Healing Your Starter: Powerfeeding

Powerfeeding is probably one of the most important/useful posts on this blog. No matter how proficient you get at keeping a starter, you will never outgrow this technique. I never recommend techniques that I do not use myself, and powerfeeding is a well-worn tool in my belt. healing natural yeast starter powerfeeding

Life happens. Kids, work, pets, holidays, lazy days(…weeks…months), schedules that bend and break. We’ve all been there. When life happens to your starter, recovery can be an exercise in extreme patience. Especially when you want to eat bread TODAY and you just can’t bring yourself to buy the store-bought crap. This is a critical moment in starter baking. Do you give in and give up? Do you decide to try again only as long as the starter is ready to use by tomorrow afternoon? A combination of the two?

First of all, don’t worry. Just because your starter is “under the weather” does not mean you have to buy crappy bread. There is a great recipe here on the blog that I posted just for these situations. Yogurt Bread uses tiny amounts of commercial yeast and gives the dough plenty of time to deal with harmful antinutrients in the wheat.

Now back to the starter.

Here is a tip. Your starter is not a circus monkey. “Token” efforts, tossed into the jar from time to time will not be enough to coax show-stopping performance from your starter.  If you’ve consistently neglected feedings, chances are your organisms have been slowly dying off, leaving only a weakened percentage in your starter. The quantity of yeasts left will not be enough to raise bread however, no matter how hard each individual yeast works. You need to strengthen the yeasts you have, and increase the population before any real work can be done.

Powerfeeding is the key.

Powerfeeding creates a fresh environment for your organisms that is full of food, and replenished on a regular basis. Sure, it also means that you don’t make bread with it for at least 9 days, but the investment pays off in the long run. Much easier than trying to coax/manipulate/threaten your family into eating the dense-as-concrete flat loaves that you’d be making otherwise, right? Right.

Before we start with Powerfeeding though, there are a few things we need to make sure you have under your belt. If you already have Beyond Basics with Natural Yeast, glance over the 5 Critical Keys to Success chapter (page 5). If you do not, then please take a second and read through these posts to make sure we are on the same page about a few things.

3 Critical Keys to Success

Using Your Starter as a Parachute

How To Feed Your Starter

Bubble or Double?

Ready? Okay let’s jump in.

How To Powerfeed Your Starter

This process is covered in great detail on pages 4-5 of my cookbook Beyond Basics with Natural Yeast. I do highly recommend that if you have access to Beyond Basics (“borrow” your mom’s if you have to!) that you look over that chapter for more detailed info.

During this process we will be feeding our starters over about 9 days without taking any away.

Step 1

  • Pour off any liquid on your starter.
  • Stir well, and reduce starter to 1/4 cup. (Save the remainder for compost, chickens, or one of the bonus recipes in Beyond Basics).
  • Feed your 1/4 cup starter according to instructions in the How To Feed Your Starter post.
  • Put starter back in fridge.
  • For the next 4 days, watch your starter. When liquid accumulates on top (more than a pocket or two), or by 4th day, it’s time to feed again (step 2-3).

Step 2-3

  • Pour off liquid on starter (if any).
  • Measure starter amount and feed.
  • Put starter back in fridge.
  • For the next 4 days, watch your starter. When liquid accumulates on top (more than a pocket or two), or by 4th day, repeat this step.

Step 4

  • You should now have approx. 2 cups of starter.
  • Look at your starter. Do you see bubbles that follow the guidelines in THIS post on good bubbles?
  • Smell your starter. Does it smell sweetly yeasty or more like pungent vinegar?
  • If your bubbles are good, and the smell is good, you are ready to bake.
  • If your bubbles are wimpy and the smell tangy, reduce your starter to 1/4 cup and try one more powerfeeding cycle.

Note: I have rarely had to use more than 2 powerfeeding cycles to heal a starter. If you have tried powerfeeding for 3 cycles and your starter is still languishing, I would consider other troubleshooting options. Could your water be the problem? Your flour? If not, then I suggest getting new starter from a friend or starting your own new starter (post coming soon).

 

 

Comments

  1. Krystal says

    This was posted in the perfect time. I have a starter I received a couple of months ago. I have just kept on feeding it with nothing really happening, yesterday I left it out, fed it twice ( I found a website that said to do that) and I found this website. However, the links you have posted don’t seem to be working 3 critical keys to success ect.. I would like to read them to learn a little about what to do to help this 🙂

  2. Chelsea says

    Melissa,

    I’m in love with using natural yeast – thank you so much for your books – I learned it all from you! I’ve had my bread starter for a little over two years, and it worked great until about 2 months ago, it started smelling bad, but would still bubble and raise bread fine. I could still make bread but no matter how much I fed it, I couldn’t get it smelling better. I finally threw it out and got a new starter a couple days ago. It smelled good (normal) when I got it, and after the first day, but by the second day it has the same distinctly bad smell that my last one did. It is still bubbling beautifully but I know that’s not a normal smell! I can’t figure out what’s going wrong… any ideas? Thanks so much for your time!

    • thebreadgeek says

      Hmmm.. These ones can be tricky. Is there a chance that something has changed in your water or your flour? Water is usually the first thing I troubleshoot. Try purified water (just pick up a cheap gallon at the store on your next trip) and see if that makes any difference. Are you fermenting anything else in your fridge?

  3. says

    Hi Melissa,

    Just wanted to tell you how much I love both of your cookbooks! Thanks for this information about power feeding. I use my starter almost everyday so I don’t usually have an issue. Have you ever used the “culture proof” method when starting to bake? I use that method quite successfully (8-12 hours before baking pull off a bit of starter, add water and flour to equal the amount of starter you need for baking. Leave the culture proof starter on the counter, feed the original and stick back in the fridge. 8-12 hours later bake with the culture proof). Also, wanted to let you know that your lead in picture is showing up huge, blocking out some of your other content…

    • thebreadgeek says

      Amy thanks for the tip! The post is showing up okay on my browser, I’ll have to take a look on another computer. I have done the “culture proof” method when baking a more standard countertop sourdough style, and it works lovely. It is so fascinating to me how everyone finds their way to their own unique way of starter baking. It really becomes individualized and I love it!

  4. Kym Harvey says

    I am a newbie and have read everything I can, but haven’t been able to figure this one out:

    I received a starter about 2 weeks ago and have been dumping and feeding it diligently, but it seems much too hungry to wait even a couple of days. I am keeping my starter in the door of the fridge as you suggested, and within a few hours some liquid seems to separate and sit on top. It already has a little bit too sour a taste for my kids’ so I hesitate to wait when I see that liquid. It’s definitely bubbling and the consistency is good. Should I dump and feed when I see the liquid, even if it’s everyday? Or is that going to hurt it?

    I was taught by the friend who gave me the starter that it should rise as it “fed” and eventually fall when it was hungry again. It’s not doing much rising and falling unless it’s out of the fridge. So I guess my bottom-line question is: when in doubt, should I feed it?

    • thebreadgeek says

      It sounds to me like your starter needs to be thickened. I would take it through the powerfeeding cycle mentioned here and read the posts suggested about thickness. It sounds like your starter just has a little bit of an imbalance that it needs to work through. Otherwise it sounds like you are doing things great. Do you have the new cookbook Beyond Basics with Natural Yeast? There are some great recipes there for you to use your starter without having to dump it. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

  5. Kerry says

    Melissa,
    For months I have been intrigued by this process and have tried numerous times to grow my own starter with no luck. Each time it actually starts really good (bubbles up and doubles once) and then I feed it and it fizzles out. I just got a packet from Caleb of his dried yeast and was sure I would be successful. I followed his instructions using whole wheat flour and tap water and the same thing again! Bubbled up and doubled, I fed it, and now it is sitting and not doing anything…it MAY be forming a few bubbles. I have tried putting it in a warmer area but it didn’t seem to matter. I have ordered your new book on Amazon but haven’t received it yet. If you have any tips on why my starters seem to start and then fizzle, any help would be greatly appreciated! Your first book is what sparked my interest:)
    Kerry

    • thebreadgeek says

      Kerry this is very intriguing! My first question would be the water. Have you tried buying a cheap jug of purified water and seeing if that makes a difference? After it bubbles up are you changing the location?

  6. Brittney says

    My yeast isn’t strong anymore nor does it produce good bread. When I would pull it out of the jar it use to come out together buy now it just tares easily. Does that make sense? I changed where I bought my wheat berries from. Does that make a difference? Please help!! Thanks!

    • thebreadgeek says

      Sometimes the wheat can make a difference. The best way to know is to buy (or borrow) a small amount of wheat from another source and try it. If it fixes the problem you know that’s what it was. If not, you may have high acidity in your starter and need to power feed.

  7. says

    Hi Melissa!
    I attended a workshop you put on hosted by my friend Brynn at Red House Farm in Boulder, Utah a couple of years ago. Soooooo inspiring!
    I started “Enrique” a few years ago and passed bits of him to many friends in Southern Utah. I really tried my best to explain all the chemical facts which fascinated me but my brain was unable to adequately absorb! I’m so glad you have this website that I can introduce my friends to!
    Bits of my starter are also now in Maine, British Virgin Islands, Antigua, Reading (UK) also!
    I’ll be back!
    Kind Regards,
    kak

    • thebreadgeek says

      That was one of my very favorite classes ever! What beautiful land and beautiful folks!! Thanks for saying hi!

  8. Camille Dermatis says

    hello,
    I have a starter and after 2-3mths of playing with it, trying to get it to double in my fridge, finally after power-feeding it eventually doubled (or gets very close to doubling). I made my first 2 loaves of bread with it, Grammy’s Bread to be exact. The bread was good but when shaping, the dough barely held it’s shape, is this normal or did I do something wrong? Also, my starter nearly doubles but the bubbles aren’t too big and not completely throughout the entire starter. Is this ok or should I do something about this? Thanks again for the help!
    Camille

    • thebreadgeek says

      Hi Camille! It is best if you can wait until the bubbles are all through the whole starter. The size of the bubbles is not so much of an issue as long as there are lots of them. What kind of wheat are you using?

      • Camille Dermatis says

        I do not grind my wheat yet but have been using King Authur whole wheat flour. So I feed it and usually within 24hrs it has about doubled. Bubbles are through the whole thing within a few hours but I notice that once it has doubled, the top 1inch or so seems to be completely bubble free. I do not know how to fix this. It seems to be raising my bread well. The bread doesn’t get super tall but I would say it doubles, and taste great! I assumed it doesn’t get real tall due to the size of my loaf pan and the fact that it isn’t instant yeast (I made multi-grain bread with instant yeast before I started using my starter for bread and it was huge). I really do appreciate you taking the time to help in this matter. It seems you are the only person who publishes about your exclusive refrigerator wild yeast starter!

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