On Why: Sourdough Starter Issues & FAQs

 

Several weeks ago I posted this article, to better familiarize you all with starters and *hopefully* show that creating and owning a starter is fun, rewarding, and not nearly as difficult as it may seem at face value. Since posting I’ve been getting a lot of troubleshooting questions on Instagram and I wanted to put all the answers in one place to make life a little easier for you all. If you have a question that isn’t answered below drop it in the comments or shoot me a note on IG and I’ll get it added for you!

A few things to note:

  • A mature sourdough starter is a workhorse. It will be difficult to kill and easier to revive. I have forgotten my starter for over a month and brought it back to peak activity in a handful of feedings.
  • If you see any orange or pink streaks or tinges to your starter throw it out.
  • If you see mold, throw it out.

 

‘Nothing is happening.’

Your starter is like a toddler. It’s developing and hitting milestones at its own rate. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, but there are common factors: time, temperature, flour type, flour to water ratio, frequency.

Unless you have subjected your starter to very high (think oven) temperatures, something is happening. If you have an immature starter or have recently increased feeds it may seem like your starter isn’t doing anything,  but this is simply because your starter needs to catch up to the amount of food available. Keep your starter in a warm place (cold will slow down the yeast) and skip feeding for a few days. Wait until there is a little water separated on top (a sign your starter is hungry) and give it a small feeding: 50 g starter, 50 g flour, 50 g water. Wait until it shows signs of activity before feeding again.

 

‘Do I need to add sugar to reactive my starter?’

Adding sugar to a starter is a big ‘no-no’ within the sourdough community. Because a starter is a SCOBY, or a Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast, you want to be sure you don’t add in an additional factor that could upset that balance. Sugar will alter the acidity of your starter and could result in a microbial imbalance. The beauty of a starter is this unadulterated, natural leavening agent. Adding sugar to rush the process is counterproductive in the long-term. (This goes for adding commercial yeast or honey as well).

 

‘My starter smells weird…’

Your starter is fermenting, it will smell a little different than most of what’s in your kitchen. There are very few ‘red flag’ smells when it comes to starters. If it smells acidic, vinegary, like acetone, or sweaty, your starter needs to be fed. This happens to my fridge starters if I forget to feed them for 2-3 weeks. I put it on a regular feeding schedule (once a day) for 3-4 days until it starts smelling like its normal self: fresh, fruity, yeasty.

 

‘What should I store my starter in?’

A glass jar (my personal favorite), food-safe plastic, or a crock are the most popular options. Personally, I love a glass jar because it makes seeing the activity much easier as you can see bubbles forming on the sides.

 

‘Does it need to be stored in an airtight jar?’

Airtight or not is a personal preference. Personally, because a starter is an active community of wild yeast and bacteria in the air, I like to leave the jar loosely covered when it’s on the counter. When I’m long-term storing my starter in the fridge I will screw the lid on completely.

 

‘My starter has dark brown liquid on top of it. Is it dead?’

Nope! It’s just hungry. Hooch, that dark brown liquid (sometimes grey or black), is an indicator that your starter needs to be fed. Pour the hooch off and feed the starter as you normally would.

 

‘What do I do if there’s mold in my starter?’

You throw it out and start over. We don’t mess around with mold. Mold can have microscopic threads that weave throughout your entire jar of starter, meaning that just because you scrape out what you can see doesn’t mean that the mold is gone.

 

‘Can I feed my starter gluten-free flour?’

No. Unless you have a GF starter you will need to feed it flour that contains gluten. A good rule of thumb is to feed your starter what it’s origin flour is. This is a rule you can definitely break, but most sourdough enthusiasts (myself included) suggest keeping the feeding flour the same.

 

‘My starter was super active, but now it seems like nothing is happening.’

With a new starter, there is an adjustment period around the time that you begin two-a-day feeds, in order to mature it. As long as you are discarding half the starter with each feeding you are developing the yeast in your starter (it may just take a few days to see activity). Don’t be discouraged! Patience in the name of the game.

 

 

Sourdough Bread 101

 

“Any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted.”

Erin Bow

 

Late December 2019, I decided to take steps toward the life I want to pass down to my children. I started in the simplest way I could think, which at the time also seemed to be the most daunting, because, while making starter turned out to be relatively easy the question then became: What are you going to do with all this starter?

I baked my first loaves on the first day of the new decade. If I ever have to trace back when I got hooked on all things fermentation, sourdough, and wild yeast, all signs would point to 1 January 2020. The labor, the accomplishment, the smell, and the feeling of producing something nourishing for my family of two was the ‘had me at hello’ moment and I haven’t looked back.

Since then, sourdough has permeated my life, taking the form of pancakes, cinnamon rolls, and even face masks. Sourdough is an incredibly important, living legacy to me, and baking it is not as hard as it would seem…

 

MAKE YOUR OWN SOURDOUGH STARTER

 

 

Sourdough Loaf

Gather [materials]:

  • kitchen scale that measures in grams and ounces
  • mixing bowl (4 QT)
  • clean kitchen towels
  • parchment paper
  • bread baskets or bannetons
  • lame or sharp razor blade
  • dutch oven

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Gather [ingredients]:

  • 750 g white bread flour
  • 250 g whole wheat flour (optional: replace 100 g of whole wheat flour with spelt flour)
  • 175 g fed, ripe sourdough starter
  • 800 g water
  • 20 g salt (non-iodine)

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Instructions:

Starter: Feed your starter 4-6 hours prior to beginning your autolyse. The starter should be doubled in size before using and pass the ‘float test’.

For the float test take a dollop of starter and lightly place it into a cup of water. The starter should easily float on top and be buoyant. This is your indication that the starter is ready to be used. With practice, you’ll be able to time this ‘readiness’ with the ending of your autolyse.

Autolyse: Approximately 1-2 hours before your starter is ready to be used mix all of your flour (1000 g) with 750 g of water in a large bowl. The water should be lukewarm to the touch. If you dip your fingers in the water and cannot detect it being hot or cold it is the right temperature (the same temperature as you). This is a process that will cut down on ‘knead’ time later and allow your dough to fully hydrate and gluten structures to begin forming. Cover with a clean towel and set aside until the starter passes the float test (approximately 6-8 hours after it was fed).

Mix the dough: Prepare a plastic or glass bowl / box for bulk fermentation by lining it in neutral oil. Set aside. Pour 175 g of ripe starter (that passes the float test) over your autolyse. Using your thumb and first finger ‘pinch’ the starter into the autolyse to form your dough. When the starter is fully incorporated sprinkle salt and the remaining 50 g of water over the dough and begin mixing. To mix effectively run your hand along the outer rim of the bowl and fold in toward the center until all the water is incorporated. The dough will be wet and elastic.

Lamination (optional): Gently stretch the dough over the counter (being careful to stretch from the center of the dough and not the edge to avoid tearing). The result should be a large rectangle. Fold the left side in two-third across the dough. Fold the right side over it to make one skinny rectangle, with the dough tripled over itself. Beginning at the top fold down approximately halfway and repeat until the dough had become bundled.

Bulk Fermentation (BF): Once the dough is holding its shape, transfer it into your prepped BF container. Cover and set in a warm place. After 30 minutes uncover the dough and stretch it. For a bowl, using a wet or oiled hand reach down the side and under the dough. Gather it gentle and pull, stretching the dough up and over itself, ending in the center of the bowl. Rotate the bowl 45° and repeat, until you are back where you started. Recover and set aside. For a box, starting at the top of the box and using wet or oiled hands reach underneath the dough from each side until fingertips are touching. Gently lift that section of the dough, allow it to hang for a moment and then fold it forward over itself. Move 1-2 inches down the box and repeat. This will create a ruffle pattern as you go. Recover and set aside. Stretch the dough every 30-45 minutes until it passes the poke test and windowpane test (approximately 3-4 hours).

The poke test indicates that the dough is proofed and ready. Using an oiled finger gentle press into the dough. The dough should spring back, but leave an indentation. If the dough springs back completely the dough is not proof enough. If the dough does not spring back the dough is over-proofed.

For the windowpane test take a small piece of dough and stretch it between your thumb and first finger. The dough should hold its form and create a sheer ‘windowpane’. If the dough tears the gluten structure is not strong enough and it will need more stretching.

Pre-shaping the dough: Once the dough is passing the poke and windowpane test gently turn it out onto a clean, unfloured surface allowing the weight of the dough to do the work and being careful not to knock the air out of the dough. Striking with confidence, divide the dough in half using either a bench scraper or knife. Using your hands or a bench scraper lightly shape each dough ball into a circle. Cover with a clean towel and let the dough rest for 15-20 minutes.

Shaping the dough: Option 1, flour directly in front of the dough and flip the dough away from you (onto the flour). Tug out the top of the dough and fold it onto itself. Repeat with the side and bottom. Cup dough and gently pull it toward you, creating a neat loaf with tension across the top. Allow the dough to rest, seam-side down, for 10 minutes. Place the dough into a floured and prepared banneton, seam-side up. Flour the exposed dough, cover with a clean towel (to catch condensation), and bee’s wrap or single-use plastic (to keep out air). Place into the fridge. Option 2, using the outer edge of lightly flour hands circle the dough, gently tucking it under itself with the rotation, to form a tight, round boule. Allow the dough to rest, seam-side down, for 10 minutes. Place the dough into a floured and prepared banneton, seam-side up. Flour the exposed dough, cover with a clean towel (to catch condensation), and bee’s wrap or single-use plastic (to keep out air). Place into the fridge.

Cold Fermentation: Allow the dough to cold ferment for at least 12 hours and for as long as 72 hours. CF is where the tang of sourdough really shines, so you don’t want to rush this step. Time = Flavor.

 

open spring after 20m covered

 

Prepping your dough for baking: Preheat your oven as high is it will go (500°) and place your dutch oven into the bottom of the oven. Leave for one hour. Cut a parchment round the approximate size of your dough, adding a small radius to give you a ‘handle’ for moving the dough later. Once the oven is up to temperature (after an hour) turn the dough out onto the parchment paper. Flour liberally and rub the flour into the dough. This will give a smooth contrast to your scores after the bread is baked. Using the corner of a lame or a sharp razor blade score deeply into the loaf (1/4 to 1/2 inch), cutting through the surface tension. During the bake your dough will rise, expand, and release steam. Without scoring the steam will bust through the weakest part of your dough (typically the sides).

Baking: Lift the dough (by the parchment paper handles) into the dutch oven. Cover and bake for 20 minutes with the lid on. This will create steam that keeps that outer edge of the bread from setting too quickly. If the outer edge sets too quickly it will inhibit the oven spring, resulting in a dense crumb. Oven spring final burst of yeast activity and gas expansion (rising) just before the crust hardens. Uncover and bake until the top is deep golden and the bottom knocks hollow (approximately 40 minutes).

 

 

Sourdough Loaf

  • 750 g white bread flour
  • 250 g whole wheat flour ((optional: replace 100 g of whole wheat flour with spelt flour))
  • 175 g sourdough starter (fed, ripe)
  • 800 g water (lukewarm)
  • 20 g salt (non-iodine)

Starter

  1. Feed your starter 4-6 hours prior to beginning your autolyse. The starter should be doubled in size before using and pass the 'float test'.

  2. For the float test take a dollop of starter and lightly place it into a cup of water. The starter should easily float on top and be buoyant. This is your indication that the starter is ready to be used. With practice, you'll be able to time this 'readiness' with the ending of your autolyse.

Autolyse

  1. Approximately 1-2 hours before your starter is ready to be used mix all of your flour (1000 g) with 750 g of water in a large bowl. The water should be lukewarm to the touch. If you dip your fingers in the water and cannot detect it being hot or cold it is the right temperature (the same temperature as you). 

  2. This is a process that will cut down on ‘knead’ time later and allow your dough to fully hydrate and gluten structures to begin forming. Cover with a clean towel and set aside until the starter passes the float test (approximately 6-8 hours after it was fed).

Mix the dough

  1. Prepare a plastic or glass bowl for bulk fermentation by lining it in a neutral oil. Set aside.

  2. Pour 175 g of ripe starter (that passes the float test) over your autolyse. Using your thumb and first finger 'pinch' the starter into the autolyse to form your dough.

  3. When the starter is fully incorporated sprinkle salt and the remaining 50 g of water over the dough and begin mixing. To mix effectively run your hand along the outer rim of the bowl and fold in toward the center until all the water is incorporated.

  4. The dough wil be wet and elastic.

Lamination (optional)

  1. Gently stretch the dough over the counter (being careful to stretch from the center of the dough and not the edge to avoid tearing). The result should be a large rectangle. Fold the left side in two-third across the dough. Fold the right side over it to make one skinny rectangle, with the dough tripled over itself. Beginning at the top fold down approximately halfway and repeat until the dough had become bundled.

Bulk Fermentation (BF)

  1. Once the dough is holding its shape, transfer it into your prepped BF container. Cover and set in a warm place. After 30 minutes uncover the dough and stretch it.

  2. For a bowl, using a wet or oiled hand reach down the side and under the dough. Gather it gentle and pull, stretching the dough up and over itself, ending in the center of the bowl. Rotate the bowl 45° and repeat, until you are back where you started. Recover and set aside.

  3. For a box, starting at the top of the box and using wet or oiled hands reach underneath the dough from each side until fingertips are touching. Gently lift that section of the dough, allow it to hang for a moment and then fold it forward over itself. Move 1-2 inches down the box and repeat. This will create a ruffle pattern as you go. Recover and set aside.

  4. Stretch the dough every 30-45 minutes until it passes the poke test and windowpane test (approximately 3-4 hours). 

  5. The poke test indicates that the dough is proofed and ready. Using an oiled finger gentle press into the dough. The dough should spring back, but leave an indentation. If the dough springs back completely the dough is not proof enough. If the dough does not spring back the dough is overproofed.

  6. For the windowpane test take a small piece of dough and stretch it between your thumb and first finger. The dough should hold its form and create a sheer 'windowpane'. If the dough tears the gluten structure is not strong enough and it will need more stretching.

Pre-shaping the dough

  1. Once the dough is passing the poke and windowpane test gently turn it out onto a clean, unfloured surface allowing the weight of the dough to do the work and being careful not to knock the air out of the dough.

  2. Striking with confidence, divide the dough in half using either a bench scraper or knife. Using your hands or a bench scraper lightly shape each dough ball into a circle.

  3. Cover with a clean towel and let the dough rest for 15-20 minutes.

Shaping the dough

  1. Option 1, flour directly in front of the dough and flip the dough away from you (onto the flour). Tug out the top of the dough and fold it onto itself. Repeat with the side and bottom. Cup dough and gently pull it toward you, creating a neat loaf with tension across the top. Allow the dough to rest, seam-side down, for 10 minutes. Place the dough into a floured and prepared banneton, seam-side up. Flour the exposed dough, cover with a clean towel (to catch condensation), and bee's wrap or single-use plastic (to keep out air). Place into the fridge.

  2. Option 2, using the outer edge of lightly flour hands circle the dough, gently tucking it under itself with the rotation, to form a tight, round boule. Allow the dough to rest, seam-side down, for 10 minutes. Place the dough into a floured and prepared banneton, seam-side up. Flour the exposed dough, cover with a clean towel (to catch condensation), and bee's wrap or single-use plastic (to keep out air). Place into the fridge.

Cold Fermentation

  1. Allow the dough to cold ferment for at least 12 hours and for as long as 72 hours. CF is where the tang of sourdough really shines, so you don't want to rush this step. Time = Flavor.

Prepping your dough for baking

  1. Preheat your oven as high is it will go (500°) and place your dutch oven into the bottom of the oven. Leave for one hour. Cut a parchment round the approximate size of your dough, adding a small radius to give you a 'handle' for moving the dough later.

  2. Once the oven is up to temperature (after an hour) turn the dough out onto the parchment paper. Flour liberally and rub the flour into the dough. This will give a smooth contrast to your scores after the bread is baked.

  3. Using the corner of a lame or a sharp razor blade score deeply into the loaf (1/4 to 1/2 inch), cutting through the surface tension.

Baking

  1. Lift the dough (by the parchment paper handles) into the dutch over. Cover and bake for 20 minutes with the lid on. This will create steam that keeps that outer edge of the bread from setting too quickly. If the outer edge sets too quickly it will inhibit the oven spring, resulting in a dense crumb. Oven spring final burst of yeast activity and gas expansion (rising) just before the crust hardens.

  2. Uncover and bake until the top is deep golden and the bottom knocks hollow (approximately 40 minutes).