novice requiring starter help


Hi everyone, I'm a complete novice when it comes to baking bread and have absolutely no knowledge of sourdough bread. To be honest I have never even tasted a proper loaf like the beautiful loaves shown on this site. I would really love to learn how to bake delicious breads so I can give my young children a good start in life. I'm a resonable cook making everything from scratch and a good cake baker but as yet I've failed to make a good loaf of bread. I've been trying to start a sourdough starter exactly as SourDom has described. As I live in Scotland where this summer has been quite cold so I have started two cultures. One in my kitchen which sits in the low to med 10's and one in my boiler cupboard which sits between 20-25 (celcius). Both starters worked as described by SourDom although the kitchen one took longer to get lovely bubble and double, I guess as expected due to the cooler temps. The starters are three weeks old now. The kitchen starter although slow to start has overtaken the boiler starter in doubling rate and doubles in about 5 hours, it's been doing this for a week now. The boiler one which I would expect to double quicker takes about 12 hours to double. I always stir, tip out all but a spoonful of starter and add fresh organic rye, organic white bread flour and add bottled spring water (100g flour and 100g water). I was refreshing every 24 hours but for the last 5 days I've been refreshing every 12 hours due to their levels of activity. It all sounds perfect, however I'm concerned about the smells. A couple of times both have smelt of nail varnish remover, after a couple of days of refreshing the acetone changes to vinegar. Sometimes the smell is quite strong, then when I'm about to give up and bin them they smell of faint vinegar or even the estery smell one might expect. When you tip out the mass during refresh the bottom smells yogharty, I guess its the lactic acid. Not knowing what smell I should be aiming for I baked a loaf with each culture. I must say I have been waiting for months to do this. The loaves were disappointing. With a lack of time due to 2 small children I used a bread maker to knead. I let it bulk proof 2.5 hours then folded and allowed to rest overnight about 9 hours at room temp. The results were similar, a little flatter than expected but I didn't get the slashing right before by 17 month tried to climb on the boiling pizza stone, and tasting of mild vinegar. My 3.5 son normally tucks into my soda bread I make, but had one taste of the sourdough and asked for normal bread please. Kindly my husband tried it and to cheer me up said it was tasty but he has a look when he tells white lies. Anyway, as I'm dragging this out please could someone help. You're probably all going to shoot me but how do you get a natural levin starter which is yeasty but not too lactic and definitely not vinegary? Should I try and slow the kitchen starter by fridging it or will this just favour the lactic acid and vinegar producing bacteria? Please could someone help as I'm on the brink of tipping the starters down the sink and returning to shop bought breads.

Thanks Chel x

239 users have voted.


mozzie 2012 July 10

Nothing in your description sounds too bad.

I bake weekly and always keep the starter in the fridge. I take it out the morning before, make a preferment that night, refresh the starter back in the fridge and bake next day.

The sourdough starter sounds like its working, but you have to remember that you have a yeast "farm" - it grows and develops.. Small adjustments to the water flour ratio can make a difference to the "sourness". I make mine quite stiff (65%). Sourness comes from the acid produced by lactobacillus (like yoghurt).

Sourdough like this won't taste like store (or soda) bread, so it will take time. I used instant yeast and recipes from Jeffrey Hamelmans book for about 12 months before i started with sourdough. That gave the family time to get used to the yeast taste of real bread, and the sourdough taste was less of a shock.

Kneading is over-rated IMHO - 3 or 4 folds are usually enough during the bulk rise, with a bit more working while doing the final shape.


if you could break up your text into paragraphs, it woould be easier to read. That big block of text is a bit daunting.

chel 2012 July 15

Hi Mozzie


Sorry about the novel. Will try my best to be brief in the future!


I have a question, why do you use a low hydration stiff starter?



shasta's picture
shasta 2012 July 11

Hello Chel,


Don't be discouraged! It takes time to learn your starters and for them to develop to their full potential. I can tell you what I do for my starter and loaves. Flours are different here in the U.S. (most add distatic malt powder) than in Europe but the basics should work the same.


I feed my starters every 12 hours when they are on the counter at about 23C. I tend to get best results when I use the starter 12 hours post feeding. I mix the ingredients the dough except for the salt to a just mixed state and let set for 30 min. then I ad the salt and mix just long enough to make sure the salt is well mixed. I place the dough in a covered container for three to four hours (three if warmer, four if cooler). I fold the dough each hour. You should see the gluten forming nicely during this time. Then I form the loaves and place them in bannetons. I let them set for about 30min. and then cover and place in the refrigerator over night. The next morning I pull the loaves out 30 min. apart, I allow the loaves to proof for 2.5 to 3 hours and bake at about 218C using a baking stone and roasting pan method (20 min. under the pan for steam and another 15-20min. without roasting pan cover until colored as I want.


When not in use, I store the starter in the refrigerator and feed once a week. I usally give the starter two feed cycles before placing it back in the refrigerator.


Good luck!


Roasting pan method:


davo 2012 July 12

My 2c -


If your starter is smelling acetic acid/vinegar it is getting hungry and needs to be fed more often. 100 g of flour and same of water is a lot of starter to maintain -means you throw a lot out. You really only need a golf-ball size worth, until you want to expand up to make enough to go in your recipe. Simply expand to the amount you need on that last feed and don't throw any out at that time.


The rate of rise through the bulk ferment and in your final loaf will depend on a few things - temp, ratio of levain/starter to final dough new flour/water, salt % etc, but assuming this is all about typical, 9 hrs at room temp after a several hour bulk ferment is a very very long warm rise, especially if you starter is as active as it sounds. If I did this with my ratios, and kitchen conditions/starter, the loaf would be well overproofed and come out very flat no doubt.


Try doing everything you did first time, but either do what the last poster did - retard it in the fridge to slow it down and stop if overproving after shaping the loaves, or shorten the time at room temp - for me 4-5 hours is about right - which you can do on say a weekend when you have daytime to use. Or leave it out for that 9 hours overnight - but find a cool room that drops overnight to say 8-10 celcius, not 18-20.


The bread dough on going into the oven should not be terribly wobbly, with ballooning soft bubbles in the skin, and if you wet or flour-coat your finger and poke it in about 1 cm, it should slowly spring back at least part way. If it bounds right back and feels very firm, it's underproved, if it's really soft/wobbly and refuses to spring back at all, it's overproved.


An underproofed loaf will spring like a mad thing and crack its crust beyond the slashes in the oven, and look spectacular, but be dense and small, and not so sour.


An overproofed one will sag in the oven on the stone and in fact flatten noticeably on the peel before you get it on the stone (assume you are baking free form on a pizza stone or similar), and won't rise back up like a good loaf does at around the 10-15 min mark in the bake, and it will also be dense (becuase the gluten has been degraded and gotten leaky, and the gas generated has escaped the balloon).


You want the point in between - good rise before the oven, but not maximum rise - because there will be no oven spring and a disappointing end result. The crust should not crack othe rthan at slashes, but it should rise to a reasonably proud height.


Also make sure that stone is hot - like 1 hr warm-up - or it may also refuse to spring because the crust will set before enough heat has gotten in there to raise it... And a very hot oven to start, turn down at 20 mins or so so it cooks through, but early heat helps a good rise.  A good loaf will look a bit depressingly flat after a few minutes on the stone, but then will rise like a phoenix, reaching max height around 20-25 mins (sooner for a small loaf).


i am not obsessed with kneading but think some is important to get good gluten development - but I just do a afew short kneads at 10 min intervals after mixing the bread dough, using slap-and-fold method (like 6 slap and folds each 10 minutes, 3 or 4 times), then do a couple of stretch and folds through the rest of the bulk ferment.

davo 2012 July 12

BTW the bread should have a slightly sour tang but not taste of vinegar. The vinegar smell is natural in a healthy starter - albeit one that is a bit starved - so don't throw out, but do give it a few refreshes at relatively close intervals taking only a very little of the starter into each refresh. By the second refresh it should smell just like flour and water at the start, but enough bugs should be in there to get it back and bubbling without the acetone notes. It should smell slightly yeasty/beery when it has fermented, but not sharp.


Once it smells a bit more pleasant, it should be right to make bread - then go back to your normal feed schedule.Personally I bake only once a week or so (4 loaves each time) and so I keep mine in the fridge where I can ignore it until the day before I want to make up a levain next time. I have had two episodes of "gone acetic" in about 4 years, each time rapid feeding of a small amount of the starter at short intervals has brought it back to "normal".


So don't giv e up - you are really close to great bread I reckon, and sound like you have a very active starter, just needs a bit of tinkering.


PS I re-read you post and while I don't use a breadmaker to knead that should work well enough. I also saw you do use the pizza stone - so do make sure it's hot.

chel 2012 July 16

A massive thank you to all for taking the time to get back to me and for offering all your inside info. Its been really very helpful and given me the boost to carry on.



I have improved so much since I started this thread. I threw away one of the two starters, weeks ago now. I then decided to focus on making one type of loaf. Lots of people on the forum suggested the Norwich sourdough. I used the tutorials given by SourDom following the 10 second kneads every 10 minutes etc. Followed by strech and folds during bulk fermention. I think its the same ish methods both of you use abiet slightly different timings.  Started another thread with the results, "A small breakthrough". Very kindly you replied to that too Shasta.


I been very fortunate to have been able to bake 5 days out of 7 resently, so my bread has improved daily. I was struggling to get decent ovenspring and slashes but I think I cracked that today. Well made some improvement. Made my own lame this morning, thanks Davo for replying to that thread too. I think the slash with the blade allowed the loaf to pop open as I changed nothing else. I'm going to try the steaming technique with the roasting tin as soon as I can find something to use. Hopefully, that might improve ovenspring further. Slashing, well that just need slots more practice. I've added a photo of todays loaf to let you see how far I've come (had to start another thread as couldn't insert here). Sorry I haven't cut it open yet so there is no inside shot.


Anyway, thank you again for all your help and encouragment.



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