The Fresh Loaf

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A Starter Restart and Serendipity on the Road to a Softer Sourdough

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wassisname's picture
wassisname

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.

 Marcus

Comments

Franko's picture
Franko

Hi Marcus,

Nice writeup Marcus! 

Quite often I find myself going through the same exercise as you describe with reviving your starter. I've come to realize it goes with the territory when it comes to home baking and our own personal schedules outside of our hobby. Honestly, I've never noticed a significant difference in flavour from a mature starter compared to relatively new one, my belief being it (flavour) has more to do with the quality/properties of flour used in the levan and how it's fermented rather than the starter itself. These are great looking loaves Marcus, regardless of whether the results were expected, kid friendly, or not. Nice baking!

 Franko

wassisname's picture
wassisname

Thanks Franko, you make a good point. I was more anxious about it than I needed to be. I was impressed by how quickly and vigorously the starter came back and its performance since then has been excellent. I don’t see why I shouldn’t go through this routine once a year or so. Thanks!

Marcus

meirp's picture
meirp

Meir

wassisname's picture
wassisname

Give it a shot, Meir! I would love to hear how it turns out.
Marcus

meirp's picture
meirp

Hi Marcus,

I started on your recipe. Unfortunately, I forgot the autolyse stage and mixed everything together (after the starter fermented per your instructions). I hand-kneaded for 20 minutes (hoping that would compensate some gluten development instead of the missing autolyse). The dough was really wet to start with - I had to hand-knead using a wet hand (immersed in water about every 4 turns of the bowl). The dough started rising nicely. I did S&F after about 1.5 hours on a floured board using a plastic scraper until the dough got a bit firmer. I only had time for one S&F before I had to rush to work, and I left the dough for bulk fermentation. Since I'll be away a lot longer than 4 hrs (more like 12 hours), I put the dough in the fridge for some retardation. I plan to continue tonight (after removing dough from fridge and letting warm up to room temperature) with the shaping and proofing. I always have these timing issues  - or should I say lack of time - with sourdough breads (which is why I usually don't do 100% sourdough, rather I use my starter plus some commercial yeast for spiking on my daily breads). Do you think the autolyze stage is critcal if mixing by hand? Any suggestions are appreciated.

Thanks,

Meir

wassisname's picture
wassisname

The autolyse isn’t a dealbreaker, you should be fine. It would have made kneading a bit easier as it lets the dough develop itself through the wettest, stickiest stage and shortens the overall kneading time, but as long as you get the gluten developed somehow you’ll come out OK. I was actually considering skipping the autolyse the next time I bake this just to see how much difference it makes in the crumb structure.
From your description so far it sounds like you’re on the right track. This dough was fairly loose and somewhat sticky. Giving the dough a pre-shape and short rest was essential, but even so it never felt very strong or tight. A second pre-shape might be a good idea if it’s feeling really slack and uncooperative.
Best of luck, I hope it turns out great!
Marcus

meirp's picture
meirp

Conclusions! Bread tasted great. As it turns out I didn't have enough gluten development and had problems shaping (lack of surface tension), so not nearly as nice-looking as your loaves. More sour than I'm used to (but I don't make sourdough very often and usually don't ferment as long), and I could still taste the bread hours after eating it. Crust was very chewy and crumb nice and creamy. So, thank you very much for sharing! BTW, I think if you add even more olive oil (say double the amount) plus use a higher % of whole wheat (less gluten) you'll get the softer, lighter crust you were looking for. Regards,

Meir

wassisname's picture
wassisname

Glad to hear you got a tasty loaf out of it!  Thanks for the feedback.  If I get a chance to bake a revised version any time soon I’ll be sure to post the result.

Marcus

Grenage's picture
Grenage

Starters can be diluted to the point of demise, usually through excessive feedings in a cool environment (feedings that involve a discard).  I never put mine in the fridge, and just feed it daily; generally with a 1:2:2 - 1:10:10.

Like Franko, I also notice no difference between a mature and young (but stable) starter.  Then again, I would never expect to; unlike a bottle of wine, the contents of a starter are being contsantly replaced.

wassisname's picture
wassisname

That sounds like my problem alright. Daily feedings just aren’t going to happen (I wish I could bake often enough for that to be practical!). I can, however, make sure I let the culture get good and ripe when I do feed it. From there a room temp feeding or two should bring it into condition for baking like it always did before.

Grenage's picture
Grenage

I only bake 2/3 times a week, but I keep the starter volume very low; I think I'd probably do the same thing if I baked once a week.

Not that daily feedings don't add another chore to the great list of things one must accomplish.

wassisname's picture
wassisname

Yes, Grenage, the list is great even if the things on it are not ;)  Someday I’ll manage to get that list rearranged a bit.

Marcus

All at Sea's picture
All at Sea

... to a trusty old starter is understandable. Very glad you didn't have to say a final fond farewell.  But another vote for finding no advantage taste-wise between old and new starters. I recently baked a 2 loaves with a 3-day old starter (3 days from conception that is - made with rye/wholewheat/white unbleached - and yoghurt. No water). That 3 day-old starter was so darn vigorous (thanks to yoghurt) it not only raised two great loaves, but was wonderfully flavoursome without being overly sour - something I'm not fond of.

But I digress. Your Lazurus starter obviously worked its old magic in raising you great bread. Beautiful photos, too.

 

 

All at Sea

wassisname's picture
wassisname

Thanks All at Sea.  Just 3 days!?!  Nice!  My main anxiety about starting a culture from scratch was the time and attention I thought it would take.  I’ve only ever started from scratch once, not long after I began baking, and back in those days everything new and a little scary!  The vague memory of that probably had something to do with my reluctance to start over now.  Silly me!  Starting over from (almost) scratch was a whole lot less trouble than flailing around trying to fix a broken starter!

Marcus

Janetcook's picture
Janetcook

Thanks for the story of your starter.  I have learned a lot here about how to deal with mishaps because people like you take the time to share what is going on in their kitchens.  Now, when something unexpected happens, I don't panic.  I generally know what to do.  It is a good feeling: -)

If you ever get in a pinch again I do something similar to All at Sea and I too get a really vigorous and mild starter in just 3 - 4 days depending on my room temps.  at the time.  (My method comes from Dan Leopard's book 'The Hand Made Loaf')  In fact, I just started up a new leaven and it will be used in tomorrow's bake.  I have kind of fallen into a routine of starting a new starter every few months or so even though I bake daily.  I like to keep mine mild and this seems to do the trick.  But all could change at the drop of a hat.

Anyway, I now have a new trick to use in the event I ever end up with a lifeless starter for some reason - one never knows what may happen tomorrow....

Take Care,

Janet

 

wassisname's picture
wassisname

Well said, Janet.  Can’t have too many tricks in the baking bag!  Sometimes my brain just insists on making things harder than they need to be.  I probably should have posted the problem here to begin with but, well, re-read the previous sentence and there you go.  More and more I’m thinking that a regular re-start would be a good thing.  Thanks!

Marc

Janetcook's picture
Janetcook

Marc,

I had the same fear of starting from scratch so the leaven I used for my first year of baking was 'store' bought.  I finally decided to try one on my own this past winter to see what would happen.  Only thing is, I didn't do just 1.  I did an experiment with 3 different ones to see how each fared.

One was from the book 'The Bread Builders'; one from Whole Grain Breads which uses the pineapple juice; and one from 'The Hand Made Loaf'.  The HML starter was the only one that took off and it took barely any care at all.  One feed a day for 3 days and then it is  up and running by the 4th!  It is now my 'go to' method and I will use it rather than trying to revive old storage starter because it works faster!!!

I am sure you have read about drying some of your starter and storing it for emergency use.  I have done that too and it is easy to revive but takes about as long to get going as the 'from scratch' one.

So I am glad I did my little experiment because I now feel a lot more secure with my starter 'care' techniques. 

Take Care,

Janet

wassisname's picture
wassisname

Hehehe, it figures that The Hand Made Loaf is the one book out of those three that I don’t have… are you gonna make me buy another bread book, Janet?!?  I think I’m about due, actually.  If I don’t get another bread book every few months I start to twitch :)

I came to the same conclusion about dried starter that you did.  At one point I did try drying some but never got so far as to try to revive it.  The idea was that it would be easy to give some away if anyone I know wanted to get a starter going but, as you point out, it wouldn’t really be any more trouble to teach them how to get one going from scratch.

Marcus

Janetcook's picture
Janetcook

Marcus,

Library is a great source to check books out prior to purchasing them...Has saved me thousands of dollars over the years.  His method is very simple and you might even be able to google it and come up with it.

I would spell out what I do but I know Dan Leopard prefers people to check out his recipes etc through his site.  Since he has made that known here and on other food blogs I am hoping you can find it some other way other then purchasing the whole book....I knwo how expensive these bread books can become and how much shelf space they can occupy....

DeWitt looks like he has a pretty bullet proof method below too.  Also using ingredients one usually has on hand.

One of the things I am learning now are that once you know what a starter needs to get going it really isn't all that difficult to do.  Makes sense because if it was rocket science bread wouldn't have made it as long as it has....would have disappeared long ago. 

Good Luck :-)

Janet

ananda's picture
ananda

Hi Marcus,
It is well worth reflecting on the cpntrasting approaches of Hamelman and Gerard Rubaud in this context.
You can read more about Rubaud on MC's lovely blog,Farine, here: http://www.farine-mc.com/search/?q=rubaud
Best wishes
Andy

wassisname's picture
wassisname

This is a terrific link, Andy, thank you.  Loads of insights and much to digest.  I am particularly struck by the way Rubaud, with all of his knowledge and experience, seems perfectly willing to embrace a new idea if it serves the needs of the bread… and seems just as willing to discard an idea if it doesn’t.  Humbling stuff.   This is the sort of food for thought that can get me babbling on and on, but for now I’ll just reflect quietly in my head.

Marcus

ananda's picture
ananda

Hi Marcus,
Yes, the oil has given you the tender crumb, but I am very much with you on the heavier bake to produce that amzing crust as wel.
Your comments about the levan serve as a warning to all that a Starter can become sluggish at unexpected times. Your solution was intuitive, but well-informed.
What we always did in this situation was to reach for the magic pot of rye sourdough for a new injection of acid!
At Village Bakery both Rossisky/Borodinsky and Pain de Campagne were in constant production. The French leaven was refreshed every 8 hours, and the new leaven taken after 3 hours, so had a tendency to lose acidity from time to time. However, the Rye sour was fermented a full 18 hours. So if the French Leaven became "green", we would add a little ripened rye sour to re-balance it.
That is a great loaf of bread, although somewhat whiter than both you and I normally eat, I suspect?
All good wishes
Andy

wassisname's picture
wassisname

Rye sour to the rescue makes perfect sense, Andy.  That’s a perfect thought to keep in my head while maintaining my wheat starter.  Also interesting is how often I’ve read about production bakeries having the advantage of a constantly refreshed, and consequently vigorous, levain.  That there is a point where this can become a liability makes sense, it just doesn’t usually make it into the story.  I like the word “green” to describe the condition – works on all levels.  The word “vegetal” popped into my head every time I smelled it but I’m not sure that’s actually a word…

And, yes, with 15% whole grain this is pretty much the lower limit for me.  Though, a little indulgence from time to time is a healthy thing, too!  Funny you should mention it actually, because I already have something considerably more robust planned for my next bake.    Thanks as always, Andy.

Marcus

DeWitt's picture
DeWitt

I suspect that if you had measured the pH of your failed starter, it would not have been very low or it would have been too low.  Dilute honey and vinegar seems to work better than pineapple juice.  I was using sugar and vinegar, which also works, but honey has the advantage that the sugars are already in the form of glucose and fructose so hydrolysis isn't necessary.  According to PeterS, you get good activity in 33 hours from scratch using this formula:

4.8oz whole rye, 6oz water, .2oz honey, 1/2 tsp cider vinegar added to the water.

It's too bad you threw away the old starter. It would have been interesting to split it up and and add a few drops of vinegar to one part and a small amount of baking soda to another, presuming, that is, you didn't have pH paper to check the pH.

Janetcook's picture
Janetcook

DeWitt,

I love it when somebody else has done the experimenting and people like me get the benefit of your work.  I can't even pretend to understand 80% of the language used in PeterS post but I do get the gist of what you were 'discussing' and I clearly understand the above formula for starting up a starter.  It has now been added to my collection and I would try it out right away but I just got a new starter going a few days ago so I am set for now.  I hate to kill off what I have just brought to life :-(.  Next new starter will get follow the above guidelines.

Thanks for piping in here.  I am one who did try the pineapple juice method and it didn't work...

Janet

wassisname's picture
wassisname

Sorry DeWitt, no pH paper, and no experimenting on the remains.  Maybe next time :)  I just went back to what I knew and it did the trick.  I thought about just using a little vinegar, but there was a can of pineapple chunks in the cupboard so I figured I might as well use the juice.  With your method the honey is there to accelerate the process, right?  So if speed wasn’t a priority I could use the vinegar for acidity and let it take its own time fermenting?  Just thinking through my options for next time.

Marcus

DeWitt's picture
DeWitt

Bugs can't eat starch directly, it has to be broken down to glucose and other monosaccharides like fructose and maltose (starch is a polysaccharide, sucrose or table sugar is a disaccharide made from glucose and fructose).  Adding honey, which is mostly a solution of glucose and fructose, gives the bugs something to eat right away.  The bugs that make the acids we want, lactobacilli, need the pH to be on the acidic side to grow, the yeast, not so much.  The yeasts may not be making CO2 either because the starch isn't being broken down and they've run out of food or something in the starter is inhibiting their growth.  If the problem was insufficient acidity, adding a small amount of vinegar, about 1/2 tsp/100g starter, should acidify it enough to get things started again.  If that didn't work, I would try adding some diastatic malt powder to provide the enzymes to break down the starch.  The last resort is what you did, a massive dilution of whatever was inhibiting the process.

 

wassisname's picture
wassisname

I appreciate the extra info, DeWitt.  I think I’m actually thinking in the right direction on this now, which is always reassuring.  Thanks!

Marcus