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Why Has My Sourdough Starter Died?

Three Sourdough Starters in Glass Mason Jars2

ACE Bakery® Master Baker tips to ensure your next starter is a winner!

Nothing is more frustrating than going through the work of making and feeding your bread starter at home only to have it die before you want to bake off a warm loaf to share with the family.  

First off, don’t worry, you’re not alone!  There are a number of reasons that this can happen throughout the process.  The overarching problem is that when yeast bacteria eats up the sugar properties in flour your starter can die.  

Our ACE Bakery® Master Baker Marcus Mariathas has some helpful tips to help ensure that your next sourdough starter is a success.

The first step to ensuring that you have a strong starter is to follow a good recipe for the mixture. Here is one that Marcus uses at home.

This recipe takes about seven days.  

You’ll need to ‘feed’ your starter each day with equal parts water to flour.  

Keep looking for bubbles in your starter as a sign of activity and then continue to feed regularly around the same time of day each day if possible.  

Day #1: Creating your starter

Combine the following ingredients in a glass bowl and mix well using hands or spatula.  

45 grams Whole Rye Flour or Whole Wheat Flour

60 grams Water

Once mixed, transfer to a glass or plastic container (Marcus recommends a glass mason jar) being sure to scrape down the sides and tighten lid before setting aside to store for 24 hours at room temperature.

 Three Sourdough Starters in Glass Mason Jars2

Day #2 -#7 Feeding your starter

Combine the following ingredients in the same glass or plastic container.  

45 grams Whole Rye Flour/ Whole Wheat Flour

45 grams of your starter from Day #1

60 grams of Water

Mix well using hands or spatula, once again scraping downsides and then transferring back to your jar or container and set aside to rest for another 24 hours.

 Three Fermenting Sourdough Starters in Glass Mason Jars2

During days two through seven, you’re going to be taking your starter from growth to maturation stage, ensuring to feed it the same measurements of Whole Rye Flour or Whole Wheat Flour, your starter from the previous day and water each of the 6 days.

After day #7 your starter is just about ready to see some real baking action!

You can either choose to begin using your starter or now put it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to bake off your final sourdough.

In order to prepare your final dough, you’ll need to add your All-Purpose Flour to the mixture over about 24 hours.

Primary Step

Combine the following ingredients together and mix well using hands or a spatula.

23 grams Whole Rye Flour/Whole Wheat Flour

22 grams A/P bread white flour

45 Starter from Day #7 or from the refrigerator from Day #7  

60 grams of water at 25 degrees Celsius 

Once thoroughly mixed, transfer your mixture back to your jar, cover, and leave at room temperature for 8 hours.  Continue doing this step at the 8th, 16th, and 24th hours.  After the fourth round, you are ready to begin baking your sourdough.

Now that you have a great sourdough starter recipe, it takes some work to ensure that it won’t give out on you once you’re ready to use it.  

Baking artisanal quality bread at home isn’t always achieved at first pass so stick with it!  Here are some common mistakes to avoid for bread starter success.

7 Ways to Save Your Sourdough Starter

Your goals when dealing with a starter are to maintain both the strength and performance of the product.  This will ensure that your final baked bread comes out just right!

1. Feeding Time

If you want your starter to grow, you need to ‘feed’ it!  As shown in Marcus’ recipe, you’ll need to feed your starter every day for the first seven days.  Some recipes do call for shorter times closer to five days as well.  Once your starter has hit maturation, you’re ready to start prepping it for your final dough which takes about 24 hours with feeding every eight hours or so.  Many home bakers may forget to feed their starters, improperly measure the amount of flour or water being added in at each stage or not store correctly.  Following a good recipe and instructions closely can help ensure you don’t fall into any of these common traps.

2. Water Temperature

Another reason your sourdough starter may not have been a success is because the water you’ve used is too cold.  Your ideal water temperature when dealing with a bread starter is 21-26 degrees Celsius.

3. Mixing Temperature?

When it comes to baking artisan-quality bread, temperature is crucial.  While this can be more easily controlled in a bakery setting this isn’t always the case in a home kitchen, especially when you’re dealing with backyard doors opening and closing, light, and heat coming in from windows or working on other meals for the family while you want to make, rest or feed your starter. 

Without even realizing it, you could be damaging your starter by working with it at the wrong room temperature.  Try to create and refresh your starters when you’re not cooking or baking anything else.  Your optimal temperature is 22-24 degrees Celsius. 

4. Left Out Too Long?

Things can get super busy while you’re at home.  From dealing with the kids, playing with your pet, getting a delivery, or jumping on a call.  Distractions, even a small one can result in leaving your starter out at room temperature for too long which then leads to a dying starter.

5. The Balance of Time and Temperature

Just as temperature of the kitchen or the water you’re using in the mixture can affect the strength and performance of your starter, time and temperature are both critical along the entire process when it comes to a healthy bread starter.  

When creating your starter, mix it until it’s smooth and transfer to a mason jar with a tight lid or another glass jar with a strong lid.  Let your mixture rest at room temperature (21 degrees Celsius) for two to four hours until it starts to show signs of life or bubbles.  At this point, you can refrigerate.  

There are basically three rules when it comes to temperature.

When you’re storing your starter for fermentation do so at room temperature.

When your starter is dormant or holding for final use, keep it in the refrigerator.

When you are prepping your starter for final dough, keep it at ambient temperature.

6. Refresh Correctly

Once you’ve made your starter, it’s important to refresh or feed it correctly before use.  The minimum number of times that you’ll need to refresh is two or three before you can go ahead and use it in your final dough.  The multiple refreshers are important to ensuring you achieve the sourdough taste, as well as the strength as well as to ensure that you wake up your starters when for showtime!

7. Using a Sleeping Starter

It can be aggravating to go through all the right processes to ensure that you have the perfect starter only to see it fail just as you’re ready to use it in your final dough.  One of the main reasons this may be happening is because you’re using it fresh out of the fridge. The problem with this is that your starter isn’t fully awake yet and won’t be able to bring the strength, flavour or performance that your final dough will need to bake to perfection.

Baking your own sourdough bread at home is not an easy feat, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t see optimal results on your first go.  From the right starter to the right tools, and ideal ingredients there are a number of steps during the process that you’ll need to practice to perfect.  Stick with it and if all else fails you could always just pick up a freshly baked loaf of ACE Bakery® bread at your local Loblaws store!

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