How to troubleshoot your sourdough starter

How to troubleshoot your sourdough starter

It’s easy to make sourdough bread if you know what you are doing. Most things are easy, or at least less hard when you know what you are doing.
I remember the first time I read about how to make a sourdough starter. It seemed to be a piece of cake. You just had to mix flour and water, place it somewhere warm and wait.
Of course, you had to feed the starter now and then, and perhaps shake the jar sometimes. But in a couple of days, you should have a bubbling starter without much effort.

I mixed my first starter the same day.

A few weeks later I swore I would kill that ψ&#¤¥√¤ author if I met him/her on the street. There was no sign of life whatsoever in my starter.
All I could see was some ridiculously small bubbles on the surface. A result of my frenzied shaking of the jar, I suppose.
Today I seldom have any problems getting a lively bubbling starter.
I learned. By reading books, posts like this and collecting information from different forums. But most of all I learned by trial and error. I know that’s not what most beginners want to hear. Nevertheless, I think it’s true.

You can get tons of invaluable information on the internet, but in the end, there’s only one thing that will make you the best baker in the neighborhood. Getting your hands into the dough bowl and start baking.
And that’s great because it’s fun and rewarding to bake sourdough bread, even if you fail. Remember that even the best bakers fail sometimes. They just don’t show them on Facebook or Instagram.
But you will realize that even your “failures” sometimes tastes far better than the junk you buy in the grocery store.

Look at the picture below, and you will see one of my “failures”. I over proofed the dough, and when it was time to shuffle it into the oven it deflated completely.


“Are you making flatbread?” one of my family members asked in a slightly sarcastic tone.
I baked it anyhow, and it turned out to be just great. A bit flat and quite ugly, but that didn’t matter. It had all the delicious tastes and superior texture that only a real sourdough bread can offer.

“Call it a ciabatta and claim it supposed to look that way!” someone suggested on Facebook. Not a bad idea at all.
In this post, we will start where everything begins. With the sourdough starter. Every sourdough bread needs a lively and mature starter, and this is where the first problems arise for most beginners.
But if you prepare yourself carefully you can avoid most of them.

PREPARE CAREFULLY

Choose your flour.

A regular sourdough starter consists of two things. Flour and water.
The quality of the flour is very important. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it has to be alive. If your flour is sterilized (dead), you won’t see much activity in your starter. At least not for a very long time. Some claim that a starter can collect wild yeast from the air, but I’m a bit skeptical about that.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite easy to know which flour is the best.

Many claims that organic flour it superior, but I have to disagree, which is sad. I fully embrace the idea of organic food, but it’s not always the best choice when it comes to baking bread. If you can find an organic flour that works, you should, of course, use it. But be prepared that it may not turn out to be your best option.*

It can be a good idea to buy flour of two or three different brands, mix a starter with each variety, and see which one works best. As said before, the most expensive one doesn’t have to be the best but try to avoid the cheapest varieties. Bleached flour is not very common here in Sweden where I live, so I don’t have any experience with it. But I understand that it has been treated with chemicals for aesthetic reasons, and that would be enough for me to avoid it.

Make sure your sourdough starter is warm.

Your starter wants a warm environment. 80°F to 85°F (26°C to 29°C) is ideal. That can be a problem during winter time if you live in the northern hemisphere. If you can’t find a place that is warm enough, you can place your starter in the oven with the lamp lit. Add a thermometer to the starter just in case. It can be a bit too hot.

Sourdough starter
Always use a mature starter

Don’t give up too quickly.

It may take a while before something happens in your starter. Don’t presume it’s dead just because nothing has happened after a couple of days. Continue feeding it for at least a week. A sourdough starter is a complex living environment that needs some time to stabilize.

ALWAYS HAVE A BACKUP PLAN.

OK, so you have made all the necessary preparations, mixed your starter, placed it somewhere warm, and fed for a week o two. Still, nothing happens. All you see is some tiny bubbles at the surface. Perhaps there is some activity but not much. And it doesn’t help how much you feed it.
Then what to do?

Boost your wheat starter with rye.

If you mix one starter with wheat flour and one with rye, it’s most likely that you will see activity in the rye starter first. Rye flour is packed with microorganisms that will kickstart the fermenting process.
That’s why you should mix a rye starter even if you’re not pretending to use it. If your wheat starter is grumpy and tired, you just have to add a dollop of your rye starter that probably is trying to break out from the jar you’re keeping it in.

Starter

If you don’t want to mix a rye starter, you can add rye flour only. That will probably wake up your sleepy starter. If you want a “pure” wheat starter, you can try with whole wheat flour.
Personally, I always add a small amount of rye when I’m feeding my wheat starter. It almost never fails. You can also try to add some grated apple. I have never tried that myself, but some bakers claim that it can give some energy to a lazy starter.

Check the water quality.

If nothing helps, it may be a good idea to control the water. Most people use tap water, and in most cases that’s OK. But if your tap water consists high levels of chlorine or chloramine you may have to do something about it.
There’s a reason why chlorine is added to tap water, and that is to kill all those nasty bacteria that can’t wait to run havoc in your stomach. The problem is that some of the good bacteria in your starter may be killed as well.
There are three ways to solve this problem.Leave some water in an open container, exposed to air for 24 hours. Most of the chlorine will evaporate.

If you’re in a hurry, you can boil the water for 15 minutes. That will, however, remove most of the oxygen in the water as well. Yeast needs oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, so you have to restore it.
You can oxygenate the water by shaking it in a half-filled PET bottle for a minute.
However, if the tap water contains high levels of chloramine, the problem is more serious. Chloramine is more stable than Chlorine and therefore much harder to remove. The most practical solution, in this case, is to use bottled water.

There you have it. My best advice how to troubleshoot your sourdough starter. I will soon be back with some valuable information about what you should think about when baking your first sourdough bread. Meanwhile, it’s time for you to mix your own sourdough starter. Or wake up the grumpy one you already feeding and transform it into a bubbling inferno that will break out of the jar and make a complete mess in your kitchen.
And you will know that you have become a real sourdough nerd because all you can feel watching that mess is pure happiness.
Good luck.

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