The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter lost its sour

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Felila's picture
Felila

Starter lost its sour

I posted here a few months ago, bemoaning my carelessness in letting my starter go weeks in the fridge without a feeding. I wasn't sure I could bring it back. Several folks encouraged me to keep feeding it and nursing it back to health.

It's healthy now, but ... it's never recovered its old tangy sour and it has a hint of "rotten" in the smell that it didn't have before the debacle. Bread made with it doesn't taste much more sour than bread made with regular yeast. 

I'm feeling inclined to go down to the kitchen store and buy another packet of powdered San Francisco sourdough starter. What say y'all?

 

wadam's picture
wadam

My starter has a similar problem, but not from lack of feeding.  A few years back, I managed to get my hands on some starter from the cheeseboard in Berkeley, CA.  But after spending significant time living in Indiana, it's started to lose its tang.  I still get some of that sourdough flavor -- occasionally more than a little bit.  But it doesn't get quite so sour out here as it did when it lived in Berkeley.  Perhaps Bernard Clayton is right and starters take on the character of their surrounding after a while.

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

To start with, I'd avoid the San Francisco Gold Rush starter.  The nicest thing I've heard about it was, "you can do better" and I think that person was being too kind.  I started with it and almost gave up on sourdough.   I've heard both Sourdough International and  Mr. Baker's San Francisco starters are good.

 

When you have problems with a starter and recusitate it, often the yeast comes back before the bacteria, resulting in lack of sour, lack of tang, lack of bite, lack of taste... call it what you will.  A good solution is to feed it about 5% whole wheat or rye flour for a few feedings.  This is around a tablespoon per cup of white flour.  It should get things back in balance.

 

So much for the short answer...  I get a lot of email at sourdoughhome.com, and two commonly asked questions are "will my starter change when I move it?" and it's corollary of, "When I moved from St. Louis to Poughkeepsie, my starter changed, what happened?"

There are more old husbands tales surrounding sourdough than almost anything else I've been involved with, with the possible exceptions of high-end audio and brewing.

Dr. Michael Gaenzle of the German Cereal Institute studies sourdough starters and says he has starters that the institute has had for over 50 years that have not changed in that time.

Somehow, I can still hear someone saying, "Yeah, but my starter doesn't taste or work the same as it did before I moved!"

There are lots of factors at play here, so it's not as simple and straight forward a topic as you might find in a biologist's lab slants.

Before I get too far into the discussion, I'll preface my comments by saying that all the comments apply to a healthy culture.  And that many hobbyist's cultures are on the ragged edge of death.  Good culture maintenance is very important.

Almost all cultures, whether a hobbyist culture or a professional baker's culture are impure cultures.  There are around half a dozen yeasts and three or so lactobacillus strains that can make a viable sourdough culture.  Most of our cultures have many of these in them, but one strain of yeast and one strain of bacteria are dominant.  If we change how we handle our cultures, we can change which strains are dominant.  And the taste and activity of the culture can change.  Sometimes this is good, sometimes it isn't.

Changes in cultures, absent changes in feeding habits, are unlikely, for the same reason that most experienced sourdough practitioners discount the "starter from the air" theory.  If you look at the count of yeast and bacteria in a volume of air, and compare that to the count in a gram of flour, it's obvious the odds favor the flour being the source of the culture.  Dr. Ed Wood in his "World Sourdoughs From Antiquity" book recounts an experiment he did for National Geographic wherein he tried to capture an authentic Egyptian culture from the air.  He irradiated the flour so it would not have anything alive on it.  In a lower-rent fashion, a number of people in rec.food.sourdough tried to get local cultures by pouring boiling water over the flour to try to sterilize it.  In both cases, the experienced people went from nearly universal success at starting a culture to a very high failure rate.  This corroborates the idea that most cultures are started from the flour, not from the air.
 
Similarly, the yeast and bacteria count in an active starter is much, much higher than the count in flour.  A large part of the stability researchers, such as Dr. Gaenzle, report in cultures is because the lactobacillus bacteria produce a number of chemicals to kill would-be invaders.  The acidity of sourdough starter is just the front line of defense.  So, it seems very unlikely that a healthy starter could be taken over by the yeast and bacteria found in either the air or flour.

Now then, if you've been taking good care of your culture, what could make the bread made with it taste different?  Hunters prize boars that have been feeding on acorns - it gives the meat a great taste (or so I'm told - if you want to send me a care package, I'd love to try some!)  French farmers force feed their geese special herbs and spices to give the pate made from the livers of those geese special tastes.  Many nursing mothers report that when they eat this food or that, their babies no longer like mom's milk.  If more complex organisms change their taste, or the taste of things they produce,  based on what they have been ingesting, is it any surprise that yeast and bacteria would also change their taste, and the taste of the breads they produce, based on changes to their diet?

There are regional differences in flours, even when the brand name on the sack is the same.  Different flours taste different.  And it seems that yeast and bacteria notice differences we don't.

Try converting your starter from white to whole wheat or rye flour.  There are very rapid changes to the aroma and taste of the starter, well beyond what you'd expect from the changes in the flour.

A number of experienced sourdough bakers have said that the key to copying another baker's bread isn't getting their sourdough starter, it lies in finding out what kind of flour they are using.

So, if your starter changes, maybe you need to send back to friends who didn't move and ask them for care packages of your old standby flour.  Or just get used to the flavors that the flavors in your new home produce.

Mike

 


 

KosherBaker's picture
KosherBaker

Hi Mike.

Great post as usual, as it brought up a question I'd like to ask. What impact did water have on what happened to  Felila's starter, in addition to the flour?

Rudy

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

Thanks for the kind words George! 

I've discovered that water has more of an impact than I would have once believed. 

However, since Felila didn't mention moving or using different water (unless I spaced out and missed something obvious), that shouldn't account for a change in her starter.

 

In general, you want water that is safe to drink, doesn't have off tastes, is neutral to slightly acidic and has medium to fairly high hardness. 

 

Tap water in the USA isn't sterile, but it is pretty free of yeasts and bacteria.  The chances of the water changing a starter are very remote.  Lower than the chances of a change of flour changing the critters in a starter (as opposed to merely changing the starter's taste).

 

 

Mike

 

KosherBaker's picture
KosherBaker

Doh. Maybe I'm going senile. After I read your post in which you talked about people moving, that brought the question of different water into my mind. I had forgotten that Felila hadn't gone anywhere.

Rudy

Felila's picture
Felila

I use straight King Arthur White Whole Wheat to feed my starter ... well, except for a few feedings where I was flat broke and all I had was white bread flour. However, I can try adding some rye the next time.

Water has been the same all the time: Honolulu tap water, which is OK. 

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

A quick disclaimer and mumble.  I've loved whole grain breads since I was a kid in the 50's and 60's.  Since she's German, my mom baked German style breads.  It wasn't a health thing, it was a they taste better thing.   On the health front, I think they are oversold.  Whole grain breads in an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle won't be the silver bullet that cures your obesity, high blood pressure, male pattern baldness, and so on.  And in the context of a healthy life style, white bread isn't going to kill you.  But, far too many Americans have an unhealthy life style, and many of them are looking for a silver bullet.  This year, and last, it's been whole grain breads.  A few years back, it was a low carb diet. I'm waiting for the drinking man's diet to return.  I don't know what it's like, but I always liked the sound of that one!

 

That out of the way, I srongly prefer to maintain my starters on white flour.  All purpose or bread flour.  Whatever's cheapest this week that meets my criteria.  Unbleached, unbromated usually does it.  If I am selling to people who value organic, then that's another criteria.  Safeway has a very nice house brand organic white flour that works well and is very affordable.  All the stores I've been to lately, other than Wal-Mart, have house brand unbleached and unbromated flours at reasonable prices.  As mentioned elsewhere, I consider King Arthur to be more a miracle of marketing than milling.  It is very, very good but there are other flours as good at 1/2 or less the price.

 

Whole grains have a high critter count, not just the small handful of critters we want, but a wide range of ones we don't.  While the chances of changing a healthy starter by feeding it are small, they go up when you use a whole grain flour.  If you've read my guide to starting a starter you've seen that I suggest a whole grain flour to start a starter because of the higher critter count.  A number of sourdough fanatic friends have told me they have never been able to start a starter with white flour.  he critter count is too low to make that an easy task.

 

When we refrigerate or freeze our starters they are impaired and it is relatively easy for new critters to take over.  So, especially at this point, white flour is better.  The lower critter count helps.

 

Even if you keep your starter at room temperature and feed it often, I find white flour works better to maintain a starter.  Whole grain flours buffer the acidity of the starter, allowing the critters to stay active longer, making the starter  far more acidic than I like.  When a whole grain starter goes too long between feedings, like in the fridge or just forgotten for a few days, it can be harder to revive because of the very high acidity in the starter.

 

So, I maintain one starter, a white flour starter.  When I need a whole grain starter, I use a tablespoon or so of my white flour starter and feed it with whole grain flours for a day or two.  Around here, I call one of my breads 99.97% whole wheat instead of 100% whole wheat.  It's a joke, but the point is that the amount of residual white flour is quite small.

 

And, of course, it's far cheaper to maintain the starter on white flour.  Which may be a conisderation for some folks here.

 

Mike

 

KosherBaker's picture
KosherBaker

Hi Felila.

Why would you not consider starting your own sourdough starter? Having done it I would say it is farely easy, and with all the support this site offers, you will have no problems, that can't be resolved. Here are some links on building your own starter from scratch, for you to consider. All from contributing members of this forum:

1. Mike Avery - http://www.sourdoughhome.com/sourdoughfasttrack1.html

2. Susan (WildYeast) - http://www.wildyeastblog.com/2007/07/13/raising-a-starter/

3. SourdoLady - http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/233/wild-yeast-sourdough-starter

I ended up using SourdoLady's method, simply because I didn't have to throw anything away. <blush> And I didn't use either pineapple or orange juice. I used bottled water. Although living in Hawaii it may be cheaper to use pineapple juice. :) Just kidding.

Rudy

Felila's picture
Felila

Not right now. I'm so pitifully broke that I can't afford the extra flour necessary to nurse along a starter. Plus (this is crazy) I'm working so hard that I don't have time for much besides making my own bread (which is now a routine that doesn't take much thought or time). Why am I working so hard? Copyediting three cookbooks! Why don't have I have money? Because as soon as a check arrives, I use it to pay overdue bills. Being a freelancer is feast or famine. 

Lemme tell you, it's bizarre to be editing a recipe for white chocolate raspberry scones (drool) and know that there's no way in h-e-double-toothpicks that I'll have the money to buy the ingredients any time soon.

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

I was a freelance writer for about 7 years.  It really helped to have an understanding spouse with a day job.  I wound up being an editor for a national computer magazine and thought the steady income would be great.  It was for a year, until they had their layoff.  *sigh*

 

Anyway, hang in there.

 

Mike

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

...or move in with someone else?  ...could cut some expenses.  The sooner, the quicker...  :)

Mini O

Felila's picture
Felila

My roommate moved as soon as the semester ended. I'm advertising on Craigslist, but pickings are slim in the middle of the summer, it seems.

As for cutting expenses ... I never knew how much I could cut until money got really tight. Let's leave it there :) I don't want to have a pity party. Things seem to be looking up. The more experience I gain as a copyeditor, the easier it should be to get clients and jobs. 

Y'all may not remember, but I've asked this forum about bread recipes I've been editing. Thanks for helping! 

 

vombatus's picture
vombatus

Mike's got the goods for your questions.  However, if I were to add anything, it would be to recommend consistency in all variables: frequency of feedings, food and water used to feed, volumes of starter used in breads.  After twelve years in the craft brewing industry and even more as a home brewer and baker, I've learned to treat my yeast cultures (both pure and otherwise) with the respect of a family hierloom.  They can be frozen for longterm storage, but they don't like it.  I always say, that as a brewer I don't make beer, I just make wort (unfermented beer).  The yeast make the beer, and I manage their life cycles.  Baking is very similar in this process.  Good luck.

BTW, does anyone know much about the character from the sourdough strain available from friendsofcarl.org?

Thanks in advance.

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

vombatus asked:

BTW, does anyone know much about the character from the sourdough strain available from friendsofcarl.org?

 

I normally suggest sourdough beginners get a known good starter, and make their own if they feel that need when they know what a good starter looks like, smells like and works like.  Remember, Columbus set out not knowing where he was going, when he got there he didn't know where he was, when he got back he didn't know where he'd been.  Modern day navigators have it easier.  They know where they are going and how to get there.  The experience of having a good starter is your map, your compass, and your sextant.

 

If you can't get a starter from a baking friend, the friends of Carl starter is one of the best.  For the cost of a stamped self-addressed envelope you get a great starter that is fresh, revives quickly and works very well.  Some people say it's not as sour as other starters, but sour really isn't the be-all and end-all of sourdough baking.  It's sour enough for most people, and with the right recipe and techniques, it can deliver good sour.

 

I've also used King Arthur's Vermont Starter and a number of Sourdoughs International starters with good results. 

I haven't used Mr. Baker's starter but have heard only good things about it.

 

I've used San Francisco Gold Rush starter and recommend it be avoided.  It's undated, so you have no idea how old it is.  Since it goes through the retail sales chain, it will be quite old.  And at it's best, well, you can do better.

 

Some friends rave about Sourdough Jack's book and starter, and there are some available on eBay.  Since Sourdough Jack has been out of business for over a decade, the starter packets are far from fresh.  Chances are you won't be able to start the starter Sourdough Jack was selling.  Oh, you'll start a starter, but it will, more than likely, be the same starter you'd have gotten without using the packet of Sourdough Jack's starter.  In short, the book is good and the starter has historical and sentimantal value to some, but don't count on the starter. 

 

Mike