The Fresh Loaf

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Is Fred Dead? Practical Starter Abuse

BobS's picture

Is Fred Dead? Practical Starter Abuse

A while ago I wrote a post, Life With Fred; Maintaining a Starter In Pictures, about how I maintain my starter; an approach focused on minimizing both waste and stress. The starter, Fred, seemed pretty resilient. While I usually baked every week or two, sometimes Fred would cool his heels in the fridge for a month or more. I wondered how long he could go between feedings and still remain viable. I knew that dabrownman was taking a similar no-waste, laissez-faire approach. He had some additional goals and described them and his approach in his excellent No Muss No Fuss Starter post.

I also knew that there were a lot of beasties in my 75g of Fred; it would take some time and effort to kill them all. On the other hand, at 100% hydration, Fred might not last as long as a stiffer starter.

So I cloned Fred by removing 15g and feeding with AP flour and a pinch of rye  it 1:2:2 to make a clone known as Dead Fred (DF) . I kept DF in a warm place until he was starting to bubble.


Then I put him in the back of the fridge and left him undisturbed. For 11 months.

When I removed DF it was clear that he had been cold and lonely back there. He had even turned to drink. Sad.



I poured off the hooch and left him at room temperature for a while. There were no signs of life; he's starving, I think.



But was the yeast dead or just dormant? Let’s see.

Once again I removed 15g, this time from Dead Fred, and fed it 1:2:2 with AP flour and a pinch of rye to make 75g of 100% hydration  or Zombie (i.e un-Dead)  Fred (ZF). ZF went into the proofing box at 78 F:



About 11 hours later there are signs of life. He really was just sleeping.



Looking good, but not quite as active as the original Fred yet. Normally I would have fed him again before building a levain - a multi-stage build - but timewise, if I tried to build a levain immediately it would fall into my usual baking schedule. So I went for it and built a 123% hydration levain for my spin on Hamelman’s Vermont Sourdough. Lately I’ve been doing mostly whole-grain breads, but I knew I’d have better chances with a whiter bread if the levain were a little weak.



After about 14 hours in the proofing box at 78F, the levain is looking good:



The levain and the remainder of the ingredients get rough-mixed:


Then some slap-and-folding, a bulk ferment with a couple of folds, shape, retard overnight, and et voilà. From dead to bread.



There are a lot of yeastie beasties in a starter. They're simple organism, very focused on survival. Maybe your starter's not dead.

Just sleeping.



chouette22's picture

...after only one feeding it produced these beautiful loaves - amazing! I often wonder if I really need to give my starter 3-4 feedings before using it after a bit of a break. This proves that I may not need to after all. Thanks for the experiment!

PetraR's picture

I used to feed my starter 3 times before each bake, but I have stopped that 2 years ago, he lives on my counter most of the time as I bake every second day, so I feed him 6 hours before baking and I get great results.

When * Gordon * has to sit in the fridge * not often * I take him out, let him warm up, feed him and I am ready to bake.

dabrownman's picture

when stored in a cold fridge as your test clearly shows.  I always wonder, when people toss their supposed dead starters, if they just like genocide more :-) 

BobS's picture

I think these are the people who don't name their starters.

PetraR's picture

I think you could be right.

My Starter was born 11.5.2013 at 8.30pm and I called him * Gordon *.

I could NEVER harm him or throw him out.

He thanks me with one beautiful bake after the other.

The longest he was alone in the fridge was 1 month when I was not well.

He did not mind, he had a long sleep and when I woke him up to feed him he was full of beans and almost bubbled out of his Jar.


I gave some of my Gordon to my Son and he threw him out after a few weeks as he could not * commit * to feed him. 

I was upset, I really was. 

I now wonder if my Son should have children one day.  lol

Poor Gordon the 2nd. sighhh

BobS's picture


Children are harder to ignore when they are hungry, so your son will probably be okay with them. Just make sure that he doesn't keep the kids in the fridge.

armato's picture

That's cool! How about the taste? Was it really sour or have you just shown that it isn't necessary at all to feed your starter daily (as fx Robertson and Forkish recommend) to produce a mild loaf?

PetraR's picture

I can only speak for myself, I feed mine every 48 hours, he sits on the kitchen counter , the taste is midrange sour when I bake it quckly * within 12 hours , and gets more sour the longer I let the dough proof * 24 hours and more in the fridge *.


BobS's picture

The flavor and sourness of this bread made from Dead/Zombie Fred is about the same as when it's made with plain old Fred. It's not a very sour bread. I think this is because the levain is pretty wet (~123%) and the amount of pre-fermented flour is not super-high.

I am not trying to show anything in this post except the fact that what may look like a dead starter in your fridge might be brought back to life, which is easier than building a new starter from scratch.

As they say on TV, your mileage may vary. If you want to see how changing your starter feeding regimen affects the taste and sourness of the bread you make, try it!

dabrownman's picture

He also couldn't be one of the many un-dead, a living dead or walking dead etc.  He could possibly be the same thing as an ex- spouse or even a Baking Apprentice 2nd Class!

BobS's picture

But he wasn't.

bread1965's picture

Bob... that was a remarkable post. I read your original post on maintaining Fred a long while ago as a lesson on low/no waste starter maintenance. I've read dabrownman's no fuss no muss starter posts too. For whatever reason I'm not a fan of stiff-starter and have been worried that I've been baking less lately. I went from baking/feeding weekly, to not for many weeks recently. And so feeding my starter less over the past two months.  I've worried that I've been doing 'charlie' harm. I've often wondered how long he could really survive without a feed, and then your post showed up! Thank you so much. This is great to know!

ElPanadero's picture

So, Fred was not dead,

He was just pining for the Fjords!

Filomatic's picture

Bob, thanks for another informative post.  Was the taste discernibly different from healthy Fred builds?  Also, is there a scientific reason you always add a pinch of rye?

When I used to make beer, we would take a jar full of the spent yeast ("trub") from the bottom of the primary fermenter, and use it to pitch into our next batch.  I was told that after a few generations of doing this it was best to to start over with more freshly propagated yeast.  I never tested the theory, as 5 gallons of inferior beer is a tragedy of effort, time, and expense.  In contrast, with sourdough starters, it is assumed that the same culture will be kept alive indefinitely.


BobS's picture

I mentioned in an earlier reply that the taste and sourness were about the same.

I could make up a scientific reason for adding the  pinch of rye (e.g. the rye is stone-ground and therefore will have some yeasties on the outer surface, etc.).

But actually, I do it out of superstition.

ruthhiller's picture

Today I was cleaning out my fridge getting ready for Thanksgiving and extra storage I'll need and I tossed out what looked like 2 discolored starters that had been in there for several months! I have an alive and well starter on my counter which I feed daily so didn't need the 2 dormant ones. I guess I better name my starter as I already feel connected to him as if he were my child!