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I've been trying to get a rye sourdough starter going so that I can make all-rye sourdough bread. I've been at it for two weeks, with a 1:1:1 of water, starter and rye at 50g (the first two days I added organic honey and didn't start discarding starter until the 4th day).

At one point the recipe I was following said 50:100:100 of starter, water and rye flour, and it did a little better that day than the previous if I'm remembering right. The main issue is it isn't bubbly enough. Some days I get some good bubbles, but I can't seem to link it to anything. I've been keeping the starter in the oven with the light on because I think our house is too cold, (we keep our house at 68 at night and 75 during the day) but I don't know if that's the right way to do it. I live in hot, humid New Orleans, so that could be affecting it (or our A/C).

I tried to make a loaf last night and it actually hasn't risen at all, which is why I am turning for help. The starter passed the float test before I made the loaf, and smells sweet and sour like sourdough, but is pretty dense and thick, and the bubbles aren't at the level I see in pictures.

Help please! Not sure what to fix, if it could be moisture, temp, or the flour I'm using (bulk section rye flour for the first week and Red's dark rye once I ran out). I want to get a good robust one going so I can keep it for a while but it hasn't gone anywhere promising so far.

  • 1
    Welcome to SA! Some questions to help troubleshoot your starter issues: (1) when you say "rye" sourdough, is this a sourdough culture started with rye and finished with wheat flour, or is it 100% rye all the way through? (2) how often are you cycling the starter? (3) if you are following a process that's documented online, can you link it? (4) have you successfully made a sourdough starter before? – FuzzyChef Jul 22 at 5:07
  • Hi! (1) It is a 100% rye starter, for 100% rye sourdough—no other flours involved (2) I have been discarding and feeding it every 24 hours (3) I've been following this process, and judging by the pictures there: swedishfood.com/swedish-food-bread-recipes/… (4) nope this is my first try! (since posting this it got a little bubbier and I baked my first loaf, which tasted and smelled good/like sourdough rye, but which didn't rise much in either the first or second rise) – Taysa Jul 23 at 14:54
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Your problem likely has little to do with moisture or temperature -- starters can actually be established in a wide variety of conditions, from a dry dough ball to very wet, and can from very cool temperatures to quite warm ones. It may take more or less time to establish in some conditions, but your parameters sound well within range. I would check the "oven with light on" temperature if possible, just to see what it is, but I doubt it's high enough to cause problems. (You probably don't want to go much above 85-90F when trying to establish a wild-yeast starter, and a little lower than that is probably ideal.)

As FuzzyChef said, it's possible that chlorinated water or old flour can cause problems.

But my guess from your description that your starter rose significantly with greater feeding is that it's simply starving. Once yeast begins to be established (usually 3-4 days after beginning a starter, with 24-hour feedings, but can be anywhere from about 2 to 7 days depending on conditions), you should increase the frequency of feedings. I generally prefer twice per day, but it depends on temperature and amount fed. For 1:1:1, every 12 hours or so is reasonable.

The problem with letting the starter sit for 24 hours at a time while trying to get established is that the yeast usually have peak growth pretty early on (within a few hours of a feeding), but after several hours, mostly you're just growing lactic acid bacteria, which makes the starter acidic ("sour"). That's good, up to a point. The problem is when the starter begins to get too sour, yeast die off, and they run out of food without feedings.

A 12-hour cycle might be enough of a shift to jumpstart the yeast growth and catch them before they start dying off every day. (Some people with so-called "sluggish" starters or starters that have become too acidic will even try more frequent feedings for a limited time.) I think at this point you might have a relatively small amount of yeast that just isn't growing much from day-to-day. Try feeding more frequently for several days and see what happens. For a 100% hydration starter (which you have), you usually want to see a starter that can consistently double or even triple in size within 2-4 hours after a feeding before you start trying to bake bread with it.

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It sounds like your starter isn't attracting wild yeast, or the strains it's attracted aren't very vigorous. You're getting the right bacterial culture (hence the smell), but not the right yeast.

The following suggestions are based on the Berkeley Cheeseboard book, together with my experience of doing a rye-then-wheat starter. I have not done an all-rye starter, so there may be some differences.

Here are the main two fixes for yeast formation:

  1. Use bottled distilled water instead of tap water, which often has microorganism-killing chlorine, chloramine, or ozone in it (yes, you'll want to do this every time you cycle your starter).
  2. Try switching to an organic, minimally processed (stone-ground helps) rye flour. This is so that the rye retains the natural yeasts present on the grain, since your process doesn't provide much opportunity to collect yeasts from the air.

If that doesn't solve the problem, some additional tips:

  • The Cheeseboard instructions use a 48-hour cycle, for 2 weeks, to build up the original starter. The process you linked uses a 24-hour cycle, which may be too short; certainly the writer's assertion that you should have a viable starter in 4 days seems suspect.
  • Try leaving the sourdough outside for part of the night, or even overnight. It's possible that you just can't get the right natural yeasts from the flour itself.
  • Try adding a few organic grapes (wine grapes are ideal, but others will work) to the bowl as a source of wild yeast.
  • If all else fails, try adding a tiny pinch of high-quality commercial yeast (like Red Star or Bob's Red Mill fridge yeast) to the starter culture.
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    Agree with the "main two fixes." The others are wrong, and likely detrimental. (1) 24-hour feeding cycles are perfectly good at the start; too-long cycles increase risk of failure and build-up of mold, etc. (2) Leaving immature cultures exposed is a primary source of contamination and things like mold. (3) Grape yeast isn't the kind of yeast you want to establish, and random organic matter is once again a source of contamination. (4) Introducing commercial yeast will outcompete the wild yeast and delay establishment of a starter. – Athanasius Aug 24 at 20:39
  • I'm quoting the Berkeley Cheeseboard's longish chapter on building sourdough starters ... which I also happened to have followed to build my own starter, which is now 11 years old and still going strong. – FuzzyChef Aug 24 at 23:19
  • No offense, but I can quote a lot of scientific studies on the types of yeast that sourdough cultures need, which are different from the ones found on grapes or in commercial yeast. That's a basic fact, and adding stuff to a baby culture that will outcompete what you actually want isn't good biological practice. As for the rest, you can see empirical evidence of what works and doesn't on any number of sourdough boards that have existed for decades online. There's a lot of "lore" on sourdough (even cited by chefs who should known better), but little is based on science or empirical evidence. – Athanasius Sep 7 at 0:07
  • Then post an answer. – FuzzyChef Sep 7 at 1:04
  • Umm... I did post an answer. It's right here on this page. – Athanasius Sep 7 at 1:35

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