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18 August, 2009

Starting a Starter: Final Thoughts

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Intro • Day 1 • Day 2 • Day 3 • Day 4 • Day 5 • Day 6 • Day 7[Final Thoughts] • Day 15

2009_08_18-3.5AfterWell, it has to happen. You look after them while they are just young and then one day, before you know it, they’re all grown up and ready to go off on their own, do what they are meant to do. Sure, they may not behave perfectly, may disappoint now and again but deep down, you gave them the best start you could and you know with a little care and a good environment, they’ll do great things. And you’ll be proud to say “Those are my babies.”

The main goal of the project was to not only offer a step-by-step of building a sourdough starter but to compare two similar recipes: one using water, the other pineapple juice. Having done just that and getting both starters to the “finish line”, here are some conclusions.

Although the water starter was the first to rise, that “false rise” brought with it a decidedly unpleasant smell which has persisted through to day seven. It will be a couple more feeds before that is worked out completely.

The pineapple juice version completely bypassed the “Stinky bacteria” stage and a few days later, jumped to the bubbly yeast stage and has been going great guns ever since. Although it did have a definite pineapple juice aroma at the start, it was not as pungent as The Stink and seemed to take less time to clear out. This may simply be because the odour is more pleasant and even if there is some left, it doesn’t get flagged as “offensive”.

Skipping the Stinky stage completely and the long period afterward to annul it’s effect is probably reason enough to go with the pineapple version right from the get-go.

The fact that the pineapple juice version was showing good yeast rise on Day Three while the water version, once passed the false rise, needed to get to Day Six for the same sort of results is another indication the juice is a good choice.

Here are further notes on the process from Debra Wink:

The First Phase:

For the first day or so, nothing will happen that is detectable to the human senses. It probably won’t taste any tangier or develop any bubbles. It will look much the same as when you mixed it. This phase usually lasts one day, sometimes two.

The Second Phase:

The starter will begin to produce its own acid and taste tangier, although it may be hard to tell with some juices until you switch to the water. It will expand only if the juice wasn’t acid enough to prevent growth of the gassy bacteria, otherwise there won’t be much else to see. There probably won’t be much gluten degradation, and it may smell a little different on the surface, but shouldn’t smell particularly foul unless you’re using water. This phase could last one to three days or more. If it is going to get hung up anywhere, this is the place. If after 3 days, it still doesn’t become more sour and show signs of progress, use whole grain flour instead of white for one or more feedings.

The Third Phase:

The starter will become very tart, an indication of more acid production by more acid tolerant bacteria. The gluten may disappear and tiny bubbles become more noticeable. Once the starter becomes really sour, it usually transitions quickly into phase four.

The Fourth Phase:

Yeast will start to grow and multiply, causing the starter to expand with gas bubbles all over, and it will take on the yeasty smell of bread or beer.

Feeding

Exact feeding times aren’t critical. Pick a general time of the day–morning, afternoon or evening–that will be convenient to feed daily for 4-7 days. It’ll only take a few minutes, and if it varies a few hours from one day to the next, that’s okay. But, try not to skip a day. There is a higher incidence of growing mold when an unestablished starter sits idle for 36 hours or more. Daily refreshing seems to eliminate that risk.

Containers

Keep the container covered to prevent mold spores, dust, undesirable bacteria and wayward insects from falling in. Don’t worry–it doesn’t need fresh air or oxygen, and the microorganisms you need are already in the flour. For the first few days of this procedure, you can leave the mixture in a bowl and set a plate on top. Saran Quick Covers work great too (as do dollar store shower caps!). Run a rubber spatula around to scrape down the sides after mixing. From day 4 on, it’s a good idea to rinse the storage container before returning the freshly fed mixture. It is not necessary to sterilize the container, but old residue stuck to the sides or lid is an invitation for mold. By day 3 or 4 it will need room to grow (day 2 if using water). Be sure to use a container about 4x the volume of freshly fed starter or you may end up with a mess on your hands. Wide-mouth canning jars are nice to gauge and view the rise. Also, the two-piece lids are designed to vent pressure. Straight-sided Rubber Maid containers work well too. Plastic containers with tight-fitting lids will pop their tops if they are sealed tightly. Gladware doesn’t seem to have that problem.

Let’s talk jars for a moment

As a side note, I’m really getting annoyed with these roundish-square mason or canning jars. They’re a complete pain to clean with a spatula because of their corners and lid lip. If you do this, I recommend you use simple round jars. The only reason I used the mason jars was because I had two of them, they were a proper size and making the two starters in similar containers was a plus.

2009_08_17JARS

When picking a container, wide topped is best. Peanut butter jars are great, they tend to go straight up to the opening without curving back in very much, although they also tend to be rather huge for a half cup of starter. But when you’re bulking up to make 350g of starter for a particular recipe, they’re excellent. Peanut butter nearly always comes in plastic jars nowadays (I guess it’s a kid safety thing) but if you can find a glass one, that’s even better – no issues with deforming in the dishwasher like the one above did. So keep one on hand for bigger builds.

Looking in my Spare Jar collection (I have way too many!) I found a salsa jar that would be a decent choice as well, basically a short version of the PB jar. Almost no lip below the screw top is a plus. If I’d had two of these, that’s would have been my choice for this project.

2009_08_17PintMason

Once this project is done, I’ll switch these starters to small, round canning jars like this. Straight side right on up to the lid, no corners and small enough to not take too much fridge space while still large enough to hold 60-90g of starter and allow expansion. This jar would not have been good during the start up process as they would easily have overflowed on PJ’s massive expansion day. But now that I’ve reduced the starter size to just 90g, they’d be fine.

Mind you, you don’t need to be as picky about smear-free cleanliness inside the jar as I’m being here because I needed clean sides for the photos. But a round jar is still easier to maintain. A plastic margarine type tub works well too as do the semi-permanent Ziplock type containers. The important thing is to avoid (if possible but don’t loose sleep over it) corners and lips and have a good, secure lid.

Temperature

You don’t need to keep it in a special place unless your house is particularly cool–try to keep it in the 70’s for the most part. 75-78º would be ideal, but you needn’t go out of your way to achieve that. The low 70’s will do fine. Below 68, things might be a bit slow to develop (but it will eventually). One solution for those with very cool houses, is to turn on a desk or table lamp and set your container in the vicinity. Light bulbs put out a LOT of heat, so be sure to take a temperature reading of the site and set the starter where it won’t be warmer than about 80º. Cool is better than too warm. If the starter develops a crust at any time, move it farther from the heat source. The warmth helps more in the first few days because the various bacteria really like it and it helps them produce the acids needed to lower the pH and wake up the yeast. The yeast do not need it so warm. Once you have a good population of yeast growing, you’ll be able to maintain it at cool room temp, even if that’s less than 70º. They will grow faster if kept warm, but they’ll also run through their food supply and exhaust themselves sooner as well.

How it works

It seems to be a widely held belief that if you add water to flour and “catch” some wild yeast and sourdough bacteria from the air, or from grape skins, etc., that they will grow and become starter, but it doesn’t work quite like that.

The “bugs” we’re trying to cultivate will only become active when the environment is right — like a seed that won’t germinate until certain conditions are met to break dormancy. When you mix flour and water together, you end up with a mixture that is close to neutral in pH, and our guys need it a bit more on the acid side. There are other microbes in the flour, however, that prefer a more neutral pH, and so they are the first to wake up and grow. Some will produce acids as by-products. That helps to lower the pH to the point that they can no longer grow, but something else can, and so on, until the environment is just right for wild yeast to activate. It is a succession that happens quicker for some than for others.

When using just flour and water, many will grow a gas-producing bacterium that slows down the process. It can raise the starter to three and a half times its volume in a relatively short period — something to behold. But not to worry; it is harmless. In fact, this bacterium is used in other food fermentations like cheeses and vegetables, and it is all around us in the environment, including wheat fields and flour. It does not grow at a pH less than 4.8, and the specified fruit juices serve to keep the pH low enough to by-pass it. Things will still progress, but this is the point at which people get frustrated and quit, because when the pH drops below 4.8, and it will, the gassy bacteria stop growing. It will appear that the “yeast” died on you, when in fact, you haven’t begun to grow yeast yet. But they will come — really, they’re already there. When the pH drops below 3.5 – 4 or so, the yeast will activate, begin to grow, and the starter will expand again. You just need to keep it fed and cared for until then. Once up and running, it will tolerate a wide pH range.

Maintenance

There are many opinions out there about how to maintain sourdough starter. Feel free to refresh and store it per the cookbook you’ll be using most often. You can adjust the hydration up or down according to recipe requirements.

And Lastly…

Again, I urge you to read through Debra Wink’s pieces (if you haven’t already done so) at TheFreshLoaf: The Pineapple Juice Solution, Part 1 and The Pineapple Juice Solution, Part 2 for a more in depth view of this topic.

I hope this little project and the photo show-and-tell will help you take the plunge and create your own starter. After all, it’s only a few cents’ worth of flour, some pineapple juice (you can certainly get that in a smaller amount than I did, but we drank the rest anyway) some water and probably the most important ingredients: time and patience. And in about a week (longer in colder seasons, shorter in warm) you too should have no problem creating your own starter.

If you have comments or questions about this process, please feel free to add them below.

Intro • Day 1 • Day 2 • Day 3 • Day 4 • Day 5 • Day 6 • Day 7 • [Final Thoughts] • Day 15

17 COMMENTS

17 thoughts on “Starting a Starter: Final Thoughts”

  • cteavin
    August 20, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    Wow, it really is like raising a child — a lot of work.

    You’ll have to post sometime just how it is you got into sourdough starters.

    • August 21, 2009 at 11:37 pm

      Honestly, Steve, it’s really not much of a tale. I saw a loaf of “San Francisco Style Sourdough” bread at the bakery, bought one and found it absolutely and totally lacking in flavour and character. It was just regular “white bread” with an acidy undertone. So I decided to fire up my own, see if I could make what I couldn’t find. But that’s about as “romantic” as it was. Everything else is pretty much here on the blog.

      I’m also a huge, HUGE fan of rye bread and a lot of them use sourdough bases so that was another reason to get into it. And yes, I have been known to pay $3 for a 10 slice pack – and we’re talking skinny slices like in the pic here (no, that’s not me) – of wondrously dark and grainy pumpernickel. So if I can make that myself, I’ll be in bread heaven. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to getting to the Sourdough section of the Challenge!

      “A lot of work”? Gosh, no! Doing two starters together and setting it all up for photos added a layer or two of extra work but if it was just one starter, it really would take just three or four minutes a day (if that). It’s actually very simple and easy to do: Put flour in container. Add liquid. Stir, cover. That’s pretty simple. The bigger challenge is the “patience”.

  • August 24, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    Paul, some of my family members have some concerns about my blogging about BBA… I’ve sent them a link to your blog. And I have added pineapple juice to my grocery list, thanks for the experiment.

    • August 24, 2009 at 9:10 pm

      Hi, Anne Marie,

      OK, that’s an interestingly curious viewpoint. What possible concerns might they have? Or, if they’re about to visit, I’ll direct this at them… erm… directly:

      Hi, family members, what concerns might you have about Anne Marie blogging about her baking?

      And as to the pineapple juice: be sure it’s plain, normal unsweetened REAL juice, not some pineapple “beverage”.
      And you don’t need a HUGE can like I had. Although we drank up the rest anyway.
      Keep us informed how your pet starter works out.

  • November 13, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    Paul, Just wanted to say a big “THANK YOU” for this step by step tutorial. It’s been invaluable. I was freaked out about starting a starter, but now I’m on day 5 and it seems to be going great. I really appreciate you taking the time to document each step in the process. I can’t tell you how much it has and is helping me.

    Thank you!

    • November 13, 2009 at 10:31 pm

      Glad it’s helping, Kelly! Keep feeding for a week (or two even) before you relegate it to fridge life so it gets a chance to develop it’s own character. It should be doing very well by the time the BBA gets to sourdough breads.

      BTW, what is your new starter’s name? Of course your starter needs a name. It’s a family pet, after all.

  • February 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Hi Paul!
    Thanks for the nice comments on my It’s Alive! post . . . and thanks especially for this very helpful tutorial. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve come back to it over the past month as I’ve tried to get my starters going!

    Here’s a question for you: I started my first starter almost a month ago. It did great for about a week, then stalled. I figured it was because I hadn’t followed the directions very vigilantly, so I started a new one (and kept the old one going . . . just in case). I was really careful about following all of the steps and recording everything I did and the new one did everything as predicted for the first 7 days. My original one also picked back up about a week ago and started doing really well, doubling and tripling again . . . And now (10 days in) my second one has stalled. Two days of zero rise, zero bubbles. Any idea why? Or what I can do to get it to pick back up?

    I’ve been feeding it at a 1:1:1 ratio. I’ve been trying to keep them warm, although our high temp here has been in the single digits, so it’s challenging to find a warm spot for overnight or during the day when I’m at work. (Maybe it’s because I haven’t settled on names yet??) Thanks again for all of your help!!

    • February 1, 2010 at 4:12 pm

      Hi Abby,

      Temperature will decidedly be a reason a starter goes sluggish. Make a point of finding a warm spot somewhere in the house and don’t limit this to the kitchen. “Warm” here means relatively steady in the 73-78ºF (22-25ºC) range. Typical warm spots are: on top of the fridge (the coils in back give off heat), next to the TV or computer, next to a table lamp that you can keep on continuously. On top of (or very near) the water heater if it’s handy (check it’s not TOO hot, you do NOT want much above 80ºF). If you have two floors, upstairs will be warmer than down.

      You can also make a portion of that feed flour rye; if you were feeding it, say, 30g of flour, switch out maybe 10g of that to rye, 20g your normal flour. The rye will give it a little boost.

      But try getting it in a warm spot first. That may be all it needs. If that doesn’t help, then try the rye boost for a couple of feeds.

      Your starter may also be needing more food. Change your ratio from 1:1:1 to 1:2:2, for example: 15g starter, 30g water and 30g flour.

      Hope these tips help.

  • February 2, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Wahoo! Thanks, Paul! I gave it a shot of rye, put it in the warmest spot in my house, and covered it with a warm baby blanket for overnight when our house’s temp drops. It worked!! It rose beautifully overnight. Thanks again for all of your help! =)

  • Wernie
    October 12, 2010 at 7:53 am

    Hello! Thank you so much for this! I’m on Debra Wink’s pineapple starter myself now (using apple cider vinegar instead) and being the anxious creature I am, was worried about the progress of my starter (bubbles? from the flour? or is the yeast…? But no…) — Your photos have and will continue to allow me to gauge my starter activity. Thank you again. (:

  • Fred
    November 29, 2010 at 1:55 am

    Just a note of thanks for a most clear and concise explanation of how to create a sourdough starter … the progressive steps, photos and your writing style all combined provide a most pleasant experimental journey …

    Cheers!

  • rita
    April 22, 2013 at 7:28 am

    Hi.
    I’m on day 4. Are you feeding 2x a day? Do you take out some starter every time you feed or just the main feeding?
    thanks!

    • May 7, 2013 at 8:39 am

      Hi again.

      Obviously by now you’re well past day four but I’ll reply anyway in case someone else with this question would like to know too. While the starter is just beginning and there really isn’t much activity, feed once a day. When you see the starter beginning to increase in volume within 4 – 6 hours, then it’s active enough to require multiple feedings a day. Note this doesn’t apply to “day 4″ or “day 5″ but whatever state the starter is in. It’s just that “typically” this starts to happen on day 4 or 5. Your actual situation may be different. It may be day 3 or 6 for you. You need to adjust to YOUR starter.

  • Steph
    September 3, 2013 at 7:55 am

    Hi,
    A coworker gave me a wonderful jar of sourdough starter this morning. However, I am going out of town this weekend and don’t want to kill it off. Can you give some tips about storing starter in the fridge?
    Thanks!

    • September 3, 2013 at 10:29 am

      Hi Steph,

      If the starter is in good condition and currently at room temp, you should be able to just give it a regular feed, wait an hour or two for it to become active again, then pop it in the fridge. It will stay there quite nicely for a week or so.

      When you want to start feeding again, just be sure to take it out at least 24 hours prior to baking, give it a first feed with rather warm water to take the chill off, and feed it at least twice (preferably thrice) before you expect to bake with it or just pop it back in the fridge. In those two or three feeds, IF you plan to make bread, you don’t discard so you can build up your “Mom” or “Chef” to get enough sourdough as required for your recipe PLUS whatever amount you keep back for Mom. For example, if your recipe wants 450 grams of starter, you feed enough to build up to (at least) that much plus, say 20 grams you usually use to get Mom running, so a total of at least 470 grams of well fed, built up starter.

      Of course if you aren’t going to make bread that day, just feed two or three times, leave the starter out for a couple of hours to get active again, and pop it back in the fridge for another week or so. Repeat as required.

      Congrats on becoming a starter pet parent!

      • rita
        September 29, 2013 at 6:50 am

        Well, what if the starter is ancient? My wally and pj were sitting in the fridge all summer.
        One of them had mold all over the top (don’t know if it was wally or pj) which I threw out; as an experiment, I’ve been feeding the other which was super grey, smelled a bit like wet dog, and had lots of liquid on top. I stirred it down and have been feeding at about 6-8 hour intervals. I read that I should have poured the liquid off….
        Now it does not smell like wet dog, but faintly cheesy(?) and is bubbly.
        How do i know if it’s safe to eat and it’s still sourdough starter and not some mutant bacterium?

      • September 29, 2013 at 11:16 am

        Hi Rita,

        I’ll agree that you would probably have been better off pouring the hootch off but it won’t cause issues other than having to feed out the excess alcohol. You colony of critters, even if rather slowed down and sleepy/hungry, are still in a mixture with a pH level not exactly friendly to a lot of other bacteria. Also, it’s been in the fridge for several months (another bonus) so again, deterring to new bacteria, and likely sealed up in a jar, yet another strike against new invading critters.

        Since you are feeding regularly and don’t mention lack of the usual expansion, we can probably assume your pets are once more working as usual and have returned to their regular work which includes keeping other lifeforms at bay. Other crtitters don’t do that expanding thing (otherwise we’d be looking to cultivate THEM too) so that activity does tell us your yeast and lacto pals are in charge. It’s a pretty good bet that you’re A-OK there.

        For you, this is a bit of “closing the barn door after the horses got out” thing but if you or other readers wonder what to do with forgotten starters, here are my tips:

        1) Discard the hootch. It’s probably more than just a minor amount (which can be mixed in if small enough) and although it won’t hurt, it also won’t help.
        2) Take a spoon and carefully scrape away a bit of the surface and dig out a small amount from the middle of the starter; you just need a tiny bit, even a half teaspoon will work. The middle stuff will likely look a little better than the stuff on the outsides.
        3) If there’s mould, you’ll want to toss it out BUT if you can get down in the middle with little to no yucky stuff getting in, do step #2. Otherwise, you’ll have to dump and start again.
        3A) Unless, of course, you had wisely put aside a bit of dried starter for just such a situation. Then dump the mouldy stuff and simply restart of a bit of your flakes; you’ll be back in business in about 3 days.
        4) Take your tiny bit of starter rescued from the old jar, add a tablespoon or so of water, stir, add a heaping tablespoon of flour and set in a new small jar or bowl, and cover. You are basically just making a very very small amount of normal starter. Next feed, don’t throw out any, just add a little more water and flour – you don’t want to dilute your small and likely weakened colony so you’ll just add more food. In a feed or two more, it should be active enough to go back to your regular feedings with regular discarding.
        5) Once it’s going again and has good strength, take a bit of a feed’s discard and make some dried starter flakes to set aside for the next unexpected event.
        6) Make more awesome bread!

        Let us know how it turns out.

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