Yet Another Sourdough Starter (Levain in particular) struggle
I've been lurking for a while, trying to pick up some useful information that I could apply to my specific issue. Well, I picked up plenty of useful info, but unfortunately nothing directly relating to my own experiment.
I should start by saying this is my first time making sourdough, although when I was growing up a mason jar with sourdough starter in the fridge was common sight. Anyways, I started by using Daniel Leader (from Local Breads) liquid levain recipe, but at some point I screwed it up and I couldn't tell you exactly when. I thought it may have been producing the wrong kind of growth, and I put some vinegar in it, and then put some wheat flour and filtered water, and...well, frankly, I don't really remember. I stuck the experiment in the fridge and figured I'd see if anything happened. Now, the mix in the fridge seems to produce hooch, and, um, maybe has a reasonable scent, although I swear it's a bit more bitter than I expect.
So I took some out a few days ago to see if I could get anything out of it. I figured I'd try Leader's pain de campagne, so I mixed up a pre-ferment using 1/4 cup of the (pretty wet, but sorry I can't tell you the hydration...I'm still learning about that) levain, 3/4 cups of flour, and 3/4 cup water. Again, you can tell I'm learning as I haven't moved to a scale yet, but soon, very soon...
Anyways, after overnight I was getting nothing but a clearish liquid on the top. Minimal bubble development, and a very soupy consistency--no strands or gluten in the least. Just liquid. I figured I would toss it out, but I got lazy and let it sit there a bit longer, then had to run out and stayed at my girlfriend's place that night, then came back the next day rather late...oh right, the pre-ferment! Now something else entirely I guess...it had turned into something with a bunch of bubbles on top, and smelled very strongly of sharp apples. I was excited, 'cause I thought I'd read that this was a good sign (fruity scent, bubbles).
So, what I did was, basically mix the pre-ferment over again with that. Next day, I got some bubbles, still the nice appley smell, but no rise--Leader's recipe called for a rise of about 1/3 by the next day. Hrrm. It was still soupy, no gluten mix at all. So: try it again, maybe it's a fool's errand at this point, but what the heck. Mistakes beget learning, right? So: this morning (when I checked the second pre-ferment) I put another (the third at this point) pre-ferment together to see if THAT would rise. This time I got bubbles, but then nothing: just a bit of liquid developing by about nine hours later. Smelled much more mild, not strong at all, and dragging a spatula through presented no resistance, no gluten, just soup.
This is where I'm at now and I'm thinking that perhaps I've got a dud. Maybe my initial assumption was right, my starter is growing something but it ain't what I want, and I should just toss it and start again, being more rigorous this time. But, my inherent laziness (and also thirst for knowledge, to give myself a little credit) suggests that I ask you folks if you can give me any hint that this might actually be a live culture, I just have to treat it right. Thoughts? Advice?