Advice: Struggling with Sourdough Starter
Firstly, apologies for the extremely long-winded post. I just want to include as much as possible to help troubleshoot this issue.
For a month now, I've been trying to get a sourdough starter going and am running into issues. I have searched the internet to near unhealthy obsession and am noticing that the issues I'm experiencing are not common.
A short background: I have a moderate amount of experience baking yeast breads. I was an all-grain home brewer (beer) for many years, so I have a good understanding of temperature, enzymatic activity, yeast needs and behaviours, etc... I'm no bread expert but have had good luck baking bread with yeast.
After a few years low-carb eating, I have been itching recently to get back into bread. I decided I wanted to up my baking game and learn to make "wow" loaves. I made some great baguettes, some awesome ciabattas and some superb pizza doughs. Next, I wanted to try my hand at sourdough. This is where it went downhill fast.
The way he suggests it is as follows:
DAY 1 (hour 0)
Into a tall container with a lid, measure 150g of filtered or distilled room temperature (68°-78°F or 20°-25°C) water and 100g of whole grain rye flour. Stir. Place a lid on the container, loosely, and let sit at room temperature.
DAY 2 (24 hours later)
Remove/discard 1/2 of the rye flour/water mixture from yesterday (you don't need to be super precise at this point). Into your container with the remaining 1/2 of the mixture, add 150g room temp water and 100g whole grain rye flour. Stir to combine. Cover loosely and let sit at room temperature.
DAY 3 (24 hours later, 48 hours into the process)
Measure 75g of your flour/water starter mix from yesterday and discard the rest . Return only the 75g of starter to your jar and add 75g of room temperature water, 35g of all purpose flour, and 35g of rye flour. Stir and cover with a loose lid. Let sit at room temperature.
DAY 4 (24 hours later, 72 hours into the process)
Repeat process from day 3.
DAY 5 (24 hours later, 96 hours into process)
Repeat process from day 3.
DAY 6 (24 hours later, 120 hours into process)
Your starter is now ready to use for baking. To maintain it (from this point through forever), measure 25g of starter from the day before and discard the rest. To that 25g of starter, add 50g room temp water and 50g ap flour. Stir, cover with a loose lid and let sit at room temperature. Do this daily, every 24 hours, to maintain your starter if you're a casual baker. If you bake a lot OR if you've had your starter in the fridge and you need to get it ready to bake again, feed once every 12 hours.
So for me, days 1-2 worked exactly as described. After the first 24h, I saw a little bit of activity, and the 2nd day it was already rising well. On day 3, when I started to introduce AP flour, activity slowed considerably. I continued that routine for about 7 days, because I was not rising much overnight. The most I saw was maybe a 25% rise. I decided to follow through to the last step of going to only AP flour for feedings. That's when the starter stopped rising completely.
After looking at many FAQs on different sites, the consensus seemed to be "just keep feeding it". So I did, with AP flour for the next two weeks. It just continued to do the same. Some bubbles, very sour smell, and no rise.
So at this point, I decided to try and revive it with the rye flour. I fed the starter with 50% rye and 50% AP flour and it took off like mad. It now was rising more than triple its size and smelled great. (Boozy, nutty etc...)
At this point I thought the starter was ready and I tried to make a tartine country loaf using this video as a guide. The first sign that something was wrong was the leaven. It hadn't risen at all overnight, and it had become very runny. Foolishly, I continued anyway. When doing the folds, the dough became nice and tight and felt good. After the "bulk", it felt slack and hadn't risen at all. There was no alcohol smell. I shaped it anyway, thinking maybe this is just how sourdough is, proofed it in a banneton in the fridge and baked it the following day. It came out flat and dense and tasted overwhelmingly sour. (Much like Finn Crisp crackers.) I knew something was wrong with my starter.
With the overwhelming sourness of the bread and lack of fermentation, I figured my my starter is just not building enough yeast cells or there is too much acidity. (Uneducated guess). I went back to the 50/50 rye/AP flour feedings and the starter came back to life and looked / smelled very healthy. I decided to try the same loaf again, and the leaven was better this time, but still nothing like I see in videos or pictures. After making the dough, it felt great, folds instantly created good strength. After two folds, the dough was a taught ball and I set it aside to bulk. When I came back to the dough 3 hours later, it looked like a bowl pancake batter. I tried to pre-shape it, and it just wouldn't hold any shape at all. At this point, I threw a cover over the bowl, threw it in the fridge and went to bed. This morning, the dough is a liquid mess, zero structure, I can pour it out like batter. It smells like raw dough, not even a tiny hint of yeastiness or alcohol, it just smells like raw flour and water.
So I really don't know what's going on anymore.
Some people have suggested I just keep my starter on a steady diet of AP and RYE flour. While sure this works great to keep the starter rising and healthy, the problem is that if it won't run on AP alone, how will it leaven a bread made mostly of AP flour?
I have tried Robin Hood unbleached AP, Five Roses 'never bleached' AP, Robin Hood Bread flour, Filtered water, bottled water, tap water. None of these appear to have any effect on the starter's ability to ferment AP flour.
Tried keeping the starter on the counter (around 18°C / 64°F) and later on top of warm base at around 26°C / 79°F, definitely more activity on the hotter end of things. The water is kept at the same temperature.
Does anyone have any thoughts or ideas? Again, really sorry for how long this. I appreciate you taking the time to read it.
Thanks so much!
Edit: I forgot to mention, I'm starting to suspect the rye flour may be the culprit. I am using whole grain dark rye flour from Bulk Barn. I don't know anything else about it. Maybe the yeast/bacteria culture I am harvesting from this rye flour simply isn't capable of metabolizing AP flour?