The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

(old) Starter lost its mojo

calneto's picture
calneto

(old) Starter lost its mojo

Hello. I have been keeping a starter for about a few months now. Since I was unsure whether it was active enough, I asked a friend for a bit of hers, which is over 2 years old, which turned out to be way more active than mine. I've been feeding it 1:2:3 and it would rise more than twice as fast as my young one. I baked a couple of loaves with it and it was crazy. While I was fermenting my dough for a total of 7 hours with my original starter, with less than 5 hours I was getting clearly overproofed dough now. The strange thing is that after one week, the starter lost all of its potency. It is not dead, but it is now at the same level as the one I had already. 

I live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and have been keeping it at room temperature, which translates to 30C (86F), when measured with an infrared thermometer. I mantain 67% hydration. As for feeding, I was feeding it twice for the first few days, but might have slacked off later in the week. I think I have forgotten to feed it over 24h right before I noticed its decay in activity. 

I have read that while the bacteria in the culture thrive at higher temperatures, such as 30C, the fungus prefers it under 26C. I have also read that UV light might damage the culture. I do not store it in direct sunlight, but it is very bright here.

Anyways, these were the possible sources of the problem I could think of. The strange thing is that it seemed to have no problem at all for a whole week.

I have frozen a bit while it was still booming, so I plan to thaw it and see if still is very active. This is why I am posting: I'd like to avoid losing its vigor again. Also, if possible, I'd like to revert this situation with the current culture.

Any thoughts on what might have caused this behavior?

David R's picture
David R

Ask your friend how she does it. Especially if she lives near you, because her conditions may be similar to yours.

calneto's picture
calneto

She keeps it in the fridge at all times, taking it out only to feed it. I find this strange. It should not make this much of a difference. Another thing is that I have been feeding it by discarding and weighing only the water and flour I added. So, the feeding routine was not necessarily 1:2:3, but could have been x:2:3, for some x>1.

Today I checked on it, 6 hours after a 1:2:3 feeding (measured everything), but it had not even fully doubled (in the old days, it would have quadrupled in this time interval).

I took the sample out of the freezer this morning. Let's see what comes out of it.

David R's picture
David R

The fridge makes a huge difference! The micro-organisms that live in the starter are very sensitive to temperature. In warm temperatures, they reproduce faster and eat faster. Cooler temperatures slow them down. It's not only that simple, but that's the most important part right now.

If you have a starter that is new or weak, then you need to keep it warmer and feed it more often. If you have a strong starter that you want to stabilize, then you cool it down and feed it less often.

calneto's picture
calneto

well, this was a very active starter that I wanted to keep that way. It is over 3 years old, but my leaving it in (Brazilian) room temperature made it much weaker than the one my friend keeps in her fridge.

I am still feeding it twice a day, but growth is very slow now. Even my original starter, only a few months old, is doing better than this one. 

I thawed the sample I had frozen this morning and fed it about 30' ago. Hopefully this will be as active as originally, but I am still unsure how to proceed not to ruin it again. 

mikedilger's picture
mikedilger

Starters are very sensitive to change... but hard to kill.  Changing the feeding schedule, the temperature, the type and amount of food can slow them way down as you have just discovered.

  • In the very short term (hours) species reconfigure their epigenetics and/or just switch to different pathways or different configurations otherwise (hormones, etc).
  • In the longer term (days to weeks) some species die back, others rise to dominate.

You have two choices: (1) keep maintaining it as you are doing, and wait for it to acclimate to the new environment, or (2) find out exactly how your friend was maintaining it and use her routine as precisely as you can.   Either way, it will take some time to acclimate.

You probably already know this but feed it when it peaks.  If it is peaking too soon, feed it in a higher ratio, until it is peaking at a convenient time. Letting it collapse every time weakens the yeast.

[Theoretically, the yeast are most active *before* it peaks, when it is rising at a fast steady rate.  We wait for the peak not because they yeast are most active at the peak, but because we want to know that the food got used up so we can better estimate the concentration of food for the next feeding.]

 

calneto's picture
calneto

the thawed sample is not dead. It took over 12h to rise, but at least it did rise a lot. I fed it again, but it is still rising very slowly. The smell is also a bit off and it was a bit darker (grayish) than before. I guess some other organism must have joined in the crowd. If all goes well, it should die out soon. 

But I am afraid I will not be able to regain the strength it once had. The reason I asked for another levain is that mine rises very slowly. I let my dough ferment for 7h, having to watch the temperature, which reaches fast 30C (86F). This seems to be a very slow rise. The loaves I baked in the week the levain was potent, were overproofed in about 4h (I never managed to get an ear out of any of them, possibly because of this).

mikedilger's picture
mikedilger

Teresa Greenway talks about how fast a starter acts in this video, and makes the point that if you keep and feed it the same way they speed up and get more active each feeding and then eventually settle into a predictable pattern:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSUS-8QQh6M

I can attest that if you change the environment significantly it can suddenly get much slower, and you have to keep giving it a stable environment to get it to come back.  Mine always come back, especially if I give it large feedings (small innoculations) but nothing is guaranteed.

It is also the case that a starter can change behaviour suddenly, in either direction.  I've heard of a starter that went real slow, but after being fed every day for I think 9 days it suddenly got fast again.

Starters are so complex, we can imagine what might be going on, and we have a bit of related science, but it's really unpredictable.  It's like the microbes are playing a Game of Thrones and if King Robert dies, everything goes to hell for a while.

Good luck.

calneto's picture
calneto

thanks. I'll watch the video. As for the thawed sample, it is not looking good. As a matter of fact,  I am about to give up on this older starter and just keep my original one. It is much slower rising, but it has given me much larger alveoli. I can always ask my friend for a new sample, in case I change my mind later.