so you might not know how to obtain a mature starter with maximum leavening power, so that your bread rises reliably, just as with commercial yeast. It is described in the book "Bread" by J. Hamelman. To prepare a portion of such mature starter, proceed as follows: 


15 g of your starter

80g bread flour

80g ice cold water

after mixing it thoroughly, beating it with a spoon or handheld mixer until it is smooth and shows some signs of gluten development, cover it and let it sit for 12-16 hrs at 20-22C. 

It should look like that

It will rise to the max and then stay at that level for several hours and eventually begin to recede a little. You would be able to see the traces of the old peak level on the walls of the jar or the measuring cup. 

Next, TEST your starter to see if it is ready to bake with. It is ready when it doubles in one hour or quicker. Then your bread will rise reliably, because your starter rises reliably. 

Punch it down, mixing with the spoon to bring its level down to the original 1/2 cup of flat starter

Set your timer for 1 hr and see how far it will rise in that one hour AT 20-22C

Should it double in volume in that period of time at such temperature, then it is ready to be used in baking. 

 Here's an example of starter being mature (it matured in 15 hours at 21C) and more than doubling in one hour at 21C after being punched down. 

best wishes, 


DoughIsRisen's picture

I'd add a practical reason for using a starter as it's approaching its peak: you know it's active and you have a visual indication of how close to optimally it's performing.  

I've just experienced a cycle in which my starter was misbehaving, was very sluggish and didn't rise. I didn't bake until I resolved the problem.  

It turned out that they've added more than the usual load of chlorine to our drinking water because of an unusually high amount of recent rainfall. That, coupled with the fact that the filter in my water pitcher was close to the end of its cycle, meant that chlorine was getting into my starter and slowing it down radically. 

I replaced my water filter, e voila!, my starter instantly improved. I'm ready to bake again.  




yeasterman's picture

Thanks very much for all this guidance, especially from Mariana.  

It's summer here and room temperature is closer to 30C unfortunately.  Everything just accelerates at this speed.  Is there anything I can do to regulate the temperature?  A friend of mine repurposed a wine fridge to ferment his beer, is there a cheaper/easier way for bread?  Or do I simply trial & error timing till I get it right (until the season changes!)?

Also, Mariana, your test to determine when a starter is ready is very clear and simple.  Is there a way to determine if the 1st or 2nd stage fermentation is done?  Some recipes say it's when the dough doubles in size but that rarely happens for me.  Again, because I can't control room temperature, I'll need some other method to gauge timing.

mariana's picture

I personally like to ferment my starters and my bread dough at 30C (28-32C range), not at 20-22C, so your warm room temperature from my point of view is wonderful.

Still, that said, the first thing I bought when I started my adventures in sourdough baking was that wine fridge to control the temperature in the lower range. It doesn't have to be a pretty wine fridge with glass doors, any cheap fridge would do if you can set it to a range of temperatures. 

In sourdough baking, achieving high temperatures for fermentation is also very important, something like 40-45C, but that came to me later and my oven happens to have "proof" setting for those temps. 

If I had to do it today, I would probably simply place a bag of ice inside microwave chamber or even regular oven and place my starter or bread dough next to it. That is how they chilled rooms in ancient China, they kept winter ice in storage and took out huge chunks of it to cool down living quarters in scorching summer heat. Big bags of ice cost little, you could try this method. First, of course, you would have to place a thermometer inside to check it out, for how long the temperature stays stable and how low it gets with this or that amount of ice in the bag given the space in your microwave or oven. Some ovens are tiny, others are huge. 

It is much simpler to simply use the temperature that you have naturally and track the starter. Each time it rises to the max and shows signs of receding, punch it down, stirring it thoroughly, and watch it double after that. Set the timer for one hour and come back later. If it doubles under one hour, it is ready. If it takes more than one hour for it to double, then let it rise to the max again and test its gassing power again. 

Once you learn how fast it takes it to mature at the specific temperature in your place, you will rely on that information in your future bakes. 

The 1st and 2nd stage fermentation is bread specific. It depends both on the bread that you are baking and on the method that you use. 

What I mean is that if everything else is the same, like the same amount of flour, water, salt and yeast, different lengths of 1st and 2nd stage fermentation will give you two different breads in different traditions, with different flavors and tastes and looks. 

Also the very same bread, identical bread? could be made using different methods, at least 12 different ways to bake the very same loaf by playing with lengths of its 1st and 2nd stage fermentation. Two bakeries would bake absolutely identical breads by using two very different schedules of 1st and 2nd fermentation that suit the baker, when he sleeps or when he works and other factors. 

So, there is no way for us to teach you the trick of when the 1st stage is complete or 2nd stage is complete. Some methods have very long 1st stage with many punch downs, up to 5 rises during the 1st stage, for others it is nearly zero minutes long(zero-time dough the dough is freshly mixed and immediately shaped into loaves), some have exceedingly long 2nd stage, some barely a few minutes after shaping and they give excellent fluffy crumb and a great looking crust. 

You learn to bake bread by following a specific recipe for a specific kind of bread where it tells you for how long to ferment and what are the signs of readiness or completion of each stage.

For you, I guess you would have to first decide on the kind of bread you want to bake and then to find a recipe with the same temperatures that you have in your kitchen and follow that. You are not alone in the area or the temperature zone where you live, I am sure people bake there as well. 

Another way is to use the same recipe as I linked for you, but to cut the times of the first and second stage approximately in half and see if you like the results. With high temps gassing power of yeast doubles every 6C, meaning that at 28C the bread rises 2 times faster than at 22C.

BUT and it is a huge but, the taste would be different. Hamelman uses low temperature both because he has it in his area where he bakes and because it gives him a certain aroma and taste in his breads (sharper acidic). Warm fermentation at 28-32C gives a completely different aroma and taste (more milky, milder, nuttier and fruitier). 

best wishes, 


yeasterman's picture

Thanks a lot for your guidance on this.  Sounds like a much bigger challenge to determine the fermentation times.

I just tried another bake and unfortunately the bread didn't rise well at all.  The starter did double in an hour, so I'm thinking it's the fermentation times that were off.  I did 3 hrs for the 1st stage and then 12 hrs in the fridge, followed by 1.5 hrs at room temperature, which is about 28-30C.

When I sliced the dough with the razor, it deflated visibly.  Is this a sign that I maybe over-fermented?  Or could it be the dough strength being insufficient (e.g. too much water - I used 70% hydration)?  I use a stand mixer to knead my dough so it should be pretty consistent.

mariana's picture


are you following a recipe? Something that is tested and illustrated, proven? Which one? 

I am asking because it seems to me that you are inventing some kind of bread or designing a recipe from scratch. I don't know how to do it, it's a very high level of skill, to be a bread designer. I also never proof my loaves in the regular fridge, so I can't help with that, I have no experience. I am sorry. 

At 28-30C your starter should double in about 30 min to be considered ready to bake with. The 1hr criterion is for Hamelman's 20-22C temperature range. I mentioned to you that every 6C the gassing power of yeast doubles. 

Over-fermented to me means 'too acidic' and 'too alcoholic', i.e. really too much fermentation and its byproducts. For you it seems to mean 'overproofed', meaning that you let your loaf rise too far to the maximum volume and stay at that point for too long, so that when you touch it, it deflates.

This simply means that either 12 hrs in the fridge AND 1.5 hrs at room temp were too long, or one of those was unnecessary. 

Hydration level is irrelevant. It can be 30% as in panettone or 130% as in some focaccias and other high-hydration breads, it has nothing to do with anything. If gluten is developed and your flour is strong, it would stand even at the peak volume for hours without deflating and you can score it, dock it, lift it with your hands, transfer it, do whatever, it won't fall or 'deflate visibly'. 

If you score it and it deflates instead of jumping wildly, elastically and opening up along the lines of cuts, all you have to do is to to pat it by hand and reshape it. Let it rise again for 30-60 min by which time it would double in volume and bake. Touch your loaves before you score them. If they are not bouncy to touch they might not be suitable for scoring and should be baked unscored as is. 

best wishes, 



yeasterman's picture

I'm using a recipe from a beginner sourdough class I attended recently where I am, so the temperature matches my own.  It calls for 2-3hrs each in both stages of fermentation.  I will try the shorter period of 2 hrs (adjusted for fridge time) next time.  

I mentioned hydration because I was worried the gluten wasn't sufficiently strong, so the bread wouldn't rise. It seems easier to get a stronger dough with less water.  Even with a stand mixer I don't seem to be able to get the strength I see in guides/videos at higher hydrations.

If I reshape an over-proofed dough, will it add to the total proofing time, making it worse?  Or does it reset when I reshape it?

mariana's picture

Have you tried their recipe as written? Is time in the fridge part of that recipe? 

If you only want to add more time in the fridge to add more sour, then do it before you shape the loaves or loaf. Mix your dough, and after one or two hours at room temp, refrigerate it. Then take it out, bring it to 20-30C, it should take less than 30 min, especially if you submerge a bag of dough into warm water, and shape, proof, score and bake.

Again, hydration has nothing to do with gluten strength. And higher hydration means higher rise, because water lubricates gluten sheets and they stretch and slide more, loaves rising higher.

The trick is to let gluten form and develop it before you raise your hydration to 70%. I.e. mix normal consistency dough, develop it by kneading, and only then as you finish kneading it, add bit by bit the remaining water to raise hydration to 70%. 

If you reshape an over-proofed dough you only add to the total fermentation time of your dough, not to the proofing time. You like your bread sour, so it would be a tad more sour and fragrant, that's all. Proofing time begins as you reshape it and start proofing it before baking it. It 'resets' : ) 

best wishes,