The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter Smell

cmcadams's picture
cmcadams

Starter Smell

I've got a starter going with equal parts organic whole wheat flour and water.  For a week, it was fed daily, then went into the fridge in a sealed jar, and fed every 3 days.

 

When I fed it yesterday, I noticed a sharp odor from it, and the jar 'popped' when I opened it up.  I expected some popping, but the smell is different than it was before.  Before, it smelled like flour and water, now it smells a bit sharp.  I don't know if this is normal or not.

 

Is this what I should expect? 

bwraith's picture
bwraith

In my experience, there is a change in smell as the acid increases. It might be described as sharp, but it should be a pleasant fresh tangy smell. There will be some alcohol on top after a week also, which may be part of the smell. However, it may be that you don't have a real sourdough culture growing in there. It's possible to have other less active bacteria growing that would have a sharp unpleasant smell that would generate only mild amounts of gas. One of the reasons I mention this is that if you are actually sealing the container, the culture would not be able to breath and might then spoil in some way. Also, I would be concerned about an explosion as opposed to just a pop. Generally, the seal needs to be able to allow gas to escape, such as plastic wrap and rubber band or a ceramic lid that just sits on top and allows an occasional leakage of gas. When you feed your culture, it should double in 4 to 7 hours typically, although I'm sure there are lots of variations depending on exactly the way the culture feeding system is done. If the culture is not that active, it might not be healthy. Finally, I had some problems with unwanted organisms taking over my culture. I posted something about this elsewhere on this site: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/1930/7182#comment-7182 that might or might not have something to do with your situation.

cmcadams's picture
cmcadams

The starter didn't 'explode' when I opened it; it just 'popped' a bit.  The odor actually isn't unpleasant; it's kind of a bit sour, and maybe a bit of alcohol smell.  I'll keep watching it for a week before using it, then decide if I think it's good or not before making someone sick. :)

Curt McAdams

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Curt,

If the culture can be fed with say a 1:4:4 ratio of "old culture":water:flour (by weight, not volume), and if you let it ferment at about room temperature (begins to take a lot longer as the temperature drops below about 70 degrees), it should rise by double in about 4-7 hours. If the culture has been sitting in the refrigerator for a long time (I left it for 7 weeks once, and it started up with only a couple of feedings), it will take a lot longer, because the yeast and bacteria are dormant and few in number. If the culture is relative new like a couple of days, it should happen in less time. If the culture rises that way when fed, it probably is a healthy culture. If it is not vigorous like that, you would know. There is not much doubt about it when the culture is active. That's why I mentioned the "explosion". It really could develop a large amount of pressure - like the kind of pressure that shoots a champagne cork out of the bottle. I think most people use a mason jar with plastic wrap and a rubber band. I have cylindrical glass storage canisters from Bodum that have a lid with a rubber gasket that some gas escape.

 The description of the smell sounds OK to me, but descriptions of smells aren't nearly as good as actually smelling it. Good luck. I'll be interested to hear if it's a good culture and makes some decent bread for you.

bwraith's picture
bwraith

By the way, when I read your original post just now, it made me think of something that is sort of buried in the last comment, but I wanted to mention separately. I actually don't feed the culture once I refrigerate it. I just "refresh" or "revive" the culture a day or two before I'm ready to bake some bread. For example, if I know I want to bake in a couple of days, I take out the culture feed it once in the 1:4:4 ratio of culture:flour:water (by weight) and let it rise. Then if the culture is old, I might feed it again once or twice, possibly with refrigeration for the night, depending on when this all was done during the day. Then, I can leave that newly fed and invigorated culture in the refrigerator for a couple of days at least and still make use of it. The culture will sit in the refrigerator for weeks and can be revived as above, in my experience, without any trouble at all so far. I tend to bake a lot all at once over a few days and then freeze my breads. As a result, I tend to bake only once a week or sometimes even once in two weeks. There's nothing wrong with feeding it every three days, and maybe it gives it a different flavor. Who knows..., but I'm just saying that it isn't necessary in my experience to keep feeding it once it's refrigerated. I think Peter Reinhart's BBA says you can leave the "barm" or culture in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.

By the way, I would take the culture out of the refrigerator after the feeding and let it froth up and revive/rise for a few hours before putting it back in the refrigerator. I wasn't sure from your original post if you were maybe feeding it and leaving it in the refrigerator. I'm not sure, but it might not work to add flour and water to the culture, leaving it in the refrigerator, because then the organisms would be diluted as well as dormant, yet be too cold to come out of their dormant stage and multiply back up to higher concentrations. That could lead to a problem, I think. You probably aren't doing that, but from your post, it occurred to me that was possible.

cmcadams's picture
cmcadams

I left it out a while after feeding, but I could certainly leave it out a bit longer.

Thanks for the help and suggestions.  I'm going to leave it out tonight, with some added flour, to see how it looks and smells after sitting out a bit.  If it bubbles up nicely, I'll make a loaf with it tomorrow.

Curt McAdams

bwraith's picture
bwraith

When I feed my culture, I put it in a plastic container that is cylindrical in shape and has some marks on it that happen to match up with the typical volume of my culture when it's first fed. Then, I just wait for it to double in volume, which is easy to see on a cylindrical container, usually 4 or 5 hours, unless it's really old or I expanded it by a very high ratio. I think it's good to let it double in volume and then put it in the refrigerator soon after. However, there is another thread where I see that someone used a very wet culture, much wetter than 1:1 flour:water by weight. In that case, it seems to just froth vigorously without rising that much, but it apparently is very active based on the frothing. I find it very useful to use the time it takes to double the 1:1 mixture as a measure of how vigorous the culture is. Also, it's a little easier to convert recipes in your head, since you know the weight of flour and water is 1:1 in the culture. The reason I mention measuring the rise in volume, as opposed to using a particular time, is that the rate of rise can be quite different depending on temperature and condition of the culture when it is fed.

 Best of luck with making some bread with it.

andrew_l's picture
andrew_l

I keep my starter much the same way bwraith does - feed, allow to rise and refridgerate. I've had it live like that for up to 3 months and it comes back very easily. Maggie Gleezer, in "A Blessing of Bread" says it can last up to a year like that - both she and one of her testers have done so. Amazing stuff, isn't it!!
NB it often smells slightly sharp - pleasant, vaguely alcohol - ish and with a hint of pear drops.
Andrew

cmcadams's picture
cmcadams

I used the starter last night to make whole wheat levain from Hammelman's Bread book.  It calls for adding 2 tablespoons of starter to flour and water.  I just checked it; it's been sitting for about 10 hours, and it's rising nicely, so I'm going to guess I'm doing ok with it.  I also fed the starter first, and it was nice and bubbly before I put it back in the fridge.

I'm hoping that means the starter is actually good.

Curt McAdams

cmcadams's picture
cmcadams

I thought I posted this already, but the starter worked pretty well, I think.  I got good holes in the bread, but it's fairly thin.  The taste is very good, though.

 

 

Curt McAdams