Using Your Start as a Parachute

 

IMG_0032
Here is a great example of a happy
healthy starter brought in by a class
member.  Thick enough to hold big
bubbles.  See how the starter clings
to the glass? Just right!

Today I taught a starter trouble-shooting class at Honeyville Grain Store, and a record number of people brought their starters. Luckily for the time interests of the class, about 60% of them were strong, healthy, and producing big beautiful bubbles. Of the less-happy, sad starter lot there seemed to be a consistent problem, which was in fact, consistency (of the texture variety). The starters that were not bubbling up tended to be runnier. I would say that a rough 90% of starter problems I see in helping people with their starter is a result of a runny starter. These people described their starters as forming bubbles, but mentioned that the starter as a whole never rose or “doubled” in volume as typically happens among happy starters.

This is especially important with refrigerator starters like ours, since the colder temperature makes the starter more “rigid” and will slightly resist leavening.

Note: Countertop starters do not have this problem, and can bubble just fine when runnier, but require more frequent feeding/usage than our refrigerator starters.

IMG_0031
Beautiful family photo! Almost all of these are
starters that originated with mine.

I explained the need for a thicker starter, and one class member made this great parallel:
“When your starter is more liquid, it isn’t strong enough to hold the bubbles the organisms are creating. The C02 is being produced, but there’s no parachute to catch it. The bubbles just leak out the top and so your starter never “rises” or doubles. If you want to see some action, you have to let your starter be thick enough to hold on to the bubbles.” Brilliant! She nailed it right on the head.

So here is a tip: Your starter should be thick enough to hold in your fingertips without running through. If your freshly fed starter is too runny for this, then add more flour. It is almost always better to err on the side of a thicker starter. Starters that are too thin tend to sour and be unproductive. For step-by-step photos and more detailed information, read the Critical Keys to Success section of Beyond Basics with Natural Yeast 

IMG_0033
A few of our class members who bravely brought
their starters in for check-ups 🙂

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No matter what happens, stick with it and keep trying. you will get there! Starter baking, like parachuting, takes preparation and enough pure faith to make the leap!

Comments

    • says

      Chances are, if liquid is settling at the bottom it is because your starter is too liquid. You can either stick a spoon down the side of your jar and try and let the liquid run out first, or you can scoop out the starter in the top half of your jar and transfer it to a new jar for feeding, then use or dump what is on bottom.
      If you cannot dump out the liquid because your starter runs out of the jar too quickly, that is another sign that it may be too runny. Does that help? As much as possible, try to avoid mixing the liquid back in- not because it is harmful, but because it will sour your starter over time.

    • says

      As soon as your starter has bubbles all the way to the very top (you can open the jar, look down and see bubbles on top) it is ready to use. Usually this is 12-24 hours after feeding. You can use your starter from that time until it starts getting liquid on top, which is usually a span of 3 days or so.

  1. says

    Yay!!!Thank you so much for the butter analogy. That made such a difference. After only one feeding my starter doubled in size. I just made my first recipe with my starter today and it was a successful batch of english muffins. I’ll try to attach a picture.

    In my quest to get my starter to double in size I started leaving it out on the counter hoping that warmer temperatures would help it raise. Now that it is going I don’t want to feed it twice a day and am wondering if I can convert it to a refrigerator start? What should I do to accomplish that if it’s a possibility? Thanks for all you wonderful information.

    • says

      Tristan, you can switch it back to the fridge, just know that it will take a little time to adjust back to the temperature. It may go slightly dormant for a few feedings, but should bounce back!

  2. says

    How long should it take, starting it from flakes, in the fridge? I have been trying for about 4 weeks now. I’ve got 2 starts going. I barely get any bubbles. It’s not doubling, and I also barely get any liquid on the top after 2-3 days…it mostly just turns brownish. It still smells good. It’s very stretchy. I am only going in 1/4 cup feedings to minimize waste til it gets going. (meaning 1/4 cup start, 1/4 cup water, and a little over 1/4 cup white wheat flour) Does that make a difference?

    • says

      It sounds like you are doing everything right, if the smell is good and there is minimal liquid. You may just try thickening it up a little bit and see if that affects the bubbles. The next step is to be bold and try it in some bread 🙂 that is the only way to really see how it is doing. From what you tell me, things sound good, but let me know how it goes!

  3. says

    Is it possible for a starter to be too thick? If it were, how would I know? I’m still trying to get a handle on what my starter’s consistency should be like. 🙂

    • says

      Andrea, your starter should really be almost a wet pre-dough. It should be thick and pasty, but not so much that there is residual flour in the jar or you are stirring a dough ball around your jar. Thick and pasty. It’s hard to describe, but thicker is better than thinner. If you keep it thick, then the longer you work with your starter the more familiar you’ll be with how thin is too thin. Does that make sense? 🙂

    • says

      Thanks! I live in the Pacific NW, so I always have to add a lot of extra flour when I’m baking–the climate is just so wet here. So even though I’ve been adding a bit more than one part flour to one part water and one part starter, I think my starter is still too thin. I’ll try thickening it up on this next feeding.

    • says

      Okay, so here’s an update. Thickening it up definitely helped a little bit, but I couldn’t get it to double until I finally tried using non-chlorinated water. It doubled for the first time last night!

  4. says

    Can my start be revived? I got it from a friend and it has never doubled. In fact, it got the liquid on top within a few hours. So I’ve started power feeding it for several days now and then I let it go for about 4 days without feeding it and it hasn’t gotten the liquid on top. But still no doubling. I have made scones and crackers with it, and the scones puffed up, so I think it’s still alive. I will try thickening it next, I think maybe it was a bit too runny.

    Also about chlorinated water. I think our city has chlorinated water but I’m not 100% sure (all I can find is that the water report says we have byproducts of chlorinated water.) I started using the water filtered through my berkey, but then I’m not sure if it’s the right temp. How important is the right temperature?

    So looking forward to bread that isn’t so sour and brick-like! Funny thing is the kids still like it, though. 😉

  5. says

    Dear Mom of 7,
    I just read this and thought I would reply. Almost all city water supplies in the USA I venture to guess are chlorinated. I do have some experience with this I have worked in the field of water pollution for many years. They say “byproducts of chlorinated water”, then yes, your water is chlorinated. You can try letting your tap water sit out uncovered for about 24 hours and any chlorine should dissipate. Good luck with your starter.

  6. says

    My starter is definitely thick enough. I found this one site all about different cultures and how to take care of them. On sourdough starter, they say to feed one part starter, one part water, and a little less than 2 parts flour (in measuring cups, not weighing.) That helped my starter a lot, but my bread is still not as fluffy as I would like and it actually didn’t last as long. Does that have to do with how thick my starter is or do I need to find a new bread recipe? Does that feeding sound ok?

    • says

      That feeding sounds ok. It sounds like your starter is probably working on getting strong, which means it may be working out a few bumps in the process. Be patient, it sounds like you are on the right path!

    • says

      I got an email with a comment from you which it looks like you deleted but I’m going to answer anyway :). I think that the yeasts in your starter, if you have been following my refrigerator starter method, are probably the right ones by now.

  7. Holly B says

    I purchased your book and received a small (about 1/8 of a tsp) dry yeast start from Caleb in October. I was not sent anything with the start and relied on page 18 to start my start. I failed to register the “IF YOU HAVE” part of the instructions. I started with my small amount of yeast and added 1/4 c water and 1/4 flour. I also have not used a HEAPING amount of flour, I have always used a straight edge to level the cup!

    Anyway, I have never gotten bread to rise. My yeast has little bubbles, but has a lot of them. I have tried three different water temperatures (what I would call “lukewarm”, about 100 degrees and about 110 degree – which is as hot as my tap will produce!) Those did not work.

    About the end of October, I tried to power feed it. The bubbles were always there and the last feeding I did, the dark liquid was on the top of the start within a few hours. Even when I have power fed it, there has never been any doubling. I finally thought that that meant that as you added the water and flour, it would double from 1 cup to 2 cups.

    Other things, I use a Bosch mixer with the bread kneeder. I also have tried wheat flour the last two times. Lastly, I have had to add 7 cups of flour to get the dough off the sides of the bowl. I assume that that may be a difference with being in a humid climate, but may be that my start is too wet.

    It feels like a thick pancake dough and recently started to smell “yeasty”.

    I am committed to make this change in my life, but need some more help! I look forward to getting your suggestions.

    • thebreadgeek says

      I am so proud of you for sticking with this and not giving up! Way to go! It does sound to me like your starter is too wet. I just did a new post about feeding your starter so you should check it out, it might help you a bit with that. Also there is a post you can search called “bubble or double” that might address your questions about the bubble size. It is a VERY good sign that your starter is smelling yeasty. That means that the yeasts are really taking hold. I am willing to bet that once you get your starter thickened up and maybe check out the post 3 critical keys to success, you will find that your starter is doing just what it should for bread. Let me know how it goes!

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