Is the starter ready? Looks can be deceiving…

summary: how to tell if the wild starter is ready; bubbles are an indication but not foolproof; float test is essential; working towards predictability; scheduling the starter; feeding;

“[It] might be the case that your starter is rising, but you’re not there to see it. If you feed at night, it might be rising up while you’re asleep, and by morning it has fallen again, so it looks the same.” – Donna Currie, Sourdough Starter Frequently Asked Questions | Serious Eats

With all those bubbles, the starter on the left looks ready but is not;
the one on the right with the smaller bubbles seems unready but is raring to go.
Wild Starterwild starter
After performing the Float Test, it was clear that
the one on the left had overfed itself; the one on the right was ready to go.

How did I know? It was because I finally understood that I needed to do the Float Test. This was really brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when one of my sisters was visiting. I was showing off to her about how essential the Float Test is. After we admired the starter wildly bubbling, I filled a small bowl with water and proudly said, “watch!” as I dropped a bit from a fork into the water. Being the expert that I am, I was positive it was going to float. The starter immediately sank like a stone. I couldn’t have been more surprised!

But I think I know now why I pretty much ignored the Float Test in the past. It’s because I thought it was similar to the windowpane test.

  • Float Test: yes, definitely necessary.
  • Window Pane Test: no, completely unnecessary….

I’ve only once performed the windowpane test (and I confess that I conveniently forgot that it actually worked) because it seems that you can tell by looking to know if the gluten has been developed enough. I pretty much agree with what Rose Levy Beranbaum has to say about the windowpane test.

The “windowpane test” used by some bakers entails pulling off a small piece of dough and stretching it: it should not tear, and if held up to the light, it should be translucent. I do not use the windowpane test to determine dough strength because some doughs, such as those containing a lot of seeds, will always tear when stretched. Others […] become extensible at a later stage during rising, which stretches and strengthens the dough, and during pulling, “turning” or folding it over on itself.
-Rose Levy Beranbaum, “The Ten Essential Steps of Making Bread, The Bread Bible, p.57

float test On the other hand, the Float Test is completely different. I now refuse to make bread dough without the starter passing the float test! There have been way too many horrible failures here in the past before I finally retained what I had read about the float test.

The most reliable indication that your leaven is ready is if it floats in water, a result of the carbon dioxide gas produced by wild yeast activity. To test the readiness of your leaven, drop a spoonful of it into a bowl of moderate room-temperature water. If it sinks, it is not ready to use and needs more time to ferment and ripen. […] [Feed] the leaven. […] Let the new mixture ferment until it passes the float test
-Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread, p45-47
[T]he three essential things I learned this summer are:

  1. Don’t be afraid.
  2. Put a hat on the bread for the first half of the baking time.
  3. Make sure the starter floats.

-me, Wild Bread Notes (or… KISS), blog from OUR kitchen

float test After the starter has been sitting overnight, it’s wonderfully bubbly. It looks like it’s ready. But, surprise! If the float test is done, it turns out that it’s not. The starter sample immediately sinks: the starter’s over the top.

The first time this happened, I wasn’t sure if it was because the starter wasn’t quite ready. So I fed half of it and left the other half alone. I did the float test again and the unfed version sank like a stone. The newly fed version floated brilliantly.

Lately, what I’ve been doing is to take a spoonful out of the fridge and put it in a bowl, stir in a good shot of equal parts (by weight) flour and water, cover it and leave it overnight. The next morning, I assume the wildly bubbling mass won’t float (I have checked every time in the past month or so and every time it immediately sank). I feed it with a small amount of flour and water (again, equal parts by weight), wait about 30 minutes. Each time, it looks like it’s not even close. But, surprise! It floats!! If it had arms, it would paddle to the edge of the bowl and climb right out.

after overnight fermentation and failing float test
feeding wild starter
about an hour after being fed again,
the wild starter passes the float test with flying colours
float test

All this time, because of relying on my eyes and looking for bubbles galore, it turns out that I was letting the starter overfeed. Fascinating! (No wonder the bread I was making before was flat and sour.)

Yes, indeed. The Float Test is The Test. Whether or not Fresh Loafers agree….

I’ve just gotten to know my starter, how it behaves and how it should look. I winged it at the beginning by following recipes and using their guidelines. Troubleshooting the inevitable flops when first starting off. And now I go more by feel. It has been a learning curve. Now the starter maintenance and build has become more second nature leaving me to concentrate more on the dough stage and particularly final proofing which is, in my opinion, the most difficult to judge.
“Ready for baking” is one of those “it depends” concepts. […] It is best to read and understand what the recipe writer intends (if they’ve done a good job of describing things) and then proceed as directed. The one thing that is always helpful is to ferment the levain in a transparent container with vertical walls so that you can see how much bubbling or expansion is going on.”
– Paul
I’ve never used the float test, so i agree with Paul and Dab. Its not the only sign that a levain is ready, but it clearly works for some people. I think you just need to get to know your starter and how it tells you that its ready.
– Ru007, The Fresh Loaf, Float Test


About Wild Yeast Feeding Schedules

Basically, once you get into the rhythm of maintaining [a Sourdough Starter], making bread with it is just a matter of finding a schedule that suits you.
Personally, I’m a firm believer in making your dough do the work while you sleep — overnight fermentation is a cool way of developing flavor to your bread and allowing the yeasts to eat the sugars in your dough whilst you rest!
-BREAD Magazine Update, 33: The Birth of Bread, 24 September 2017
By letting bread teach us, we become a part of a global movement in regaining not only our favorite foodstuff but also our bodies and minds. In today’s fast-moving and information-laden world, there is no need for more on-the-spot reactions and infuriated social media posts about current events. Instead, we need to put our shoulder to the wheel and make some bread. We need to learn to sit still and let things take their natural course.
-BREAD Magazine, Connecting People Through Bread
      Feeding a sourdough starter is an intuitive thing for a baker. You would feed your starter maybe 1:3:3 (one part starter to three parts water and three parts flour) or even 1:4:4 (or even more food) if you wish to have it vigorous the next day after an overnight room temperature ferment or if you wanted to leave it in the fridge for a long time. In that case you are starting with a low inoculation (low amount of starter) and there is plenty of food available to keep the microorganisms happy. It depends upon how warm the temperature is as well. […] If you are going to leave your starter unfed for a long time in the fridge, leave just a small amount on the bottom of the container and feed it a lot. It will last a long time in cold conditions with lots of food.
      Of course you always need to feed your starter enough food to make sure there is plenty for the formula and some left over to maintain your starter. If your formula calls for 200 grams of starter and you are feeding it the night before mixing in the morning. You might want to start out with 50 grams of starter, 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. […] [E]xperiment to see what works for you with your flour, starter, time and temperature.
– Teresa, The Baking Network, Feeding Your Sourdough Starter



This entry was posted in baking, bread - yeasted & unyeasted, equipment and techniques, food & drink, sourdough and wild yeast on by .

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