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First starter attempt failed; no idea why.

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Glare Seethe's picture
Glare Seethe

First starter attempt failed; no idea why.

A couple of weeks ago I made a first attempt at making a starter. Unfortunately after about a week it developed a very strong acetone smell which, after much googling, I found out meant the starter was underfed. Opinions seem to be divided on whether or not a starter can be rescued from such a state but I decided to throw it out and start fresh. Before I make another attempt, though, I'd really appreciate any insight into what exactly went wrong, so it doesn't happen again.


Some basic info:


- I started with a combination of whole rye flour and plain flour, gradually reducing the amount of rye starting from day 3.


- I was feeding the starter every 12 hours at a 1:1:1 ratio for the first 5-6 days, then I switched to 1:2:2.


- Temperature in my apartment hovers around 20C, which I think should be fine.


- I first noticed the acetone smell around day 8, I think. Until that point the starter hadn't been doubling between feedings, but it started to do so around the same time it developed the smell.


What I don't understand is this: how is it possible that I was underfeeding my starter when it showed no signs of doubling for so many days? If the yeast were so hungry for more food I'd expect the starter to double over the 12 hours (isn't that a sign that the yeast have eaten all their food?) - but until the smell developed it never did. As far as I can tell I had no way of knowing it was being underfed before it was too late. I was also feeding at 1:2:2 at that point, giving the yeast twice the amount of food even before they started doubling the starter (at the risk of diluting the colony, I guess) - and still it was too little? And at 20C I wouldn't expect the starter to be so active - from everything I've read that seems to be a rather low temperature for developing a starter, so wouldn't it take the yeast more time to go through so much food, rather than less?


I'm sure I am missing something here... anyone know what could've went wrong?

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

It just didn't have enough time to settle in and equilibrate after the yeast started growing. The acetone smell probably would have gone away over the following days with repeated refreshing. Give it at least two weeks after it starts doubling before you reject it, because it takes that long for the populations to change and stabilize.


Your starter was actually overfed for days 1-8, which is why it took so long to start doubling for you. Try 2:1:1, just once a day until then, and when it starts expanding, you can go to your twice daily feedings of 1:1:1 or 1:2:2.


Everything else you're doing sounds fine :-)
-dw

Glare Seethe's picture
Glare Seethe

Thanks for the reply, Debra. I think my decision to trash this one was because I read that the acetone smell is from protein-eating bacteria who take over if you've been underfeeding the yeast. At least on a few places (sourdoughhome.com comes to mind, but also here on TFL in a few threads) I read that the starter will likely be unstable and unreliable even if you do manage to recover it to a useable state. If that's not the case then that's good to know and I will definitely not be so quick to toss it out if it happens next time.


But having said that... if I was overfeeding, where did the acetone smell come from in the first place? It wasn't just a hint of acetone - it was a very, very strong, overpowering smell.


In any case, I will start another one tonight and try the 2:1:1 ratio for the first few days.

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

The acetone-like smell is from lactic acid bacteria. There will be many bacteria passing through your starter in the beginning, some of which don't smell too good, but they will be diluted out eventually :-)  In my experience, rye flour tends to bring this smell out more than white flour, too.


For more tips and information on the stages your starter will go through, you might find this useful:
Click here: The Pineapple Juice Solution, Part 2 | The Fresh Loaf


At the end, there is a simple procedure for making a new starter (and a link to the full procedure). You can substitute water for the pineapple juice if you prefer.

sewcial's picture
sewcial

I thought I was a total failure at making a liquid starter, too. I, first, used the formula from Local Breads. I'm sure I measured everything right, but it was very liquid and it never grew anything. I, finally threw it out. Then, following some tips from Mini Oven, I thinned down my stiff starter.  The first try failed to grow. I made another and it seemed to be growing so I put it in the freezer while we went on a two week trip. Returning home, I thawed them, tried to revive both starters and thought I had killed them. They were doing nothing after feeding.  


Thinking that "room temp." was okay for growing a starter, I left it on the counter. Well, I finally realized my kitchen never got over 50' F. so I turned on the furnace, which I usually try not to run till Thanksgiving. Still, the kitchen didn't get over 60'.  In desparataion, I set my oven on the "keep warm" cycle at 100'F (the lowest possible setting). I just keep turning it on a few minutes, then off again so the temp in there stays about 80'F. That starter is growing like a weed! I am so happy. I just put it into the fridge to keep. The problem now is that I have 3 jars of starter. The two I had planned to scrape into the compost pile, have grown, too.


I can't waste all that active live starter, so I will have to make some sourdough pancakes or banana bread or something. Would anyone like to come to breakfast or tea?  I am all alone as my DH is away on another trip. 


I don't suppose there is such a thing as sourdough brownies? I could eat a lot of those...LOL.


Catherine

gcook17's picture
gcook17

Keep trying, it might take several tries.  I don't know if it's worth trying to bring something to life after trying that long.  If it was me I'd throw it away and start over.


My first nine attempts failed, but the tenth time it really took off and I'm still using that starter.  I tried different grains from different sources and what finally worked for me was cracked wheat from an Indian grocery store.  Since then I've made starters two more times with medium rye flour and both of those were going well enough within 5 days to make bread with.


One thing to note is that after 2-3 days it will probably smell pretty bad (like old rotting garbage) but that's okay--in another day or two it will smell like sourdough.


Have you tried using pineapple juice instead of water when you first mix the starter?

Chode's picture
Chode


 Try 2:1:1, just once a day until then, and when it starts expanding, you can go to your twice daily feedings of 1:1:1 or 1:2:2.



I'm quite a novice and have been feeding my poolish starter 1:1 ratio of bread flour and cold water. It takes about 3 days to show even the most modest rise in the refrigerator.  I'm wondering if I should do a 2:1 BF/W feeding for a while to get it more stable?

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Chode, are you saying you want to strengthen a counter top starter to raise a poolish in the refrigerator?  A cold place where yeasts normally have a rough time?  (your results don't suprise me, my best starter would only raise a loaf modestly in the fridge)  or do you want to add more flour to your poolish? (How about a warmer refrigerator?) (temp?)


Normally feeding a starter less than it's own volume in weight (2:1:1) makes it weaker unless you have strong reasons to believe it contains only trace amounts of the desired bacteria and yeasts.  Like right after freezing it or overheating it or maybe reviving a dried starter for the first time.  


Double the flour or food and you have growth but I'm not so sure about stability.  Try giving it 4 or 5 times the amount of flour if you want stability.  That is my experience. 


Mini

Chode's picture
Chode

@Mini


Thanks for the reply.  I should have been clearer about my question. ;-)


I don't use a countertop starter, only a poolish that I keep in the fridge.


I seem to be getting a decent rise from my loaf, but the crumb is not nearly as light an airy as I think a sourdough should be. I posted a separate question regarding this problem on this forum here.


Q: Your volume ration 2:1:1 is existing starter:bread flour:water, yes? I've been feeding it .5:1:1 or removing half the starter by weight and replacing it with a 1:1 flour and water ratio.


 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Doesn't rise much.  In fact, if you wait for it to double, you may wait a long time.  Rye doesn't have the gluten wheat starter does.  You never mentioned how much rye was in the starter, but it if it was over half, then you can have a very lively starter and not see it.  I generally go by smell and if you sprinkle the top of the starter with dry rye flour, cracks will appear on the surface as the beasties get active.  Then you can "see"  something happening.


I just looked in my fridge, and it will be fun getting my 5 month sleeping starters up and running.  Arrived here in Austria a little bit after midnight.  Got a flight cancelled and rerouted thru Vienna.  I would have loved to stay for the American Ambassador's speach to be held there tomorrow but, but I was too eager to get home.  The best and too far the shortest leg of my trip was upgraded to Business Class.   I made the best of it and drank champaign all the way home and slept like a baby.  


Good Luck with the next try,


Mini Oven

Glare Seethe's picture
Glare Seethe

The first few days I was feeding 50g of starter with 30g plain flour and 20g rye, but the amount of rye got gradually reduced over the next couple of feedings until I was doing 100% plain flour. At one point when it seemed like nothing was happening (after 5-6 days or so) I added some rye again to try and boost the starter up a bit. I think after that it started rising, simultaneously developing the acetone smell.


Oh well, I will try again. Frankly I did not actually expect my first attempt to succeed.


Appreciate the responses and encouragement.


 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

50g  starter  (plus)  50g flour (equals)  subsistance feeding  or  just barely feeding to keep alive.  This is not a bad idea in the first few days but as the starter gets going, it needs more food.  Keeping this feed schedule once you notice the cheesy or light sour smell in the starter, is too little, they need a higher ratio of flour  three times or more.  (that is why we discard to reduce the size of the starter before feeding,  Otherwise the amounts get too big!) 


The beasties love rye, I call it their perfect food, and they can eat thru it fast.  But you were not even feeding twice the starter weight so they started drowning in dead beasties and waste products.   The beasties were there the whole time and they were getting underfed.


If you want to start again, this time use only rye, don't pay too much attention to doubling but when the starter smell changes, you will have to feed more flour but keep on a 12 hour schedule.    Then when your starter is about 1 week or older,  start making a gradual switch over to wheat flour.  Reduce the % of rye by only 10% per feeding.


You will get there.  I know it.


Mini

Glare Seethe's picture
Glare Seethe

Hmm, I did up the ratio to 1:2:2 at one point though. Unfortunately I didn't keep notes and don't recall the schedule and timeline of events exactly, but I believe it was after 5 days or so. Maybe by then it was too late.


Okay, so when I try to put your and Debra's advice together, I get the following plan/schedule, give or take:


- Start with an all-rye diet, feeding 2:1:1 once a day until I notice some activity, in this case a change in smell (since with 100% rye a visible change will be more difficult to spot).
- Switch to 1:2:2 every 12 hours for the next few days. (Should I not make a stop at 1:1:1 first to avoid overfeeding? Or is that not an issue with 100% rye?)
- Gradually reduce percentage of rye in favor of wheat.


Does this sound good?

Edith Pilaf's picture
Edith Pilaf

I didn't discard mine despite the awful smell, and kept at it and I now have a very fine starter.   I found that the acetone smell diminished as I reduced the amount of rye flour.  At one point I went to straight AP flour and didn't like the results, so I switched to bread flour, and after further reading, added back 10% rye and about 10 -20% whole wheat.  Now the starter has a very nice smell and is very active and stable.  I started it about 4-5 weeks ago, and now it makes wonderful bread. It is 100% hydration by weight.  I was feeding it 2:1:1, then increased to 1:1:1.  Ten days ago, since I was going to be away for awhile, I fed it 1:2:2 and stuck it in the fridge.  I took it out of the fridge yesterday and fed it.  It doubled in about 3 1/2 hours.  I know that the experts on this board say to feed it even more than that, but I haven't found that to be necessary.  I am very happy with my results after such a short time, especially given the frustration I experienced the first two weeks. 


It was reading Debra's article that stopped me from throwing mine out as you did.  Good luck!

Glare Seethe's picture
Glare Seethe

That's very encouraging to hear! I've already started a second one so I definitely won't be so quick to toss it out this time.