The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

if starters could talk back- effect of flour?

ww's picture

if starters could talk back- effect of flour?

I know there is a lot of literature out there, including on TFL, but sometimes I feel like the more I know, the less I know :)) so if anyone wants to chime in (the venerable Debra Wink??), please feel free.

I've noticed a change in my starter's behaviour when I refrigerate it for storage. First off, I must say the feeding can be erratic because I do not have the luxury of baking every weekend. So this is not a stable, fed regularly, counter-top one. My method for storing starter in fridge: I make more starter than what I need for baking (usually refreshed twice or more), take sth like 20g, feed it in a 1:1:1 ratio, leave it outside (temp can vary from 25-31 celsius, I know that's a lot of diff but I figure it doesn't matter as much because it will be spending most of its time in the fridge), then in it goes into the fridge for abt a week, sometimes more.

Previously, there would be 2-3 days when nothing seems to be happening. Then it starts growing ever so slowly but steadily, to almost double the volume, before drooping. The smell will be a pleasant and mild sour. I liked this because it enabled me to stretch out the storage period to roughly a week before its refreshment for baking. All quite neat.

Lately, however, I've noticed that it kicks in very fast. From day 1 in the fridge it starts to grow, but only grows by about a third before it starts to recede and pull back. Also it is almost odourless.

IF, and that's a big if, my understanding is correct, yeast is less affected by cold than bacteria. So is it correct to assume that the yeast is what is propelling the growth, and that somehow the bacteria is now less active (which also explains the relative lack of smell), and that with the less active bacteria to break down the sugars in the starch, the yeast can only go so far??? At this pt, I can imagine Dr Wink and the other mavens  cringing at my simplistic summation :))

What HAS changed is that a few of my recent feeds have been using organic WW flour, although the last two have been non-organic non-WW. Is there a correlation??

Very fascinating all this. So many variables, so many factors... I won't forget how once, somehow, for the briefest stretch, through a combination of god knows what factors, my starter had the most wonderful floral and creamy, and yes, almost even buttery, smell. Alas I didn't seize on it nor prolong the conditions that led to this, and soon it petered out.. Such alchemy.

Just Loafin's picture
Just Loafin

Do you give the starter several counter-top feedings (running full cycles) before retiring it back to the refrigerator, or do you just feed it and toss it back in?

It's important to do the former. There are enough reports of the latter which suggests a slow downward spiral starts taking place. So slow, you really can't tell until it's really obviously sluggish and not smelling familiar. You might want to take it out and give it a vacation on the counter-top, say at least something like 5 days in a row, and see if you can get something you thoroughly recognize. If it comes back to glory, just remember to give it some counter time each time you remove it from the refrigerator for a refreshing.

- Keith

Postal Grunt's picture
Postal Grunt

There are more qualified people to give you a scientific explanation as to why it happens like this but if you're going to store starter in the refrigerator for extended periods of time then maintain a lower hydration. As I understand it, a starter with lower hydration won't consume its food as rapidly as a 100% hydration starter.

When Mrs PG and I take off for the wilds of New England to visit family, I take my starter down to 60-70% before refrigerating it. After two weeks or so, it's still in good shape for building a fresh starter. Some postings have said that a 60% starter will last much longer than two weeks in the fridge. All they did was to refresh a time or two and they were in business.  If your starter is healthy and vigorous, it should work for you as well.

ww's picture

Dear Keith,

yes i take it through two refreshments (i expand the starter for baking) then with the leftover (i deliberately make more), i feed it once more, but this time only leaving it for more hour before retiring it to the fridge, where it goes unfed for usually one week, at most 2 weeks. I think it was in Rose Levy Beranbaum's book that i read about this method of leaving it outside for only 1 hr if you are only goign to bake in a week's time. (if baking again in a few days' time, she recommends leaving it out for a slightly longer period, maybe 2-3 hrs.)

Postal Grunt: yupe, i know lower hydrations work but since i usually work with liquid levains, i'm just being lazy and trying to avoid the math ;))

I guess i was just trying to understand what's happening since this method has always worked for me.  I suspect there are more critters in it ever since i fed it organic WW flour so it is hungrier and requires more and more feeds! But what stumped me is why its growth in the fridge is stunted. Like you said, i was trying to understand the science behind it. But thanks both!