The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter problem — sinister clear liquid and death

BreadAdam's picture
BreadAdam

Starter problem — sinister clear liquid and death

Hi

I'd be very grateful for advice: I'm a novice, running into difficulties.

A year ago I made a started and successfully made a good sourdough loaf at least once a week for some months. I followed the instructions and recipe here. (I'm in the UK.)

After perhaps eight months my starter began to develop a layer of clear liquid on top of it, and it became progressively less active. I tried to salvage it in various ways, including by using rye flour, to no avail. It died.

I left it for a few months and then tried again, several times, but got little or no activity from my new starter. Occasionally a hint of a layer of sinister clear liquid on top of it.

I then found gaaarp's wonderful instructions on this forum here, and so followed those. Almost immediately I had a beautiful, bubby starter.

Then, on about day five or six, this happened:

... and, although there's some activity above the layer of sinister clear liquid, it looks ill. I've come to associate the clear liquid with impending death.

I'm using strong (high-gluten) wholemeal bread flour and unchlorinated water.

Can anyone offer a diagnosis or advice? Very grateful if so!

Adam

DanAyo's picture
DanAyo

A question and a suggestion.

What temp is your starter fermenting and how long between feeds?

You may want to take a few grams of your starter and try a test. Feed it only bread flour and make sure to stir it very well. The idea is to develop the gluten.

Tell us about your feeds and maintenance schedule. Please include the time between feeds and also the temp.

Dan

clazar123's picture
clazar123

I will be interested to hear the answer to the question about where your starter resides between feedings-at room temp. on the counter or in the refrigerator? What does it smell like? Does the smell sting your nose if you take a big whiff?

If it sits at room temp. between feedings then the liquid is not sinister-it is just hootch. This is an alcohol (yes-the kind that can give you a buzz if you can stand the taste) that the yeast produces when it is starving. if the culture is kept at room temp. then it needs to be fed more often than daily.Your yeasty beasties are hungry.

If it is kept at refrigerator temp and looks like that, I would immediately check the temp in the refrigerator because it is probably not cold enough to keep food from spoiling.

 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

I think would be in top. This looks like separation to me. Recipe states to "make a batter". I imagine everyone who follows this recipe will have their own interpretation. Your interpretation is too liquid. Simply thicken it up and carry on. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

i can see vertical light colored threads thru the liquid layer.  That is evident of yeast gas bubbling up dragging paste up towards the surface.  Soon there will be enough activity that the starter will begin to stir itself and the shadowy layer will get cloudy and less clear... if you just watch.  Next feeding... no discard and just add some flour to thicken it up.

The dark layer appears dark because no light is shining on it, just like a cloudy day appears darker.  Put a bowl under it in case it goes over.  :)

BreadAdam's picture
BreadAdam

Thank you, all, for your really helpful responses.

What temp is your starter fermenting and how long between feeds?

It's been on the kitchen counter, where the temperature has been very variable in the last week. I'd guess it's ranged between 10ºC (50ºF) and 24ºC (75ºF).

I was feeding once a day, following the instructions on this forum here.

I will be interested to hear the answer to the question about where your starter resides between feedings-at room temp. on the counter or in the refrigerator? What does it smell like? Does the smell sting your nose if you take a big whiff?

On the kitchen counter.

There's now a strong smell of ethanol in the jar — which seems an important clue.

The volume of clear liquid is now larger, and sitting on top of the starter. The activity seems to have stopped.

I'm pretty confident this wasn't separation. I've kept a starter going for many months in the past without problem. I think I had the consistency about right. And it didn't look like separation to me.

My reading of all of this, taking into account everyone's really helpful comments, is this: it became unusually warm here.  here. I allowed the starter to become over-active, aided by the ambient warmth: I should have cooled it or fed it more often or both. As a result, it produced too much ethanol, and killed itself.

Does that make sense?

I'll try again ...

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Dont ditch this one.  Keep up with it while you start another one but you probably won't need to.   You do want to keep it at 24° C or more while it is culturizing.  :)   

BreadAdam's picture
BreadAdam

Ok — thank you. I'll see what I can do. Temperatures of 24ºC are a rare thing in north-west England!

DanAyo's picture
DanAyo

If you have a hot water heater in the house that may provide a warm spot for the starter. That is what I use for n cool days.

BreadAdam's picture
BreadAdam

Yes, I do do that.

Thanks, too, for your good advice about not throwing out the old starter, which I thought had died. It's bubbling away again.