A Starter Restart and Serendipity on the Road to a Softer Sourdough
First, the starter story, aka I never thought it could happen to me. My starter has been serving me well for a couple of years. It would get sluggish from time to time when I wasn’t giving it enough attention but it always bounced back after a couple of feedings. Then one week it didn’t bounce back. It failed to raise the starter I was building for that week’s bread and then failed to raise the bread. I’ve never had a loaf just completely fail to rise like that so the following week I gave the starter some extra feedings and expected it to bounce back as usual. Except that, once again, it didn’t. I made my build for the week’s bread anyway and it behaved the same as it had the previous week. I didn’t want to throw it out so I spiked the final dough with instant yeast and went ahead with the bread.
At this point I had to admit that I had a serious problem so I set out to revive my starter. It has always been fed whole wheat flour and kept at around 75% hydration. Feedings happened 2-4 times per week and its downtime was spent in the refrigerator. But something was very much off. I tried more feedings in the proofer, I tried small inoculations, I tried high hydration, I tried a fresh bag of flour, but the result was always the same: a few bubbles, a little expansion, but ultimately a slack, sticky dough that smelled distinctly of freshly cut grass. Some people like the smell of freshly cut grass – I am not one of those people. I don’t like the smell of freshly cut grass when it’s coming from freshly cut grass and I really don’t like it when it’s coming from my starter. Along with this new smell I noticed the complete absence of the old, acidic smell.
At first I took comfort in the fact that at least I was getting a consistent result. That’s better than having my starter go into a full death spiral, right? Then I got to thinking about the biology of it all (at least the bit I’ve managed to pick-up from hanging out around here) and came to the conclusion that my new and consistent result was not such an encouraging sign after all. What does it mean when the acidity appears to be gone, there’s a new smell, and I get the same result no matter how I feed it? Sounds like my starter environment has changed and it’s making some new critters very happy. Drat!
I couldn’t bring myself to start over completely but I came close (maybe I even did, who knows). I scooped the old starter out of its container and left what was stuck to the bottom where it was. I made a small amount of thick batter from those remains, whole wheat flour and pineapple juice to create an acidic environment that would make the good guys happy and the bad guys go live somewhere else. When the batter was bubbly (about 12 hrs later) I repeated the treatment. When that was nice and bubbly I switched back to water and kept feeding it about every 12 hours, gradually bringing the hydration and inoculation percentages down. A few days later there was the old smell! Wonderfully sour and fruity! What a relief! And, best of all, it is once again doing a very nice job of raising my breads
All this would be for nothing if I didn’t learn something along the way. I think I did. I think I got a little too casual with my trusty starter. Somehow I got into the habit of using smaller inoculations when feeding and that, combined with a lazy habit of cutting short the fermentation time, led to a shift in the population and then a shift in the environment. This may have opened the door to whatever it was that took over my culture. Or maybe not, but I’m going with it. Whatever the actual cause, I have learned my lesson and do solemnly swear that henceforth I will not take my starter for granted and will be more attentive to its condition.
And now the bread...
This happy accident was meant to be a lighter, softer, more kid friendly version of my usual crusty sourdoughs. Apparently old habits really do die hard because in the end I made a bread very much in my usual style. I was surprised that the addition of olive oil didn’t have a greater effect on the finished loaf, especially the crust. I guess I need to turn down the heat next time if I want the crust to be less… crusty.
I was aiming for an even, tender crumb, but didn’t quite hit the mark on that either. The oil certainly had a tenderizing effect, but I think it needed a little more mix time as well.
But my criticism of this bread only applies to what I had meant to achieve. Leaving my intentions aside, I must say I really like this bread! The flavor is excellent, and all the more rich and complex because of the olive oil. I may be “accidentally” baking this loaf more often.