The Fresh Loaf

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Starter is ailing- what medicine do you recommend?

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

Starter is ailing- what medicine do you recommend?

Recently my firm starter developed a spoiled smell- it has all the smells and appearances of a healthy starter (rises predictably, no visible discoloration, etc.), but added to that is a definite spoiled smell that I would never put in bread.  I would describe it as similar to the smell of spoiled milk.  The smell is much stronger in the early part of fermentation, after a feed, than it is later in the process. 

Luckily, I had a back up in the fridge (I maintain my ongoing culture at room temp) which sprung back to life easily and quickly and is doing well, so I am able to be relaxed about what is going on with that smell.  

My first approach was to let the smelly starter sit for two days after a feed, hoping that the desireable microbes would win out over the undesireables.  That didn't work.  My second approach was to let it go even longer- three days at room temp- after a feed, in hopes that a little alcohol or ketones or something in a underfed, overripe starter might help kill off whatever has taken root in there.   That didn't work, either.

So now I'm curious to experiment with it to see if I can find a fix:  what sort of medicine would you recommend?  I'm thinking of things like salt, freezing, lemon juice, etc.  I'll probably divide it up and try a different approach in each jar.  Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Advice?

 

Grenage's picture
Grenage

Have you considered a small amount of the starter with a very large feed?  5g:100g:100g, for example.

cranbo's picture
cranbo

We don't know your feeding quantities and schedule, that will help troubleshoot.

Some things to do:

  1. Get it on a regular feeding schedule (at least 2x per day) at room temp 
  2. Make sure you are feeding enough: I prefer a 1:2:2 ratio or 1:4:4 for my feeds, that is starter:flour:water, all ingredients by weight. For example: 25g starter, 50g flour, 50g water, or 25g starter, 100g flour, 100g water. 
  3. Make sure you save enough of the old starter: you don't need more than about 25-30g, about a heaping tablespoon. 
  4. Feed it with pineapple juice for a few days (search TFL for Debra Wink and Pineapple Solution).

 

 

 

Ford's picture
Ford

Unless you just want to experiment and find a cure, go with the back-up.  I keep some dried starter on hand as a back up.  This is in addition to the fact that I keep two active starters, one white flour, and one whole wheat.

Ford

Doc.Dough's picture
Doc.Dough

You might try thinning it out for a few refresh cycles. 

MangoChutney's picture
MangoChutney

I asked my husband what smells he associated with spoiled milk, because I could only imagine sour.  He said what came to his mind was sour and vomit.  According to posts found here and there, that odor is caused by the presence of leuconostoc bacteria.  If that is the case, making the starter more acid will eliminate the bad smell.  Adding fresh flour raises the pH of the starter, so that would be consistent with the intensity of the smell rising at feeding time and falling as the ferment progresses.  Pineapple juice, as mentioned above, is one solution.  Understand that I am only guessing, but I think it can't hurt to try a little pineapple juice.

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

20 g of it add 20 g of orange, lemon, lime or pineapple juice, 60 g of flour and 40 g of water.  Let it sit for 8 hours and then feed it again w/o the juice.  On the second feeding, if the first one did not go well, have a couple of neat bourbons and call me in the morning.   Chances are things will be fine.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

just kidding!        Waiting on the feeding schedule and ratios along with temps and management.  

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

cranbo and Mini, here's the feeding history:

First, the ailing starter

-Before the summer, I had been feeding 10g seed : 25g water: 45g flour (no salt) twice a day, keeping it at room temp (66-70F).

-During the summer (room temps 68-76F) I switched to feeding 5g seed: 30g water: 50g flour plus 1/8 tsp salt, however, I was getting tired of twice a day feeds so this was once a day.  I did punch it down/knead a little at least once around the 12 hour mark, or whenever I happen to see it and see that it was well-risen.    It was going like gangbusters throughout the summer.

-When the Fall weather set in (room temps 65F-68F), I first increased the seed to 7g (kept rest at 30g water: 50g flour plus 1/8 tsp salt, still once daily feeds), then increased the seed to 10g (kept rest same).  This is the point that the spoiled smell began, and in retrospect, I suspect the problem was that my changes were too little- i.e., I was feeding too soon in the cycle and the culture became too weak.

-I have fed the ailing culture four or five times now (30 g water: 45g flour, with the seed varying from 35g down to 10g; no salt).  After each feed I let it ferment at room temp much longer than usual (1 - 3days) in hopes of killing off the undesireables.

The back-up starter

-I resucitated my back-up from the refrigerator with twice daily 10g seed: 25g water: 45g flour feeds and it sprang back to life beautifully and is now my ongoing, main culture.  I have just begun to add 1/8 tsp salt to the mix in order to go back to once daily feeds and am watching it to see if it may be too much salt as this is a slightly smaller culture size than before.  I have a new back-up in the fridge- am now a HUGE FAN OF BACK-UP STARTERS.

@Grenage- 5:100:100 is an amazingly dilute feed, do you think that will be a bit like starting over with a new culture?

@cranbo and MangoChutney- I thought of leuconostoc and fruit juice as well, but found it very curious that the smell would spring back after I let the culture over-ripen so many times.

@Ford- did I mention that I am now a HUGE FAN OF BACK-UP STARTERS?  And yes, the back-up is now my main culture.

@Doc.dough- increased hydration seems worth a try, will make that one of my test-runs.

@dabrowman- pineapple juice, will try it.  Love the bourbon advice :)

Thanks so much, everyone, for your thoughts and advice!

 

Grenage's picture
Grenage

5:100:100 is an amazingly dilute feed, do you think that will be a bit like starting over with a new culture?


You'd be amazed how quickly a starter can consume that much food.  Admitedly a healthy starter, but just 5g of weak starter still contains a massive amount of bacteria and yeast.

cranbo's picture
cranbo

On a related subject, I was talking to a winemaker on Saturday, and for 1/2 ton bin of grapes (a container around 4 feet x 4 feet by 2.33 feet, which can contain up to 450kg of grapes), he pitches about 100g of yeast to innoculate. If my math is right, that's around 0.02% of the weight of the grapes! Granted grapes are mostly just sugar and water. 

My point is that Grenage is probably right, it shouldn't take a lot to innoculate a new batch of dough (or grapes), but the dilution make require the fermentation to take somewhat longer. In the case of the grape/wine example, full fermentation happens over 5-7 days, depending on temp. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

you don't need the salt.  Get it back to rising and falling before feeding in 24 hrs.  Just play with the flour amounts thickening it up when it's warm and feeding it less when temps drop.   70°F is rather cool and calls for a 1:2:2 starter.   Cooler should be closer to feeding equal amounts of starter and flour.  More water speeds the fermentation and less slows it down.  :)    You were on track to let it ferment longer. 

Doc.Dough's picture
Doc.Dough

I will have to build a spreadsheet to analyse it!  But my first impression is that you may have inadvertantly fed it too often given the relatively low temperatures.  Someplace I have a treatise on feeding and one of the examples involves a LAB population decline - but without digging it out I don't remember the details. 

 

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

@Grenage and cranbo, those are some pretty interesting statistics on tiny inoculates!  Test run in order.

@Mini- I'm willing to go to a 100% hydration feed for a short-term fix, but not longer term.  There's a wonderful, sweet, milky aroma to my starter that disappears if I go to higher hydration or if I store it in the fridge.  Not willing to give that up long-term.  I do know about hydration and how it can speed up or slow down fermentation, and your suggestion to vary the flour amount with temps sounds good.  However, I'm sort of flummoxed thinking about feeding my starter 1:2:2, how many times a day is that?  Over the summer, my starter was incredibly active being fed 1: 10 (flour): 6 (water) with the 1/8 tsp salt for a once a day feed.  And last Spring, it was 1: 4.5: 2.5 every 12 hours, no salt.  1:2:2 seems like a starvation diet for the poor little beasties. Of course, I also make too much food for guests when they come to dine, so maybe that's just the way I'm wired. :)

@Doc.Dough- yes, that was my suspicion as well, that I overfed it.  Basically, I knew that a change was in order due to the cooler temps, but I may not have taken it far enough.  Please don't feel the need to build a spreadsheet as this is more of a curiosity  than a real starter emergency given that my back-up stash is now up and running. 

OK, so it sounds like my test jars for the ailing starter should be:

-pineapple juice in place of water

- tiny inoculate (5:100:100)

-higher hydration (1:2:2)

-control with regular feed (10:45:25)

Any other advice most welcome!

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

-tiny inoculate (1:20:20)     100% hydration

-higher hydration (1:2:2)    100% hydration

-control with regular feed  (1:4.5:2.5)   55% hydration

propose you throw in something like a 1-2-3 hydration ?

-middle hydration  (1:3:2)   66% hydration   (10:30:20)

I believe you are using (starter;flour;water) as opposed to (starter;water;flour) correct?

See how long they take to peak out and fall completely, and finally start to hooch or separate.  It might give some nice 24, 48, 72 hour parameters to compare starter ratios.  (you did bring up one to three days)  Remove 5 to 10g easily when one of the starters is where you want it.  

Another thing to consider is that when the starter temp. is rather cool,  it may need a larger amount of inoculate to help the beasties defend themselves from invaders that take advantage of drastic acid fluctuations cause by feeding and the initial time it takes for the starter to produce enough acid to make it comfy for the yeasts.  This is often overlooked, I tend myself not to go under 10g but will rise to a 20g or 30g starter inoculation (to up to 100g flour) when conditions are not favoring the starter.  (change in temp, change in flour, change in water)  It is more than simply a math debate.

Go for it!

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

@Mini- yes, I've been putting the flour numbers second in the ratios.  I tend to think of the seed:flour ratio as the most important because the flour is the food that is feeding the seed, while the water is a secondary consideration.

I follow your thinking on keeping the seed size larger so that there isn't such a drastic fall in pH at feeding time.  When you feed 1:2:2, do you put the starter in the fridge once it's peaked?  Or do you feed again soon?  Or do you let it ferment well past the peak, when it has fallen back?

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

and rate of fermentation.   A pH indicator would measure a drastic rise at feeding time.  Flour and water tend to raise numbers; acid lowers numbers.  I think for your experiment, I would not refrigerate (not your preference) and just see what it does and how it preforms.  Seems to me that right now you need to figure out what would be the right feed for both the starter and your needs at this time of year to keep it healthy and strong.  

For starter maintenance, it is good to let it peak and level off and start to fall before feeding it again.  These times may vary greatly from starter to starter.  However; any time the starter peaks during a 100% hydration maintenance in less than 5 hours the starter needs more food at a feeding.  It means reducing the seed starter to just 10g and increasing the flour amount and/or reducing the water amount.  That tends to be a guide in hot weather.  Really hot calls for refrigeration or adding salt to slow fermentation.  

As the weather cools, reverse starter maintenance.  First, drop the salt (if using it) to speed up fermentation.  That works for a while until the starter seems to slow down again. When the starter seems too slow to peak,  reduce the flour food amount or increase the water amount.   Playing with the water and food amounts can speed up just about all slow downs until the temps drop too low or the starter is too thin.   Then it's time to increase the seed starter amount to the amount of food.  That works until the ratios are down to (1:1:1) equal weights of starter to flour.

The adjustment from winter to summer (cold weather to warm) is often easier while we notice the starter speeding up as temperatures rise.  Going from warm weather to cold tends to catch us more off guard, the starter slows down, rises take longer and the starter needs to be feed less to ferment more before a feeding.  We tend to feed more and by feeding too soon, the starter get weaker and can't fend off the invading beasties that it normally could with high feeding ratios in warm weather conditions.  We then have to deal with an invasion.  Acetone smells, rotten smells and mold.  Most find it easier to search out a warm place for the starter jar than to reduce the amount of food the're feeding.  I would be willing to bet that more serious problems happen in the warm to cool seasonal change than any other season.  

Back to the experiment.  

This information tells a lot about a starter and it's strength that is why these questions are often asked to trouble shoot starters:   (so take notes including these points)

  • when the starter peaks and how long it peaks and  when it begins to fall
  • what feeding ratio with 
  • which type of flour and at 
  • what temperature is the starter

 

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

Mini, thanks so much for taking the time to enlighten us!  That all makes perfect sense, and I did have trouble with the seasonal change to cooler weather. 

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

First, a picture of last night's batch of test jars.  The bottom of the tape marks the height of the starter- they look like the tape is lower only because of the camera angle (higher than eye level).  The ratios listed on the jars are the gram weights of seed:flour:water.  Didn't want to run to the store last night, so the juice in the last jar is a blend of 22g orange juice and 3g lime juice.

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

And 8.5hrs later the two 100% hydration starters look like this:

And the two firm starters look like this:

They are all rising nicely, temps overnight last night were about 70F.  But rising was never the problem, it was that wretched smell. 

The liquid starters:

-5:100:100 (or 1:20:20) smelled the worst, really awful.  Put me off my breakfast.

-15:30:30 (or 1:2:2) was much better but not perfect.  Unclear if this is because it is farther along in fermentation or because the seed was so much larger in proportion to the feed, but either (or both) would have contributed to a more acid envionment.

The firm starters:

-10: 45: 25 smelled bad, almost as bad as the 1:20:20 jar and worse than the 1:2:2.

-10: 45: 25 (22g OJ plus 3g lime juice) smelled the best of any of them, though there may have been a tinge of off smell when first uncapped.

This looks as though overfeeding led to an increased pH, allowing something (leuconostoc?) to take root.  The thing I found curious was that I never seemed to be able to get rid of the leuconostoc (if that's what it was) by stretching out the feedings and allowing the LAB to do their thing.  Perhaps I didn't allow enough time/feeds to accomplish that, or perhaps I need to run a test batch with yogurt added. 

I'm thinking the next step may be jars fed 1:1:1 using pineapple juice or the whey from drained yogurt for the liquid.

Comments, further advice welcome!

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

and feed it again after it levels off and starts to fall.  :)  It does take few more feeds to get it back where it should be.   

Mini

Doc.Dough's picture
Doc.Dough

If they smell bad I suspect you are not tasting them, but it would be nice to have some objective measure of pH or acidity.

At 21°C, Ganzle's model predicts between 4x and 5x growth for both yeast and LAB so your high ratio samples are ahead of where I would expect them to be.  In any case, if the ratio of bad guys to good guys is large it will take a fair number of refresh cycles to get it back to where you want it.  When you get some pineapple juice I would be tempted to try a 1:20:20 and see how that does. After two of those (if you are suffering leuconostoc infection) you will be down by a factor of 400, which while not large, is enough to get an idea of whether the smell is subsiding.

 

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

re: pH, would these pH strips do the trick?  http://www.walmart.com/ip/Jungle-Quick-Dip-pH-Test-Strips-5ct/15580452

re: rising volume, the marauders seem to be producing gas as well as the normal culture inhabitants.  The test jar with the best smell (juice jar) was also the one with a slower rise compared to the same feed with water. 

suave's picture
suave

No.  If you really feel that you need to know pH you need something like this.

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

It's been 12.5 hours and all but one are past their peak:

-1:2:2 is farthest past its peak, I estimate that it peaked at about 9 hours.

-Surprisingly, 1:20:20 is also past its peak, I estimate that it peaked at about 11.5-12 hours.  I wonder if this one is going through a transition from having its gas produced by the infecting marauder, to having its gas produced by the normal culture LAB and yeast.  I'll continue to watch it to see if it rises again later.

-10: 45: 25 has domed and flattened, I estimate its peak at about 11 hrs.

-10: 45: 25  with juice has continued to rise, it is still domed and has not yet begun to flatten.

Mindful of Mini's parameters, above, I took the temp where the jars are and my more accurate instant read cooking thermometer reads 73F (the 70F came from the room thermostat, less accurate and in a different area).  My flour is KAF AP.

Pictures- first the 1:2:2

Next the 1:20:20 (harder to see the high water mark in photo, but in person it is easier- it's definitely there).

And finally, the firm starters- difficult to see at the very top, but you can see a flat surface to the one on the left and a dome reaching to the lid on the right.  Lids may be constraining the peak, though the dough only touched the lids in the middle, so I don't think it was a major alteration.

 

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

put only partially.  That would not mean that yeast or "leukos" are raising it a second time.  I would be concerned that "leukos" (sounds too cute, huh?) are at play raising the starter.  I would go by the smell to judge the concentration of them.  Do stiff something neutral before and between sniffing whiffs to clear out your nose.  

The 9 hours with the 1:2:2 sounds about right for a 12 hr fed starter,  but not at 73°  it should be faster.  I like that it tripled.  Not sure what gas raised it though.   Could be that the next rise is not so high even with the same feed amounts. I expect that as the Locos wain, the rise will not be as high and then recover to rise again but with more yeast.  Don't know how many feeds that will take.

A fast rise with 1:20:20 sounds too good to be true, I suspect more "leucos" there at work.  Would be interesting with orange juice as Doc Dough says.  I suspect the orange juice will slow down the rise so the "leukos" can't contribute much in the next feed.

That your firm starter with orange is still domed, I suspect there to be more yeast in there when it does fall.  Definately a keeper.  

The control is being a good control,  don't feed it juice, use water as the liquid.   

 The starters will each soon have their own schedules when refreshed.

Great Experiment!

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

Left off posting as I became very busy, first with houseguests and then the holiday weekend, but wanted to wrap up this thread with a few observations.  First, I continued five test runs (the four above plus another 1:20:20 with orange juice, as Doc.Dough recommended) through several days, about 3-4 feeds for each jar.  It became a bit complicated as the feeding schedules diverged, but I did my best to judge them by smell and volume and fed when ripe.  Here's what I learned:

-The best time to test-sniff for the prescence of the marauders was early in the fermentation, 1/4 to 1/3 of the way to the next expected feed. 

-Among the jars with water, the 1:2:2 recovered the most quickly, which I attributed to the benefit of the high seed amount in the feed ratio.  I think this kept enough acid in the mix to help the culture recover more quickly.

-All the jars with orange juice recovered dramatically faster than the same feed ratio jars with water.

-The leuconostoc (seems like that's what the mauraders were) inflated the rise in all the non-OJ jars and made it easy to make a mistake and feed the jars too early if looking at just the rise.  Subsequent rises as the water cultures were fed properly were lower, then higher again as the culture recovered.  The OJ jars skipped the first high rise and went straight to the second, lower rise and then the higher rise.

-A better gauge of when to feed was smell- as long as I fed them all when they smelled more like a fully ripe starter, they all recovered eventually, even the control jar.  In the jars still infected with leuconostoc, this was longer after the volume peak than in the healthier jars.

-I'm forever convinced of the danger of using too small of a seed in feeding ratios, I think that's what started the infection in the first place.  Once the infection took hold, the mauraders produced gas and probably led to further errors in feeding too early.  

-While it only took a few days of proper feeding to get the jars to the point where there was no discernable (read: sniffable) population of leuconostoc, it took quite a bit longer to get them to the point where they had the full aroma of healthy starters kept at room temps.    

-My first strategy of letting the culture over-ripen did not seem to do any good, they only improved when fed properly.  

I now have a very keen sense of when my starter smells ready for feeding, and also a sense of why beginning your own starter is difficult if you don't yet know how to judge when it's ready to be fed.   

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

"sniffing starters is habit forming"         :)      

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

Habit-forming, yes, but it's a pleasant habit :)