Starter at unknown stage of devlopment

Hello all

Newbie baker and website user, but found this forum by some research on Google and i’m glad I did, it carries a wealth of information!

My query is this… Is there any reliable way to gauge the development stage of a new starter? The reason I ask is that by sister-in-law gifted me a starter a few days ago, but she’s away on holiday incommunicado and I’ve no way to find out how old it was or at what developmental stage its at. I’m fairly sure its something she recently started since I found a post on Facebook, so i’d say it was a week old when I got it, and i’ve had it two days. It came in a glass kilner clip top jar (0.75l size) and is roughly half full with starter, so i’d guess at roughly 350g starter.

The starter itself seems to me fairly thin, almost like a crepe pancake batter consistency. It also has a faint smell of pear drops. This seems to be a huge area of discussion as to how people look upon, but the general consensus is that its not harmful. I found an interesting article if anybody is interested…

I’d obviously like to keep the starter going, but i’m unsure at what stage of development its at. Since i’ve had it I fed it with 100g spelt flour, and 100ml water, but as the mix was so thin i’m guessing it was hard for the starter to change its size. So the following day I added some additional flour and after 8 hours noticed it increase in size by maybe 10%. Because I don’t know where its at, I don’t know how much to feed it or whether to split it etc…

Any thoughts or suggestions are greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance to anybody who takes the time to comment =D

If it was a week old, it should be developed / done with the prep stage.

I don’t have too clear a memory of the early stages of my starter but i know it took 5 days to create.

Now I would take maybe 20g of it, feed it 20g flour and 20g water. Let it expand at room temp. Rubber band the starting spot. If it doubles, feed it 60 flour and 60 water and refrigerate until you feel like baking (feed in one week).

If it increases by less than 75%, and you know you’ve given it all the time it needs because it’s starting to fall (see smearing on jar), then feed again (maybe 20:20:20). Do this a few times until it starts to double (or you’ve confirmed it’s dead).

Thanks for the response Melissa.

I’ve done what you’ve suggested and it just never seems to double at all. At most I’m getting a 10% increase.

It smells sour, and slightly creamy, but there’s really no big bubble formation, just some scattered at pinhole size.

I’m tempted to bin it and start a Khorasan starter in its place, I’m frustrated by not knowing what’s going on :disappointed:

Without seeing it, it’s hard to know for sure, but sometimes, if the starter is too wet (like batter) it will act like you are describing because instead of the C02 bubbles pushing the dough up (making it rise), because the dough / starter is too wet, the gas just bubbles right out the top. That can still be a fine starter - in the sense that it has all the right microbes in there. You’d just need to firm it up / make it stiffer by adding more flour until its consistency is more like dough and less like batter.

@Charmwah I think @homebreadbaker Paul makes a really great point that I hadn’t thought of because I didn’t quite remember how my starter first was when I got him. When I first got Cyril (he was gifted to me) he was quite a bit on the loose side. As I was feeding him, I gave him more organic AP flour and less pure spring water until he gained more body. He was completely viable as a starter when I acquired him and had been baking great bread for my friend who gifted him to me, but I wanted him a bit “beefier” as it were. So, IMHO, I think Paul has a great suggestion. Perhaps instead of just pitching your starter and trying to build a new one from scratch, feed your existing starter more flour than water and give it a chance to eat and thrive. It may very pleasantly surprise you with renewed vigor and become your happy starter.


How frustrating.

I agree with the suggestion to try to have your starter be a little stiffer.

Just to double check: your water is not heavily chlorinated and you’re not sealing the lid airtight?

Another idea would be to try a different flour. Not to start over but do new feeds with a different flour. Spelt is a perfectly fine flour to use for starter, but it wouldn’t hurt to use a simple unbleached all purpose to get you going and then you can split the starter (for temporary reassurance) and convert one as you please.

I found this photo in Breadtopia’s Spelt Ciabatta recipe. The starter on the left is all spelt.

More photos in the gallery at the end of the recipe

Hi Paul / Leah / Melissa

I’ve been following 100% hydration thus far, but the consistency is more like a thick batter than a dough for sure. I realise to a certain extent all flours absorb water differently, so I’m happy to thicken it and see where that gets me.

I did switch to feeding AP flour about 2 days ago, and the only thing that seems to have changed is the smell; it went from pear drops to a creamy sour smell.

I am using tap water, but left out overnight to allow for evaporation of the chlorine.

One other thing to add, the starter sits on top of my fridge and is kept roughly at 72F, I realise it could be warmer but there’s nowhere to keep at a steady temp any higher than where it is.

Thanks again for your helpful comments, really appreciate the insights!

Update - I thickened the troublesome starter this morning at 8am, the black line shows that it’s risen an inch in just shy of 12 hours, and I’m hopeful it’ll keep going…

The smaller pit is 100% khorasan started yesterday morning. I’m due to feed this tomorrow morning, but already it looks livelier than the older AP flour (originally spelt).

I’m so glad I posted on this forum, and so grateful for you guys taking the time to respond :grinning:

A starter can take as little as 5 days or as long as two weeks to make. It depends on temperature (mainly) and timing your feeds well. While a week is sufficent for making a starter, and it’ll make nice loaves, it will continue to mature and improve over the coming weeks. A good way to know is if your starter is responding well after being fed and it’s bubbling up on cue. A 100% hydrated starter (equal amounts of water to flour by weight) should be a thick batter and not too thin. Try a feed of:

  • 20% starter
  • 100% water
  • 100% flour


  • 10g starter
  • 50g water
  • 50g flour (unbleached bread flour is fine but if you can get some wholegrain in there then even better)

Your starter should have no issue in atleast doubling and doing so in about 6-8 hours if it’s kept warm. Should have a pleasant smell.

For a healthy feed, and therefore a healthy starter, you’ll need a higher percentage of fresh food to starter. As a starter ferments it gets more liquid (hence your too liquidy starter even at 100% hydration) and if the feed isn’t good enough it’ll have less to eat through and therefore won’t rise as well.

Thanks Abe!

I’m definitely seeing better results with a thicker starter. With a 1:1:1 ratio its now almost doubling, but in the space of a good 24 hours, all at room temperature.

With the starter being thicker i’m now able to actually see when the starter has peaked and is beginning to fall, and at that point i’ve made a discard and fed with the same weight again of flour, but only 85% water to try and keep the same consistency. As i’m away for a few days I left the starter out for a couple of hours to get going, then refrigerated it.

I’ll remove the starter from the fridge Thursday evening, potentially with a another small feed to leave overnight. Then come the morning i’ll halve the starter and use one part for a bake, the other to feed (with higher percentages of flour & water to starter) and maybe leave out at room temperature again.

I’m in no real rush for the starter to become mature, and in reality i’ll probably be looking to bake once a week anyway…

1:1:1 feed and taking 24 hours is quite slow.

What temperature is your starter being kept at? 75-78°F is ideal but anything over 70°F is fine. Below, and you’ll see a significant slowing down.

When you get back i’d be interested to see how your starter fares at a feed of…

20% starter
80% water (as this is now your preferred hydration)
100% flour

An advantage of these better feeds is that it’ll encourage a healthier population of yeasts. Keep this iup a few times and your starter should grow in strength.

Thanks Abe.

The temperature of the starter I measured at 72°F, its sat in my larder on the fridge which seems the warmest stable place for it to be. I could move it to the conservatory but the temperatures in there will be above 80°F during the day, and below 70°F in the evening at the moment.

Do you think trying to use the current starter for a bake this weekend will be a wasted effort given the time its taking to double? I’m in no rush, so I can leave it to prove for longer if need be…

Well the only way to see if it works is if you try a bake. Have you got a recipe in mind?

I have one and it involves taking a little mature starter to make a levain. A levain is a preferment and will act like an off-shoot starter in the main dough. Sort of like a poolish but with starter instead of yeast.

What you can do is try the reicpe as it is written and if the the levain goes well (called a poolish in the reicpe although technically it isn’t - just similar) then carry on. If not then you can always save the day by adding some dried yeast into the main dough.

Here is a nice first sourdough recipe.

Thanks Abe.

The recipe I was going to use was essentially an overnight, no knead recipe i’d seen online. It calls for a 1 part starter to 5 parts flour, to enough water to bring together & a teaspoon & half of salt. The method is then to mix together and allow to prove at room temperature overnight, the in the morning fold the dough 4 or 5 times before moving to a floured banneton and rest in the fridge for 4 hours. Then bake from cold at 230°C. I’m planning to use a cast iron pizza stone for the purpose.

I realise that its a simplistic approach, my thinking being that I didn’t want to spend too much time on the detailed preparation for a starter which i’m not sure is mature enough, only for it to fail miserably. I’m trying to walk before I run :wink:

Starters will all vary and at 1 part starter to 5 parts flour, or 20% starter, I would be looking at 4-6 hours for the bulk ferment and all night would be too long. While your starter does sound slow, at the moment, I think you’d be better off to follow a recipe which you can keep an eye on and monitor. One of the advantages of a preferment is that it allows you to come to the rescue of a recipe before making the final dough. That’s why think this recipe would be better. Once you get to know your starter and how it behaves then you can get an idea of how much to use and how long your can leave it for etc. But that comes with using it.

Try the My Weekend Bakery recipe and see how it goes. If come morning your preferment is all spong-like and smells good that’ll be a good indicator that your starter is good and you can proceed with the final dough. If not then don’t waste the perferment but carry on with the final dough adding some yeast. Then watch the dough and not the clock. Proceed as a nomal yeasted bread. Then we’ll have to look at the starter and take it from there.

I second “watch the dough not the clock” as many a dough of mine with 20% starter takes 8+ hours, especially at temps in the high 60s and low 70s.

Buy a bottle of (real, non-chlorinated) spring water at the store and use that with your starter for a while and see if it makes any difference. They put chlorine in water specifically to kill microbes. Microbes are specifically what make the difference between dough and starter.


Hi Abe / Melissa

I totally understand, and agree with what you’re saying; I follow the same mentality for anything I cook in that I go by feel and touch rather than a strict recipe that states specific times etc.

But both your comments are at odds with each other. Abe, you suggest 4-6 hours for bulk ferment with 20% starter, yet Melissa you suggest 8+ hours. Both of you I assume have mature starters, yet we’ve already confirmed that my starter is relatively new and on the slow side (24 hours to double in size), so wouldn’t it stand to reason that my bulk ferment time is going to be slower to begin with anyway? Please don’t take this as me arguing with you, I realise 100% that i’m the novice here and welcome your experience, I’m just trying to understand the logic =D

Paul, i’m definitely going to move to dedicated spring water, it can only be beneficial. I’ve noticed in the past that some bottles waters have pH varying from as low as 5 up to maybe 8-9. Is there a preferred pH for a starter? I presume its 7 and below?

Thanks again to you all for your insights!

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Starters, as living things, can vary and one must also take into account the temperature too.

24 hours for a starter to double is very slow. However watching the dough and not the clock is always the best idea come what may. What we are trying to say is that because your starter is “unknown” then even more so, even if it’s just to get to know how it behaves and to learn what to look out for. Now I can’t advise you to do 20% starter for all night (8+ hours) as for me that would be over fermenting. That goes against my better judgement. We also have to factor in that because you aren’t “used” to a starter perhaps you’re doing something wrong or misjudging something or other and just because your experience, so far, tells you it’s slow that doesn’t mean you should do something that normally wouldn’t be a good idea. It could be that you watch the dough and it can go for 8+ hours. Might happen that if you don’t it’ll over ferment. So watching the dough is always a good idea.

Now let’s say you watch the clock following the recipe. It might flop. But then we can disect the loaf and see where your starter is misfiring. That’s another option. So we’re expecting nothing fantastic but it’s a controlled “failure” to learn more about your starter. You might wish to go down this path but be prepared to eat a less than perfect loaf or turn it into bread pudding.

So many options. But as it stands 24 hours for a starter to rise is very slow.

Once it’s healthy, the starter is actually going to kind of regulate its own pH as a result of the metabolic activity of the microbes in there. I don’t think you need to worry about it overmuch; anything that is on a store shelf for people to drink will be fine for the starter as long as it really has no chlorine in it (a lot of so-called “spring water” is really just tap water in a fancy bottle, so it’s worth making sure about the source of what you buy).