The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter Experiment with Presumably Chloramine-tainted Water

Rosalie's picture

Starter Experiment with Presumably Chloramine-tainted Water

I had reported with shock that my tap water had chloramines in it.  The spring water was behaving more like reverse osmosis water, so I'd started using tap water.  Mike Avery's plaint about his overly-soft tap water got me curious and I inquiried of our public works director about our water.  He said that due to the distance it travels from its source (from the Sacramento Delta to Morro Bay, a couple hundred miles at least and not what I'd consider a positive environmental situation), its treatment produces long-lasting chloramines.  Mike asked me to try making a starter with it as an experiment.

I have a variety of things to report, and I'm not sure what to make of all of them.  I tried to make a well-controlled experiment, but the biggest glitch was my inability to get reliable information about my water.  I took it to Culligan to be tested for hardness, and I learned that my water softener wasn't working.  That cost me $85.  I learned that the Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water I'd given up on had a hardness of 124ppm, so I don't know why I was having problems with it.  The reverse osmosis water's hardness was 27.4, quite reasonable.  But I forgot to ask for a chloramine analysis.

After the water softener was fixed, I took some more samples to Culligan to get another test.  A different person - the son of the owner and the heir apparent - did it this time and I liked the first one better.  The first time I got precise numbers in parts per million, but the second one just gave me vague softness declarations based on grains per gallon, their preferred unit.  The multiplication factor is 17.1, but he didn't even give me numbers.  He just declared all of my waters very soft, less than 1gpg or 17ppm.  I have my doubts.  Furthermore, he was unable to detect any chloramines in any of them.  He did complain that the samples were too small.  And he told me that because I'd drawn the samples the day before that the chloramines were probably mostly gone.  About all I got out of that visit was an assurance that my water softener was working and a reminder that my deck and garage front waters were both on the softener and that I had to go to the special line installed in the back yard that bypassed the water softener for the original hard water.  I now have another e-mail in to our public works director about the chloramines.  After all, that's what this experiment was supposed to be about.

Another thing that I learned was that reverse osmosis is an effective remover of chloramines.  And that aquarium owners are also very concerned about chloramines.  I learned that from Google and the Internet.

But back to the experiment.  I'm hoping to have more info later, but here's what I did.

For my starter procedure, I chose Mike Avery's You mix 1/4 cup water with 3/8 cup flour in a quart container, cover, put in 85-degree oven for twelve hours; repeat; then toss half and repeat until there's lots of bubbly.  That's a brief summary.  I chose three waters to experiment with:  Deck tap water (later changed to back yard water when I realized that the deck water was softened like the kitchen water); Kitchen tap water; and Reverse osmosis.  I was fairly methodical and did my best to keep from cross-contamination without being anal.  I started with the purest water starter and rinsed out the implements well between starters.  The oven with the light on has been my incubator, and the temperatures have been ranging from just below 80 to about 87.  And, of course, I keep a fairly detailed log.

I was surprised to see life from the beginning in all three.  I started on Saturday evening, fed Sunday morning (12 hours), Sunday evening (12 hours), then three times Monday (yesterday) because of my schedule.  I've fed it twice today and am wondering if the experiment is ready to be called over.  Maybe I should try baking some bread; but I'm a bit surprised at the result.

Since chloramines were the issue, I'd thought that the reverse osmosis water would do the best.  But it was consistently the worst.  It's been six hours since the last feeding.  The other two starters (and I've been using the hard water on the one for only the last two feedings) are at double, and the RO starter has hardly budged.

Well, I'm not sure where to go from here.  Whatever I do or learn from the city, I'll report here on the results.  The only reliable lesson here so far is that RO water is not good for starters.



Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

I've been chasing my tail in the great water mess for a while. I was also surprised to find our local water has chloramines in it. They, or their by products, give the water a funky taste.


I haven't started any starters since I moved here, but all the feedings of my starters with tap water have gone well. I haven't used RO water with starters or bread because I heard that RO stripped out minerals. Not that that's an issue here.


I will be eager to see the rest of your results!



Rosalie's picture

I don't know if I will ever have definitive answers to any of our questions.  I haven't heard yet from our public works guy.

Also my comments on the starter from the RO need to be updated.  As I said, I had three starters going, one of them with RO water.  I consistently declared the RO starter the "loser" when I went to do my feedings.  But after my posting here that changed.  It may be that starting with RO is tough but maintaining is ok.  However, about that same time, I quit using pre-drawn water, except for the garden tap water.  So it may also be that pre-drawn RO water behaves differently from fresh-drawn water.  Maybe someone else will investigate this.

Right after my post, I decided to try baking.  I used the discard from the two non-RO starters, fed that, and made your (Mike Avery's) 100% whole wheat sandwich bread from your booklet.  (Did I mention that my starters are all NutriMill-ground whole wheat?  Whole wheat is me.)  I had the same success as always with sourdough - not much.

Well, not entirely true.  While the resulting bread didn't do much rising, the gluten developed well and the flavor is great!

At this point, my three starters are behaving about the same.  So maybe I should quit the experiment.  I don't want to keep multiple starters, so I'll have to decide whether to choose or to combine.  And I might have a starter-off with the starter I made last year.

And, what with the price of wheat these days, I didn't want to discard the discards.  I have upwards of a gallon of discard at 125% hydration.  I can use that a little at a time.

I have a lot of baking to do.