The Fresh Loaf

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fighting with my starter

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christinepi's picture
christinepi

fighting with my starter

I made my first starter in October of last year. It seemed quite happy, mostly doubling within 4-6 hours. Baking with it never resulted in much success; most loaves were dense. I'd always feed it 2x a day with 50/50 white KA AP and KA white whole wheat, mostly at a ratio of 1:1.5:2. I went on an 8 day trip in November, left it in the fridge, came back, fed it, and it woke back up nicely. Then, more recently I fed it 100% white KA AP and went on another 8 day trip, so I put it in the fridge again after feeding it and waiting for 4 hours. I came back to a bad smelling corpse (no hooch, no mold). For a whole 7 days now I've been doing CPR on this thing, and have had some success especially after having fed it a pinch of sugar and 2-3 tbsps of rye flour; it smells much better, almost like before, and is bubbly, though not hugely. But it'll take ca 5-6 hours after feeding (2x a day, 1:2:2, in the oven with the little light on, temp at 75 24/7) for it to start rising. 

This has me so confused. I'm wondering whether it's just never been in the greatest of shapes to begin with, which would explain all my bricks. And now that I almost killed it, it'll take forever to bounce back because there's still something that's consistently causing it unhappiness. What could this be? 

I thought of starting over, but then I'd still run the risk of just facing the same troubles again.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

Hi Christine

"I made my first starter in October of last year. It seemed quite happy, mostly doubling within 4-6 hours"

Ok so this sounds like you had a decent starter (assuming it wasn't brand new)

"Baking with it never resulted in much success; most loaves were dense"

This could easily be more to do with your recipe, level of hydration and general process you followed rather than the fault of the starter.

"I'd always feed it 2x a day with 50/50 white KA AP and KA white whole wheat, mostly at a ratio of 1:1.5:2. "

Could you clarify your definition of that ratio as I learned today that some interpret such ratios "back-to-front".  I assume you mean for every 1 part of starter you add 1.5 parts of the mixed flour and 2 parts water.  If not please advise.

"I went on an 8 day trip in November, left it in the fridge, came back, fed it, and it woke back up nicely. "

All well and good and as you should expect from a healthy starter.

"Then, more recently I fed it 100% white KA AP and went on another 8 day trip, so I put it in the fridge again after feeding it and waiting for 4 hours. I came back to a bad smelling corpse"

Ok, here you made a key switch moving from the mix of wholewheat and AP flour to just AP flour.  The yeasts I believe are different in different grains, but regardless there are far more "yeasties" in rye and wheat than there are in just white flour.  Switching from an established rye/wheat starter to a pure white starter can often cause a "lull" in the activeness of the starter as the yeasties adapt to the new environment.   Making that change just as you went away, forcing you to refridgerate it and slow down all of the action, is probably what did the damage.

IMO you were right to start feeding it whole grains again (i.e. the rye) and it ought to spring back to life but that might take a little while as you have experienced.  Get it properly established again as a wheat / rye starter and then think about your white starter.  When you do, I don't advise that you switch flours in it.  Instead keep that starter just as it is, healthy and based on wheat/rye, butuse a small portion of it (say 50g) to use as the seed to create a new white starter.   At first feed that new seed a mix of rye and AP.  The rye will provide plenty of yeasties and the AP will help it get used to an AP environment.  After a couple of days gradually decrease the rye element.  You should then have a nice AP starter.

Now as to your bricks . . . . .!

How about giving us a typical recipe you've tried and the process you used and others here will likely identify any problems in there.  :-)  GL

EP

 

christinepi's picture
christinepi

"Could you clarify your definition of that ratio as I learned today that some interpret such ratios "back-to-front".  I assume you mean for every 1 part of starter you add 1.5 parts of the mixed flour and 2 parts water.  If not please advise."

 That's correct.

Well, I'm glad that I'm on the right track then. The starter still smells 10% funky, but not too bad. One thing I've noticed that it's extremely sensitive to being shaken, like just taking it out of the oven and sestina it down on the counter. It immediately starts deflating, which my starter didn't do before I mistreated it. But I'll keep feeding it  whole wheat in addition to the white wheat, and add rye tonight. 

Is there a reason to NOT use rye/whole wheat/wheat starter when baking entirely white wheat bread? Other than aesthetics, I mean? My goal is to bake mostly 50/50 whole wheat/white wheat breads, so I'm not even sure why I switched to feeding the starter only white wheat.

As to your question about the bricks, I got a lot of good suggestions when I posted this question here: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/36560/weak-starter

As for right now, I'll keep working on getting my starter back in shape before I can even think of baking again. Thanks!

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

No, there's nothing at all wrong in using a rye or wheat or for that matter spelt or any other starter in a white or mixed flour loaf.  It all comes down to taste and personal preference and creativity, which is what makes bread baking fun.  I too prefer mixed flour loaves because of their better nutrition and more complex depth of flavours.  So I would invariably throw rye starter into my loaves for the character it brings as well as the good rising strength.  I do keep a white starter as well as a rye one though for variance and for any specific recipes that call for it.

The sensitivity you are seeing in your starter at the moment might just be the usual symptoms seen when a new starter is built up,  In the first couple of days the bacteria are producing gasses rather than the yeasts producing strong rising capability.  Hence when creating a new starter from scratch you often see an amount of bubbling and apparent rising which then seems to suddenly disappear for no apparent reason giving the impression that the starter is struggling or dead.  What's really happening is the bacteria are giving way to the yeasts as they adapt to their environment and take hold.  Once that's done the starter begins to rise normally.  Since you are recovering your starter from it's "near death experience"  you might just be seeing this same natural part of the cycle and hence the "rise" is collapsing with minimal agitation.  Stay with it.  It will come good.

GL.  EP

Capn Dub's picture
Capn Dub

The type of flour is probably not an issue here.  Contrary to what some think, my experience has been that once a starter is established it doesn't make a whit of difference whether you feed it wheat, whole wheat, or rye.  Creating a new starter and feeding an established starter are two different things.  WW or rye is good for starting a starter, since it has been well-determined by competent researchers that whole grain flours carry more yeast and bacterial  spores than more processed flours such as AP; therefore, they are more effective in getting the starter going.

Feeding a mature culture, however, is different.  The amylase that is released during the milling process begins to break down the starch into maltose, which is a disaccharide consisting of two units of glucose.  The yeast cannot metabolize the maltose, but the bacteria can by partial oxidation, that is, by breaking the bond between the two glucose units and oxidizing one or both of them into lactic and/or acetic acids.  This process is complex and the pathways are various, but the net result is that some glucose is left behind.  This the yeast can use, producing carbon dioxide and ethanol.

Thus, what you feed an established starter makes little difference as long as it provides the necessary starch.

So, what, then, is the problem with your starter, Christine?  Here's my theory.  Those acids produced by the bacteria lower the pH to 4.5, or below.  That low pH is inhospitable to most other bacteria that cause food spoilage and that stinky smell you noticed.  I think you have simply diluted the acid to a point where the pH is amenable to the bad guys by adding too much water too often.

I think you can fix things fairly easily.  First, reduce the water/flour ratio to 1:1, by weight; or 1:2, by volume.  Since less water will be present, the acids will become more concentrated more quickly.  Secondly, don't feed for 24 hours.  As the starch that is still present gets used up, more acid will be produced, which will lower the pH.  Finally, resume feeding at a 2:1:1 ratio, by weight (starter:water:flour), twice a day.  Do not refrigerate until you are sure it is healthy.  The idea here is to get the pH down as quickly as possible.  When it approaches that 4.5 level your problem is solved -- the good guys move back into the neighborhood and drive the bad guys out.

 

christinepi's picture
christinepi

Thanks so much for this comprehensive explanation! I shall try everything you suggested. Even though I can't bake right now, which is too bad, it still is so interesting to play around with this suffering creature, and learn more about what's actually going on in there, nursing it back to health: it's ALIVE!! Thanks!

christinepi's picture
christinepi

rye/whole wheat/white wheat do you use in your rye starter? Or is it all rye?

Capn Dub's picture
Capn Dub

I just feed my menagerie AP.  Any ol' source of starch will do -- I wonder if laundry starch would work?  ;Q

You might want to use straight rye, since the absence of gluten makes the starter easier to stir.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Room, fridge, dough?  Starter before you chilled it?  

Did you wait for a good rise in the starter or go by the clock before chilling?

"Oven gets up to 75°F"    which makes me think it is just cold in your kitchen.  Too cold for good yeast growth.

Start a new one while you're working on the old one.  Keep it small, wet and warm, adding a spoon of both flour and water per day until it smells yeasty or beery.

christinepi's picture
christinepi

the starter in a proofing box at 75 or in my oven. It never just sits on my counter top precisely because my kitchen is too cold. I always wait for a good rise, don't go by the clock.

I'll start a new one if what EP suggested doesn't work.

Capn Dub's picture
Capn Dub

Mini, don't you think it's a bacteria problem, rather than a yeast problem, considering Christine's report of a stinky smell?  The yeast will multiply, either fast or slow, regardless of the temperature, but only when the acid environment is favorable.  Since the lactic acid bacteria are responsible for the generation of the acid, and since they better prosper in the acid they generate than the food spoilage bacteria, wouldn't it seem reasonable to lay the blame for the stinky smell on a pH that is too high?

What do you think?  I respect your opinions, so tell us what you think of my reasoning.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

a bacteria problem.  Once lost, it can be difficult to get the right balance back into the starter if some contaminate (stinky) got into the starter when the ph was too high for too long.  Could also be that the yeasts are just too slow. All that refrigeration is hard on yeasts and their numbers need to be raised at least once a month (if using it) with consecutive feeding to peak out, just to keep a healthy supply of yeast. 

Me?  I would split up the starter (and start a new one at the same time) and experiment with different curing ideas.  A stable starter will have no problems with 74°F but a new starter or a sick one will have problems.  A warmer temp is needed to kick start the chain of events leading to bacterial stability.  Don't be too quick to overfeed and wait for those beery yeasty notes to tell you you can feed more flour.  

Split up the starter.  Give one acid, tuck several into my pocket all day (warmer) another lemon juice, another good and runny (up the hydration for more fermentation.)  And see where it takes the starters.  Keep all your spoons clean and wash well between samples.  Keep track of aromas and yeast smells and sour tastes.  It's a lot of work and darn confusing even when meticulous notes are kept.  

I would lay my bets on the new starter coming thru.  It will be much easier as you have done it before.   

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

You can give it "a kick in the pants" as Carl Griffith would say, by dropping in a Tbsp of vinegar. Vinegar is acetic acid, a natural byproduct of fermentation. White distilled vinegar has a pH of about 2.4 so it should help considerably if lower pH is what you need. I think that it is, as Capn Dub said above. The baddies can't stand the acidic environment, but the good beasties (the yeasts and LABs) thrive in it.

Antilope's picture
Antilope

maybe it would help a sick starter and it is gentler than vinegar. I would feed the starter some pineapple juice for a while until the bad smell went away and it was more vigorous.

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

Capn Dub,

If the laundry starch you're using is plain ole corn starch, which many are, it will work fine for feeding a sourdough culture. If it has any other additives, you probably wouldn't want it in your food.

chris319's picture
chris319

You can give it "a kick in the pants" as Carl Griffith would say, by dropping in a Tbsp of vinegar.

I hope you're joking.

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

chris319,

http://carlsfriends.net/getbrochure.html is where you can download the Carl Griffith's 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter Brochure. In it, he states "If it looks sick, add 1 T CIDER vinegar to give it a kick in the behind!" So, I misquoted just a tad. I said pants, he said behind.

Antilope,

I'm sure you're right, as long as the protease properties of pineapple juice breaking down your gluten isn't a problem for you. Nothing wrong with vinegar, though. As I said, it is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, which means there is likely a little in your starter anyway, especially if you use whole grain wheat or rye to feed it. Now, as for the flavor, well, who eats their starter anyway? A tablespoon of vinegar in a loaf of bread likely wouldn't even be enough to taste it. If you're really concerned with being as gentle as possible with your sourdough, you won't add anything but flour and water to it, and let the yeasts and LABs produce their own acidic environment. I was just suggesting a quicker method of dropping the pH.

chris319's picture
chris319

If the vinegar doesn't work, try a TB of battery acid, pH 0.

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

Chris319,

Battery acid is not acetic acid. It is sulphuric acid. Vinegar is acetic acid, and is a natural byproduct of fermentation. In other words, your starter already has vinegar in it, whether you approve or not. Having said that, if someone wanted to add battery acid to their sourdough, it could probably work. A Tbsp is probably a bit much, maybe a tsp pre-diluted. And the pH is more like 0.8 rather than zero. Thanks for playing!

chris319's picture
chris319

http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Chem_AcidsBasespHScale.shtml

your starter already has vinegar in it

Well sure, if vinegar is already in there, more must be better. Whenever my starter goes flat, the first thing I do is pour in more vinegar. Or battery acid.

Thanks for some amusing posts.