The Top 6 Questions About Sourdough Starters
My biggest project for 2010 was the Starter-Along series on Serious Eats, where I posted a photo and description of a growing sourdough starter. I also included a few extra facts about sourdough when the starter was in the middle stages, when it was just a matter of feeding and stirring on a regular basis.
I also republished that series here, on Cookistry.
That series generated a lot of extra traffic for me, and apparently it was good for Serious Eats as well, since it was the #3 post on Slice for the year. A mention on LifeHacker helped boost its popularity, but even before that, it was having a pretty good run based on the traffic that trickled through to Cookistry.
And then, there were the questions. I’ve gotten them at Serious Eats, on my Facebook page, at Cookistry, and in person. Based on my unscientific polling software (my memory) these were the top six questions asked, along with my answers:
My starter doesn’t look like yours. Have I done something wrong? Should I start over?
No, nothing’s wrong unless you’ve got mold growing on the starter, or unless you’ve got no activity at all after about five days. Starters are all different because the flour, water and environment are different at every location. That’s part of the beauty of a sourdough starter. It’s unique to you and it can be a little bit different every time you use it.
Also, the photos I posted were just one moment in time. After feeding and stirring or later in the day, the bubbles probably looked a bit different. In general, the bubble activity should be increasing every day, but sometimes things stall. And if the starter is very active overnight, it can wear itself out and look quiet in the morning. Shortly after feeding and stirring, it should become more active again.
It’s bubbling, but it’s not rising up in the jar. What should I do?
When the starter is active enough to rise up in the jar, then it’s ready to use. That might happen in as little as a week, or it could take longer before it gets to that point. If your starter is still plugging along, bubbling but not getting increasingly active, I’d suggest dumping half to three-quarters of the accumulated starter, and then continue feeding and stirring the remainder.
The removed starter can be added to a regular bread recipe to flavor it. I have recipes here and here for using not-quite-ready starter.
It also might be the case that your starter is rising, but you’re not there to see it. If you feed at night, it might be rising up while you’re asleep, and by morning it has fallen again, so it looks the same. It might be a good idea to feed at a time when you can check the starter in an hour and see what it looks like at that point.
There’s liquid at the top of the starter. What’s that?
Second, that liquid might be what’s referred to as “hootch” and it accumulates when a starter has been sitting around a while and the critters have gone dormant. This might mean that your starter is much more active than you think. You can dump out some starter as I suggested above, and you can also increase the amount you feed. You can feed more at each feeding, feed more often, or both.
Does room temperature affect the starter activity?
Yes, very much. The starter will be most active at warm room temperatures, so if you keep your house cooler in the winter, it might be less active simply because of the temperature. You can move the starter to a slightly warmer location. The top of the refrigerator is good, or if you’ve got some other appliance that’s a little bit warm, you can move it there. Near a computer might be good.
You don’t want to get it too warm, so the top of the furnace or water heater might be overkill.
Having it develop slowly isn’t a bad thing, if you’re not in a hurry.
I made the bread, but it’s taking forever to rise. What’s wrong?
You might have harvested your starter before it was fully active. After you’ve had a starter going for a while, you’ll have a better idea what it looks like when it’s fully enthusiastic. But a slow rise isn’t a bad thing. Just let it rise at its own speed.
If it’s a matter of bad timing and you don’t want to stay up all night waiting to put it in the oven, you can put the loaf in the refrigerator for a really slow rise, and bake the next day.
Some sourdoughs rise slowly and don’t seem to want to double in size, but then they get tremendous oven spring. Yours might be like that.
The bread isn’t as sour as I expected. Can I fix that?
Sourdough starters develop more flavor as they age, so what you get from that first loaf isn’t what you’ll get after the starter matures for a while.
Also, you’ll get more flavor from the bread if it has a long, slow, cold rise – just like any bread. Rather than letting is rise on the counter, put the dough in the refrigerator and leave it there for a day or two before you form the loaf and let it rise for baking.
One thing to keep in mind is that all starters are different. The schedule you feed at, the flour and water you use, and the environment all change the way the starter behaves. Some are naturally more sour, they rise at different rates, have more or less oven spring, and produce different crumbs and crusts. That’s part of the fun of having a local starter.
And of course, the flour makes a difference. If you’re ready for it, you can start a new starter with whole wheat or rye flour, and see what new magic you can create.