18 August, 2009
Starting a Starter: Final Thoughts
Well, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.