Sourdough bread under water
June 1, 2020 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Like a cliche, I've been trying a sourdough starter. Last night, I made a dough with it for the first time, and this morning I notice there is liquid on top of the dough. Is it okay, or what can I do to rescue it?

I've been feeding a tiny starter for about a month, one feeding a day, 15g flour / 15g water / 10g starter. This is my first bake with it; the starter smells at least somewhat sourdoughy.

Over the weekend, I tried to increase the amount of starter with two larger feedings, first tripling my standard feed and then doubling it again so it was enough for a recipe. It was a little bubbly but not very bubbly; the starter hasn't ever been very bubbly or active, maybe on the second or third day but not since.

I used this no-knead NYT recipe -- 475g flour, 6g salt, 300g water, 180g starter and left it on the counter overnight in a large bowl covered with cling film.

This morning, about 12h later, the dough looks like this. It has risen some but not a lot, and there's a small amount of liquid around the dough at the edge of the bowl, maybe a tablespoon or two. The liquid tastes salty, and doesn't have any alcohol taste. (My googling for this problem talks a lot about sourdough 'hooch' which doesn't make a ton of sense since the starter has all the flour in the world.)

What should I do here? Should I give it more time and hope it rises more? Should I add in some standard yeast to try and ensure it rises? Something else? I was hoping to have it for supper, so I still have 6 hours until I'd like to have it in the oven.
posted by Homeboy Trouble to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've made the same bread with a starter several times in the last month. I would note that you are using triple the starter that the comments under the recipe suggest, 180g instead of 60. At 100% starter hydration (equal parts flour and water) your bread works out to 82% hydration instead of the 70% in the recipe, so that's pretty wet, though not outrageously so. In general more hydration is better for the final product, but it's harder to work with. I agree that it should be rising by now, though. What's your room temperature like? Ours is around 75F / 24C. For reference, in the morning when I make that bread it looks like this. To jumpstart it, you can put a small pan of water in the oven, turn it on for a few minutes, then turn it off and put the dough in for a couple hours (or use the proofing setting if your oven has one). If it's not very bubbly by that point I would sprinkle 1 tsp / 4g yeast onto the bread, knead it in as gently as I could, and repeat the proofing in the oven until doubled. If it rises too much you can put it in the fridge before baking. Worst case you can slice it all up, let stale overnight, and make bread crumbs out of it. Way, way better than the tasteless commercial powder that comes in the can. BTW, Bittman has changed the recipe to use more salt, I like it better with 9g.
posted by wnissen at 10:31 AM on June 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Agree with wnissen that it should have risen by now and if you want to rescue it for dinner it's time to boost it with some yeast.

Over the weekend, I tried to increase the amount of starter with two larger feedings, first tripling my standard feed and then doubling it again so it was enough for a recipe. It was a little bubbly but not very bubbly; the starter hasn't ever been very bubbly or active, maybe on the second or third day but not since.

After baking a lot of low quality sourdough breads during the past 3 months, I've learned a few things to get a reliable rise out of my starter:

1) Your starter has to be ACTIVE when you mix it in. It needs to be doubling/tripling in volume after you feed it.

For my starter, that generally means when I pull it out of the fridge the night before, I'll feed it once (discarding existing starter to 2 tbsp, then adding in 1/2 cup of flour + water) at night (9pm) where it'll double overnight, then in the morning at 9am, refeed it again, (discarding to 2 tbsp, then adding in 1 cup of flour + water), and it's usually tripled in size by noon.

2) You have to add the starter to your dough within a window of peak activity - again, usually 2x/3x your starting volume, but before it begins deflating and well before putting out hooch. For me, that's about 3 hours from the second feeding.

If you haven't gotten your starter yet to that place, it's not going to be great at raising your dough - that's your starting point.
posted by Karaage at 10:42 AM on June 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yup -- your dough is relatively high hydration, and your starter wasn't strong enough to raise it on the timeline you're working with. If your starter wasn't doubling or tripling in size within ~6-8 hrs after a feeding, than it wasn't strong enough to raise your dough. Just keep feeding it regularly and it'll get stronger. When it's ready, you'll know because it'll be very bubbly and doubling/tripling within that timeline.

A few options for you at this point:
1. Use these instructions to incorporate ~2 tsp instant yeast into the dough -- dissolve it in warm water first, then fold it in. Let it double in size once (usually takes about 90 min), then shape it and let it rise until fully proofed (maybe around 45 min). Check frequently to see how it's coming along. Put it in the oven when it is taut like a full balloon and still springs back slightly when you poke it.
2. Make it into crackers. Roll it out very thin, brush with olive oil or melted butter, prick it with a fork, sprinkle with some combination of sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and/or coarse salt, and bake it in a 350F oven for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown (you can refer to the instructions here).
3. Just give it more time -- possibly 12-18 hours more, checking every hour or two to see how it's coming along. Perhaps try putting it in a warmer location (off oven with door cracked open, for instance). Bake it whenever you feel ok about its rise, and just know that it may not rise as much as a normal loaf of bread, but will still be edible so long as it's risen fairly well.

Any of those three options could work, depending on what you want and when. Just keep feeding the starter and it will eventually be strong enough to work for you.
posted by ourobouros at 11:00 AM on June 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

your starter is the problem. it needs to rise and fall vigorously (or at least predictably) to get a good result. it doesnt look like your current dough has enough active live cultures in it.

my gluru (gluten-guru) this quarantine has been Mauricio over at The Perfect Loaf, a comprehensive and very digestible blog about all things sourdough.

he bakes a lot so keeps his starter quite robust but i found this entry on keeping a small starter helpful. I have taken to feeding mine about once a day which means it spends half that time in its exhausted period, but it reliably bounces back when i remove most and refresh it. i leave mine only on the counter, never refrigerated (i do put my discard starter in the fridge to keep it from becoming messy before i can use it).

something i adopted from him is using a pint glass as my mixing vessel, the amount of carry-over sarter is barely enough to coat the bottom but if you put 25 g each of flour and water in it it will reliably get 2.5x larger within 6 hours.

one other thought is what you are feeding your starter - the more processed your starter feed the less live culture it is working with - unbleached, unbromated, unsifted everything (that said i feed my starter mostly AP with a little fresh milled whole rye mixed in).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:01 AM on June 1, 2020

Thanks for the help, everyone! I did add a little extra salt after tasting the dough last night, but I forgot to always read the comments on the NYT recipes. I wound up kneading in some yeast, and popped it into a slightly warm oven; our room temp was around standard room temp: 24C overnight, but it's cooler today. It's risen more in the last hour than in the previous 12.

I've been leaving my starter on the fridge 24/7; all I have right now is all purpose flour. I've done crackers with the discard already (I top mine with a dehydrated minced roasted garlic which is great as long as you are physically distancing the next day), so I really wanted a loaf.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:13 PM on June 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice above about your specific issue, but I had a "light bulb" moment a few weeks ago that helped me get a reliable and active starter.
  • First, as a side note, I keep my starter out in plain view now, never in the fridge. (Although I do have a backup container there). This is primarily for my benefit: when the starter is in the fridge I tend to forget it, sitting on my kitchen counter reminds me to get into the habit of feeding it. It also makes the next step more predictable IMO.
  • The light bulb moment seems obvious in retrospect, which is that a starter needs lots of food to become vigorous. When I was first learning, I might have a couple of cups of old starter in my jar, discard half of it and then feed it the flour & water. After a few mediocre loaves and after doing some reading. I had my "Aha!" moment: you only need a tiny bit of starter and then lots of flour and water to get things going.
So here's my routine now, the evening before I want to bake, if there happens to be any hooch on top, I'll just mix it into the existing starter. Then I discard like 90% of everything, seriously, you only need some scraps as a base, one or two tablespoons. Then you add your flour and water based on the hydration level and how much bread you're making. I have found a sweet spot for me, which is about 200 grams of whole wheat flour and 160 grams of water. I stir it up good with a chopstick and that baby is good to go about 12 hours later.
posted by jeremias at 12:20 PM on June 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

I don't know how hot/humid it is in your area but I wouldn't discount condensation as a cause of the liquid. You've got a fairly moist dough in a sealed container, some of the water may have evaporated from the dough and collected on the film where it dropped back down to the dough.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:24 PM on June 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Solid advice above! There’s only two of us at home so the starter lives in the fridge till 36 hours before I want to start assembly. From this point forward, it stays at room temp so it can wake up. At that time, I toss away a few tablespoons, then feed 25g each of water and flour; this throwaway and feed happens twice. It should be super lively by second feed. The third time, is the big feed matching what I’ll need for the loaf. I keep an eye on it and when it reaches its apex (over twice the volume) and just begins to recede, then the assembly begins.
posted by lemon_icing at 12:58 PM on June 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Heres the link to The Perfect Loaf

and Mauricio's instagram

Strongly seconding jeremias note that the fridge isnt the right place for your starter, at least until it is reliably vigorous. No ones formulas will work for your exact conditions and you kind of just need to get a feel for how your starter reacts to feedings in your kitchen. after getting my starter to reliable react i have successfully tossed it in the fridge for up to a week and it has bounced back with an extra day of babying.

In more complicated sourdough recipes there is usually an intermediate step whereby you increase the amount of starter by building a levain, or partially pre fermented dough. I wont go into depth here bc i learned basically all i know from The Perfect Loaf, but if you have the time and are interested, as i said initially i find his writing to be very approachable even when semi technical.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:03 PM on June 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

From your update: If you've been leaving your starter regularly in the fridge, then it's no wonder that it's not active enough to rise.

I seem to recall the instructions I've seen for reviving starter from the fridge is to to 2 feedings, 8-12 hours apart, and continue 8-12 hour feedings until the starter has doubled in size in that 12 hours. At that point, it should be active enough to use. The one time I did that, in retrospect I would have needed 2 days of 12 hour feedings to have a nicely active starter.

I'm currently keeping a room temp starter - if I know I'm not planning to make some bread anytime soon (heat wave), I'll feed it small amounts like you, but I'll aim to have about 70g of starter (after mixing in food/water), so with one feeding I can bulk it up. As the recipe I use calls for 90g of starter, the night before I'll feed 60g starter/50g water/60g flour (I like the results of a slightly dryer starter), and that will leave me more than enough to make both a loaf of bread, and do another high volume feeding for the next day.

The colony I have seems to have to be fed every 5-6 days in the fridge or it gets the black hooch (which I'm really not into). Being non-weekly this is somehow harder to keep track of than every 1-3 days that I'll feed them at room temp. Which is to say I've pretty much abandoned the idea of fridge starter, and the 2 day lead time for nicely active starter wasn't great either.
posted by nobeagle at 1:42 PM on June 1, 2020

With the caveat that I am trying to develop a more open crumb in my bread (made with all AP) as it's nice but not as light as true artisan breads, I don't know that it's super important to keep the starter at room temperature. "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" is a very well-respected book (its omission of metric measurements notwithstanding) and it has no problem with keeping your starter in the fridge or even the freezer. The main thing they emphasize is feeding it beforehand, and never adding more than 1:1:1 starter:water:flour at any one time. I will say that my starter comes from a former pastry chef and is quite well seasoned at this point. Even if I leave it in the fridge it still keeps rising at a pretty good clip until it runs out of food, presumably. For the no-knead, if I'm looking to have the bread for dinner at 6 the next day, I take the starter out of the fridge at breakfast, feed it at lunch, and mix into the dough at 4, then rise overnight. The good news is that faster-reproducing yeast will eventually outcompete the slow ones, so maybe leave it open to the air a bit more and see if you pick up some really vigorous fungi.
posted by wnissen at 3:17 PM on June 1, 2020

The starter was on (the top of) the fridge, ie the warmest spot in the kitchen, not in the fridge. But it has been covered since it's a dry climate and a small starter; I'm going to try giving it a few hours open every morning to see if it can pick up some more helpful wee beasties.

The loaf turned out like this. (Note it's not a weird angle on the photo; the bread is actually only two inches high.) Good crunchy crust and it had a nice tangy sourdough taste, just too heavy, which I suspect is partially not enough yeast in the starter/dough and partially too much hydration for me to work with; the dough oozed everywhere. So I'm on the way.

Thanks everybody for your help! Really, every answer was best!
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:46 AM on June 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

That's a beautiful loaf! If you don't care for the texture you could make crostini out of it. That's one of her original recipes when she was running a catering service before she became a celebrity.
posted by wnissen at 4:55 PM on June 2, 2020

One thing that might help is shaping the dough a bit more. I've made the NYT no-knead bread quite a few times and it was always kind of a blob when I put it in my dutch oven for baking but the yeast was able to make it rise well. I tried doing similar with some sourdough recipes and I think that contributed to it not having much of a shape. Of late I've been shaping the dough before proofing it as well as a bit before putting it into the dutch oven and I think that has helped it rise up instead of spread out.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:05 PM on June 2, 2020

but be warned, there is a potential ASMR-like quality to dough shaping videos, i can easily lose an embarrassingly long stretch of minutes watching people shape dough on instagram.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 5:30 AM on June 3, 2020

« Older I need a list of everything I can ask Siri to do...   |   Name/ info of roasted Medieval or English dish of... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments