Starter advice?


 I started my first ever sourdough starter two days ago and another last evening.  On the first, I cheated a little and added a tiny bit of commercial yeast (shame on me, I know, but I was anxious to get started and I thought my recent cold weather might make for slow going), my recipe was 1 cup unbleached flour, 1 cup warm water, 1/2 tsp active dry yeast, and 1 tsp Organic Honey.  I then put the starter in the oven on a very low warm setting while a loaf of french bread was rising in there as well.  It quickly doubled and almost tripled in size in less than an hour and outgrew its container!  I had to find it a new home, and decided it was probably fine to put in the fridge after a stint at RT.  I stirred it later that night and it seems just fine. :)  I haven't yet given it a feeding, but I plan to tomorrow (about 72 hours after creation).  I was wondering if that sounds reasonable to some of the more experienced bakers on here.  It's doing lovely and isn't growing, receding, drying out or anything.

For my second crack at a starter (natural this time!), I used the same recipe as above but without the yeast.  I also put this one in the oven on a very very low setting, but for about 20 hours.  When I took it out of the warmer environment, I was surprised to see that it had already doubled in size and was culturing already.  It had a look to it that I hadn't seen in any postings so far, so I thought I would share and get some feedback on it as well.  

There was no color change, only change in size and there were layers to it.  The top 4 inches were light and bubbly, much like my cheater starter is looking.  It smelled very similar to the other one as well. Below that layer, there was a 1/2 inch layer of liquid.  It was a very light and clear-ish beige-yellow kind of color.  The liquid layer had no visible activity in it and wasn't trying to merge with the other layers at all, it was simply letting the bubbly layer float above it.  Below the liquid, there was another 1/2 inch layer that looked exactly like the starter did right after first mixing it; there were no bubbles or noticeable activity in the bottom layer either.

So I ask of you, oh wisened veterans of sourdough baking, does this seem pretty typical of starters in general or white flour starters?  Should I toss it and start again, or am I just lucky that it has become active so quickly? 

Since discovering the layers, I stirred the starter together and it deflated some.  I then gave it its first feeding (1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup warm water.  Wondering if I should keep adding a little honey for the little yeasties to feast on...).  It is now on bedrest at RT in my cupboard with a paper towel covering, held in place by a rubber band.  How many more days should I give it at RT before it moves into the fridge?

Thanks so much for your advice!

Shane U.

333 users have voted.


andrewd 2010 October 11

Hi Shane

Since discovering Andrew Whitley's Bread Matters I've been using his recommendations for starter storage as follows (for a wheat starter. Rye starter is slightly different):

  • 0 - 2 days between use - store at room temp
  • 2 - 14 days between use - store in fridge and optionally refresh before use.
  • 14 days or longer - store in freezer and do a refresh before and after going in the freezer.


The other thing I would suggest is using less for each refreshment and making just enough starter so that when you bake, you're left with just a small amount (say, 1 or 2 spoonfuls). So, say you need 250g of starter to bake a loaf and you have a couple of spoonfuls of starter in your jar, you feed your starter with enough flour and water to make up 300g (e.g. 133g water, 166g flour will give you an 80% hydration starter with wheat flour - there are plenty of other ratios, this is just the one I use).

When you take out the 250g of starter for your loaf you're left with 50g (approximately) of starter which can sit on your bench for up to 2 days, by which time you might be ready for another loaf, so you give it another refreshment of flour and water (133g water, 166g flour) and the cycle starts again. If you won't be baking for 2 days, stick the starter in the fridge or freezer as per the above list.

This all assumes you have a nice healthy starter, which it sounds like you do although the funny liquid layer sounds odd. Whenever I leave my starter too long, the liquid appears on top, not in the middle. Anyway, just do like you said: stir it all together and feed it again and get baking. And maybe just leave it 4 hours after refreshment before baking. This way your yeastie friends should be at the peak.

And another suggestion - learning to bake by weight and using baker's percentages was another big Eureka moment for me. I can't recommend it enough. Then it doesn't matter whether we talk in metric or imperial.


Let us know how you go.



nambourcontinental 2010 October 11

Hi Shane,

Good to hear you endeavoring to make artisan/sourdough bread. With regard to your first try using yeast, this wont allow for the natural process of enzyme activity needed for levain, we often refer to this as a preferment method as biga or poolish, often used in crusty bread types eg: ciabatta, country bread, some baguette recipes. When it comes to a true levain persistence pays off, the culture really needs to mature and ripen before use. Around 7 days is all you need. Since the first one seems to work for you keep using it as one of the the replys above mentioned. In the meantime it might be a good exercise to start a new one. some tips for your new one: keep at room temp (around 24 degrees C.) try not to use warm water(depending how cold it is where you are) When first making your starter using honey is good, also at first using a rye meal or coarse rye will really help with the right enzyme activity. I'm not sure of your recipe so depending on that follow it again (without yeast!) and start to feed over a 7 day period refreshing each day and discarding the excess, keeping it covered allowing it to breathe a little and at around 24 degrees C. If it gets to hot or cold you often lose much of the good bacteria and acids that produce great levain. Once ripe you can keep for a couple of days, however, it is much better to discard and refresh daily. This is no prob for production of course but may be a little more work for you, you can freeze a portion for longer term storage, i don't do this - we need it every day, but this works well for my rye sourdough to refresh from time to time and in case there is a mishap

Hope this helps a little



Nambour Continental

shane.d.ulrich 2010 October 13

 Whenever it becomes possible that I can afford a kitchen scale, I will be buying one; but as for now, I am victim to difficult finances... so I must stick to cups :(.  

As for the starter, I think I have given up on the one.  I fed it that evening and it did the same thing with the layers, but the top layer was only a quarter inch or so and it never rose. Now the liquid layer is on top and it appears very inactive.  I think I might be having trouble with it because it's not the best flour (bulk bins at our grocery store).  So, when I can afford it, I will be going to an organic foods store and starting with a more quality, organic flour. 

I've had the idea of grinding some organic oats I have into oat flour and making a starter from that.  It seems like it will be a lot of work though, so I would want to make sure it would be successful.  An oat flour starter sounds lovely though, doesn't it? :) 

I'm making bagels today with my cheater starter.  I might also make something else, should I have enough flour.  I'm running really low.

shane.d.ulrich 2010 October 13

 I just remembered that one of you mentioned avoiding the use of warm water.  Why is that?  And what temperature should the water be? Room temp.? Cold? I have read over and over again that hot water is bad... is that correct?

Thanks for the help!

Shane Ulrich

Portland, OR - USA

andrewd 2010 October 13

I'm sure your flour is fine but getting certified organic will not hurt at all.

Like NC said above, room temp is fine for water. Warmish water is fine too - up to about 30*C. Hotter than that and you'll start to kill the yeast. Remember, our yeastie friends are just like us. They like the same temperatures we like to live in.

While we're talking water - are you using tap water? If you are, it might help to filter it to get rid of chlorine (if your water supply is heavily chlorinated). If you don't have a filter, fill a jug with water and let is sit overnight with a teatowel over it. The chlorine will evaporate off.



shane.d.ulrich 2010 October 13

     Well, perhaps I will start with this flour in the meantime.  For my first two starters, I used warm tap water.  I wouldn't call it hot, about the temp. of a pleasant shower. I would guess that the cheater starter did fine because I introduced yeast cultures to the mix immediately, so they were strong from the start, sound about right?. I am not certain of the chlorine content of Portland's water supply, but I know the tap water here is pretty much some of the best in the country (as far as taste goes, but I doubt our yeasty friends care much for what WE think the water tastes like :p).  

     I have a fridge pitcher water filter, but I didn't use it for the starters because the water was so very cold.  If the cultures don't mind the cold temperature of the fridge, wouldn't it also make sense that they shouldn't mind being started or refreshed with cold water?  I mean, the water would eventually come up to RT anyway, and all the cold does is slow down the feeding process, right?  Makes sense to me that cold water wouldn't be a bad thing, just might slow stuff down a bit...

     SInce tossing out the other starter, I took my cheater out of the fridge and refreshed it.  I split it up into two different containers, so now I have two of the same going in case one doesn't work out. Technically, I put a couple of spoonfuls of the starter into each jar and then refreshed both jars. I am leaving them at RT for a few days to see if the flavor develops more, and then I should be set for baking SOMETHING! :)  New starter should be on the way tomorrow, if I can find time between my classes and all that homework.

     Anyway, thanks again for all of the guidance. I am glad to find that many people are into my hobby (my girlfriend doesn't really get my newfound obsession... just wait until she tastes the product, right? :p)

rossnroller 2010 October 13

[quote=shane.d.ulrich] I mean, the water would eventually come up to RT anyway, and all the cold does is slow down the feeding process, right?  Makes sense to me that cold water wouldn't be a bad thing, just might slow stuff down a bit...[/quote]


Yep, that's right. Filtered water from your fridge dispenser will be a lot more starter-friendly than unfiltered warm water from the tap - although the filtering in itself is not a crucial element. Ditto using organic flour...but all these things do help, so why not try them if you don't get a thriving starter soon?

My best tip: Combining 30% organic whole-grain rye with 70% white flour will give your starter a good kick along. It made all the difference to mine when I was having trouble getting one going a couple of years back. I was using a fine-ground non-organic rye, and within days of switching to the quality organic product...voila - liftoff!

Have you checked out Sourdom's excellent starter instructions on this site? 


shane.d.ulrich 2010 October 17

I am SO excited! - I just got a kitchen scale yesterday and have been feeding my young starters by weight measurements rather than volume, and it makes ALL the difference in the world!  When I measured the first feeding on my scale, the consistency of the result was COMPLETELY different than when I measured by volume.  In fact, I think that's why I was getting the funny liquid layer, because the consistency when made by volume was that of a very thin pancake batter, and when measured by weight, it was considerably thicker, looking more like the one in Sourdom's walkthrough.  The morning after their first "weight measured" feeding, the starters had increased in volume by about a third and there was no liquid layer at all.  It also smelled much more like I was expecting.  

I think that today is the end of Day 3 since creating my latest starter, and I think my cheater starter is pretty much ready to go for baking by tomorrow - It had a thin layer of froth on top when I checked it this morning. (I'm planning on making a sourdough loaf for Panini sandwiches :D).  My real starter should be ready in a few days at the pace it is going... I hope!  I think it is destined for SD bagels and croissants.

Anyway, I just wanted to thank you all for your tips and tricks.  I feel much more secure now that I have that scale around... simple cup measurements just aren't the thing for something as delicate as baking.  So, to all of you that are just getting started, go grab yourself a kitchen scale, it's definitely worth the investment!


Shane Ulrich - Portland, OR

p.s. - I'll try to post some pictures of the progress and definitely pictures of my first creation!

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