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Rehydrating dried starter after traveling

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pmccool's picture

Rehydrating dried starter after traveling

This was going to be a blow-by-blow account of reviving a starter that had been dried for travel.  Yeah, my eyes are starting to glaze already, too.  So this will get more of a Readers Digest treatment.  And I'll try to stay awake until the end.  What you do is up to you.

Here's the back story: Man lives in Pretoria, South Africa.  Man has sourdough starter.  Man will repatriate to his home in Kansas City.  Man does not wish to lose his starter or begin a new one after his return.

Still with me?  Good.

Having read two different methods right here on TFL for preparing a starter for travel, I chose to do (drumroll, please) both!  And knowing that some or all of my luggage would be subjected to the tender mercies of either the TSA or U.S. Customs, I wanted to make sure that I had enough with me that at least one packet got through.  Or so I hoped.

Technique #1 involves adding enough flour (if your starter is runny) or enough water (if your starter is more like a dough) to some of said starter to achieve a thick batter consistency that is still smearable.  I don't know if smearable is a word but it is the key.  The traveler (your faithful reporter in this instance) needs to smear a thin layer of the suitably hydrated starter on a sheet of parchment paper and wait a day or two for the smear to dry to until it is roughly as crisp as potato chips.  Or potato crisps, for those of you who are still in South Africa.  The dried smears / chips / crisps can be broken into smaller pieces and placed in plastic bags for eventual placement in your baggage or on your person.  Note that thinner smears = shorter drying times.

Technique #2 involves adding flour to your starter until it is so dry that it is reduced to crumbs.  Some mechanical intervention will be necessary; perhaps the edge of a spoon or maybe a pastry blender or even a food processor.  I can say that a mezzalune is effective.  The more flour you try to force into the dough, the less cooperative it becomes; hence the need for mechanical assistance to cut it into ever smaller bits while force-feeding it yet more flour.  As with the flakes, the crumbs can be bagged for travel.

I strongly recommend that you clearly label each bag so that there is no leeway for interpretation by the various uniformed officials who may have their hands in your luggage at some point.  We all know what happens when we assume, right?

Thus prepared, your faithful reporter placed a baggie of dried starter in every piece of luggage.  And, for reasons yet unclear, every bag and every baggie made it all the way to the proper destination.  On the same day.  

Being somewhat surprised to find myself the proud possessor of a surfeit of dried starter, I did what any American male worth his salt would do: I set up a competition.  Keeping one baggie in reserve as insurance, I combined 10g of flaked starter and 25g of water in one container and 10g of crumbed starter and 25g of water in another container.  Here's how they looked at the start of the competition, flakes to the left and granules to the right:

Pretty exciting, huh?  Other than some fogging of the inside of each jar, they looked about the same 24 hours later so I added 15g of flour of each.  At the end of the second 24-hour period, they were still pretty flat.  There was a whiff of...something...from the granules jar but the flakes jar smelled mostly of wet flour.  By the end of Day 3, there was evidence of bubbles in the granules jar and a hint of expansion.  The flakes jar was still pretty quiet; just a stray bubble or two.

Yep, that's right, the excitement continues to build!

At the end of Day 3, I discarded half of each sample and added water and flour in a 1:2:3 ratio.  I also moved them to some smaller plastic containers.  Here's how they looked after dinner and settling into their new digs:

Just to keep you on your toes, I've switched the granules container to the left and the flakes container to the right.

Some 12 hours later, there was some genuine growth going on:

And from a different perspective:

The crumbs sample has expanded noticeably and is riddled with bubbles.  The flakes sample has expanded just slightly and has fewer bubbles.

And that's pretty much how it went for the next few days.  The crumbs sample consistently out-performed the flakes sample.  Even on a 12-hour feeding schedule, the crumbs sample smelled consistently of acetone which suggests that it was burning through its food between feedings.  The flakes sample never developed a notable yeasty / fruity / sour odor in the week's time that I ran the comparison, although it did get past the wet flour odor.

If your eyes are still open at this point, you can hang on for the wrap-up.

For short-term storage, such as for travel, I would choose the granules approach to drying starter over the flaked approach.  I've done the flakes technique twice now and it required a full week to get back to a sluggish level of activity in both cases.  For longer storage, I'd use the flakes.  Why?  Because it seems to be a more stable form that is less susceptible environmental upsets.

I have some notions about the difference in behavior of the two.  First, the granules weren't as dry as the flakes.  That seems to have allowed the yeasts and bacteria of the starter to get back to work faster, possibly because they were less stressed and did not shut down entirely.  Second, although the organisms were tightly bound in a relatively dry environment, they were also surrounded by food even if they could not exploit it easily.  The down side for the granules is that their higher moisture content would make them more susceptible to attack by molds and other organisms, which militates against using them as a long-term storage option.

The good news is that there are options for the traveler, as well as for disaster recovery.  The easiest way to travel with a starter, of course, is to tuck a small blob in a plastic bag or other container.  That's probably the easiest way to lose it to a zealous inspector, too.

And the reward for any of you who have stayed awake through this entire dissertation?  Pictures of the pain au levain baked with the reconstituted starter, which now smells the way a healthy and happy starter should.  Note that the bread was made at about Day 7 or Day 8; not because of the starter's readiness but because of the baker's schedule.  The starter could probably have been used on Day 4 or Day 5.  First, the loaf:

And then the crumb:

Happy travels!



cranbo's picture

Paul, happy to hear your starter was able to make the journey. Thanks for the head-to-head write up, interesting!

When I flew cross-country a few weeks ago, I packed both dried starter and moist starter in ziptop plastic bags in my checked luggage; my sister-in-law has been getting more interested and requested it. Both made it no problem. I had maybe 1-2 tbsp of the fresh stuff, which was very happy and alive after the 24hr trip, and was ready to go again after 1 feeding. The dried one was just for insurance, and she kept that one in her freezer as well. 

I suppose for distance travel, you could always pack some fairly dry starter in your carry-on or personal bag, and just tell them it's food. Shouldn't cause too many problems, especially if they challenge you to eat a piece. 

pmccool's picture

Now I'm feeling really good to have gotten from Jo'burg to KC in about 23 hours!  And I'm happy that all of my preparations paid off.  It's nice to be working with a known starter instead of having to roll the dice with a new one.

If you can get the moist starter through all of the security hurdles, it is definitely the easiest to handle.  Depending on the duration of the trip, the starter should arrive in approximately its original condition, maybe a little bit stressed, and ready for action, as you have demonstrated.  I've seen, and been the object of, some fairly in-depth security searches.  Consequently, I didn't want to have to explain to a non-baker what that blob of material was.  The twitchier among them might have suspected it was plastique or something similarly lethal.  In this case, I only received minimal intrusion in my carry-on items and, from all appearances, none in my checked items, so no questions were ever raised.


Franko's picture

Well it captured my attention Paul, and your easy going writing style made it a an enjoyable read.

I'm not likely to ever travel by air with my sour, but it was informative to see how your chef fared after it's two different hydrations before the flight home. I recall reading of how the prospectors during the Yukon gold rush would carry their starter in a pouch under their armpit to keep it warm and active during the long winters up North. Truly amazing what humans will do to preserve a good  strain of yeast, so consider yourself a modern day 'Sourdough'.

Incredible how resilient these tiny little life forms are to what we put them through sometimes, and your loaves are a fine example of what they can do when cared for properly.

Nice writeup Paul, Thanks!


pmccool's picture

While I do have the beard and the starter, I'm missing some of the other gear that the "Sourdoughs" thought essential: picks, shovels, pans, dog teams, etc.

You are right about wanting to continue this particular culture.  It has been reliable as a leaven and it produces breads whose flavor I enjoy.  There have been others in my acquaintance that weren't so pleasant.


OldWoodenSpoon's picture

Great appraisal Paul.  I've thoroughly enjoyed your writings before, during, and now after your ex-pat experience.  Always a good read, and worthwhile for the information you provide as well.  Welcome home!  How was it, baking in your own oven?  Oops, there is one of those assumptions you warned about.  I assume it was baked you your own oven. 

Nice looking loaves, Paul.  Looks like the starter is up and rarin' to go.

pmccool's picture

It is great to be back.  And your assumption was correct!  I like being back in my own kitchen, using the tools that I am thoroughly acquainted with.

The starter is back in fighting trim.  This weekend I made some Deli Rye from Reinhart's BBA and it worked just fine for that, too.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Why unfair you ask?  Because the dried starter used up the food while drying so that it is extreme hungry when hydrated.  Unless it was fed and dried under an hour.   The crumbs, because then were more or less fed extra flour to get crumbly, contain more flour food when hydrated.  So...  you gave the crumblies a head start.  Unfair!!!  :)

Ready for the next experiment?  Try adding flour to the flakes with the water so that it has food right away instead of waiting a day first.  (You already have the control in the above experiment.)  Now whether the starter is formed from the flour yeasts with contributing acid and bacteria from the flakes or if old yeast spores are awaken is only something that can be checked with special equipment.  I think the flakes provide the environment for the yeasts in the flour to flourish and if kept around long enough the spores will also awaken (that is the real race in the flaked starter.)   

pmccool's picture

In particular, the thought that the culture was consuming food during the drying phase.  While I was thinking that the dried starter may have experienced some degree of die-off while drying, plus spore formation, it hadn't struck me that it was still consuming food up to the last minute.

My guess is that the yeasts and bacteria which survived the drying process will probably come back faster than the new organisms that ride in with the flour.  I was already seeing some signs of life at 72 hours (not the leuconostoc variety), which is not typical for a new starter.  Note that I was using an unbleached AP flour for food, which would carry a much lower load of yeasts and bacteria than a whole grain flour would.

The quest for futher scientific knowledge will have to wait a bit longer, though.  I'm happy to have a functioning, healthy starter again so I'm not inclined to repeat the process right away.  Plus, there is a longish list of things to do around the house that features my name way too often for my liking.  Those have been assigned a higher priority by she who made the list.


ehanner's picture

Good to hear you got home intact. Back in the land where the "Honey Do" isn't always a melon.


RoBStaR's picture

Hey Paul,


Thank you for the step by step instructions on how to re hydrate. I recently received a shipment of dried started like chips form as you have described.  during the whole rehydration process, do you still keep it refrigerated? or leave it out entirely? note i live in a humid and hot climate and at regular feeding before in ny, i would feed my starter 3tablesppon flour and water ratio, then let it sit for 3 hrs before putting it back into the fridge.

I have added bottled water to the chips and they have become soft again, i then feed it 3 tblespoons of water n flur mixture, and let it sit out for 3 hrs then placed it inside the fridge. Should i let it sit out the whole entire time while reconstituting my started?


any help is appreciated, thank you.


pmccool's picture

The starter was maintained at room temperature (roughly 65F low to 75F high) during the rehydration process.  Warmer temperatures would be fine; that's just what it was in my house for the week or so that I tracked the starters' performance.  My rationale was that the starter had already been stressed by the drying process, so I wanted to give it the best possible conditions for growth until it was back to the level of activity that I wanted.

Now that the starter is at full health, I store it in the refrigerator between uses.  My usual routine on the weekends that I bake with sourdough is to pull the starter from the refrigerator on Thursday evening or Friday morning, feed it a time or three to make sure that it is active, then build the levain I need Friday evening so that it is ready for use on Saturday morning.  If the formula calls for a large quantity of levain, I will use the first couple of feedings to build the quantity instead of discarding part of the starter when it is ready for the next feeding.

Note that I also keep a small quantity of starter in the storage container and feed it separately.  After one or two feedings, I usually put it back into the refrigerator an hour after the final feeding.  This step keeps me from baking all of my starter after forgetting to set some aside for storage, which I have done before.

Note too that I keep my storage starter as a moderately stiff dough.  This gives it a larger quantity of food to work through compared to a starter that is maintained at a batter consistency.

Since I didn't see your post until today, I hope that your starter is bubbling happily despite my tardy response.


I'mTheMami's picture

S, since I dontknow what recipe or bakers math I will be using to bake the bread, do I just used the same ratio/percentages to feed my starter that you have listed? How does one decide what kind of starter they like? (Trial and error I suppose?) 



pmccool's picture

I maintain mine as a stiff dough, which is in the 50-55% hydration range.  That's because it develops more slowly than a  liquid starter during the week or two between uses that it sits in the refrigerator.  At room temperatures, it wants feeding twice a day, usually.

A wetter starter (100% hydration, on the order of a pancake batter) is popular with many users because of the simplicity in measuring ingredients for feedings.  At refrigerator temperatures, it wants feeding every week.  At room temperatures, it wants 2-3 feedings per day.

So, yes, experiment and decide which best fits your routine.  The starter will adjust to whatever regimen you adopt (although it doesn't like being underfed).  When you pick a bread to bake, adjust the hydration level of the starter you take from storage to be consistent with the formula for the bread's levain.  


I'mTheMami's picture

Thanks for the help! I need to change it up alittle then, since mine will be out of the fridge for the next couple of weeks and I dont want to run out of flour before I even make a loaf. We went out of town for the night, and I kid you not - I took my starter with us.

I mean, you wouldnt leave a child alone, would you? :) LOL. 


Will stick with the stiffer one for now, sounds like it will better adapt to our situation. Thank you!