How do I know when my sourdough starter is ready?

How do I know when my sourdough starter is ready?

Posted on 20. Mar, 2015 by in Bread and conversation

I have had a high volume of messages lately from people whose sourdough bread is not working out.  Some are old hands who seem to have lost their touch.  Others are newbies who cannot seem to make it work.  I think what is going on is that they are using a starter that is not refreshed enough to ferment their dough. So, how do you know when your sourdough starter is ready?

Sourdough baking is more about developing an understanding than developing knowledge.  All the knowledge in the world sometimes does not help you.  It takes time, effort, patience (and a lot of toast) to get to where you want to get to with sourdough bread.  The main event is the starter because that is where the yeast is.  It has to be bubbly and lively in order for it to be able to ferment dough for you to bake into bread.  However, how bubby is bubbly?  When do I know whether it's bubbly enough?  Thankfully, you don't have to rely on a bubble count!

It's always easy to tell when your rye starter is refreshed.  It looks frothy like this:

Refreshed rye starter - always easy to tell if it's ready

Frothy on top = ready!

However, it is not always easy to tell if your wheat starter is ready.  When you first stir the starter (which I keep in the fridge) together with the flour and water a few bubbles may appear simply because there is air in the mix.

Starter, flour and water just stirred together.

Starter, flour and water just stirred together.

After 12-24 hours (it depends when it was last refreshed) it may look bubblier:

Wheat sourdough starter 24 hours after new flour and water added.

Wheat sourdough starter 24 hours after new flour and water added.

It is never frothy, like the rye, but it should be bubbly.  However, the bubbles do not necessarily indicate that the sourdough starter ready to use.  In order to determine that with total accuracy, that your refreshed starter is ready to use, do the water test:  Put a spoonful of your refreshed starter in a glass of water.  If your refreshed starter floats, it is ready to use.

If it floats, it's ready to use.

If it floats, it's ready to use.

If it sinks it is not ready OR you have left it too long and it's gone past its peak.  Either way, it will not ferment your dough and the result will be a rather flat, worthy loaf.  Never forget, even if it's ugly it's good toasted.

If it sinks it is not ready to use OR it's past it's peak

If it sinks it is not ready to use OR it's past it's peak

You know your starter is sinking because it has gone past its peak (as opposed to simply not being ready) if the bowl of starter from which you have taken to spoonful to use in the float test has split or has completely separated so that there is a lake of water floating on the top.

A little rim of water showing the starter is beginning to split and may be losing its puff.

A little rim of water showing the starter is beginning to split and may be losing its puff. Do the float test to be sure.

If your starter is not ready after 24 hours simply take some out and make ordinary bread (adding yeast to the mix) using the goo as a biga or poolish.  Then, refresh the remainder again by weighing it and adding the same amount of flour and the same amount of water and covering it and leaving it for 12-24 hours.  Do the float test again to check.  If your starter is not ready again, do the same thing.  Keep doing this (removing some, baking some normal bread, refreshing the rest) until your starter passes the float test.  What you are doing is effectively making a new starter because, for whatever reason, your current one does not work very well.  Always remember to make slightly more than you need so that you have some to put back in the fridge for the next time you want to bake.

Baking sourdough bread is not inherently complicated although admittedly it is more complicated at first than baking with commercial yeast.  It is simply that there are some sensitivities in making and using a starter that you need to learn and get used to and this takes some time.  Remember that natural yeast is less powerful than commercial yeast and it is more sensitive to changes in temperature.  Remember too that the refreshed starter is simply yeast trapped in a paste.  That paste contributes the yeast (enabling the dough to rise) as well as the acidic flavour and chewy texture that comes with sourdough bread.  It does not contribute flour as we understand it.  That is to say, it does not contribute gluten that is strong enough to make dough stand up.  The gluten in the flour that is in the refreshed starter is more or less all eaten up while the starter refreshes.  What this means is that there is no strength in the paste to hold up the dough as it rises.  Only the new flour will do that.  To that end, there is a maximum ratio of refreshed starter to flour that you can use if you want your dough to stand up and bake into something that looks and tastes like bread, rather than collapse and look like solidified custard inside a crust.

More on that tomorrow!

To learn more, take a one day sourdough course with us.  You will learn a ton and have ample time in a small and cosy setting to ask all your questions, get your hands extremely sticky, and have plenty of delicious bread to take home.

 

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24 Responses to “How do I know when my sourdough starter is ready?”

  1. Michelle Snyder

    18. Mar, 2016

    Love this! SO, I had a nice bubbly starter going and then I bought this new fancy dancy sprouted wheat flour and started feeding it to the starter, which seemed to kill it. What happened? Is it time to start over?

  2. virtuousbread

    18. Mar, 2016

    Dear Michelle, thanks for the message. I have never heard of sprouted flour killing a starter. Never! This is a first and I am not sure what to say. Is it still in a state of collapse a few hours later or has it perked up?

  3. Beth Bentley

    03. Apr, 2016

    This is an excellent explanation. I actually have a rye starter and a sourdough starter, and I have been so confused as to why rye is frothy and wonderful while the wheat looks...bleh. I originally killed my sourdough, because I forgot about it in the fridge, and it started to actually smell sour and not fruity. This really helps me out.

  4. virtuousbread

    08. Apr, 2016

    Hi there Beth and thanks for this. The smelling sour bit is perfectly normal. It really stinks when it's old. But it gets nice again when it gets new food!

  5. Ruth

    15. Apr, 2016

    Hi, loved your page. I do have a question though. If my starter floats for a few seconds and then sinks is that a bad or good sign? Should I use it? This is my very first starter and I have no clue what I'm doing. Thanks. It is a white flour and wheat flour starter.

  6. virtuousbread

    15. Apr, 2016

    Hi Ruth

    If it sinks straight away, let it sit for a few more hours and then try again. It should really float. It's getting there!

  7. Napoli Restaurant Alert

    25. Jun, 2016

    Love the float test! Have never heard of it before - thanks!

  8. Anshu

    26. Jul, 2016

    My starter was ready till yesterday. I was travelling so when I returned today it did not pass the floa t test. Kindly define refreshed starter for me. I have fed it again. And when u think I shud do the test again. Thankyou for all the help

  9. virtuousbread

    26. Jul, 2016

    A refreshed starter will float - that indicates there is enough activity in it to actually make dough rise. So follow the steps that you did before (put what you don't need in the fridge or discard it) and wait for a few hours. After such a recent refreshment it won't take so long to be lively enough to float.

  10. Allanb

    09. Aug, 2016

    Hi, my sourdough starter is been bubbling like crazy but won't float and it's on its 9th day. Any ideas as to why? Thank you in advance

  11. virtuousbread

    09. Aug, 2016

    Dear Allan, that is very odd. What grain is it and how have you made and fed it? Thanks!

  12. Marissa

    04. Jan, 2017

    Hi there! I started making my starter on 12/29/16. I followed instructions from someone on Pinterest. 4oz of water to 4 oz of flour for the first 7 days. So mine should be ready tomorrow.
    I have mine in a big glass container. I just did the water test and it immediately sunk. It smells like sourdough, has bubbles but is still kind of thick.
    Last time i fed it was around 4:30 this evening. I hope I haven't failed, really wanted to make some bread. Would appreciate any advice! Thanks :)

  13. virtuousbread

    05. Jan, 2017

    Hi Marissa

    7 days in in fact too long - 4 days is about right. I would (and I shudder to recommend this but I will) throw about most of it. How much do you need for your recipe? If it is, say, 6 oz, I would take 3 oz of your starter and mix it with 3 of water and 3 of flour and put it in a bowl. That is 9 oz. Cover the bowl with a plate and leave it overnight. It should pass the float test in the morning. Then take the 6 oz (or whatever and use it) and take th 3 oz and put it in a jar and put it in the fridge so you have some leftover to use the next time you want to bake. Look here: http://www.virtuousbread.com/bread-and-conversation/can-i-keep-my-sourdough-starter/ and have a read. it's kind of the "last phase" of the process but following the links you can work backward to the beginning! I hope this helps.

  14. Humberto

    15. Jan, 2017

    Hi! What a great page. I've tried already 3 attempts to make sourdough prior to finding this web page. Getting better (the second attempt I came up with a new bread: rock bread LOL). I fed my starter last night around 7pm. I marked the level in the container (mark #1) By 11 pm it had risen about 1 inch and bubbly and I marked that level (#2), I use one of those plastic 1 qt containers. This morning it had come down to mark #1 but still bubbly. It passed the float test, so I'm making the dough right now. My question, should I have done it last night at 11 pm when it was at its "peak", or does it still work this morning because it floats? Thanks!

  15. virtuousbread

    15. Jan, 2017

    THanks for this. I am glad it helped. Did you test it at 11? The main thing is as long as it floats, it works.

  16. Humberto

    15. Jan, 2017

    Yes it did float at 11 last night. But I decided to wait till this morning, it dropped down in volume but still floated. I have the dough riding right now. My book says 2 hours. How long do you recommend for this first rise? Thanks again!

  17. Carol Foster

    28. Feb, 2017

    My starter has been on the counter [kind of cold inside the house] for over a week or so, I use a screen to cover it. I feed it every 12 hours.
    It has lot of little bubbles, and smells good. I tried putting a spoonful into a glass with room temp water, and it sunk to the bottom.
    I only used unbleached bread flour, and honey.
    What am I doing wrong?

  18. virtuousbread

    05. Mar, 2017

    Dear Carol, please tell me I responded to you in an e mail? If not, SORRY - let me know and I will respond asap

  19. Carol Foster

    07. Mar, 2017

    I got one email from you. But I didn't see an answer, maybe I missed it.
    My Starter did float 2 day's ago. However, it's not floating now! Do you scrape the top to see it float, or do you mix it well then give it the float test?
    Also, my Starter doesn't have that sour smell. How can I make it more sour I do love that that sourdough taste?

  20. Carol Foster

    09. Mar, 2017

    Your email was very helpful, and I believe my Sourdough Starter is ready to be put in the fridge.

    I am confused on this now! I fed it at 7:00am, it's now 12:20pm, and it's rising full of bubbles. [Room Temp is 64 degrees]

    Question number 1. Do I put it in the fridge now while it's active or do I wait until it drops?

    Question number 2. I don't understand the part where they say don't put the lid on tight. Does that mean only turn the lid half ways?

  21. linda

    15. Mar, 2017

    do you have info on gluten free sourdough starter

  22. virtuousbread

    15. Mar, 2017

    Dear Linda

    sadly I do not.....you may want to look for a specialist GF baking site

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