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Reviving Sourdough Starter

At last a minute to write.  I am grading essays, and it is very important for me to take a mental break between each paper in order to start each one with a fresh perspective (otherwise they all start sounding the same and I catch myself thinking things like “how many times do I have to tell you…?”)  So between each paper I am going to try and catch up on other things in my life, like writing at long last in this blog!  I have so many entries that need posting…

To begin, I would like to share my experience with trying to revive my sourdough starter.  It keeps going flat on me, hibernating beneath pool “hooch,” a yellow liquid that is the result of the fermentation process.  

I have now tried several techniques for reviving sourdough, in a fairly scientific way.  I separated  my starter into four parts of about half a cup each, put one in the freezer (just in case!) and then tried three different approaches with the others: 

1) The first approach entailed simply feeding the starter about a cup of flour and roughly three quarters of a cup of water.  I repeated this for several days in a row, throwing out all but half a cup of starter between each feeding.

2) The second approach used the  water thinning method that I wrote about here.  I followed the instructions on that post for nearly a week.

3) The third approach was as follows.  The first day, I took two tablespoons of starter and mixed them with one cup of flour and about 5/8 of a cup of water.  Every day after that I took half a cup of starter (discarding the rest) and fed it a cup of flour and 5/8 of a cup of water.

Of the three methods, only method #3 got my starter going again.  The other two methods just left me with a pool of sludge under a pool of hooch.  Method three, on the other hand, worked like a charm.  My starter is very, very happy now.  

The reason this works is as follows.  Sourdough starter is created when wild yeast (found on the flour and in the air) and lactobacilli bacteria form a culture as they feed off the flour you feed them.  The yeast multiplies fastest at first, creating the bubbly, frothy mixture that means the starter is working well.  After a few days, however, the lactobacilli catch up and you end up with a fermentation process that produces the “hooch.”  Starter that is ready to be made into bread must have lots of yeast present, and less lactobacilli.   The more lactobacilli there is, the more sour your bread will be, but too much means that the bread simply won’t rise, which is what I was having a problem with.  To keep the correct balance, you must feed plenty of flour.  This gives the yeast the advantage as it will always feed and multiply faster than the lactobacilli.  

By taking a small amount of starter, which contains both, and feeding it a lot of flour (doubling, tripling or even quadrupling the volume), the yeast takes over for a few days.  Then, if you keep feeding it at  least double the volume of flour, you maintain the correct balance.  This is why method #3 worked.  The other two methods did not change the yeast : lactobacilli ratio sufficiently to get the starter back to where I needed it to make bread.

I hope that made sense.

I still haven’t produced a really nice loaf of sourdough, but I have made good progress.  A few things I have learned along the way:

1) Starter is happiest if you feed it daily, or (best) twice daily.  My starter now “doubles” in about 2-3 hours.  I took a couple of pictures but have misplaced my camera.  I will post them when I find it.  It’s quite wonderful to see the starter bubble up and grow to the top of its jar.

2) I need to find a better jar to keep my starter in.  One that is much wider to make extracting it easier.  

3) The more sour you want your bread, the less flour you add to the starter (i.e. keep the starter to flour ratio high) and the longer you let the bread ferment before baking.  

4) My bread is still not browning.  Some research on the internet suggests that pale bread means that it has been over “proofed”, or allowed to sit out too long before you bake it.  I am on day two of making a batch today so will try baking it after just a couple of hours of proofing tomorrow.  I tend to forget about my bread and then bake it after its been sitting out for 3-4 hours or even longer.  Apparently that could be the problem!

5) I found a couple of more great bread website:  Sourdough Home, which has a lot of great technical info on caring for your starter, among other things.  And BreadCetera, which has this great post on how best to hand mix your dough, complete with video for visual instruction!

Ok, back to grading…

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One Response

  1. Nearly eighteen months later, thank you for the clear and detailed discussion on reviving starter! Very helpful, and I appreciate the mildly technical explanation – there does seem to be quite a lot of obfuscation being written on this topic.

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