Why isn't my sourdough starter active yet after 3 weeks?

Three weeks ago, I started a sourdough starter using Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread book, and it is not active yet. There are tiny bubbles, the smell is right, it tastes sour, but it is just not doubling rapidly after a feeding. I feed it twice a day, 50 g flour and 50 g water, and keep it in my kitchen (averages 63 degrees). Should I keep feeding it or start over?



boulangere January 15, 2013
It's BEAUTIFUL! Don't worry about the shape; it's not at all unusual for them to be a bit "out of round". I'm going to email you my phone # so we can talk. Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice is the bomb.
boulangere January 11, 2013
I think your strategy was excellent, and I'm so glad you have a good, active starter. Bear in mind that it will mature over time, so if loaves you make 2, 3, 4 weeks from now begin to look better and better, it's not your imagination - they really are. We'd love to see photos! Congratulations on persevering!
muddybuddha January 15, 2013
here are pictures of my first loaf. i used the recipe in chad robertson's tartine bread book. it's a little a-shaped. there were some big holes in the dough, but otherwise it was a little dense (90 % white, 10 % wheat flour). i weighed the dough before baking and after the bread cooled for four hours, and the baked bread was 8 % lighter than the dough. is there a standard for how much water should evaporate during the baking process? is bread made with a sourdough starter generally denser than bread made with commercial yeast? also, why does a starter get better as it matures? my last question (although i have zillions, i could keep asking!): what bread books do you recommend? peter reinhart (which one?)? others?

THANK YOU so much for all your help! i'm so relieved that i have a working starter that's properly mine, and i'm quite pleased with the first loaf.
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muddybuddha January 15, 2013
one more picture...
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boulangere December 18, 2012
Oh, heck no, it's fine at your room temp. My house gets cold overnight, too. The starter is better, in fact, to be on the cool side. First, whole wheat flour: I use WWF on the first day only. It brings along many lovely wild yeast spores that you really don't need to add beyond the first day. Ideally, you want your yeasts to be at the same point of maturity, and if you're constantly introducing new ones which need a higher rate of hydration, well, I suspect you get the point. Too, the starches in WWF are much less readily accessible to yeast as a food source - good for your body's metabolism, not good for yeast. Next, yes, it does matter how much you feed the starter in relation to its quantity. Ideally, you want to double the quantity of starter each time you feed it. That doesn't mean that you need to measure the amount of starter down to the last ounce; close enough is close enough. So when I mention ratios of flour to water, yes, they are relative to the amount of starter you have. So, to pull some numbers out of thin air, say you have about 32 ounces (4 liquid cups) of starter after 3 days. You're going to discard half of it, leaving you with 16 ounces, right? So for the day 4 and day 5 feedings, you'll give it 9.6 ounces (be reasonable and call it 9.5 ounces) of flour, or 60% of 16, and 6.4 (again, call it a reasonable 6.5 ounces) ounces of 80 degree water. Translate ounces into grams and you're there!
muddybuddha December 19, 2012
thank you very much again. i have started on day 1 of your method. i'll let you know how it goes!
boulangere December 19, 2012
Oh good, please do!
muddybuddha January 10, 2013
hi! just wanted to give you an update: it took a little longer than 7 days, but i think i finally have a working starter. it's rising and falling like it should, and i'm going to try a loaf on sunday. i followed your instructions and after day 7, i started feeding it equal amounts of flour and water (80 degrees). i skipped feedings on a couple days when the starter seemed sluggish. my hypothesis was that the yeast hadn't multiplied enough to consume all the food, so i let the starter sit for a day without feeding. if my bread turns out, i'll send a picture. thanks again for your help, and happy new year!
boulangere December 18, 2012
People typically underfeed starters, so this is definitely a new one; I agree that you're feeding it too often. It's good that you're getting a sour flavor from it, but that's likely due to bacterial growth (acetobacillus and lactobacillus), not yeast growth, which is what you'll need in order to raise bread. The reason it's only showing subtle signs of life is that the food supply far outweighs the amount of yeast available to consume it. And I'm guessing that you're periodically disposing of part of it (usually half), which further reduces the yeast population. Even in the early days of growing a starter, it should only be fed every 24 hours and kept at room temperature for the first 5 days. I'm pretty sure you can resuscitate yours. First, pour out half of it. Next, feed it flour and water in a ratio of 40% flour to 60% water. Increased hydration (the water should be about 80 degrees) will give the wild yeasts a good growth medium. Keep it at room temperature. Feed it at that ratio for 3 days, once a day. By the 4th day, you should begin seeing much more activity. The surface should be actively bubbly, and the starter should have a consistency that is both somewhat dense and stringy with glutinous strands. On the 4th day, again discard half of the starter. Pour it into something (an empty can, a plastic bag) that you can toss into the garbage because you don't want these heavy starches and gluten strands wandering through your plumbing. For the 4th and 5th days, feed it flour and water in a ratio of 60% flour to 40% water. The decreased amount of hydration and increased food supply will give the yeast a balance that permits it to be fed every 3-4 days from now until the end of time. On the 6th day (not the 7th) transfer your starter to the refrigerator and allow it to rest for 24 hours before using it to build a loaf of bread. Oh, and don't feed it any more whole wheat flour.
muddybuddha December 18, 2012
thanks for your response! it's super helpful! i didn't realize the bacteria made it sour. a few questions: why not whole wheat flour? and if i use water that is 80 degrees, is it okay to keep my starter at room temperature (64 degrees) or do i need to keep it at 80 degrees (in the oven or something)? also, does it matter how much i feed it in proportion to how much starter there is? for example, if i use 20 g of starter, should i feed it 20 g flour and 30 g water? or 40 g flour and 60 g water? THANK YOU SO MUCH!
modeck October 23, 2014
Hi Cynthia,

For the 6th and subsequent days, at what ratio should the starter be refreshed? 50:50 water/flour by weight? Or continue with 60:40 flour/water?

Also, refresh just before putting in fridge?

Thanks in advance :)
Reiney December 18, 2012
What's the consistency? It can be sour & have tiny bubbles but still be dead. You want something quite thick, not runny like the consistency of pancake batter.

Twice a day is really not necessary for feeding. And starters keep well in the fridge (for a twice weekly feeding) after they're going, so the temp of your kitchen is unlikely to be the problem.

Not knowing quite what the recipe is, I'd say to start again. I've made a starters with organic grapes, flour and water and you should be well underway after about a week.
muddybuddha December 18, 2012
it's pretty thick. i've been feeding it with equal amounts of flour and water. it rises about 25 percent after 12 hours, and it has been doing that for the past week. it hasn't risen today, however. i'm using a mix of wheat and unbleached white flour, king arthur brand, and brita-filtered tap water.

thanks for your reply! i may try another week and then start over...
Midge December 18, 2012
Others might know better but I'd keep feeding it. I had a similar experience several years ago using Nancy Silverton's method. I gave up and tossed the whole thing, but wish I had given it more of a chance after all that work!
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