The Fresh Loaf

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Trouble with starter- strange smell and texture

Smojphace's picture
Smojphace

Trouble with starter- strange smell and texture

help!

I started what was a very robust and healthy starter about 5 years ago and baked weekly loaves with it. I even successfully brought it from Hong Kong to Canada after drying it and rehydrating it 18 months ago. A few months ago we moved into a new house, and the sourdough was bubbly and acting normally. We went away for 2 weeks and it stayed in the fridge like usual. When I took it out to feed, it got a syrupy texture and smelled like cheese. After several feedings and attempts to revive it, I gave up and threw it out. Luckily I have some dried backup stored away so I used that, but the same thing has been happening. 

Does anyone know what is happening???

would appreciate any advice. Thanks!

 

edit: forgot to mention that it was fine at my new house for about a month (I baked a few loaves with it) and it was after we got home from Christmas that it all started to go wrong. I'm currently looking at a newly hydrated batch of back-up starter and it's gone syrupy and smelly too

***UPDATE***

Hello,

I thought I'd provide an update in case anyone was curious.

I followed Mini Oven's advice to use cornstarch when first reviving some saved dried starter. I started to very slowly incorporate wheat flour and bottled spring water without discarding over the next few days. This took place over the course of 10 days or so. Then I started discarding and using wheat flour and bottled water to bring it to a regular feeding schedule.

It's quite warm now where I live, so the starter's been very bubbly and active. Last week, I noticed a faint smell reminiscent of the bad, infected starter I dealt with before, and I added in a quarter teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. That seemed to get rid of the (very faint) smell.

I baked my first loaf with this newly revived starter and it was fine! A little over proofed so not the perfect loaf, but it was not the disaster I had with the infected stuff a few months ago.

Yesterday, I decided to divide it in half, and use half bottled water and half tap water to feed (to determine if the problem source was the tap water). I was involved in a conversation and absent-mindedly put tap water in both! However they both seem to be doing fine so far.

Thanks for all your help!

JeremyCherfas's picture
JeremyCherfas

Could it be that your new house has a built-in ion-exchange water softener. I've read that they can play havoc with a starter.

Jeremy

Smojphace's picture
Smojphace

Do you know what that looks like? Is it something I can find somewhere in the house? I've never seen one before! :)

JeremyCherfas's picture
JeremyCherfas

It is usually a kind of canister thing connected to the cold supply, often under the kitchen sink. If there is one, the previous owners should have told you about it because you need to renew the stuff inside from time to time.

For now, try making your starter with still bottled water. That might provide a clue.

Smojphace's picture
Smojphace

Hmm I don't see one but yeah I will start using bottled water and start over again from my stash of dried starter. Thanks :)

Reeni's picture
Reeni

check your flour. Sometimes flour stored at room temp can pick up strange strains of bacteria, especially if it's humid.. Try a new bag.

Roger Lambert's picture
Roger Lambert

Yeast/bacterial cultures can get infected with a type of "phage". Phages perform like viruses to these organisms and usually wipe out the dominant strain.  This leaves room for other unwanted guests in your starter and the fact that the consistency become more fluid with an off/cheese odour indicates that.  If this is the case with your starter, dump it and start another.  Just my opinion.  

Smojphace's picture
Smojphace

Thanks for your reply. I'm going to wait until I get a new sack of flour, start over, and report back.

DanAyo's picture
DanAyo

Smoj, please do keep us informed as to your findings. Your situation is not common and a number of us are surely interested to get to the bottom of this.

What really throws me for a loop is the fact that you rehydrated your backup and experienced the same results. It seems, either the flour or water is the culprit. UNLESS, the new house is haunted... <LOL> There is no way Santa would play such a bad joke on you :D

Dan

Smojphace's picture
Smojphace

So, I have a stash of dried starter that I made prior to a big move a couple years ago. I've been dipping into it to retry my starter, and I keep having the same problems. I've used bottled spring water, a fresh bag of flour, and well-washed jars and utensils from the dishwasher.

No luck.

MAYBE MY HOUSE IS HAUNTED?

Sid's picture
Sid

From the smell you're describing, it sounds to me like your starter has developed a growth of Leuconostoc. This is a rather unpleasant smelling strain of bacteria that is characteristic of new, immature starters. But since you've moved into a new environment, it's possible that the air and water have caused a slight change in the pH of your starter and allowed Leuconostoc to thrive. You might be able to remedy this by acidifying your starter for a few days (a few drops of orange juice or a couple of chopped green grapes should do the trick). Feed your starter twice a day (keep it small) with the added orange juice or grapes for about a week. I hope this works for you. It would be a pity to lose a 5 year old starter. Good luck!

Smojphace's picture
Smojphace

Thanks for the tip, I just saw this, so I will use a few drops of lemon juice since that is what I have in my house?

Sid's picture
Sid

Hi Smojphace,

I had to go back and read the original post since I had forgotten what it was about. I live in India, and the yeast and bacteria here are likely very different from where you live. I'm speaking from my experience. My early starter smelled pretty bad, and I suspect it was Leuconostoc. Once starters 'settle down' they will have a few strains of yeast and bacteria that evolve their own sort of ecosystem that stays fairly consistent as long as the conditions remain fairly consistent. This also means that they discourage the growth of other strains for whom the conditions may not be very ideal. Your change to a new house (new surroundings, water, etc.) could have altered that delicate balance.

When my early starter smelled bad (at times it smelled as bad as vomit), I suspected Leuconostoc. This was probably monopolising the culture and preventing other strains (e.g. Lactobacillus) from taking hold. For sourdough, you do need a healthy culture of Lactobacillus along with a few wild yeasts. Lactobacillus thrives at a lower pH (which is not ideal for Leuconostoc), so adding citrus juice is one way to help it along. I used orange juice with daily feedings for about a week, but a few drops of lemon juice should work just fine. My starters smell of yeast and apples, and they've been stable that way.

I don't know though if you'll ever be able to rescue your original culture. It's possible that the change in conditions may have killed off a few strains of bacteria or yeast that were present in your old home. But if there are still viable sourdough strains in there, lemon juice should help stabilise the culture to the point where you could start using it to bake again. In time, it will evolve into a stable starter which may or may not resemble your original one. Also try to identify what is different about the growth conditions in your new home vs. your old one. If you're using the same flour, maybe it's just the water. Try bottled water instead of tap water. Hope this helps. Good luck!

Sid

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Did you happen to get a bag of recall flour?  

Have you tried to make a starter w/o dried starter? Just flour and water and a warm spot?

Maybe run us thru your method to pinpoint problem areas.  

Smojphace's picture
Smojphace

No it was a bag from the shelf at a different supermarket (from the flour I used for my previous, also smelly, starter). I don't see any recalls for it.

Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think the cause is the dried starter because the problem started with my original, already alive, starter. But maybe I should start from scratch?

OK, here is what I do:

I hydrate about 50g of dried starter flakes with enough bottled water to cover.

Once soft, I stir in 50g of flour. Bubbles form. More flour. Then I add more bottled water. Then I resume what was once my regular feeding schedule of 100g flour, 100g water. At this point, things get a bit wonky (maybe 4-5 days from start). The texture becomes soupy, then syrupy. It smells. It's still bubbly though.

At first, I thought that maybe my kombucha was influencing it, but it is in the basement and the sourdough is upstairs in the kitchen. I have also made kombucha alongside my sourdough for years without an issue in the past.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Maybe overfeeding too soon too fast could be the problem. This has a hint of Thiol compounds.

try this.  

  • Take 10g of dried flakes and cover like you did with water. Wait 24 hrs and
  • then add 10 g Starch and wait another 24 hours.  Starch because you can eliminate the extra bacteria and yeast found in flour.  There will be little rising as there is no gluten but when bubbles show it is active and it remains sour tasting...
  • do not discard but feed flour and water about 20g each and wait for a rise.  
  • Feed again after peak to thicken up the starter to a soft dough. Let rise to peak
  • Save the discard (chill, feed the next day or two) should you need to backtrack. Now continue with the next feeding on the starter

tips, try not to discard in the first 3 days build instead.  

What is your maintenance schedule?  Temps?

 

Smojphace's picture
Smojphace

Thanks I will try your advice. I really appreciate everyone's advice, actually!

When you say starch do you mean cornstarch?

This is very frustrating because my starter was previously virtually indestructible. And I miss having homemade sourdough every week. Thanks again.