Why is my starter not continuing to rise? I have a great day 2-3, and then it gets runny!

Hi, I have been trying to make a sourdough starter for about a month and no success. I have thrown out several starters along the way. I'm now at a point where I realize I may have thrown them out too soon, so I'm giving my current starters (2) a longer attempt. They are both runny again, which was when I usually gave up on the other ones. I had an amazing day 1 and 2 and then they keep staying runny with hooch, and have no texture at all. It's so discouraging. No bubbles either. Am I getting anywhere, or should I start over again? I've even tried switching to a "big feed" and doing a 1:2 ratio of starter to food. Nothing yet seems to work for me. I have a thermometer in my kitchen and it's been between 69-74 degrees each day and night. On this current starter I'm using bottled water because I was worried my tap water was killing my other starters. Look at my below schedule, you'll see I had a great day 1 and 2 and then it gets runny by day 3. (This starter is using King Arthur's unbleached Bread Flour... I also have another one with a mix of Stone Ground Wheat Flour with similar results).

Here's my current schedule on one of my two starters:

12-Nov 7am started

13-Nov 6pm rose, bubbles, no hooch
fed equal parts in weight (50g starter, 60 g water, 50 flour)

14-Nov 9am doubled in size, no hooch (photo included)
fed equal parts (50/60/50)

15-Nov 9am did not rise; hooch; no elasticity
fed 20g starter, 100/100 water/flour; counter

16-Nov 7:30pm did not rise, some bubbles
50 g starter, 60 g water, 50 g flour

18-Nov 9am no rise, hooch, runny
50 g starter, 120 g water, 100 g flour

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Lori T. November 20, 2020
You need to add in equal amounts of flour and water when you feed your starter. There's nothing particularly "wrong" with what you have now, it just needs more flour to eat. The starter yeast are going to produce hooch, it's a waste product diluted by the water and a natural byproduct of the yeast. It's what will give your baked goods their particular flavor, too. The flour portion sinks simply because it is heavier and denser than the alcohol and water. So it's all good. For now, try stirring in 30-40 grams of flour and see if that doesn't make your starter a bit happier. You can make a starter more liquid or more solid to suit yourself and your own needs, you know. The liquid/flour balance is all that makes a difference between a starter, a poolish, and a biga. But in the end, the principles they work on are all the same. Don't toss out your starter. Feed it flour instead, and hang in there. Most of the rising will be done in the first few hours, and then it's going to collapse back down. The flour and yeast will sink, the hooch will rise. That's the normal life cycle.
NewbieBaker November 20, 2020
Thank you for the reply! I'll try the approach of mixing in flour by itself when I see hooch. Today I reread my original recipe and it recommends feeding it twice a day even if it's not rising yet. Should I keep feeding every twelve hours? Looking back at my previous days I had been waiting up to 36 hours hoping for some activity, so I think I was waiting too long.

I'll keep discarding and feeding, and I have been trying to do equal parts water and flour, but it's too hard to mix so I usually have to add some extra water (usually 10 more grams of water than flour) so that I can properly mix it all together.
Lori T. November 21, 2020
No, don't do that. Hooch is not the enemy here, it's a natural part of the process. You probably could feed it twice a day, and you will not see bubbling activity all the time. It's going to happen mostly the first few hours after a feeding. Reproduction of the yeast will slow as time passes, and that will make the mixture drop back down. You also do not have to mix in the flour and water until it is a homogenous mix of smooth consistency. It's perfectly okay to leave streaks of flour and small lumps. The yeast will happily break those down and the flour will hydrate as day goes along. I also wondered about the water you were using. You should be using a filtered water, rather than from the tap. Most tap water contains chlorine, which can be deadly to the poor yeasties. For now, feed your starter equal parts of water and flour. Do not get alarmed when you see the liquid rise on the top- that's normal. It also helps keep unfriendly things out of your starter. Don't feel you must mix the flour and water in to make a batter. The yeast don't mind small lumps, and any dryish flour will take care of itself. A few days of twice daily feeds won't hurt anything, just don't go more than 24 hours between feeds. And if you are going to give it extra anything, a bit more flour is at least more food to grow on. Water doesn't do anything for that.
NewbieBaker November 21, 2020
Thank you again, that helps! I’m so excited. I checked it today and finally saw some activity on my mix starter! (On the right in the photo). I will keep adding only equal parts even if it’s thick and lumpy, I think the instructions I had read about making it seem like a “milkshake” consistency was only for Day 1, so I must have been adding too much water afterwards.

I really hope this works. Been working at this for a month and can’t wait to start some delicious sourdough baking!
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NewbieBaker November 21, 2020
Oh, and I switched to using bottled water when I started this current batch because I was concerned about the possibility that the tap was killing my previous starters. I’m using Ice Mountain Spring Water.
Lori T. November 21, 2020
Both of those look like starters in the working. The one on the left shows evidence of activity that has risen and fallen. The one on the right is currently active working, and will settle and fall as the yeast reproduction slows and the gas escapes. It's not that unusual in a new starter for it to take a few days to get as active as you may like. It's building strength and numbers in that time. What you are looking for is how long it takes to double in size. If you mark on the side where the level of mixture starts after a feed, you can tell if it has doubled by looking at the residue left on the sides once it has fallen back down. Once your starter doubles within about 4-5 hours, it's ready to start baking with. That might take a week, it could take 2 weeks. That's up to the yeast in your starter. As far as the water goes- as long as it doesn't have chlorine in it, and it's not flavored, tonic or seltzer- it's fine. Plain old filtered water, which runs about a dollar a gallon, works quite well. You don't have to give it anything fancy. You can feed it twice a day if you like, until it seems more active- or hang in there with once a day. And yeah- don't worry about the milkshake consistency part. Gluten development isn't an issue with a starter, and the yeast don't mind a few small lumps or streaks of flour. If it's easier, mix your flour and water together first, and then stir in the starter.
NewbieBaker November 28, 2020
Hi Lori, Thanks again for all your advice! Since Nov 21st it has started doubling in less than 12 hours every day! Yesterday I did a float test and it passed. I'm hoping to make my first loaf tomorrow. I'll keep a close eye on it today and make sure my starter doubles by the 5 hour mark, and I'm sure it will. I haven't been timing it closely enough to know for sure yet, but it seems like I've been holding off till the 12 hour mark to only feed it twice a day for the last few days. I'm so excited :)
Lori T. November 28, 2020
Congratulations! You are the parent of a starter culture. But honestly, I've not found the float test to be a good way to judge a sourdough starter's readiness. It's great for dough, though. As long as your fed starter will double in 8 hours or so, it's ready to give life to loaves of bread. You only need to feed it once daily, as well- as long as it's used fairly regularly. In fact, mine lives in my fridge, in a nice quart jar, for about 5-6 days between feeds and uses. A young starter will likely not give you as pronounced a flavor of sourdough as you might expect, but the flavor will improve as it ages. Now is also a good time to find uses for your discard, too- because you have worked so hard to grow that baby, you don't want to waste a single drop of it. And there are lots of ways to use discard- my kids favorite is chocolate cake, by the way. Here's a wish you have many tasty loaves, and happy baking hours!
NewbieBaker November 28, 2020
Goo to know. I was finding very different points of view in regards to the float test, and it sounds like using your eyes and nose and the clock should be enough to know it’s ready.

Yum, chocolate cake made from a good starter sounds sounds delicious! Yes, I’m hoping to try all sorts of things for the discard (muffins and other things, I found lots of amazing recipes on Buttered Side Up for sourdough too)! Thanks again, I might return if I run into any trouble :)
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