Lia and I ran into problems after having put the starter in the fridge overnight, then feeding and discarding too aggressively – potentially to the point where we lost most of our active yeast.
The starter is not rising very quickly at all. It almost seems to be slowing down. And because it’s so hot these past few days and the starter has been living on the kitchen counter – I know our rise is not being stymied by the weather. We’ve done something wrong. I think the yeast really didn’t like being put in the fridge overnight. My previous starter (which I dearly miss now, I had it for over 2 years and it was like a pet), handled all sorts of temperature changes without breaking stride – it was consistently hungry and produced a reliable rise every time.
This new, young starter is seemingly more finicky.
So the plan now is to guard against extinction by letting it over-proof and look for signs that the starter has fully risen and fallen before feeding it again. And when we feed it, we’ll be more careful about not discarding too much. With my previous starter, I could dump the entire jar out and the remaining residue was powerful enough to cause explosive rise. With this new one, we’ll have to build its strength slowly before we start abusing it with cold exposure and aggressive discards during feeds.
Essentially, we can’t advance until we sort this out and get that quick rise where the starter triples or quadruples in size over a few hours (in hot temps, and closer to half a day in cold temps). It doesn’t matter whether we’re getting a good rise if it’s taking 24 hours to do it in hot weather. That just won’t ferment a larger amount of dough fast enough when it comes time to bake anything substantial.
The mission here is to get the starter to a point where it’s rising as rapidly as possible because that’s going to result in bread that rises beautifully during fermentation and then again during baking.
To do this, we need the yeast to become HANGRY. And the more we feed them, the hangrier they get. They’re greedy – they’ll increase their rate of consumption to account for a surplus of available food (fresh flour and water).
As you’ll see in the video, we want to avoid excessive “over-proofing” – which is simply leaving the starter too long without feeding it. Over-proofing happens when the yeast consumes all the fresh dough (causing a nice rise) but then they run out of fresh dough to consume so they stop producing those fart bubbles. Without those gasses being produced by the yeast, the dough deflates and drops back down again.
The yeast also react to the lack of food by becoming less aggressive in the rate at which they consume fresh dough. So subsequent rises will be slower until the yeast adjust to surplus feedings again.
It’s not a big deal at all if the starter over-proofs. Over the long term, mine lives in a perpetual state of near-starvation in the fridge (with me only feeding it every week or two). Starters can survive like this indefinitely, the yeast is very resilient.
But when it comes time to bake something, that fast rise is crucial. So we need to feed the start a few times (discarding most of the starter each time we feed it) to get the yeast all voracious again.
Once the starter is good and active/hangry/fast-rising – we can move onto the next step toward baking something, which is to build a levain.
Today we’re seeing plenty of bubbles in the starter. These have caused the dough to rise, and indicate that we have now successfully captured wild yeast.
The starter will now have a noticeably more sour, almost vinegary smell to it.
Depending on your flour and local temperature, your starter may not have reached this point yet. If this is the case, wait another day (or even two) to see if those bubbles develop. If they don’t, your flour is likely the problem.
Assuming your starter looks like ours does, all you need to do for now is remove and discard half of it – then add another heaping spoon of flour and enough water to get the starter back to that “thick peanut butter” consistency. The discarded starter can be composted, or mixed into pancake batter, fried and eaten if you’re feeling hungry).
Check the starter again later in the day, it may be sufficiently “active” – meaning the yeast is consuming the flour and water at a rapid enough rate – to use for creating the “leaven” (the next step toward baking something).
Oh god the EXCITEMENT. We’re waiting to see bubbles in the dough and hoping to see it rise a little bit. None of that is happening yet, so today we’re just going to perhaps smell the starter for our own benefit. This will provide contrast for future starter sniffing because over the next few days the smell should begin to change dramatically. Tomorrow we’ll check it again to see if there has been activity.
I’ve had so many friends ask me to teach them how to bake sourdough bread, bagels, cinnamon rolls and pizza that it warranted a blog series of its own. My effort will be to highlight the most important steps only so as not to intimidate aspiring sourdough bakers with non-critical details along the way.
My goal is to create a series of videos you can follow in order to successfully develop your own sourdough skillset to the point where you can confidently bake bread, pizza, bagels, and any other sourdough-based creations you can think of.
Starting Your “Starter”
If your bread doesn’t rise, it will suck. Non-sourdough bread cheats during this step by simply dropping in store-bought (commercial) yeast. It rises in a fraction of the time, but with a fraction of the flavour of sourdough. We want that sour flavour and all of the nutrients that come with a slower fermentation process. So instead of using commercial yeast, we sourdough bakers capture “wild yeast” out of thin air, in what’s called a “starter”.
A sourdough “starter” is just flour and water mixed into dough, and left in a jar at room temperature for a few days to ferment.
Wild yeast (microbes which exist naturally in the air) finds its way into the jar, colonizes the dough and begins the fermentation process. During fermentation, the yeast is simply eating the flour/water dough mix and pooping out CO² and a bunch of other nutrients. Those CO² fart bubbles cause the dough to rise.
We will start all future bakes (bread, pizza, everything) by taking a bit of the our original starter dough and adding it to batches of new dough we want to rise for baking purposes. Down the road, we’ll always keep a little bit of our starter in the fridge so we’re ready to bake on a day’s notice. Otherwise we’d have to create a new starter every time, and that can take several days depending on temperature (warmer = faster).
Having a starter means we can have bread ready for tomorrow instead of having bread ready next week.
Assume Your Flour SUCKS
The biggest cause of failure for beginner sourdough bakers is they assume the flour they’re using will work for making sourdough. They’ve purchased expensive organic “bread flour” from the grocery store and so it’s easy to assume that it will work for fermentation. It probably is NOT suitable for sourdough fermentation, especially if you live in a challenging climate like Canada where the cooler temperatures really impede our efforts.
In cold places, we need all the help we can get. Making sure we have the very best possible flour to work with is probably the most important thing you can do in your entire journey of learning the secrets of sourdough.
Call your local bakery, and ask if they bake “naturally leavened” sourdough. If they do, ask if they’ll sell you a bag of their baking flour (or point you in the right direction for you to source it yourself). I use “strong baker’s flour” from Parrish & Heimbecker – and I buy it from my local bakery in 50 lb sacks.
This step can be a hassle, but if you’re not absolutely certain that someone else is producing excellent sourdough bread without commercial yeast using the flour you’re working with – you stand to waste a LOT of time.
It took me 9 painful months of utter failure to figure this out for myself. Do yourself a favour, get a big ol’ sack of flour directly from your most reputable local bakery. In my experience, the local baker was stoked for me to be learning something as tricky as sourdough, and was super supportive.
Once you have your flour, all you do is mix a couple heaping tablespoons of it with room temperature water. Leave it in a jar with the lid loosely covering it (so airborne yeast can get in and out).