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May 29, 2006 07:08 AM

Help with sourdough starter please!

  • i

I have had no problem getting it started, but it always dies after the first feeding.
I start with 2 cups unbleached flour and 2 cups tap water, mix together and cover with cheesecloth in a stainless steel bowl. It starts fermenting after about 1 day and then puffs after 2 days, then deflates on the 3rd or 4th day.
For the first feeding, I add 1 cup flour and 1 cup tap water, and then mix with a spoon a little. however it dies every time. No bubbling, no growing, no nothing even if I wait another 36 hours!
I have fed it before it totally deflates(on the 3rd day) and also after it fully deflates(on the 4th and 5th days).
What am I doing wrong?
Note:by the 5th day starts to get an off color and smell.

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  1. It's hard to know exactly what the problem is, but you're doing a number of things I don't do, and mine has always been successful so far:

    I never use tap water. The chlorine in tap water is antagonistic to fermentation. Use spring water. No salt, either, right?

    You're making your starter wetter than mine. For each feeding, I use a cup of flour to half a cup of spring water.

    Once the starter ferments, you should throw half of it away, and feed the other half. With each feeding, you should throw half of your starter away.

    If you continue to be unsucessful with your local wild yeasts, buy some of King Arthur's excellent sourdough starter, and start with that.


    18 Replies
    1. re: PZ

      I've had great luck with Nancy Silverton's starter. She used bruised organic grapes along with the flour and water.

      The bread that comes from this starter is unbelievable.

      If you're interested, I'll post the ingreds and amounts.

      1. re: oakjoan

        If you have time please do post ingredients.
        I will start again after I get the recipe and use glass, spring water, less water and discard half of it with each feeding.
        Thanks everyone for the advice.
        I will report the results as soon as successful!

        1. re: ITJH

          I'm at work and can't access my book with the starter recipe, but I found that if you search for "Nancy Silverton sourdough starter" one of the results is "Today's Special" and the recipe is there.

          Simple and fun to watch develop.

        2. re: oakjoan

          Ten years ago started to make sourdough a la Nancy Silverton. After a couple of years couldn't keep up with it so dried and stored 2 quarts of starter in 1998. Two weeks ago decided to start up again and much to my happy surprise it came alive and made excellent "rustic" loaves. Wanting to move to maintain a smaller amount as she describes on page 37 but couldn't seem to work out the proportion of water and flour descibed; i.e., "match the starter with flour and water each time instead of doubling it..." Could use help with directions to maintain this smaller amount. Thanks.

          1. re: Stavros Opisthotonos

            I would use a bit now and then (use it in pancakes or waffles if not baking with it), and replenish with equal parts flour and water. You should be able to judge for yourself whether to alter that 1:1 ratio to make a pancake batter consistency - although never give it just water, it needs the flour to stay alive. Smaller amounts of starter may need to be refreshed more often; the same seems true for younger starters.

          2. re: oakjoan

            hey? i have nancy silverton's the breads from la brea bakery. she in there wrote that in whtie starter she use unbleached white bread flour. but in earlier explanation of diffrent types of flours, she mentioned "white flour"??? that has 12 percent of protein and "un bleached high gluten flou"r??? that has more than 13 percent of protein.
            which one is unbleachef white bread flour? white flour or unbleached high gluten flour?
            it's very confusing to me.

            1. re: hae young

              Bread flour is the 12% to 14% protein, and high gluten is 13% to 15-16% high protein flour. They are not the same flours by virture of the % of protein, and for other processing reasons such as starch removal in the hi-gluten, which leaves a higher % of protein structure, and additives in the bread flour, such as a small quantity of malted barley flour and potassium bromate to facilitate better rise, gluten structure and gas retention in the dough. Both are used for bread products; high gluten is used often as an additive for low protein flours like rye to give the dough elasticity. High gluten is rather more expensive than bread flour. So she's talking about bread flour, not high gluten.

              What are you making that you're asking about these flours? Or you're just curious?

              Btw, this is an old thread. You may not get responses from the older posts/posters.

              1. re: bushwickgirl

                is strong flour the same as or similar with bread flour, rather than high gluten flour? i have organic wheat flour(strong) from kialla australia. i am not sure whether it is bleached or unbeached. can i make white stater like the nancy silvereton's baking book with this flour?

                1. re: hae young

                  Yes, bread flour in the US is also occasionally referred to as strong flour, or baker's flour, but those terms are probably used and understood to mean bread flour more in other English speaking countries, such as Australia, than in the US. I have heard the terms used in commercial bakeries here. It is just labeled "bread flour" in supermarkets in the US.

                  Bread flour is not normally bleached, and most certainly not if it's organic, but there are brands of bleached bread flour available here. The bleaching process weakens the protein in the flour, not necessarily a good thing for bread dough. Patent (very high quality bread flour) flours are sometimes bleached. FYI, I know you're not in Japan, but apparently there are laws prohibiting bleached flour from being imported into that country. If your flour is indeed bleached, it will be noted on the bag label.

                  The best starter, imo, is made with rye flour, but I don't know if you can get that where you are. The fresh loaf link has some rye flour based starter formulas.

                  Bleached flour is "slightly" whiter than unbleached. Here's a quote on the subject from discussing bleached and unbleached all purpose flour (not bread flour):

                  "A second important difference in flours is whether they are bleached or not. Technically, all all-purpose flours are bleached. Carotenoid pigments in wheat lend a faint yellowish tint to freshly milled flour. But in a matter of about 12 weeks, these pigments oxidize, undergoing the same chemical process that turns a sliced apple brown. In this case, yellowish flour changes to a whiter hue (though not stark white). Early in this century, as the natural bleaching process came to be understood, scientists identified methods to chemically expedite and intensify it. Typically, all-purpose flours are bleached with either benzoyl peroxide or chlorine gas. The latter not only bleaches the flour but also alters the flour proteins, making them less inclined to form strong gluten. Neither chemical, however, poses any health risks. Today consumers prefer chemically bleached flour over unbleached because they associate the whiter color with higher quality."

                  Note: I actually disagree with the last quoted statement; it seems like American consumers have moved away in droves from using bleached flour.

                  That's probably more than you need to know if you're just making starter, but check out the fresh loaf link I gave you for more starter info and formulas, and bread baking in general. It's a very useful baking website.

                  1. re: bushwickgirl

                    bush wickgirl! i made sourdough white starter by nancy silverton, i t is now third day. according to her, my starter is spposed to be subside in fourth day after inflation and she said in the fourth day my starter is supposed to be turnd into brownish purple. but mine is already into both in just third day. should i feed the starter a bit earier???? by the way the brownish purple is not etirely on the surface. i mean just partly

                    1. re: hae young

                      Yes, if that's what the book recommends doing when the starter turns brownish purple. But it it's not fully changed color on the surface, wait one more day.

                      I'm having some difficulty imaging purple starter.

                      1. re: bushwickgirl

                        i read the book again. i read that one need to feed when the mixture BIGINS to turn the color of brownish purple. so in the web i checked what really is the color of brownish purple. it was that of egg plant and dark reddish purple grape. i add the grapes of that color. and the color of the brownish purple really looks like that of my mixtue. so i eventually fed it.
                        i think it is due to my house room temps which is about 3~4 degrees higher than those nancy silverton did actually recommend. now is the most humid and hottest season in here. moreover, my house doesnt have basement.

                        1. re: hae young

                          Ok, hae, good; yes, the ambient temperature in your house would effect the starter growth.

                          You wrote that there was a web site you checked? Can you provide the link for me? Here's the one I found using Nancy's White Starter, with photos of the starter changes during the first 40 hours:


                          Hae, here's another link for you to check from Michael Ruhlman, with comments on Nancy's starter and a formula for another simple white starter using red cabbage:


                          1. re: bushwickgirl

                            if you google egg plant and click image of egg plant on the left side of the top, you can see as usual browmish purple eggplant.

                            1. re: hae young

                              Oh, yes, I know about the color of eggplant. I misunderstood, I thought you had a site with photos of her starter. Did you read the links I posted?

                              1. re: bushwickgirl

                                yes i read. mine was more frothy than his or her , when comparing with only his or her photo. and i actually put a bit more grapes than 1 pound.

                                1. re: hae young

                                  Do you have grapes as a local fruit where you are, or where they imported?

                                  I think the starter in the photo was younger (forty hours) than yours as well. Good luck with it; I hope the bread made with your starter is wonderful.

          3. re: PZ

            Diddo...I think that's too much water in the feeding...3/4 of a cup max.
            However, I don't know if that's your problem exactly.
            This might sound nuts, but try making the first starter dough with half water, half pineapple juice. Pineapple juice inhibits bad bacteria, but doesn't harm wild yeasts. I've done this succesfully twice with no problem, no off flavors, etc.
            Also, I agree that you should dispose of half your starter after the second feed.

          4. I definitely would replace the stainless steel bowl w/ a glass or plastic container. Everything I've read about starter recommends not using metal (for the container or stirring device). It is reactive w/ the starter.

            My starter was gifted to me in a big plastic jar w/ a screwcap lid. I could cover loosely w/ plastic wrap, but I just cover it w/ the lid but don't screw it tight. Seems to work fine, although I've been a bad "mom" and haven't attended to it lately.

            Below is a thread I started (no pun intended) in the fall when I first got my starter. Alot of helpful responses. Good luck!


            1. The other posters have given good advice (not tap water, glass or plastic container, throw out as much starter as you'll replace with the new feed, etc.). On the flour-to-water amounts, an easy way for me to manage the amounts to feed is to use equal WEIGHT water and flour. Which comes out to around 2:1 flour to water ratio in volume. But by doing it by weight, it is really easy and a little more precise.

              Finally, if you find that after a week or so of progress, then for some reason, it just stops working, don't throw it out yet. Try just throwing out all but about 2 ounces of the starter. Then feed it with 6 ounces of water and flour each. Let that sit for a day or two and you'll probably notice it getting back into shape. That way you won't waste the week or two you've already built up. Even when starter looks dead, there are usually some live enzymes (or whatever it is) in there that when given a really big feed on fresh stuff will come back to life rather well.

              Oh, yeah, and you should also be aware of the temperatures of the water and flour. Try to have both of them at room temperature.

              1. OK, it's seven months later, and although I'm not the OP, I have -exactly- the same problem, using yeast from Ed Woods at Sourdough International. First rise (activation) looked good, then after the first feeding it collapsed and died. I was careful about the quantity and quality of the water (bottled, 1C water to 3/4 C flour as per the instructions), and bought unbleached Gold Medal flour. I made a proofing box and proofed the yeast in a widemouth quart glass bottle, with the lid loosely attached at from 85-90 deg F.

                I received two Italian yeasts and both had the same problem. After the first one died, I was extra careful with the second one, but to no avail. It behaved exactly like the first.

                I am ready to accept blame for this double bust, but now I find the OP with precisely the same problem. What are we doing wrong? Note, I haven't contacted Mr. Woods yet, and that is my next step, but maybe someone on the board (or the OP) can give me some insight.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Leucadian

                  Patience, it turns out, is the key. That and lower temperatures. I took a little bit of both cultures, and inoculated a new flour and water mixture, and let them ferment on the counter (60-65 degrees F) for a couple of days. They both started to show some activity after the second day, and after 4 days they were bubbling happily. These are definitely fast rising yeasts. I found an article that said that the SF sourdough yeast C milleri grow fastest at 80deg F, while L. sanfranciscensis grows fastest at 90deg F. Although I have a different yeast, perhaps I was overheating it in my proofing box that was running about 85deg F. In fact, the same paper indicated that L. sf doesn't grow at all above 97deg F.

                  Now both strains are activated and I am experimenting with them to see if I can tell the difference between them.

                  BTW, I did contact Ed Wood, and he responded within a day.

                  1. re: Leucadian

                    Hmm. Edit that to say 'These are definitely NOT fast rising yeasts."

                    The latest result of baking two loaves of each of my two Italian sourdoughs, straight rustic white (starter, flour, water, salt) with the same ferment/proofing/baking times yielded no discernable taste difference. I'll try again, but I'm not optimistic. The bright side is that I might not have to keep two starters in the fridge.

                2. I made a starter that began with organic rye flour and water for the 1st and 2nd feeds. I like to have my starter have the consistency of a thick pancake batter--1/2 cup water to 2/3 cup flour. I use filtered water and unbleached bread flour (starting with the 3rd feed). Organic is probably better but I only had unbleached on hand. A couple of things that worked for me: on days 1-3, I replenished the starter every 12 hours, throwing out all but 1/4 cup of starter, then adding 1/2 cup water and 2/3 cup flour. I also jumpstarted things by adding a tsp of diastatic malt powder starting with the 3rd feed--the starter really started bubbling and rising after that. By the 4th or 5th day I just replenished the starter once every 24 hrs. and stopped adding diastatic malt powder. I was able to start making bread from the starter on the 6th day. My theory is that by feeding the starter more often I prevented the yeast from dying out and providing an entree for other bacteria and molds. It's just a theory but it worked for me. I had tried making a starter before this one using the directions from The Cheese Board cookbook and had it fail because of a foul smelling mold that appeared by day 6. Their directions required replenishing every other day.
                  BTW, I discovered a great container at IKEA for keeping your starter in: it is made of vitreous porcelain, comes with a glass lid, and because it square-shaped, it is very easy to mix and replenish the starter. It is part of their 365+ food storage series, holds 2 qts, dimensions are 7 in. x 7 in. x 5 in. and costs $9.99.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: breadfanatic

                    Thanks for the tips.

                    I have been making bread for years, but only recently (I mean -recently-) did I really start to understand about sourdough, lacto bacillus, and bread math. You are clearly way ahead of me. I read recently that it's common when reactivating dehydrated yeast for it to go strong for a day, then go dormant, and start up again, but the eventual culture may well be yeast that was present in the flour, not the one you inoculated with. I don't know if it was the lower temps as I suggested above, or the flour's own yeast that did the trick for me, but eventually both pots started to ferment.

                    I have been following the thread on, and the 'frugal culture management' of Dick Adams (?) where you don't throw away so much starter all the time. I like the idea of not wasting so much flour. Google 'carls friends' for a link.

                    Any good books or resources to recommend? I have Joe Ortiz 'Village Baker' and Nancy Silverton's 'La Brea' book, like both of them.

                    1. re: Leucadian

                      I hate throwing away starter too! That's kind of why I use only small amounts--2/3 cup flour. But I honestly don't think it matters how much water and flour you use as long as you can figure out the right amounts of flour/water you need once you add the starter to your dough.

                      I'm glad to hear that your pots are fermenting. I think once they get going, you are home-free.

                      I've only started making sourdough a few weeks ago too, so I'm a newbie to this as well. But I've been reading everything that I can get my hands on. And the bread that has been coming out of my oven . . . ! Is so fantastic I can't stop baking!

                      Other posts have mentioned other books that I like, but I also liked Artisan Baking Across America by Maggie Glezer. And I want to read Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman; unfortunately my public library doesn't have it.

                      I might try Nancy Silverton's grape method just for fun and to see if the starter is any different from the one I made from just flour.