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Sourdough Bread Troubleshooting (Part 1)


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Ahh if only my starter smelled like bad cheese again.

It smelled like nail polish remover. It is gone now, and after the roofers finish up I will start a new one.

It was very strange to have to run to the store for yeast just to make a pizza last weekend.


The great thing about barbeque is that when you get hungry 3 hours later....you can lick your fingers


Avoid cutting yourself while slicing vegetables by getting someone else to hold them while you chop away.

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Ahh if only my starter smelled like bad cheese again.

It smelled like nail polish remover. It is gone now, and after the roofers finish up I will start a new one.

It was very strange to have to run to the store for yeast just to make a pizza last weekend.


Mine has had moments of smelling of nail-polish remover, but seemed OK nonetheless. I think I read somewhere that it had to do with being "under-fed", and gave it a few good meals. It recovered, and I baked with it, and lived to tell the tale. Did I do wrong?

On the temperature issue, I did mine at room temperature, and it got going fine and reasonably swiftly.

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i'm looking forward to getting my own starter going, but am at a loss for a place in my apartment that exists at a constant 90 degrees... anybody rigged up any particularly ingenious (read: cheap) methods to do this?

You don't actually need to go to too much trouble. There are a number of equally viable ways, although for me 90 degrees is between 5 to 10 degrees higher than I prefer. I used to get mine up to speed with 85 degrees and then over time noticed it actually performed better at about 80 degrees.

You could get that either by simply setting it on a counter at room temp (in a reasonably temperate room) or under a lamp. But I do use a big plastic storage box I got at Wal Mart, a clamp-on lamp and a 60 Watt bulb lowered into the box. Loosely cover with the lid, maybe a towel as well in cooler or cold weather. And a cheap plastic thermometer to set inside.

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I don't worry about temperature at all. Following the advice of Jack, Vanessa, etc (thanks all!) I got a new flour and water-only starter going a few weeks back and it now sits in a sprouter jar on the kitchen worktop (about 70 degrees), bubbling away happily and retaining a good, constantly evolving sourness. Even when I don't feed it for days at a time it doesn't seem to mind.

I did get that bad cheese effect once when lack of time made me prove a wet dough mix at a too-high temperature. The wife thought I'd made parmesan bread. But every other loaf made with it has been beautiful. I hardly ever use instant yeast now, except to smooth out the sourdough for baguettes and the like.

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excellent... i've heard enough about the 90 degrees being a requirement to keep the right yeast going and the 'bad' yeast out to worry about doing it at 70-something. but with your info in mind i'll give it a shot.

any rules or tips from making the transition from the counter to the fridge once it gets up and bubbling?

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I tend to be fairly slapdash with the whole thing and it works out. I do give myself plenty of time to reactivate when I'm going to do a loaf (in the winter I tend to bake only about every three weeks or so).

Then I bring it back sort of easy at 70degF or so interior house temperature.

When I toss activated yeast into storage, I don't even think about it. A clean jar with a lid and several spoonfuls of activated starter into the fridge for anywhere from a couple of weeks to many months.

When I want a speedier refresh of the starter, by the way, I often put the proving bowl with the newly fed starter on the top of the water heater.

Stephen Bunge

St Paul, MN

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You are right 90F is too hot, and the yeast slows down. 85F is better.

Just out of interest I replotted Ganzle's data on the relative activity of lactobacillus sanfrancisco and the yeast candida milleri.


You will see the lacto bacillus dominates when it is cold (fridge) or warm (above 85F). The baker can adjust the ratio of bacillus to yeast, and hence the taste of the bread by fermenting for all or part of the time at these temperatures. I like my bread tangy, so I tend to ferment the preferment quite hot, and retard cold.

However if you are making salt-raised bread the leavening agent, the bacteria Clostridium perfringens (see http://www.nyx.net/~dgreenw/whatissaltrisingbread.html ) prefers it warmer: the temperature range 95F-105F. It may be that is what is responsible for the characteristic cheesy smell

Edited by jackal10 (log)
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way to bust out the charts, jackal!

so it appears from looking at this lovely graph that my theoretical room temp starter, at or around 70, would be the least tangy of all temperature possibilities.

that doesn't sound very promising. :sad:

you can't start it cold, can you? as in, in the fridge (please pardon if that's a stupid question, a lot of this still seems a bit like alchemy to me)?

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you can't start it cold, can you?  as in, in the fridge (please pardon if that's a stupid question, a lot of this still seems a bit like alchemy to me)?

I do my starter in the fridge and I retard the dough as soon as I mix it. If I use a ratio of 1:3 starter to total flour, I get a good but not too extreme sourness that is quite pleasant.

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I get good sourness with a mostly room-temp (70ish) ferment followed by a retarding cold. In fact people I have given loaves to comment on my not being very timid with the sourness.

Stephen Bunge

St Paul, MN

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I have just started... I mean JUST started ... to look into making and baking sourdough. I have read the recos about not attempting to start your own starter when just beginning, but I want to. The only question i have about the starter at this point is: how long in general should you allow it to ripen, before using in your first loaf? In my bit of research, I have seen a very WIDE range of opinions in how long you need to grow it, until it's ready for use.

Interested in opinions of those of you on this forum...

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Having done this only once, I can't claim to be any sort of expert. But I can describe my experience. I think mine took about 7 days until I baked with it; it worked fine then, though I kept feeding it for a week or so longer before putting it in the fridge. It should be quite clear once you have some action going on: my recollection is that this was around day 3 or 4. By about day 5 it was clearly and strongly active, and looking as it should. Then, I guess a few more days to "strengthen" it and get it really happy.

The worst that can happen is that you bake too soon and get one or two bad/slow batches, I think. So long as you keep some of the starter back and continue to feed, which is what you will be doing anyway, you can always try again a few days later.

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The worst that can happen is that you bake too soon and get one or two bad/slow batches, I think. So long as you keep some of the starter back and continue to feed, which is what you will be doing anyway, you can always try again a few days later.

thanks Paul, that's good advice. You're right, i hadn't considered it's not an "all or nothing" proposition, it's a "if not now, try again in a couple days". I'll get it started tonight. By the way, what was your MO on the starter, flour + water, potato water, etc? Also would be interested to hear your "feeding schedule" for that first week... how frequently did you replenish?

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I'm not sure if you are still following this thread, but I thought I might throw in a thought or two.

I've been confounded by some of the same things mentioned here. In particular, the relationship between flavor development and time. Although I'm interested in a slightly different discovery than the one you seem to be after with regards to yeast development (sourdough pain l'ancienne to be precise), there is something that has both helped and plagued my bread quest for quite some time that might be of use to you...

Think of flavor development (meaning essentially fermentation, enzyme activity, sugar break-out, the amylase, etc.) and rise - as two separate things. Although they certainly have some relation, pain l'ancienne technique has taught us nothing if not that they can be separated in terms of process. This may sound obvious to say, but think about how inextricably linked rise and fermentation have been in our minds throughout bread history. They really are not the same thing. The whole trick is to perfectly balance three things:

1) Get the maximum sugar breakout from the starches in the grain.

2) Get a large buildup of carbon dioxide from the yeast feeding on that sugar to raise the loaf so that it can bake deeply and caramelize.

3) Don't give them long to do it or they will eat most of the sugar and the bread loses flavor.

To this end - I think you are onto something with your pursuit for the right heat for fermentation. However - my guess is that you will find that it is only applicable to making great bread if you limit the heat application to your final proof - which can be, and I think should be, short. All bulk fermentations I'm betting will turn out to be best done slowly and coldly.

My theory is that flavor development does take time, and that it is best done in either a yeast free environment, or one in which the yeast is so sleepy that it isn't eating much (i.e. cold). However, proofing (which really serves almost exclusively to pump up the bread with carbon dioxide so that it can make a great shape, give a good rise, and bake and caramelize the crumb as deeply as possible), can be done quickly in a warm environment and will, in fact, improve the bread as it will give the yeast less time to eat an excess of the sugars. The whole secret is thinking of flavor development and rise as two separate things.

I recognize this is not directly an answer to your question - but I'm betting that it this is related and might be able to help - particularly with a person who is approaching things with as much understanding and doing as much research as you seem to be. We are not really looking for as much yeast as we can get are we? We are looking for as much flavor as we can get. Yeast is primarily giving us lift from its... well... you know. If we could get the yeast leftovers, without any yeast, we might still be able to have great bread!

We've been locked into thinking that developing flavor means prolonging rise , and that isn't quite true is it...


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  • 2 months later...

I posted an excel spreadsheet of a calculator for people who like to make sourdough bread. It works in grams but it also automatically converts to ounces. Check it out and offer any improvements. I couldn't figure out how to post it on eGullet so posted it here. Sourdough calculator

It's pretty self-explanatory, you need to enter the weight of your starter, the percent of starter in the final dough, its hydration (in baker's percentage), the hydration of the dough you want to make (in baker's percentage), and percentage of salt (which may differ depending on salt you use).

The calculator then tells you how much water, flour and salt to add to the starter to make the dough.

Thanks to the original too http://samartha.net/SD/SDcalc04.html, where I got the idea, but his does not convert to ounces.

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Hello Everyone,

Well, for my first ever post in Egullet I would have hoped to start with something more cheery, but unfortunately, it's been a bad day for breadmaking...

I tried my first ever breadmaking attempt today, using the Castilian Sourdough recipe from "The Foods of Spain and Portugal" by Luard. Suffice to say it didn't work out, but what I am looking for are specifics on the smell of the starter. Luard doesn't mention, but other things I have read say it should smell "fresh". Mine smelt earthy, but I went ahead and used it, not sure what fresh smells like and thinking that I would know as soon as I tasted if that wasn't right. It wasn't! The bread tastes like mouldy facecloths. :unsure:

Maybe I was silly to have used it, but it didn't look off and I really had nothing to compare it to. It bubbled and did all the other things she said it would, but because of the taste and the fact that the bread is as flat as a pancake, I am assuming that it was a starter problem. Could anyone tell me what the starter should smell like, and why it might have gone off? The only thing I can think of is that the temperatures might have been lower than they should have been (about 20 degrees celsius), and might have fluctuated by 2 - 3 degees over the 48 hours. I am a real baking novice, so you'll need to speak very slooowwwly :biggrin:

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The starter should small yeasty and sour.

Not to worry though, Take a tablespoon of your starter into a cup of water and a cup of flour, and ferment covered in a warm placce for 24 hours. Should be bubbly and smell yeasty.

IF you want do this (refreshing) again.

Sourdough is very slow compared to yeast.

To make the bread make s ponge first and ferment that for 12 hours,

then make the dough, which will tak about 4 hours at 90F to rise.

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Are you trying to do a natural starter (just water and flour) or are you doing a yeast starter (water, yeast, and flour)?

If you're doing a natural starter, then you should use organic flour and distilled water. The pesticide and fertilizer residues in regular flour and the chlorine in tap water can interfere with the ability of the natural yeast spores to take hold in your starter. You shoud also sterlize any implements (bowls, measuring cups, spoons, etc) before you use them. You can just boil the items to sterilize them. If you don't sterilize, then you run the risk of having a moldy starter. However, if you're doing a yeast starter, then you don't have to worry about any of that since you're introducing enough yeast to overcome all of those issues.

Building a sourdough starter takes almost a week. If after four days of building the starter you don't see any activity (no bubbles, no yeasty/sour/alcohol smell, etc), then you need to throw it out and start over. If your book doesn't give you detailed instructions on how to properly begin a starter, then you need to look elsewhere.

If you're bread came out flat, then it sounds like you didn't ferment the dough enough. Forget about the "ferment until doubled in size" guideline. In general, what you should look for is spongy surface with lots of trapped gas. Coat your finger in flour then stick it into the fermented dough at least halfway up your finger and pull it out. The indentation from our finger should remain in the dough and the area around the indentation should start to collapse. You don't want the entire surface of the dough to collapse, that means it is over-fermented. You just want the area about the size of silver dollar to collapse into the indentation. That's when you know it's fermented enough.

Good luck!

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I have created sourdough loaves with both organic and non-organic flour and both work fine. I use spring water (not distilled) and it works fine. The chlorine in tap water may inhibit natural yeast, but I have used tap water as well and it has worked.

The question I have about your starter is, after you fed it (ie, with fresh flour and water) and set it aside, did it rise as well as get bubbly? If you do repeated feedings to a dormant starter, allowing it to rise with each feeding until doubled in size, you will get a very good starter. But you need to start with a sourdough starter, which as the previous writer pointed out, is different from a starter you create with commercial yeast.

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Hi Niamh,

Looking at the recipe on amazon.com, these are the changes I would make to stay true to the author's method but ensure a better result. I only have access to the US edition which is in cups but you should get the gist of it. I have a topic on my forum about what type of flour to look for in Spain:


First of all the instructions (on page 110 in the US edition) for the starter might not always work well. Working "1 cup of flour with 1/2 cup of water to make a thick cream" (para 1 in the method) will probably make dough rather than a thick cream, so start with 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup water. Try mixing equal quantities flour and water, ideally part whole-wheat or rye flour as this will be more likely to contain the wild yeast and bacteria you need for fermentation.

Next, Luard leaves the starter mixture for 24 hours, then adds another "cup of flour and 1/2 cup water. Set aside for another 24 hours to bubble and ferment." Though in the book Luard describes people making a sourdough from scratch with only 48 hours for the fermentation to set in the starter, I have never encountered this nor been able to make it happen that way, unless there is someway to add some old starter - perhaps some that remains on the inside of a favourite wooden mixing bowl. People making bread the traditional way sometimes have a wooden bowl they use to make bread in, that is only just scraped "clean" after the dough has been made. Traces of yeast and bacteria would be left in the bowl ready to be reawakened the next baking day, and perhaps this is the secret to this loaf?

What I would do is, after leaving it for 24 hours initially, stir in another 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup water. Leave this another 24 hours then remove 3/4 and add in 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup water. Continue doing this until the mixture is bubbling and smells slightly acidic. If you continue doing this day after day, eventually fermentation will commence. You just need a little faith along the way, nature will do the rest. Then, as the recipe says, freeze half of the starter. I've been hearing many reports from bakers telling me this works well for them, though I haven't tried it myself.

Back to the recipe. Once your starter is bubbling, use the amount Luard suggests - 1 cup starter, 5 1/2 cups flour and 2 1/2 cups (I would use 3 1/2 cups) water - to "make a soft, very wet dough." As in the recipe leave this at warm room temperature (22C - 25C) for 12 hours. Then add 5 1/2 cups water, 4 - 5 level tsp salt, and sufficient water to make a soft dough - the recipe says 1 1/2 cups but you may need more.

Knead as the recipe says, but where you are told to "leave the dough for an hour or two until it doubles in size" I would guess you should leave the dough for 4 - 5 hours (at 22C - 25C) until you can see bubbles forming in the dough. Then follow the remaining instructions for the recipe.

Hope this makes sense.


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Wow, thank you all for taking the time to help me out. Dan, the advice on flour in Spain was great - I could only find one type too. I will take my life in my hands and be a bit braver about asking around. Once I have found good flour I will give it a go again, following your tips, and then I will report back!

The starter was natural, but didn't rise at all really. I need to rack my brains to find a good, warm place in the flat. It seems to be 20º wherever I go, and there's no airing cupboard, which others have told me works well. I hope it does work at some point, like I said, I am total beginner, but there is something very fun about the whole process. I haven´t even managed an edible loaf yet and I am already addicted!

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      *After the 4 hours are up (crisping the vegetables as described above) pour the vegetables into a large colander and rinse well. The cucumber slices should taste only slightly salty. Return the rinsed vegetables to the bowl, add the mustard seeds and celery seeds and toss well until evenly distributed. Set aside.
      Return the syrup to the microwave, microwave on high for 8 to 10 minutes [or heat the syrup on the stovetop] until an instant read thermometer shows the temperature of the syrup is 190 to 200 degrees.
      Place the vegetables into one wide-mouth quart jar, or in 2 wide-mouth pint
      jars that have been scalded as described above. Pour the syrup over the vegetables, place the lids on the jar or jars, tighten well and place in the refrigerator overnight.
      The following day, turn the jar upside down - then continue to turn every day for 2 weeks. (This is to insure that the pickles are evenly flavored)
      After 2 weeks open the jar and taste. The pickles should be ready to eat.
      Pickles will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 months.
      ( RG2154 )
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