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2017-09-24 Starters - and more!

We've had questions about starters this week... we'll get to them shortly...

Hello again Bread Fan(atic)s!

This week is a BBQ and wrap up projects weekend.  We're smoking some sausage and my first ever porchetta.  Next week, I bake!  And play with emmer.  Emmer as in ancient grain, not emmer as in the weird kid up the block.  More information as things bake out.

Our next class is just a few weeks away, it's our Bagel Mania class on October 14th.  This is, by far, one of my favorite classes!  We start the class by boiling and baking some bagels I made the night before.  As the bagels bake and cool a bit, we make 4 or 5 different cream cheese schmears.  Once you've made your own flavored cream cheese, chances are good you'll never buy the stuff again!  It's SO easy and good to make your own.  After that, we have a bagel party where we enjoy bagels, schmears, and lox.  After the party, we make more bagel dough for students to take home, allow to rest overnight, boil and then bake.  A special for this class - we've bought some of Trader Joe's "Everything Bagel" topping and I am just itching to try it out.  The class is fun and fast paced and you'll leave knowing you can make authentic classic New York style bagels, the kind that are increasingly hard to find even in New York City.

Enough puffery!  I've gotten a few emails asking about sourdough starters.  And I've seen lots of messages on Facebook.  People can't get their starter started.  People who think it takes a month to get a starter going.  Some folks are trying to get flower or fruit yeast cultures going and that is outside my areas of expertise.  I do sourdough.  And it rarely takes more than a week.  With my approach  5 or 6 days is good.  With Professor Calvel's approach, about 2 1/2 days.  However, Professor Calvel's approach calls for somewhat more finicky timing and measurement so my approach may be easier for some.

Before we get too far down the rabbit hole, Sourdoughhome has an overview of what is happening when you start a starter. Some people don't want to read all that much because it's too long.  It takes about 5 to 10 minutes to read, and if it helps you get a starter going in 3 to 6 days instead of 14 days to, well, never, it's time well spent.  I also have several overviews of my way, including an overview with lots of pictures.  And for people who have trouble with the process, there's a page on starter troubleshooting

Phillip has written me two emails about his starter woes.  He's a Chemical Engineer and seems pretty meticulous.  I'll interject here by saying that people were making sourdough bread in the time of the Pharaohs long before the ideas of modern chemistry, biology or micro-biology were even dreamt of. Breads rose because of angels or demons in them.  You slashed bread to let the angels or demons out so they wouldn't be baked to death (angels) or become angry (demons).  However, the ancient bakers developed a keen eye for what their starter and dough should do, and how to make it do what it should.  Sometimes too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Phillip has gone through 12 pounds of flour, with no joy.  He gets bubbles in his starters, but no rise.  It may be worth mentioning that a thin starter, such as those made with a cup of water and a cup of flour, don't have the structural strength to be counted upon to trap gases and rise.  I suggest bakers weigh ingredients and use the same weight of water and flour (100% hydration) when working with a starter.  There are other ways of handling starters, but for a beginner, it gives a great indication of starter activity.  I put a rubber band or piece of masking tape on the side of the glass container I start my starter in so I have a good indication of how much the starter rose.  If you use a calibrated glass measuring up, there are already markings on the side.  As an aside, I often use stainless steel, and it works as well.  Glass is more convenient because it gives a better view of what's happening.

Phillip had concerns that his water could be the issue.  I have heard that chlorine or chloramines can interfere with starter growth, but have never had problems with either.  If your water tastes good enough to drink, it will probably let you create a viable starter.  He used other waters, including R/O water, boiled water and seltzer water.  I've used bottled spring water to make bread, but remember, the micro-organisms do seem to benefit from the minerals in water, so using too purified a water, such as R/O water or distilled water won't help.

Phillip also tells me he is stubbornly (his word) refusing to use whole grain flour, that regular flour ought to work. Oops.  I think we hit pay dirt.  The micro-organisms we want to cultivate are on the outer surfaces of the grain.  When the grain is milled into flour and the bran is sifted away, so too are the bulk of the micro-organisms.  Darryl Greenwood, the keeper of the FAQ is more savvy about sourdough than most and has said he has NEVER been able to start a starter with all-purpose or bread flour.  A few people replied to him saying they did once.  But the failure rate is very high.

The romance of sourdough is that we catch the starter from the air.  Dr. Ed Wood, a pathologist and sourdough guru, was asked by National Geographic to reproduce the breads of the ancient Pharaohs based on the very clear drawings inside the pyramids.  Dr. Wood decided he wanted to use a real Egyptian sourdough.  To catch one he had a friend irradiate a large quantity of flour until it was as sterile as moon dust.  He mixed some with distilled water under clean room conditions, covered it in sterile petri dishes, and weeks later all he had was wet flour.  He was quite sure whatever he caught would be coming from the air.

He took the sterile flour to Cairo and set up at least hundreds of samples of flour and water around the city to collect a real Egyptian starter.  Over 95% did nothing.  Of the remaining 5%, most weren't doing anything beneficial.  In the end, he had a few viable starters.  A number of people in did their own cheapo home-brew versions of this in which they sterilized the flour with boiling water and tried to start a starter.  Instead of over 90% success they had over 90% failure.

The bottom line.  Yes, there are usable microorganisms in the air.  However, they are much more concentrated on grain and whole grain flour.  Much less concentrated in white flour.  And much, much more concentrated in an active sourdough culture.  Occam's Razor and a number of tests suggest that the starter usually starts from micro-organisms on the grain.

So... get some whole wheat or rye flour Phillip.  Weigh your ingredients.  Follow either my or Professor Calvel's directions and I think it'll work out OK.

Erin has an issue.  She writes, "Thank you for your recipe and website!  I'm learning all about baking and just successfully made my first sourdough starter.  Nice and bubbly and smelling like beer!  I think it's just right!

"The problem I have is that I followed your S.F. Sourdough recipe to a T and my dough didn't rise AT ALL!  It expanded to the sides a little, but didn't rise up at all.  I'm baffled????

"I live at just around 7000 feet above see level in Morrison, CO.

"Any ideas??"

All my friends say I'm full of ideas.  Or something.  We used to live in Colorado and even taught classes in Morrison and Wintergreen.  Lovely area.  And I know you can bake bread in that area!

We'll start troubleshooting with the starter.  It's bubbling, but is it doubling in size between feedings?  If you're using my recipe, are you also feeding the starter so it's equal weights of flour and water?  If you have a wetter starter, that means you have a wetter dough, which might spread out.

Sourdough can weaken gluten structure, so you can have issues forming good loaves.  There is another issue, when the dough spreads, it could well have doubled in size, just spreading out rather than up.  Loaf forming can be a pain.

So, two suggestions.  If you aren't weighing your starter feeds, please do.  Equal parts flour and water by weight, and enough to double the size of your starter twice a day.  And, until things get more under control, use bread pans to make a pan bread.  When encased in metal or glass, the dough has no where to go but up.

A number of people have written asking me about how to get big holes in their bread.  Sadly, I can't find those emails!  At times I refer to this as the "Big Holey Grail" at  When we lived in Colorado, I never got there and assumed it was bacause of the altitude.  In our area in Texas the water really stinks for bread making.  I'm getting a handle on it, but I'm still not where I want to be. So... I'm probably not the one to ask about finding the big holey grain.  However, I will offer some advice and share a link.

If you're a sourdough baker and you've never had the big holey grail, you might try using a yeasted dough to see if your sourdough starter is keeping you from getting there.  Many sourdough cultures will soften gluten which can cause issues.

If you're a sourdough baker and you've just lost that big holey feelin', perhaps your starter has changed.  It happens.  Again, try a yeasted dough.  If you get that big holey feelin' you might try creating a new starter and see what happens.

Getting there is part technique and part riser.  So... play with it.

I recently found a great video on youtube where the baker makes a big holey bread with a fairly stiff dough.  It's worth a look.    His recipe is available on his web site.

And that wraps things up for today.... and leaves me to enjoy the Porchetta we smoked today, mow the yard and finish repairing my recliner.  I hope your day is filled with baking and good things!

Until next time, may your bread always rise, no matter what condition your starter is in,

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