The untrained eye

 Hello there,

I am a sourdough newbie in need of some coaching, please!!

I have read soooooo many sites, forums etc on sourdough starters before embarking on my own journey. I must confess I am particularly drawn to this one because of how friendly and helpful the community seems to be.

But for all the reading I'm doing I still feel so unsure about what I'm doing and what I'm meant to be seeing. I have to confess I am on my third starter in the space of 5 weeks. I am completely sticking with basics and just using spring water and organic white flour.

The first one I was measuring flour and water in equal quantities but in cup measures and now realise that scales are the way forward. The result was that it was always too liquidy and never got any bubbles. The second one and the one I'm on now have been very similar so having ditched the second one because it was developing a grey watery film over the top (now realise that that is ok) I am keen to do everything I can to get this current one to the oven. My issue is that it doesn't seem to grow like I read about. It gets the right texture and smell, gets quite bubbly etc - and looks the part enough to get me all excited but then doesn't go anywhere, ie doesn't double in volume. Sometimes I think if I squint hard enough I may recognise a tiny bit of growth but nothing like vesuvius eruptions I read about. Do I need to wait for this? I'm probably on Day 7 or 8 with current one.

I live in the UK. Our summer days have been patchy and our evenings have always been cool.

One final thing. (Sorry for the extended saga). When people are throwing out their starter to feed it, what is the best way to do it so that the whole jar doesn't get all covered in the starter? I'm paranoid this bit will go mouldy so furiously attempt to wipe it down. Surely I don't need to be changing containers on a daily basis?!

Thanks in advance....

21 comments

Hello Nitnat,

Don't give up and start again.  Things have a way of coming good when you least expect it.

I'd have thought things should be going fairly well by seven or eight days but it does sound as if something is going on.

Have you tried adding rye flour to your blend?  It might just give the beasties the boost they need.  I routinely add about 20% of rye and 80% wheat flour to mine although in the past I have also successfully used all wheat starters.

On the container thing, I use a mini soup ladle (about 50mm dia - it holds about 50g of starter) to extract from the jar  and get very little on the sides.  What does get there I just scrape back down with a spatula/spoon and don't panic about getting it spotless. I have not experienced any mould formation.  Wash and sterilise your jar when it suits - I haven't done mine for ages.

Let us know how you go.

Farinam

Dear Nitnat,

You sound to have been having a very similar experience to what I had when I was starting my culture. The trick was using a little rye flour; it really got the ball rolling. Initially I had very small bubbles but as the culture got more established the bubbles became bigger and bigger. Keep on persisting with it, and it will grow. I wouldn’t be too worry about mould, the worse I have suffer is a bit of a skin on the culture if it has been neglected too long.

 

Good luck Hamish

 Hi Farinam, Hamish, thanks. I have resisted adding rye flour to date just from 'purists' perspective. I guess I just wanted to prove it using the basic ingredients first. That and rye flour has been quite hard to track down but I have come past it in a shop recently so think I will try it.

 

Farinam, can I just clarify, with the soup ladle (ingenious, I can see it doing the job superbly already), is it metallic and does this matter? Every seems to say metallic is a big no-no. 

Hello Nitnat,

The ladle is metal - stainless steel.  But it is only in contact with the culture for a matter of seconds.

I also use a stainless steel bowl for my mixing and bulk proving.

If you want to avoid using metal, by all means do so, but it does not affect the action of the culture in so far as I can see.

Regards

Farinam

 

[quote=nitnat]When people are throwing out their starter to feed it, what is the best way to do it so that the whole jar doesn't get all covered in the starter? I'm paranoid this bit will go mouldy so furiously attempt to wipe it down. Surely I don't need to be changing containers on a daily basis?!

Thanks in advance....[/quote]

 

Don't use a jar, at least not during the first phase of establishing the starter. Just use a bowl or something relatively wide, that should make it easier taking half of the content out. Once you have the starter established, then move it to a jar and store it in the fridge.

 

Mine is in a jar and once/twice a week when I use it the sides do get dirty. I just wipe it as best as I can with a little paper towel, and switch to a clean jar every forthnight or so.

I know that everybody has an opinion on this, but seeing how I just managed to get my first starter going, and know why I had trouble, I will share my observations with you.

 

These are the things did, some right, some wrong.

 

 Made the starter too soupy, it should be more like slightly thick pancake batter.

I Set the bowl in a warm room of an air conditioned home.  It needed to a bit warmer than that, so I put the bowl on top of my DSL modem, and it did speed up the process considerably.

 

I tried all sorts of flour, but in the end, it was simple unbleached King Arthur Bread flour that I used. Any flour will work, but some might work faster due to the increase in yeast levels in some flours.

 

The first time I tried I used the yeast method, and had I gotten all the other points correctly, it would have worked fine.

 

One thing I noticed was in how the temperature effects what you are trying to accomplish. If the temperature is a bit cooler it will slow the process way down, so it will take longer. if it takes longer, you might be discouraged from taking proper care of the starter. Stir, and then feed your starter every day. Use a clean spoon, try to keep other forms of bacteria out of what you are doing.

Sometimes the bubbles won't be so visible through the sides of the bowl. They will form slowly because you may be working without yeast to give a fast kick start. As much as it takes 12 or more hours for your sour dough bread to rise, it takes a long time for the starter to develop the proper level of gas to clue you into knowing that it is working.

When you stir the starter bowl, the first few turns should show you that you have gas trapped in the starter ,and it is indeed doing what it should. Especially if you have not started with a yeast based starter, any bubbles you see are from the yeast in your flour eating like it should.

Keep the bowl warm, not hot.  If you have a DVR that gets hot, or any other electronic item that gets warm to the touch, try putting  the bowl on top of it. Check it often, but only feed it, or stir it once a day.

 

Once I got my first sour dough bread,  I fed my starter, let it rise ,and sealed it to go into the frig. The frig is very cold ,and when I went to use it again, I put it out on the counter and never got any rise out of the bowl. I began leaving it out of the frig ,and fed it for a few days, and put it back on the DSL modem.It is now back to what it was before  I refrigerated it. This is where I am now, able to get a good starter, but not understanding why I can't rejuvenate it from the frig in any reasonable time.   I hope some of this helps you.  Joe

Thanks slepax re comments on frequency of jar changes. It's just so helpful to know what others are doing. And especially because if I'm the cause of teh problem at least I can fix that.

 

Interesting about the heat issue Joe, thanks. I have tried to put it in the cupboard overnight just because it has been quite cool in the evenings and I'm still resisting the first turning of the heating on. That didn't really have any effect. Over the weekend on a really sunny day I left it out in all the sunny bits I could find around the flat but all it did was get really bubbly. No noticeable change in volume. I'll see if I can find a warmer place for it.

 

I'm determined to get this one to work!

The bubbles are correct, the culture is active. getting bubbles with no noticeable change in volume may be attributed to a thin batter. A certain amount of the gas might be escaping form the liquid. Try feeding it by stirring the bubbles out ,add flour, to  to thicken the mixture, then room temperature, or slightly warm spring, or bottled water to make it a slightly thick pancake batter. Stir it together, loosely cover and return to a warm place.  The volume is just about the gas being trapped, the bubbles are about the live culture doing what you want it to do. The smell is the other important clue. It will start to have a wonderful sour dough smell. If it gags you, there may be something else growing in your bowl. That is usually accompanied by a change in color. The excitable colors include a brown liquid, called Hooch. Some take it out, some stir it in. It is alcohol and should not hurt anything.

 

I hope this helps, please give feedback, good or bad.

 

                         Joe

Although hygiene is important in breadmaking, you don't need to be too paranoid about your starter container. The acid environment created by the wild yeast and lactobacillus combo is no good for moulds and other spoilage organisms to survive.

Wipe the edges after taking and topping-up and change the container every month or so.

Here are a couple of thoughts.  The ideal temperature to encourage the right bacteria to grow is 32 degrees Celsius (90 F).  Get your starter to as close to that temperature as possible.

 

Of course, to get the bacteria (most desirable is lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, but other lactobacilli are fine) growing, you need to have the bacteria in the first place, which is often in the air around us--more or less depending on the location and climate.  The lactobacilli are what you need because they metabolize maltose--the sugar found in grains.  Because this is what they metabolize, they are found on virtually all grains.  However, commercial milling routinely raises the temperature of the flour as high as 200 degrees Celsius (400 F).  So, you should not expect the any commercially milled flour to have the bacteria you are looking for.  Home grinders generally do not get the temperature anywhere near that hot, so that's a better option.

 

Here's my recommendation.  Get some refined (white) flour (rye, wheat, whatever), what you are really looking for is a flour with a high concentration of maltose.  There is no maltose in the bran or the germ, so refined flour has a higher concentration of maltose that do whole grain flours.  Mix it water in the ration of 1:1 by volume.  (earlier comment about thick pancake batter is right on).  Then add a handful of unground grain--the fresher the better.  Some people--especially Mormons--have wheat that has been in storage for decades, don't use this.  Remember that we are looking for a concentration of the right kind of living lactobacilli.  Then do what you have been doing.  This should get you going.  Don't give up on your starter, it may take up to a week before you are seeing any signs of metabolization (bubbles).  Once it starts to bubble you can get rid of the grain by pouring the top of the strater into a new jar and feeding that, discarding the bottom half.

 

The earlier comment about not needing to be overly concerned about the cleansing the container between feedings is also right on the money.  You need to create the right conditions for the lactobacilli to out compete all other organisms and then you will have no worry about spoilage.

 

 

 I live in england. that is a proper heatwave here, experienced only rarely in one's lifetime. jokes aside where is best to leave a starter to get it the warmest in one's flat do you think?

and where do you get unground grain from?

 

thanks.

Thanks, theGove - I think a good beginner's cheat for both (a) lactobacillae and (b) wild yeast is:

(a) natural, live yoghourt and (b) fresh grapes or plums (for the bloom on the skins).

I have used it with great success and a great 'sour' flavour.

What do more experienced bakers than me think of this idea?

hi albuck99, can you please tell me how you do it via the grapes and plums method?

 

I'm going to try the  good old fashioned way first and should I (gasp!) have success I would be interested to learn about these other methods for taste comparison. But there is so little information on it. And definately one for Part II of Conquering Sourdough for me at least :-)

It's just a way of introducing wild yeast directly to the flour and water.
Take any fruit with a 'bloom' on the skin (that's the wild yeast) and drop a couple into the flour/water mix, put it in a warm place. It could be grapes, plums, blueberries - anything that grows that dusty grey 'bloom'.
I also added a dab of natural live yoghourt - that provides the lacto bacillus for the sourdough lacto/yeast basis.
It just saves all the waiting around for these things to drift in on the air.
Good Baking!

 The wild yeasts which get the starter going are already in the flour - that's why it's a good idea to use more than one flour, and preferably organic - because you will get the greatest variety of wild yeasts. The lactobacillus also comes from within, so it's unnecessary to add things like yoghurt, though it probably won't do any harm.

The internet is awash with all these old wives tales about bread and sourdough, which is why it's a good idea to get hold of a good book, or at least find some reliable sources, such as some of the posters here and on The Fresh Loaf. When I was first getting into sourdough I found all this misinformation terribly frustrating because it really hindered my understanding of what's going on - and if you want to get the best bread, that's important.

I'd like to add my 2c to this (very informative and helpful) discussion.

When I first began messing with a freshly-started starter a few months ago, I had a similar problem with the starter.  I had started it with some wholegrain coarsely ground Swedish wheat flour and some plain white local flour, and tap water (it's very soft and rather pure here in Stockholm).  It did bubble but not rise the way I'd wanted it to for the first few days (about 10-14 days actually).  I fed it on an every-12-hour schedule by discarding half and adding approx. weight of water and plain white flour (no additions of whole-wheat flour after initial).

The summer had been very warm here and the kitchen was routinely getting to 25°C during peak day temperature.  Still, no rise.  I stuck the starter in the fridge for a while as I was tired of daily mess, following some advice to feed it right before putting in fridge, and left it to languish there for about a week.  Then I took it out and used about 2 tablespoons of it in a clean container with flour to reactivate - and viola!  Within about a day I had a jar full of bubbly risen starter!  I discarded remaining stuff in fridge and kept the new culture which had risen so happily.  Ever since then the starter works fine and rises both, from fridge and from room-temperature after feeding.

Since this is all very unscientific and based on pure observation of my one starter, here is what I think could have contributed:

1. Either the starter culture composition had changed somewhat during its week in the fridge without feeding after the intiial feed before sticking it in there, or...

2. It just needed to age more than the minimum 1 week that a lot of people recommend.  Keyword there is "minimum" and I've read a lot of bakers saying that their old, established starter behaves much better and much more consistently than a newly-started one, which would make sense from a microbiological POV (I'm a biologist myself): after a while, the strains which predominate in the starter would be the ones that get along best with your flour, your water and each other, and out-compete (kill off) any other varieties of whatever else is in there, thus leading to better rises and more consistent results.

I suspect it is the combination of the two (rest in fridge for a week and persevering) that did the trick - so if you want to try this, you can take a small part of your starter (2 tablespoons that you'd discard at any feed), feed it with 1dl of water and about 1.5 dl of flour, stick in a jar (large enough for it to expand - it may do that in the fridge too, just slower, close the lid almost but not quite all the way, and forget about it for a week.  Then take it out, refresh it and see if that has helped!

Hi Lilith,

 

Thanks for sharing your experience. I have read also that the fridge is a good revitaliser but I kind of associated with reviving bad starters. For my first one I tried this actually, but I don't think I fed it before it went in. I just got annoyed with it and stuck it in there and expecting magic to have occurred on it's way out probably. 

But my current starter looks fine, it just won't rise! Anyway, the fridge method will be second after I try adding the rye for a few days. 

I know i will probably start a riot but i have my starter in an icecream container with a lid and i keep it in the fridge! It is about three years old now and it spent some time in  the freezer as well when i went overseas. i was able to defrost and resusitate it when i came back. So once it's active it's pretty forgiving. I originally followed the instructions in the bourke street bakery book which has good step by step instructions. I had both rye and white starter going at one stage and if i remember right the rye one more active sooner so it might be a better one to start with, you can always convert to to white once it's active.

I am in awe. thanks for letting me know it freezes. and the ice cream container trick. awesome.

 

one of my other issues is how big the size of the container needs to be actually because I am thinking about when I do get it going and need to stick it in the fridge at times then you have to consider the container (ie I don't have a massive fridge!) 

... behind the scenes with your starter, one of the best factual descriptions which blows away many of the myths, is Debra Winks amazing post on The Fresh Loaf:

www.thefreshloaf.com/node/10901/pineapple-juice-solution-part-2

Part One of that is good too, but in Part Two she really gets down to the nitty gritty. If you're like me and have very little background in this area, you might have to read it more than once, but it's worth it.

It would make sense to go on from that and read her overview of lactic acid fermentation in sourdough:

www.thefreshloaf.com/node/10375/lactic-acid-fermentation-sourdough

Both threads contain a lot of really useful explanation in the comments too.

It's grown! I had a vesuvius eruption. The rye worked a treat. I guess I'm ready to start baking?