My starter is not sour :(

Jane Williams's picture
Jane Williams

It's me!  I'm back with questions again.

I have been babying my starter (Buddy) for weeks now.  I followed SourDom's directions and finally got a starter that bubbled, thanks to all the advice here.  I have been feeding it once a day but for the last few days, I have fed twice a day.  It is 100% hydration.  I made Norwich sourdough and followed the directions to the letter.  Since I have little experience in automatically calculating the hours and time it takes to complete the process of making sourdough bread, I was up until 3 AM just waiting for it to rise long enough so I could stick it in the fridge until this morning to bake.

I baked and they are lovely.  But not sour and not holey.  So once again, I am needing your advice.

Thanks again,



192 users have voted.


eyendall 2011 May 26



I don't know if I can solve your sourness problem, but the appoach I detail below produces good bread  with holes and nice crust. There are many factors which go into producing a good sourdough loaf in addition to the starter. I think the secret lies in having the correct hydration, stretching and folding the dough rather than  kneading it  and so loosing most of the carbon dioxide needed to get a good rise and to produce the holes, and in baking at a high temperature.


I find it useful to use the word "culture" to refer to what is  usually called the starter, and use the word starter (or preferment) to refer to the leavening mixture made using some of the culture. As a novice I would read the instructions for making a "starter" and be confused by the notion of discarding and feeding this starter twice a day .....for ever? Not only tedious but wasteful. I finally twigged that the instructions were to produce a mature culture. Once you had achieved that, you used some of this culture to make your bread, each time replacing what you used. Nothing thrown away. No waste. And the culture lives forever.


Some suggestions based on what works for me:

Feed your unsour starter (Buddy) twice a day for a week or so with a 50=50 mixture of dark rye and unbleached white flours at 100% hydration. This should introduce some new beasties into the brew as well as enhance the overall structure of your bread. When you are happy with the result, i.e. have an established culture, stop feeding it daily. I feed mine  only when I make bread dough, replacing what i take out at 100% hydration and putting the container back in the fridge. Replenished this way it can sit for a week or even longer in the fridge without additional feeding. 


To make the bread dough, take your "Buddy" out of the fridge in the morning and make a "starter" or "preferment" using 100-150grams of "Buddy" mixed with equal parts of unbleached flour and water for 100% hydration. For me, this preferment totals about 300grams.

Let this preferment sit covered at room temperature for more a less the rest of the day and you will see some bubbles and frothing indicating ongoing fermentaion.

Mix this preferment with water and unbleached flour in the proprtions 1 preferment, 2 water, 3 flour. Typically I mix 300 grams preferment with 600 grams water and 900 grams flour. Sometimes depending on the flour and climate the dough is too wet and sticky so I simply add 50-100grams of flour thereby reducing somewhat the hydration. If you have to add flour do it now, not when your are stretching and folding the dough.

Let this sit to autolyse for an hour, then scrape it out of your bowl on to your working surface and stretch and fold the dough for 5-10 minutes. The dough will be sticky at first but eventually will become velvety. Resist the urge to flour the work surface or the dough. When the dough no longer sticks to the work surface or to your hands, form into a ball and place in a covered bowl and put the bowl in the fridge overnight. In the morning, take the dough out of the fridge and let sit at room temperature for 2-4 hours during which time it will start to rise. Take out the dough, gently stretch and fold it two or three times, shape into a boule or batard, cover and set aside for 1-3 hours to fully proof. 


To get the holes and nice crust, bake at 500F for 15 minutes then reduce to 460F for another minutes. Spray water into the hot oven at the beginning and again 10 minutes into the bake. Check temp of loaf's interior which should be around 200F when finished.


Don't get hung up on following precise timelines. At best these can only be approximate. An hour more or less rarely makes a huge difference.  Remember, you are in charge and you will get to it when you feel like it; not stay up to 3:00am at the whim of some hunk of dough.


Hope you find my experience helpful. 


Jane Williams's picture
Jane Williams 2011 May 27


Thank you so much for your reply. 

 I wanted to clarify that I don’t knead unless the recipe calls for kneading.  I just stretch and fold as I learned from the videos on this site.  When I was a base novice, I did follow SourDom’s instructions and did get my starter bubbling and foaming up a storm, and I understand that it is used to leaven in lieu of yeast.  I haven’t been feeding my starter twice a day except for the past 4 days because I was preparing it to be used.  And it always responds with gusto It has normally been sitting in my refrigerator.  But it is only a few weeks old at this point.  My starter reacts like a champ upon being fed.  Maybe I should have fed it longer than 4 days?  I did create another starter that is 50% rye and 50% white and 100% hydration.   I have used that twice for rye sourdough.  I thought it turned out great, but with rye it is difficult to always taste the “sour.”

I will try the 1-2-3 tactic and see how that does.  Since I just fed this evening, it is sitting in my oven with the light on so it stays around 72 deg.  It’s way colder than that at night here since we are having strange weather here in the US.

I have never stretched and folded for 10 minutes.  That will probably solve my lack of hole problem.  Makes sense to me.  I’m looking forward to feeling the dough change texture with my hands.

As for staying up until 3 AM…that will not happen again.  But I got a late start because I had unexpected company who showed up just after I was getting started and luckily was at a point where I could stop, and then start up later.  I also didn’t add up the hours it would take.  I was following a recipe and it said to shape it and let it rise 1.5 hours and stick it in the fridge.  So that’s what I did. 

I was just so disappointed this morning after baking my two loaves and then tasted them.  I put so much effort into them, I wanted them to be perfect.


eyendall 2011 May 26

 I forgot to mention that the salt is added during the stretch and fold process, not earlier.

Jeff 2011 May 26

 I had a not so sour starter for months until I decided not to discard and let it grow bigger and use more starter per loaf. At the same time I extended the proofing and rising times, I believe that the large starter is the reason for the sourness. I also use organic flour since I am weary of the effect of chemicals in the starter. I normally use whole wheat, spelt or rye flours to feed the starter, sort of feel that a more balanced diet is better for the bugs. I am going to stick with spelt since I like it best, and I manage to get it to rise well, and a bit of stickiness due to low gluten doesn't bother me. 

Merrid 2011 May 31

Granted, I try for unbleached white flour at least, but I don't use any other kind of flour and my bread is plenty sour.

I think the biggest factors in the sour flavour are the proportion of starter (obviously, more in the dough will be more sour), and the length of fermentation. So that it doesn't overproof during that time, retarding in the fridge is usually the best option - you can retard either for the bulk fermentation step (as eyendall does above) or for the final proof after shaping (which is what I do, as the timing works better for me). Or, presumably, both, but that would be a LONG time to wait for your bread!

The stretch and fold improves the structure of the crumb - it evens out the holes - but it doesn't form the holes. Higher hydration will do that (as for, say, ciabatta), but as with everything, too much water and the loaf will collapse under its own weight. Being gentle (i.e. stretch and fold rather than kneading) also prevents the bubbles from bursting, but the bubbles are actually formed by the yeast, and to a lesser extent, the lactobacillus.

I have also noticed that if my starter sponge is stiffer, the flavour is less sour - aim for a pancake batter consistency for the first stage (the bit you've taken out of the fridge and fed). You may need to wait a bit longer for it to reach that stage. I usually build my sponge in two stages, too, and that improves the flavour as well, as longer fermentation = more sourness. That is, I take a small bit out of the fridge, feed and wait for it to reach pancake batter; then feed once more and wait a second time to reach pancake batter consistency before I mix the final dough.

Jeff 2011 May 30

 I prefer to approach baking as an art rather than a science...

I saw hydration percentages and got confused, I bake with the minimum of measurements,

I know more or less how many cups of flour are in my dough,

and then I saw Merrid's post and with "pancake batter consistency" rather than "percentage hydration".

and I smiled,

at last a "normal" approach (in my own humble opinion)

I treat the whole breadmaking process as an art more than a science,

and enjoy experiencing the different textures, stickynesses, as aromas.

a good starter smells right, a good dough feels good and soft...

So how could all this non scientific stuff work?

I read that different flours absorb different amounts of water,

I suppose that's logical, different batches, different grain suppliers, climate, rainfall, storage conditions,

so the "pancake batter approach" would take this into account,

but the "percentage hydration" would not...

Please don't get me wrong, I'm not against scientists,

It is just interesting that different human natures express themselves in different baking techniques, 

Being an "artist" baker or a "scientist" baker is of course part of our human makeup

each as valid as the other...

Merrid 2011 May 31

I think you misunderstood what I meant. I measure quantities by gram weight, but that's not the only thing going on. When I said I feed the culture, I mean I feed it at 100% hydration, at which point it will be quite stiff when freshly fed. I don't feed it to a consistency of pancake batter - that happens once the creatures get going and it's just another way of determining that the population has spread throughout the fresh mix. I also look for bubbles on the surface and through the mix and a few other things.

But it's difficult to describe what is meant by "ready" or "feels right" (or even "soft", which is relative) without a common frame of reference, which I thought the phrase "pancake batter" would provide. So it's not that "percentage hydration" doesn't take the different absorption properties of flour into account while "pancake batter" does: in fact, it's almost the opposite. If I fed wholemeal flour at 100% hydration, it may not even reach pancake batter, if this type of flour absorbs more water - you would expect the mix to be a bit stiffer even after the flora have spread.

But then I think that chemistry, especially organic chemistry, IS rather more artistic than you assume. I prefer to approach baking for what it is: extremely complicated chemistry which we make sense of with our equally complicated senses, and our rather less able powers of communication. Like art. Or even computer programming.

panfresca 2011 May 30

 Of course you need to be sensitive to what's going on in the dough, but if you say it's all one or the other, I think your bread will be the worse for it. I don't think bakers who make use of scientific method and knowledge to improve their bread are as rigid in its application as you seem to think... after all that wouldn't be scientific...!


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