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Yet Another Sourdough Starter (Levain in particular) struggle

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dubitable's picture
dubitable

Yet Another Sourdough Starter (Levain in particular) struggle

Hi folks,

I've been lurking for a while, trying to pick up some useful information that I could apply to my specific issue. Well, I picked up plenty of useful info, but unfortunately nothing directly relating to my own experiment.

I should start by saying this is my first time making sourdough, although when I was growing up a mason jar with sourdough starter in the fridge was common sight. Anyways, I started by using Daniel Leader (from Local Breads) liquid levain recipe, but at some point I screwed it up and I couldn't tell you exactly when. I thought it may have been producing the wrong kind of growth, and I put some vinegar in it, and then put some wheat flour and filtered water, and...well, frankly, I don't really remember. I stuck the experiment in the fridge and figured I'd see if anything happened. Now, the mix in the fridge seems to produce hooch, and, um, maybe has a reasonable scent, although I swear it's a bit more bitter than I expect.

So I took some out a few days ago to see if I could get anything out of it. I figured I'd try Leader's pain de campagne, so I mixed up a pre-ferment using 1/4 cup of the (pretty wet, but sorry I can't tell you the hydration...I'm still learning about that) levain, 3/4 cups of flour, and 3/4 cup water. Again, you can tell I'm learning as I haven't moved to a scale yet, but soon, very soon...

Anyways, after overnight I was getting nothing but a clearish liquid on the top. Minimal bubble development, and a very soupy consistency--no strands or gluten in the least. Just liquid. I figured I would toss it out, but I got lazy and let it sit there a bit longer, then had to run out and stayed at my girlfriend's place that night, then came back the next day rather late...oh right, the pre-ferment! Now something else entirely I guess...it had turned into something with a bunch of bubbles on top, and smelled very strongly of sharp apples. I was excited, 'cause I thought I'd read that this was a good sign (fruity scent, bubbles).

So, what I did was, basically mix the pre-ferment over again with that. Next day, I got some bubbles, still the nice appley smell, but no rise--Leader's recipe called for a rise of about 1/3 by the next day. Hrrm. It was still soupy, no gluten mix at all. So: try it again, maybe it's a fool's errand at this point, but what the heck. Mistakes beget learning, right? So: this morning (when I checked the second pre-ferment) I put another (the third at this point) pre-ferment together to see if THAT would rise. This time I got bubbles, but then nothing: just a bit of liquid developing by about nine hours later. Smelled much more mild, not strong at all, and dragging a spatula through presented no resistance, no gluten, just soup.

This is where I'm at now and I'm thinking that perhaps I've got a dud. Maybe my initial assumption was right, my starter is growing something but it ain't what I want, and I should just toss it and start again, being more rigorous this time. But, my inherent laziness (and also thirst for knowledge, to give myself a little credit) suggests that I ask you folks if you can give me any hint that this might actually be a live culture, I just have to treat it right. Thoughts? Advice?

Thank you!

Best,

Dave

holds99's picture
holds99

My suggestion is to look at Bernard Clayton's book New Complete Book of Breads pages 273-277.  In his intro "Starters" (page 277) he gives an overview on starters and on subsequent pages (278-277) lists recipes for a number of starters.  I'm sure there are other excellent starters available for a nominal purchase price from various sources on the internet.  I made my starter, years ago, using Nancy Silverton's recipe from her book Breads From The La Brea Bakers, using grapes (for the yeast spores).  However, making this starter takes 14 days... but produces excellent results.  If you're up for the challenge try making Nancy Silverton's starter. 

Good luck.

HO

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

Hi, dubitable. 

Welcome to The Fresh Loaf. From what you described, I think you are basically on the right track. I'd suggest you forget adding anything to your starter but water (preferably filtered) and flour (preferably unbleached).  

A 1:1 ratio of flour to water by volume will yield a very thin soup. 1:1 by weight will still give you a "liquid" starter, sort of like pancake batter. Until you get a scale, I'd suggest you use a ratio more like 2:1 flour to water by volume, or just add flour until you get to the consistency of a very thick batter. As you mix it, the starter will start to pull away from the sides of your bowl. Now, this will be somewhere between a "liquid" and a "firm" starter, but, at your stage, it doesn't matter that much. 

A very thin starter will not increase much in volume. It cannot form a good enough gluten network to support the expansion. If you have lots of bubbles, especially if they are foamy, you have an active starter.  

Hope this helps.

David

dubitable's picture
dubitable

A very thin starter will not increase much in volume. It cannot form a good enough gluten network to support the expansion.

Ah...this is very helpful for me to understand. Thank you for this explanation, makes much more sense now!

holds99's picture
holds99

Hello Dubitable,

Here's a website (Julia Child) where she features Nancy Silverton who uses sourdough starter in her commercial bakery, LaBrea bakery, in Los Angeles.  As I mentioned before she is the author of Breads From The LaBrea Bakery.  There's a series of videos on this site which may be helpful.  

 http://www.pbs.org/juliachild/meet/silverton.html#

Even if you choose not to make her starter it's an interesting site and might be of help in your endeavor with sourdough starter.

holds99

dubitable's picture
dubitable

Hi holds99, thank you for this and the Bernard Clayton suggestion; I've seen them both before mentioned on this forum and it seems like from what you and others have said that they are good sources.  I'm going to check them both out and see what I can learn...thank you!

Dave

bwraith's picture
bwraith

I love Nancy Silverton's book and recipes, but her starter isn't my favorite. I don't see the need for the large amounts of flour and water she uses. It just seems way harder than it has to be. I know some people have had good success with it, and I'm sure it works, but for a beginner I'd suggest something else.

Sourdolady's starter has been tried successfully by many, and it is very simple. I don't think you can go wrong with it.

My favorite, though, is the firm starter method in Maggie Glezer's books, which zolablue posted here on TFL, as well.

I agree with dmsnyder's comments about consistency and rise.

Since you have what sounds like a partially started starter, you could probably just do something like this:

Take 1 tbsp of the starter and mix with 2 tbsp water, 3 tbsp white flour, add a pinch of very fresh whole rye flour or whole wheat flour, if you have it. Don't use old flour. Some people have had problems with filtered water when starting starters, so you might want to try bottled spring water for a few feedings, if you have it. I use my water cooler water, Poland Spring water, and it seems to work well.

Mix it into a thick paste (add a little flour if it seems too thin) and let rise for 24 hours. Try to find a warm spot for it to rise, hopefully somewhere between 70 and 80F. It's a lot easier to get a starter started if the temperature is close to 80F. Repeat the feeding process every 24 hours until it begins to rise by more than double within a few hours. At that point, try using 1 tsp of starter fed with the same amounts above. It may take more like 6-8 hours to rise by double when only fed with a teaspoon of starter, but it should get a little faster after a few more feedings and then stabilize. You can stop adding the pinch of whole rye flour at that point. You should be able to feed every 12 to 24 hours after that. The starter should rise by about triple, maybe more, then dip in the middle, and eventually collapse. The starter is best used for baking around the time it has "peaked". However, you can use it from about the time it has doubled to some time well after it has peaked with little noticeable difference in performance, once the starter has stabilized. Some time after the starter has peaked, you can feed it, but you can let a starter sit for many hours after it has peaked before the next feeding.

The whole process could take 3-10 days, depending on where in the process you are with the starter you have. Often people experience a big rise in the first 2-3 days, then it goes dead for a few days, after which it spring to life. After that, it generally works fine. Maybe you experienced that.

holds99's picture
holds99

Nancy Silverton's sourdough starter recipe is based on Gaston LeNotre's recipe. As you may know, there are no shortcuts in French cuisine, boulangerie or patisserie.  LeNotre is one of France's most respected chefs.  His recipe is traditional and uses grapes to capture the yeast spores from the skins in order to create a natural starter e.g. along the lines of the theory of wine fermentation.  This is one of the traditional French starter methods.  Nancy Silverton is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, as am I, and I believe she studied under Gaston LeNotre prior to opening La Brea bakery in L.A. a number of years ago. I was simply pointing out what has worked well for me for the past 10 or so years and apparantly works well for Nancy Silverton in her commercial baking endeavors. There are many, many sources for sour dough starters and they come in many different types and flavors, made from various ingredients.  It's a function of the amount of time and effort one wants to invest and the desired results one wants to achieve.

dubitable's picture
dubitable

Alright, thanks for all the suggestions! I think I'm going to do a few different things, including starting a new starter using the suggested sources that people have provided, but for now I've taken bwraith's suggestions and done the following:

Taken a tablespoon of the starter that had been sitting in the fridge for a few days since my last experiment (and smelled a bit sour, with a bit of hooch as well), and added two tablespoons of just-opened distilled water, three tablespoons of bought-the-day-before KA unbleached all-purpose white flour, and added a pinch of Arrowhead Mills rye. It's got a pretty good pasty consistency, I just mixed it up, and we'll see what we get in 24 hours. My kitchen tends to stay around 75-80 degrees fahrenheit so I figure that should work out well enough.

One question though: you specify the rye flour getting added regularly at the beginning of the process, then stopping after it has stabilized. What exactly is the rye doing in this beginning period?

Thanks!

Dave

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Dave,

Whole rye or whole wheat flours carry a higher concentration than white flours of some of the organisms needed in the starter. When you are getting one started, it helps to add some whole rye or whole wheat. Once the culture is started, you can switch to all white flour. In fact, you can just use white flour exclusively, but it would probably take a little longer for it to get started.

I don't know what references you may have, but a great one for sourdough techniques, as well as many other bread topics, is Artisan Baking by Maggie Glezer. The starter technique in that book is well explained and very easy, clean, and efficient to execute.

I have Bernard Clayton's book and wouldn't recommend it for sourdough. If you are using his book, don't use temperatures of 100F for a true white flour sourdough starter, as he suggests. You should try to stay around 80F, whatever you do. Temperatures of 100F are too high for the yeast in sourdough.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for French cuisine and Nancy Silverton. I don't doubt the tradition and provenance of Silverton's starter recipe. I'm sure she and holds99 have exemplary education, experience, and accomplishments in the culinary field.

My point about Silverton's starter was a small one, just that as a home sourdough baker of some years experience, I believe you can get a workable, good flavored starter by doing nothing more than repeatedly feeding a thick paste of white flour with a small amount of starter. It is reliable and easy, and the final product will probably be about the same either way.

Bill

dubitable's picture
dubitable

I've got some development the day after, lotsa bubbles and I'm pretty sure a moderate rise,
a funky smell, definitely sour and a bit gross to me frankly.  Seems quite strong, not something I'd want to put in my mouth!

 

I realized I wasn't quite sure what you meant by repeat, so what I did was take a tablespoon of the 24-developed batch and add two tbsps water and three of flour again.  I've taken some pictures and will post tomorrow after I see the results of the second day...thanks again! 

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Dave,

The gross smell is probably indicative of an immature culture. It probably is still in the stages where some spoilage bacteria are surviving. So, it's possible a "dead stage" when the culture is quiet and seemingly not active may occur again. However, if you just keep "repeating the feeding", meaning take some of the culture that has risen for 24 hours and combine it with flour and water and let it rise at room temperature again, the culture will eventually develop the characteristics of a good sourdough starter. You have to be patient, as it generally takes at least a few days to get past the "dead quiet stage".

When it is behaving normally after a few days, it will rise by at least double, maybe about triple, maybe more, and then "peak" and dip in the middle. After that it can sit for quite a while developing a more intense aroma. Eventually, it will collapse and fall. All of that is fine. A reasonable time to feed it is when it has peaked or sometime after that when it begins to collapse. Once the culture is stable, it can be very forgiving of leaving it to sit for a long time in the collapsed state, even days, but I tend to feed about every 12 to 24 hours depending on the temperature.

Once it is rising normally, remember to reduce the quantity of starter used in the feeding down to something like a teaspoon. It will take longer to rise, but the culture will spend more time at higher pH, which allows the lactobacillus to grow. The yeast generally grows more slowly, but it does OK in lower pH, so it will catch up during the "peaking" stage of the culture, when the lactobacillus will slow in growth as the pH drops.

At some point, if you get a chance, note how long it is taking to double in volume, and what temperature prevailed during the rise.

Ideally, this should all be done with a scale. A good digital scale costs about $25, for example, the little Escali scales on Amazon, and is invaluable for more reliable comparisons of recipes, and especially for more precisely feeding your cultures.

In grams, a good current feeding would be about 15-20g of culture to 30g water and 35g of flour. Later, you could make it more like 5-10g of culture to 30g water and 35g flour. Right now, I feed my culture 5g:23g:28g every 12 to 24 hours. It's colder, so every 24 works well, but in the summer I stay closer to every 12 hours with the same feeding.

Bill

 

dubitable's picture
dubitable

Sorry I've been so long! Anyways, things are going very well. I've got some pictures now to show the progress:

Starters 1 and 2 (before and after)

The one on the right has already peaked and I've taken some to feed the new one, the fresh batch on the left. I think this was day four. And, my first (however ungainly and ugly) sourdough loaf!

My first sourdough loaf!

I used about 1/4 cup of starter to about 1 cup whole-wheat and 2 1/2 cups bread flour (all K.A.), and then I think 1 1/2 cups water. It was a bit stiff, didn't rise too much, and I let it sit in the fridge overnight. The next day it sat out for another few hours and then I made it into some loaves (faux batard...) and baked it after a proof. Not very scientific, I know, I was just so excited to get something out of it...

Anyways, I should be getting my Escali from Amazon tomorrow so I can start being more precise with these measurements...and most importantly, the bread is delicious. It's pretty tangy which I guess must come from the long ferment and relatively long proof, as well as perhaps the stiffness of the dough. In any case, I'm very excited and can't wait to keep on this. Thanks for all the help, Bill especially--you helped me save a starter I thought was done for!

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Dave,

That's great. Glad it worked. Whew...

The bread looks fine. If it's pretty tangy, it could be the culture needs to be fed at room temperature for a few more days. It should become very stable and may then give you more mild bread.

Another common reason for overly sour flavor is letting proofs run too long.

With whole wheat you need more water than with a white flour recipe to get a dough that isn't dry and stiff.

Good luck with it.

Bill