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Sourdough starter not rising - help!

So, I decided to try starting my own sourdough starter from scratch last Saturday, using King Arthur whole wheat flour and water. It's quite cold in my kitchen these days (under 65 degrees), so I let the flour and water mixture sit for 24 hours in my oven with the light on. I got lots of bubbles and a nice fermented smell, so I began a feeding regimen (50 g each water and flour to 50 g starter, twice a day). This also included a gradual shift from WW flour to AP flour (Heckers unbleached).

I've been feeding pretty consistently for the last 10 days, and while I am still getting plenty of bubbles and a yeasty smell, my starter absolutely WILL NOT RISE. I've researched a bit online, and a couple of sources say that 100% hydration starter is sometimes too wet to rise, so I have done a couple of feedings at only 66% hydration, and still, nothing. Do any of you experienced sourdough bakers have any thoughts? I thought perhaps my oven was too warm, but when I take the temperature of the starter it's usually right around 75 degrees, which seems about right. Any tricks you can recommend? I have been meaning to go get some rye flour to see if that might help, but at this point I wonder if it might not be better just to start over.

Thanks in advance for any advice you can offer!

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  1. Be patient.

    I've started two or three from scratch and I don't think any of them have truly been able to reliably raise bread in less than a month.

    If your starter smells good you can use it for a flavoring rather than a leavening.

    10 Replies
    1. re: kengk

      Wow, a full month? I don't know if I have the patience to keep up the twice a day feeding for a month. Will the starter continue to mature if I stick it in the fridge and just do a weekly feeding, or do I need to wait until it reliably doubles before starting the fridge regimen?

      1. re: biondanonima

        That is why I have started two or three, I get tired of fooling with it.

        Forgive me for asking but when you feed it you are throwing out half the starter?

        You could try feeding one part flour and one part water to one part starter, by weight.

        You have probably looked around on the sourdough home site?

        1. re: kengk

          Yes, I am throwing away half at every feeding, and until a couple of days ago, I was feeding one part flour to one part water to one part starter at each feeding. I decided to do two parts flour to one part water to one part starter for the last couple of days, just to see if the lower hydration allowed for more of a rise, but no dice.

          I've read quite a bit on the sourdough home site as well as a few others - lots of great info, but no answers to this specific problem.

          1. re: biondanonima

            Based on my limited experience, it sounds to me like your starter will live. You already have ten days invested so I would give it at least a little while longer.

            1. re: biondanonima

              Have you come across anything about pineapple juice? From the fog that is my memory I seem to recall reading that some people add it to adjust the enzymes or ph or something like that.

              1. re: kengk

                Yes, there was a bit of info on using pineapple juice, both for the added acidity and the sugar. However, most of what I read indicated that it should be used only at the beginning and not during the feeding process. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to try it, though - I could divide the starter in half and feed half with the juice for a few days to see what happens.

          2. re: biondanonima

            I never did a twice a day feeding. Maybe you should just leave it alone, in the back of the fridge for awhile, forget about it, then take it out and mess with it some more.

            1. re: wyogal

              Agreed. You are feeding too often, and not allowing enough time for the new flour and water to ferment. Nothing can ever get going that way.

              Read more here:
              http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/233

              1. re: maria lorraine

                Actually, the twice a day feeding has worked out just fine - I think my problem was that the starter was too warm. Once I moved it from the 85 degree area of my oven to a 75 degree area, it started rising beautifully.

                1. re: biondanonima

                  Good to know. I think if you feed it less often, you'll have a greater depth of flavor in your bread -- you need to give the lactobacilli and yeast more time to create flavor. If you're interested, check out some of the great breadbaking websites
                  that go into starter microbiology.

                  If your base starter is only 2 ounces or so, as you mentioned elsewhere, you probably don't have enough microbiological oomph to get a colony going. So I'd feed less and increase the quantity of starter also.

                  In regards to fermentation temp, the temp changes the flavor of the bread or whatever you use your starter for.

                  The lactobacilli in bread starters come in two main subtypes. Most of sourdough's flavor and leavening come from the heterofermentative type of lactobacillus, which pumps out acetic acid (vinegar, for sourness) as a by-product and favors a temp below 82-85 degrees F.

                  The other type of lactobacillus -- homofermentative -- pumps out the lactic acid (more mellow and complex than acetic acid) and does its thing above 82-85 F.

                  So, a long cool fermentation increases sourness. By controlling the temp of the starter and dough, you control the type of lactobacillus that has the upper hand in fermentation, thereby controlling the final flavor and sourness of the bread.

        2. I haven't had much luck in the past with this either. Coincidentally, I stirred up a fresh one this morning, so I will be curious if my results are similar to yours. Let's compare notes as we go, shall we?

          16 Replies
          1. re: sandylc

            Yes, lets! I also ordered some Oregon Trail starter, thinking that I might try growing that one either simultaneously with my own, or as a replacement if my own should fail, so I'll let you know how that works out!

            1. re: biondanonima

              Since you have been recently researching this; what is the current opinion on whether or not a bought starter eventually morphs to the local yeast?

              1. re: kengk

                I have wondered about this, as well. One option might be to beg/borrow/steal some starter from a local artisan bakery. But the whole point of making it in your home is to have your OWN personal starter that you collected yourself....

                1. re: kengk

                  From what I've gleaned, the yeast you end up with in your starter does not come from the air, but rather from the flour itself, so any morphing that occurs happens due to the flour you use in feeding and/or the specific qualities of your water, etc. I am far from an expert, though, so perhaps someone with more experience can weigh in.

                  1. re: biondanonima

                    The last time I euthanized a starter I swore off them. As my mother said "too much sugar for a nickel".

                    Just started another one. It shouldn't be such a chore now that I'm retired.

                2. re: biondanonima

                  Me, too! Am doing the KA starter, but am using the 7 pts. bread flour/1 pt. whole wheat suggested by a CH.
                  Will be making the bread sometime in the next week or two.

                3. re: sandylc

                  Well, I have a bit of an update - I did a little measuring of temps last night and found that my oven, with the light on, is around 73-74 degrees in the corner farthest from the bulb, but above 80 degrees near the bulb. So, I fed my starter 50/50 water (slightly warmed) and flour (using WW flour for about 1/8 of the total flour), mixed it up and put it in the oven, as far from the bulb as possible.

                  This morning, I had lift! Not a ton - it rose about 25% as opposed to the 100% I'm looking for. However, this seems to be progress! I am thinking perhaps my temps were too warm before, as I had been placing the container fairly close to the light. It bubbled a little bit when I added water this morning, too. I think I'll stick with the project a bit longer before sticking it in the fridge.

                  1. re: biondanonima

                    Thomas Keller says that two weeks is what it takes to get sourdough with full strength. It is his method that I am using. Except I've decided to throw in some home-ground rye and whole wheat for one or more of the feedings. I'm only on day two. He likes 75 degrees.

                    1. re: sandylc

                      I think 75 degrees is the key - my starter was HUGE this morning! It was at the 150ml mark when I put it in the oven last night and almost up to the 350ml mark this morning. I think it was just too warm closer to the oven light - now that I have it in the corner farthest from the light, it's doing much better. I am still using about 1/8th WW flour with every feeding, but I think i will stop that tonight and see if it continues to double on plain white. Hopefully I can stick it in the fridge on Monday (which will be two weeks plus a couple of days) and start a once-a-week feeding schedule.

                      1. re: biondanonima

                        Very good!

                        We keep our house at 70-72 degrees in the winter so this will give me an excuse to warm it up a bit. I hate being cold.

                  2. re: sandylc

                    My new starter is bubbling nicely, has yours come to life?

                    1. re: kengk

                      I just started it on Thursday, and it was already bubbling a bit and had grown some on Friday! Much better than any of my previous attempts.

                      Does yours smell nice? I have had some bad smells in the past, as well...this one smells very good so far.

                      1. re: sandylc

                        Yes, it smells good. Not very strong but a nice fermented yeasty smell.

                        Somewhat off topic but we occasionally drive past a Red Star yeast plant and the smells that come out of that place will turn your stomach. It's like nothing I've ever smelled before but one of the worst things I can think of.

                        1. re: sandylc

                          I don't have a sense of smell (weird I know) but my husband says my starter smells really good - yeasty and beer-y were his words. I baked my first loaf with it yesterday - the flavor was really good, but I was pressed for time so I added some instant yeast for a quick rise, which negatively affected the texture. I think the starter would have done the job, but I only had a couple of hours so I needed quick action.

                          Now that mine is two weeks old and doubling at every feeding, I put it in the fridge. I'll report back when I take it out for feeding next weekend.

                            1. re: sandylc

                              This is encoraging. I just posted details to my starter issues this morning. Having same issue as you were with no rise. Lots of bubbles but no rise. I hope I can post a success story as you have!

                    2. Which rising do you mean, the rise after adding the flour or the rise when adding it to bread?

                      My suggestion would be to stop removing 'extra' starter until it starts to get too high in the container. Then only remove what's necessary for a bit. Keep as many organisms as possible for reproduction.

                      I know Silverton always halves the starter and double feeds, but it hasn't been my experience that it is necessary while building up a mother. In fact, I've killed at least 1 or 2 starters working too hard to do it 'right.'

                      Do you leave it open to catch additional organisms?
                      Is the heat stable (too hot can be as bad as too cold)?
                      Is your water good? Tepid when you add it?
                      Are you using wood or plastic to store/stir it?

                      Cool temps at the beginning can mean a slow growth start, even if you've fixed it recently.

                      Finally, sometimes there just aren't a lot of organisms in the air and on the flour (warm flour, right?) when you start and it takes a lot longer than a week or 10 days to build up a good starter.

                      If you don't have the patience, leave it in a warm corner and feed it once a day...or when you remember. It will build up in time. They aren't really as fussy as people make out, but they can be weak at first.

                      You'll know its ready for use when it bubbles the minute water is added to it, and it foams and rises within 30 minutes of adding the water/flour. They're really fun to watch.

                      1. Hi,
                        I've been baking very successful sourdough loaves for the last eight years. I learned everything I know from the books of Maggie Glezer. Fortunately you do not have to buy her books, because she allowed the sourdough recipe to be posted online: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/2390...

                        Glezer uses rye flour for creating a starter, because rye is inhabited by a particularly large amount of the bacteria and molds that create a good sourdough starter. After your starter is going well, you can switch to wheat flour. Some bakers keep separate starters for wheat and rye loaves. I don't bother; I use the same starter for both, and both come out well.

                        My first starter lasted less than a year. I was less careful than I should have been with weights and volumes, so it stopped working. My second starter is now close to 8-years-old and going strong.

                        You should be aware that this is a firm starter. This means that you do not have to refresh it daily; it will live happily in your refrigerator for long periods. But you will have to refresh it for several days in a row before you can bake with it. I hadn't baked for about two weeks, and it took two refreshes to get it ready for may bake today.

                        You will need a fairly accurate scale. My scale weighs to a precision of 2 grams.

                        You should also be aware that while you can have a yeast loaf ready for the oven in 3-4 hours, a sourdough loaf takes a good 8 hours of rising. That said, I cannot buy commercial bread anymore, because my homemade bread is just so much better.

                        I'll be glad to offer any help you require.

                        1. My new starter is going very nicely, it almost doubled overnight and as I sit here and look at it it has risen a good bit in the past hour.

                          Previous starters were all done with AP flour from the beginning. Whole wheat seems to have definitely sped up the process this time.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: kengk

                            Rye flour (just a small amount from the Whole Foods bulk bins) will really get it going. It has more of the yeasty beasties that colonize a starter. You can begin a starter with rye flour, then gradually switch over to whatever flour you like. However, it does add a depth and roundness to whole wheat bread.