The Fresh Loaf

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Stupid Crazy Starter

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comn's picture
comn

Stupid Crazy Starter

I began growing a starter about 2 weeks ago.

On the second day, it smelled utterly foul and bubbled a lot, so I assumed this was the bacteria everyone was talking about, that masquerades as yeast. I mixed in some pineapple juice, and after 4 disgustingly rotten smelling days, it went away.

Then came several days of... nothing. I was actually glad to see this, because it seemed like my starter was doing just what everything said it should be doing. It didn't smell like anything.

Well, I was a little confused at this point as to whether or not I should be feeding it, or just letting it sit. So I fed it for several days, and all I ever had was flour and water. So then I let it sit for a couple days, and it started smelling alcoholic, which I took to be a good thing. I took that as a sign to start feeding again....

Well, now I have an alcoholic smelling starter that doesn't do anything. It takes what I feed it, it smells like alcohol, and it tastes very very sour. But it doesn't bubble. Like, at all. Maybe one or two here and there, but it hasn't risen once, not even a little bit.

I'm kind of stuck as to what to do with it now. I put it in the fridge so I don't waste any more flour on it until I decide what to do. I would post pictures, but I can't find my cable, and in anycase it wouldn't show much. Just some pancake batter in a jar.

Sometimes it separates, sometimes it doesn't. Right now it's not.

Help?

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

Hi comn,

well it sounds like you've done very well sticking with it and made good decisions. The only thing is you have probably just no fed enough. Take a spoonful of your starter and give it three spoonfuls of flour and enough water to make a stiff but stirable paste, cover it and leave it for 12 hours. Then repeat that. It should then start to smell less of alcohol and be more bubbly. Keep us informed as to it's progress, pictures would help a great deal with a brief explanation about what we're seeing. But you'd be surprised what you can tell just from looking. 

 

After this it really depends on your starter how you should feed it. Some are very greedy and like lots of food and others are quite sluggish and are happy with a little.  

Sourdough-guy

comn's picture
comn

I appreciate the optimism, because this thing is getting me down.  I hate to scrap it after putting so much into it, but if there weren't fumes coming off it I would have already.  I've upped my feeding, so here's hoping that works.  Thank you!

SourdoLady's picture
SourdoLady

What kind of flour are you feeding it? Try adding a couple of spoonfuls of rye flour. Also it is important that the flour is fresh. You can find fresh whole grains and flour at a health food store in bulk bins.

comn's picture
comn

Right now I'm using a mixture of plain white flour and potato flakes.  If it doesn't perk up soon, I think I'll start a new one and try using rye flour, at least for the start of it.

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

I wouldn't bother with the potato flakes, you want your starter to be able to ferment flour not potato, I don't think it will do any harm but why waste you potato flakes? Tell us how much your feeding the starter. How much starter, how much food, how often? All these are really important. Here's my instructions that I've always used with 95% success rate. 

Sourdough-guy

comn's picture
comn

I've been trying to mix in the potato flakes (I bought them for that specifically) simply because it's what my grandmother fed her starter, and I loved how hers tasted.  Also I have a big ole box of flakes, and I don't like instant potatoes.

 As for the feeding amount. . . I feel very sheepish saying this, but I don't measure it out.  I don't have anything to weight it with, and I hadn't ever decided on a specific ratio, so I've just been eyeballing it.  I try to keep it at something like 1part starter, 2parts flour, 2parts water, but I haven't been very consistant. 

 I suppose I've been trying to see what I can get away with.  It doesn't seem to be an exact science, and all the instructions I find contradict.  But I'm thinking maybe consistency is more important than I gathered, so I'll be picking out a specific "recipe" for my next starter.

 Right now I'm feeding every 12 hours.  

 Thank you for the instructions.

cooksalot's picture
cooksalot

OK that explains the alcohol smell.  Your making vodka!  Just distill it as my husband would say.  You'll have the best vodka around.  Just invite him over when you do it.  

Cooksalot

comn's picture
comn

:D

comn's picture
comn

Alright, it's smelling less like alcohol and more like nail polish remover now.

But it was actually kind of fluffy this morning!  I could tell when I stirred it that it had risen some. 

 Still concerned about the nail polish remover though.  Should I increase the feeding frequency, or just continue at 12 hour intervals?

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Hi comn, 

Well, Sourdough-guy and SourdoLady and others around here are more expert and experienced on sourdough and starters, but until they chime in, the nail polish remover smell is probably an indication it needs to be fed. If you notice it is rising and begins to have the nail polish remover smell before 12 hours, I'd feed it again. Unless you go to extremes, feeding it more often probably will not harm it and may well help it become more balanced and fully active. If you can't feed it more often than every 12 hours, and it seems to regularly need it more often (e.g. some or all of the following signs of time to feed are happening before 12 hours: strong fermentation smells, rising and bubbles, liquid forming on top, starter is becoming more liquid and stringy instead of paste consistency, nail polish remover smell) you could feed it a larger amount each time, e.g. take a tablespoon of starter and add 4 or 5 tablespoons of flour and enough water to make a thick but stirrable paste. If the feeding schedule doesn't fit with your own schedule, you can put it in the refrigerator if you will not be able to feed it on schedule, then take it out and continue the schedule. For some reason, refrigerating is sometimes mentioned as helping starters get started, e.g. the sourdough starter faq. I'm still hoping to discover from someone (sourdough-guy, SourdoLady, or anyone else, do you know the answer to this?) a good explanation of whether, and if so, why this is supposed to help.

I'd feed it only flour and water from what I have understood along the way, although there are certainly a million approaches that work.

Eventually, if you keep it as a thick paste, it should rise by double in something like 4-5 hours at room temperature. If you find that it does that regularly every time you feed it, then it's probably at the stable point where you can store it in the refrigerator until you need it, take it out and feed it, let it rise by double, and use it in your recipes.

Bill

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

Reading that link you posted to the starter doc at rfs reminds of those copyright traps cartographers and lexicographers use. They insert bogus information to trap the unscrupulous plagiarists. One or two experts at rfs are well known for their misleading of the unwary. Then there's the well-intentioned-just-plane-wrong advice the net is so famed for. You should take care what you report Bill.  

Sourdough-guy

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Is there some copyright issue or plagiarism issue you see with linking to the sourdough faqs? I thought the sourdough faqs were very widely published and linked to, so it didn't really occur to me there would be any problem linking to it.

sadears's picture
sadears

What kind of flour are you using?  I accidently bought bleached AP flour once.  It would increase in volume, sometimes, then fall flat.  Someone suggested I still use it.  When I did, it worked just fine.  I think sometimes issues like that has to do with a batch of flour.  I'm sure many will disagree with this, but I get different results doing the same thing with different bags of flour, even though it's the same brand and type.

This week I bought some Hungarian High Altitude Unbleached flour.  I was curious to see if it behaves any different than regular AP flour.  I'll let you all know how that works.

Steph

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I think it has been mentioned lots of times.  In refrigeration,  lower temperature favors the lactobacillus  beasties you are trying to grow and at the same time refrigeration supresses the other beasties growing at the same time in the starter. It gives the Lacto pop. a chance to catch up.  Mini Oven

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

There's some very sound scientific documentation also at rfs that shows if  you want to encourage lb growth 4°C is really not the best temperature to go for the difference between optimum growth temperatures and fridge temperatures is between ± 30 and 81 hours for population doubling so I can't see any point in refrigerating a unhealthy starter for 12 hours. Someone said something about inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria but don't really show why the lb's and yeast aren't inhibited by the exact same amount. I just don't buy it. And what's more it goes against my experience. I think experience is worth a dozen web articles.

Sourdough-guy

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Sourdough-guy,

I've wondered about that refrigeration question and have read a few of the papers about yeast and lb growth in starters. I can't say anything jumped out that explained why periodically refrigerating a culture would help it get started. However, it seemed like the people who do those sourdough faqs are fairly serious about it, so I've wondered if there was something to it.

My only real use of refrigeration in starting starters has been just to slow down the process if I'm not going to be around to feed it regularly once it starts getting more active. It seemed like a better choice than just leaving it out for a long time at room temperatures.

One place the idea of using cool temperatures, around 60F, during the first couple of days in a recipe to get a starter started is mentioned in The Bread Builders. The author says it is to discourage spoilage bacteria, which sounds similar to using pineapple juice in a starter in the first couple of days. However, I haven't seen any scientific evidence that makes clear at what temperatures lbs are favored over the many possible spoilage bacteria.

Bill

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Now you've inspired me to discover something on my planetary voyages.  I know some sourdough people at Korn Spitz, Asten.  I think I'll go pick their brains.    Mini Oven


http://www.backaldrin.at/

bwraith's picture
bwraith

MiniOven,

I don't know that it's wrong. I just haven't been able to find an authoritative source that explains why it would be good to refrigerate a starter when you're trying to get it started. The idea that the spoilage organisms that sometimes create problems with starter cultures would be disadvantaged relative to the desired lactobacillus and yeast in the culture might be right, but I just can't find a good source that explains this.

Bill

SourdoLady's picture
SourdoLady

Give the rye flour a try. Once it gets going you can switch it to white flour again. Also, don't use bleached AP flour--only unbleached. The bleaching process can damage any yeasts in the grains. Are you using unchlorinated water? As for the potatoes, save them for when you make your doughs. I almost always add 1/4 to 1/3 cup of instant potatoes to my doughs. I like what it does to improve the bread.

comn's picture
comn

:)

 Well, it's been 5 hours since the last feeding, and my starter is almost twice the size now!  

 The increased feeding frequency has done the trick, I think.  I appreciate all the great advice, I was really thinking I might just toss it.  

As long as the potato flakes keep working, I'm going to keep using them, but if it gets weak again I'll try the rye flour.  The flour I've been using is unbleached.

Thank you everybody, it's been like having my own personal starter support group.

 For the record, I tried the refrigeration thing earlier on, it didn't seem to do much of anything.  Don't think it hurt it any, just didn't really help.

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

Thanks for the feedback. By the way, will you put the potato flakes in the bread too. I used to make a great focaccia with potato, it was too good though, I got fat. lol 

Sourdough-guy