The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What happened to my starter? Help!

JimmyChoCho's picture
JimmyChoCho

What happened to my starter? Help!

I've been baking for just under a year using the starter from Tartine Bread. I've always used water from my Brita pitcher and have had no problems until recently. One day I noticed that the bottom of my pitcher was a little green, looking up online a lot of people seem to be having problems with algae growing in their brita pitchers. The day prior to realizing this, I fed my starter using this water and ever since that day my starter looks like this about a day after I feed it:

A closeup reveals weird looking strands.

I have used the starter a few times since this has happened and it works just fine, it rises and falls after a feeding, smells normal but it just looks like...well this. I'm just worried that I should toss this batch and begin a new starter. I have thoroughly cleaned the pitcher but I wish I would have noticed the green substance before feeding my starter. Has anyone else run into this sort of situation? Would feeding it pineapple juice resolve the problem? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

dghdctr's picture
dghdctr

I'm not sure if this starter can be saved or not, but, since creating a new starter isn't as difficult as you might think, I'd pitch it and start over.  I'm not really familiar with Chad Robertson's method of starter creation or maintenance, but I doubt that he'd disagree with what I just said.

A stable starter is surprisingly resistant to intrusion from outside organisms, but I have seen instances where, for instance, something cheesy develops and seems impossible to eliminate.  I pitch 'em when I see 'em.  Debbie Wink could advise you more specifically about the wisdom of starting over.

I'm gonna go out on a limb and recommend that you not just clean, but also STERILIZE your water pitcher.  Get rid of whatever filter you're using and replace it only after you have sterilzed the remaining plastic components.  I believe that a 9% solution of vinegar-to-water does the trick if the items are submerged and soaked for 30 minutes or more, but, again, a scientist like Debbie knows waaaayyy more about that than I do.

And, of course, if you see something wrong with the pitcher, don't use water from it again (for the starter or for your own consumption) until it is sterilized.  I think the filters are supposed to be changed every three months?  I don't change mine so strictly, but you might want to if contamination is an issue.  I'd be careful about what's on your hands, too, when you stir your starter as it is refreshed.  If you just ate some food -- whatever feeds microbes and may be contaminated -- I'd be extra careful to get rid of any traces from surfaces that contact the starter or even your water pitcher.

Good luck with your issue.

-- Dan DiMuzio

Just Loafin's picture
Just Loafin

First off, I would start a new starter using Debra Wink's pineapple juice solution immediately. This is so that, if you try to save THIS starter, and it fails, your new starter will already be several days under way. Using Debra's complete instructions (from pineapple juice part 2), you'll be good for about a week or so.

After that's on the counter and starting, you might try to save your old starter by 'washing' it, which simply means, use an -extremely- small sample of the old starter, taken from like the middle of the polluted culture, and adding it to a normal feed. This small sample can be 1 gram or even less, to say, 40 or 60 grams of refreshment. Use a different container (obviously), and I'd recommend plain old tap water at first. Something slightly chlorinated and hardened with minerals will probably help combat whatever cheesiness or mold may be in the small sample. Watch your refreshed starter and refresh again with a normal sample (say 2:1:1) after it's at least doubled, but not peaked. Do this for a day or two, and then revert back to 1:1:1 maintenance every 12 hours (let it peak and crash) and see if behaves and smells correctly. You can also go back to a filtered or bottled water. This old starter, if able to be saved, should be back to normal health within 3-5 days. If at any point you still see signs of pollution, I'd pitch it and focus on the new starter. If you save it, you can go back to your usual maintenance and storage procedures you're comfortable with.

And Hi Dan! Good to see you... = ]

- Keith

G-man's picture
G-man

Have you eaten bread baked with the starter after it started looking like this? From your statements it seems like you have, so on to question two...

Did you get sick from it?

The vast majority of food poisoning is instant or very nearly so. You should feel an effect of some kind within 24 hours. On the outside, certain rare kinds of foodborne illness can produce symptoms after 3 days or more. These illnesses are from meat and pathogens borne by livestock or, much more often, wild game.

 

If it's not making you sick, I wouldn't worry about it. But that's me.

 

EDIT: If you're nervous, toss it. You can always make a new starter :)

RuthieG's picture
RuthieG

If your interest is in keeping that year old starter going because it is a year old.....lets face it, it's fun to say, my starter is xxx number of years old, then why don't you just save a little bit,   like 1/4 cup or even a few tablespoons and start fresh feeding it..........you can start another new batch just in case.......all you waste is a little time and a little flour...

 

My thoughts are that your starter is perfectly safe and even if it had a little alge it it, it would probably not be harmful.  I'm no authority and I'm just guessing.

RuthieG's picture
RuthieG

If your interest is in keeping that year old starter going because it is a year old.....lets face it, it's fun to say, my starter is xxx number of years old, then why don't you just save a little bit,   like 1/4 cup or even a few tablespoons and start fresh feeding it..........you can start another new batch just in case.......all you waste is a little time and a little flour...

 

My thoughts are that your starter is perfectly safe and even if it had a little alge it it, it would probably not be harmful.  I'm no authority and I'm just guessing.

JimmyChoCho's picture
JimmyChoCho

Thank you all very much for your advice and comments. I have just decided to begin a new starter, it's going to take a while so for the time being I'm just going to continue using this starter until the new one is ready (we eat a lot of bread in my house, about 5-6 boules a week). 

I didn't know that I could sterilize using vinegar (which I will do from now on) so I sterilized the pitcher by soaking it in a bleach solution, I didn't want to take any chances. My previous pitcher (which was a few years old) had the same fate so I just recently bought this pitcher;  I don't know what is causing this.  

Mr. Robertson's method of maintaining the starter is pretty much "washing" it everytime bread is baked. His method states to take a tablespoon of old starter and adding it to a large portion of flour and water, only half of which is used to bake the bread, the other half is the new starter. I've done this many times and everytime my starter still becomes this hideous and veiny thing.

I haven't gotten sick from consuming it and it tastes just fine. Thanks again folks!

G-man's picture
G-man

How much is "a large portion of flour and water" that you are adding this tablespoon of starter to?

JimmyChoCho's picture
JimmyChoCho

it's 1 TBSP of starter to 200 grams flour (50/50 A.P and whole wheat) and 200 grams water. 

Baker Chris's picture
Baker Chris

What is causing it: are you using well water?  If so, that is most probably why.  I get this development in my Technivorm coffee maker - it shows up as a black film in the stack that raises the boiling water.  There are products sold as de-scalers, which will work.  You can sterilize using a solution of soda ash (calcium carbonate).  The bleach solution is absolutely fine as well.  You can use CLR, which is aggressive stuff, in dilution - follow the instructions on the label.  Whatever you use, thorough rinsing with clear fresh water will solve any residual.

If it were me, I'd wash everything with my chosen solution and rinse thoroughly, then create a new starter by mixing the 100% hydration 50/50 starter in Tartine Bread.  If you have well water, btw, and you've got it tested and it's good, use it straight, don't filter it.  I've not seen any problem with it whatsoever.

If you do the foregoing, and the starter develops this condition, I'd guess there is something in the air.

msbreadbaker's picture
msbreadbaker

Baker Chris,

So surprised to see someone else with the Tecnivorm coffee maker! Mine is about 5 months old and I am very pleased so far. How are you liking it and are you happy you made such a purchase? I have well water too, but have had no film show up. Sorry folks for "getting off topic" but this is so interesting to me as these coffee pots are very costly and I don't know anyone else that has one.

Chris, I wonder what happens if we need a repair, have you thought about that?

Regards, Jean P. (VA)

Baker Chris's picture
Baker Chris

When I had this happen I called Technivorm or their distributor and they told me about the well water correlation.  It took at least a year or more in any case.  The Technivorm does a great job, and is well built.  I haven't had any problems with it and its been four or five years anyway.  Repairs, I dunno.  But it is a very simple machine.  Other than the heating element failing I can't imagine what can go wrong...

JimmyChoCho's picture
JimmyChoCho

No it's not well water, just straight from the faucet. Living in the San Francisco people tell me to use water straight from the faucet but I'm being a little cautious....which resulted in this.

Baker Chris's picture
Baker Chris

Heh - I guess SF it must be coming from a utility - which means it has been treated and shouldn't have any biological activity.  By well water I just mean the water comes from the ground via a pump into the house - still comes out of the faucets just the same.  :-)

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink


JimmyChoCho,
I hope you're still monitoring this thread. Back when your post appeared, I had my suspicions about what it was, but I was unable to find any reference photos to support them. Last night, I once again scoured the Internet for images of this phenomenon for a project I'm currently working on. What I'm talking about is the pseudohyphal form of yeast. Saccharomyces and Candida---the yeasts most commonly found in sourdoughs---are dimorphic, meaning that they have two distinctly different modes of growth. In bread-making they generally grow as single-cell yeast that we’re most familiar with. But when nutrients are depleted—nitrogen in particular—they may switch to the filamentous, pseudo-hyphal form. (True hyphae are the hairlike filaments of molds.)  And guess what---algae consume nitrogen. So I suspect the yeast may have reverted to this "pseudo mold" form because the algae robbed its nitrogen sources. While it looks very strange, it is still the same harmless microorganism. I like that you describe it as "veiny", because that's exactly the term that came to mind when I looked at images such as these:

 

Click here: AOL Image Search result for "http://howardhughes.trinity.duke.edu/uploads/assets/image/Christine Kim/colony morph.

Above shows a close-up of one small colony each of S. cerevisiae---yeast form (left) and pseudohyphal form (right). Various Candida species I found look the same, such as this C. albicans:

 

Click here: AOL Image Search result for "http://openi.nlm.nih.gov/imgs/rescaled512/2739428_pgen.1000664.g004.png"

Zooming out a bit more:

 

Click here: AOL Image Search result for "http://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/237/flashcards/725237/jpg/b2500194-food_spoil 
This one is Candida krusei. The colonies have spread and grown into each other more, making it easier to see the similarity in texture to your photo above.

The areas that look like corals rising up throughout in your photo are probably just where the CO2 gases are bubbling up underneath this blanket, no? 

The pH range for most cultured algal species is between 7 and 9, with the optimum range being 8.2-8.7."
Click here: Algae Growing Conditions
Mr. Robertson's method of maintaining the starter is pretty much "washing" it everytime bread is baked. His method states to take a tablespoon of old starter and adding it to a large portion of flour and water, only half of which is used to bake the bread, the other half is the new starter. I've done this many times and everytime my starter still becomes this hideous and veiny thing.

Herein lies a problem. The Robertson method of diluting a starter which probably is never allowed to build up any significant acidity to begin with, may be raising the pH into the range that allows growth of this algae. Especially if your tap water is alkaline as well, as many are. This may be a rare combination of factors, but the result is kinda cool to see. Thank you for posting these photos. 
"Light is the most limiting factor for algal growth, followed by nitrogen and phosphorus limitations. Algal productivity is often correlated to levels of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P)"
Click here: Nutrients and Algae

I know you started over, but if you find it happening again, it shouldn't be too difficult to banish algae from a starter by using algae-free water, letting the acids accumulate so that the pH becomes inhibiting, and keep the starter in the dark until things turn around for you.

How have things been going since?
dw
cranbo's picture
cranbo

Hi Debra,

Not Jimmy here, but thanks for sharing your research again, fascinating! I think I may have seen this on a starter of mine in the past, either in a creation state, or a too-long-in-the-fridge state. Nice to know that it's not harmful.

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

since seeing this post about 2 yrs ago. Also Cranbo's comment "too-long-in-the-fridge" state. Although I remember seeing it weeks into refrigeration with an untouched tightly covered 100% hydration rye starter. I would have thought the slowly increasing acid would keep the starter "in check."

Debra, do you think the shift of colony formation get started earlier on when the yeast numbers were small and the starter is stored too soon in the fridge after feeding? Or later on when the yeast had to adapt to lack of nutrients and nitrogen? Algae was not in my equation and that may be the major difference.

Out of curiosity... would nitrogen gas layer under carbon dioxide? I'm thinking that as CO2 gas is coming off the starter, it is the heavier gas and any loose nitrogen is forced to the top of the container just under the lid. With a tight lid (no holes) no stirring of gasses occurs.

My correction at the time of seeing these colonies was to get a starter sample underneath the "skin" of the starter and continue feeding but let the starter ferment longer (let yeast numbers build and pH fall) before chilling (and without realizing it) remove the lid when I check on the starter more often during long periods of storage to circulate fresh air removing the CO2 gas. It did help I didn't know the science at the time. So far, lack of gas exchange doesn't seem to affect my dry or firm starters. I suspect there isn't enough moisture for such cool surface formations.

Thank you for keeping up on this topic and adding to it. I'm not the original poster either but I do lurk around trying to fit puzzle pieces together. Very much appreciated! I was living with a slight fear of these colonies reappearing on my starter.

Mini

PeterS's picture
PeterS

Debra,

This is great information, thanks for following up. 

Peter

Janetcook's picture
Janetcook

Debra,

Thanks for recalling this topic.  Very interesting indeed and the slides you posted are beautiful....amazing stuff this is that we couldn't bake our loaves without and how ingenious of it to change forms when it's food source changes.....Once again me thinks/knows we humans certainly are not the most likely to survive on this planet in the long run....My 16 year old son refuses to eat anything different :-O  He'd be first to go and I would follow shortly after *-)

Thanks for taking the time to explain this in a way that someone like me can grasp it too.  Will take my walk now and marvel at the wonders of the microscopic world that keeps us all alive.

Take Care,

Janet

I676's picture
I676

It will be the coolest bread book ever. Awesome read; thanks. Never knew the yeast we encounter in baking was polymorphic, or that algae may trigger the polymorphism.

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

I remember seeing it weeks into refrigeration with an untouched tightly covered 100% hydration rye starter. I would have thought the slowly increasing acid would keep the starter "in check."

Mini, keep in mind that this yeast trait isn't directly influenced by pH. Most sources site insufficient nitrogen as the primary cause, especially when there are plenty of sugars available.

...I'm thinking that as CO2 gas is coming off the starter, it is the heavier gas and any loose nitrogen is forced to the top of the container just under the lid.

Yeasts get their nitrogen from ammonium ions and free amino acids. They don't break down proteins, so proteolytic enzyme activity in flour would be something to look at in the absence of other conspicuous causes.

Best wishes,
dw

PaddyL's picture
PaddyL

I've never heard of that before.  I use a Brita-type filtre bottle and have never seen anything resembling algae in it.