Friday, December 31, 2010

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?

There are two causes. One is that the starter is too wet, so you can add a bit more flour to it. It should be a little thicker than cake batter. Almost muffin batter.

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?

Sourdoughs are all different, but the sour flavor that people associate with sourdough comes from the bacteria that produce different acids at different points in the process. You can create a much more sour starter by stopping the feeding and letting the starter go hungry for a while. You can do this for a day or so at room temperature, or put the starter in the refrigerator for a little longer.

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.


Rebecca said...

I'm having a problem with my starter, hoping you can help. We were following along with your starter series, but were out of town on days 8-10. I gave it two ounces of flour and water on day 7 to compensate somewhat, and it was bubbling along fine (looked almost identical to your photos, in fact).

I figured a weekend away wouldn't hurt it much, so we kept feeding and stirring when we got home, but it has never recovered. There is a really thick layer of hootch and the bubbling is completely gone. I took some pictures, if that would help.

This is how it looks most of the time:

Right after feeding/stirring:

Roughly 30 minutes after feeding/stirring:

I think we are going to try pouring some out and feed twice a day to see if we can't get it going again. Any other ideas? I read that you need to use a smallish jar, or the starter will have trouble. Could that be the problem?

Thank you! :)

Donna Currie said...

You don't need a small jar, I use one because that's what fits best in the refrigerator when I'm storing it.

I'll bet your starter got too acidic. Dump out all but about an inch of starter in the jar (you can use that to flavor another dough if you like) and then add enough flour and water to double the amount in the jar. I'll bet it will spring back to life right away.

Chris Brown said...

What do you mean by the comment: "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."? Or in other words, after the 8-10 day incubation period, how long can you keep a starter in the fridge?
Much thanks!

Donna Currie said...

Chris, I've got starters that are over 10 years old. They live in the fridge, and if I'm not using them often enough to keep them lively, I take them out once in a while and feed them and put them back. Most people would say that a month is about as long as you'd want to let them languish without feeding, but I've been known to let them go for 3 months. It takes a little longer for them to get lively after a long nap like that, but I've never had one fail to revive.

Garvey said...

DBC: Thanks so much for posting this. I saw it on SeriousEats last year and finally got around to making it. I'm on day 9, and it seems to be going well. I did want to ask, though: how much should it be rising in the jar before I bake with it, and how soon after feeding should it be rising in the jar? Your FAQ above suggests that the "how soon" question isn't so important, but is there a rule of thumb on that?

Yesterday, it seemed to rise noticeably in the jar within an hour or two of feeding--maybe half an inch, which seemed significant, considering it had never done that in its first 7 or 8 days of life. ;-) But should I be looking for more rising action than that? Today, it hasn't risen much yet (fed it a couple hrs ago). Maybe a little...


Donna Currie said...

When mine are at their most active, they'll just about double in size in a couple hours. If your activity is declining, you can usually make it spring to life pretty agressively by dumping out all but a quarter inch of it, and then doing several feedings where you double each time. So, first feeding, you add enough so there's 1/2 in the jar, then one inch, then 2 inches. After the third or fourth feeding, it will probably be trying to crawl out of the jar.

Garvey said...

Thanks for the explanation. Are those aggressive feedings on successive days or a shorter interval than that? I am going to give my starter a couple more days before I try this, but I really appreciate the details. This is a lot clearer to me now.


Donna Currie said...

When you go with the more aggressive feeding I'd suggest you do 3 feedings in a day, as you have time. First thing in the morning, then mid-day, or when you get home from work, and one feeding last thing at night. If it doesn't crawl out of the jar overnight, then your first feeding the next day might be the one where it really takes off. If it's rising an inch or so, that's good, but you'll see the difference when it goes crazy.

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