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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Restoring an old Sourdough Mother Starter

It has been far, far too long since I used my sourdough.  And it has been languishing, under a protective layer of hooch, for far too long.  I am not even certain that it can be revived.  But today I will follow the directions of Reinhart in Whole Grain Breads, to see if there are still viable yeasts in this starter.

I have a recipe card with instructions on it that I've written from what  I've gleaned from his book. 

Refresh Mother Starter                             RATIO
1. Discard all but 3.5 oz (100 g.) ~ 2/3 c.      33.3%
    - add 2 1/3 c wwflour (298 g)                    100%
    - add 1 c water ( 227 g)                              75%
    [do this every 2 weeks at least]
    Double it @ Room Temp 4-8 hrs.
    Degas it, Ball and put in Fridge
2. Discard all but 1 oz (28 g)
    - add 3 oz. wwflour or rye flour (85 g)
    - add 2.25 oz water (64 g) 1/3 c
    [do this first if mother starter is very old >2 weeks]
    After 4-8 hrs, refresh as #1 above

1. Whole Wheat Mother Starter
I had a look at my whole wheat mother starter first.
It had a thick layer of black hooch atop the moist grain.  When I took the lid off, the smell of acetone assailed my nostrils: yes, that was the smell of nail polish remover!  I poured off the hooch into a glass, not sure what I was going to do with it.  Can this be decanted?  Distilled?  Is it safe to use in any way?  Would I want to?  Is it legal?

I set the hooch aside and fished out 28 g of the deep whole wheat starter.  I added the new whole wheat and fresh water to it, and made a new batch of sourdough with it.  The rest of the old starter (except for the hooch), I tossed into the compost.

2. Rye Mother Starter
Now it was time to open my rye mother starter.  This container was opaque, so I couldn't see the layer of hooch through the side, although I suspected it was there.  I took off the lid and stood back a step, expecting to get the acetone smell again.  But although the hooch was there, the rye mother starter didn't have the nasty acrid smell.  It actually smelled quite pleasant -- strong, but pleasant.

I measured out the small amount needed to rebuild the mother starter; then I had a thought: I hadn't wanted to taste the wheat mother-starter (who would want to taste nail polish remover?) but why not have a little taste of this rye mother starter before tossing it out?  It smelled okay. Even the hooch had a pleasant aroma to it.  I poured it off to await an idea of what to do next with it.

So I stuck a spoon into the mix and pulled out a tiny amount.  I merely touched the tip of my tongue to it.  Imagine what a thousand sourballs might taste like if you could concentrate it: that is what this sourdough tasted like.  It didn't taste bad, per se.  Just incredibly, impossibly sour.

I mixed up the rebuild.

Then another thought occurred to me.  What if this mother-starter was still good?  What if it was not only rebuildable but refreshable?  I decided to try it. 

3. A Refreshing Experiment
Unfortunately, I got called away for a few minutes, and when I returned I made an error and mixed some whole wheat with this sour rye.  So I was mixing up a rebuilding of a whole wheat sourdough, and a rebuilding of a rye sourdough, but I was also refreshing a hybrid.  I had my doubts as to whether this would work. 

But I set all three containers aside to wait 8 hours.

The 8 hour mark will put me at 4 in the morning.  I'm unlikely to be awake then, so I'll have to just wait another couple of hours.  I'll come back to this blog entry when I'm next awake enough to continue.

DAY 2:

In the morning, at the 10 hour mark, the hybrid had done nothing.  I mean, it was moister, and it had a sour smell, with a faint hint of acetone, but it had not risen.  So I threw it out.  So much for the refreshing experiment.

1 The Whole Wheat Mother Starter in the Morning:

In the morning, too, the whole wheat starter has pretty much done nothing.  It has fermented a bit, it smelled a bit sour, but it doesn't seem to have risen at all.  I refreshed it anyway, according to the instructions.  I put this new mother starter in the same container that had housed the hybrid, which was now tossed away.  I was thinking that if this sucker doubled in size, after feeding it with almost 300 g of flour, plus some water, the yogurt container wouldn't be able to house it.

2. The Rye Mother Starter in the Morning:

The rye smells better: still fermented, but sweeter, sort of.  And it is much lighter in volume, like it would have risen, wanted to rise, but couldn't.  I refreshed it according to the instructions above.

I set both of these refreshed mother starters aside for 8 hours.

1. The Whole Wheat Mother Starter at the 8 hour point:

This starter hasn't done anything noticeable.  It smells quite sour, and I'm detecting that acetone whiff again.  Looks like the bacteria in this culture wins, and the yeast loses.

2. The Rye Mother Starter at the 8 hour point:
This culture is starting to expand.  There is viable yeast in this starter.  However, at the 8 hour mark, it still has not quite doubled.  I elect to leave it a bit longer.

And then I forgot about it for another 5 hours or so.  But when next I looked, it had indeed doubled in size.  After taking the requisite pictures, I followed the rest of the instructions: deflating it, rolling it into a ball (well this dough was really too wet to ball), and refrigerating it.

This wet dough was a minute ago risen to that top blue arrow, and now has been degassed to its original size.

I 'm planning refresh it again two or three times before I attempt to use it to bake bread.  By then, I hope it will be able to double in the requisite 4-8 hours.

The Whole Wheat starter had still done nothing appreciably when I put the rye away.  Looks like this Whole Wheat Starter died at the gates.  I will be tossing it out.  But I'm thinking that I really only need one anyway.  I won't have the space for two mother starters in the fridge along with all the other doughs I end up putting in there.

Day 3
1. Whole Wheat Starter
I forgot to throw this starter out before I went to bed, and when the cat got me up to let him out at 0215 I noticed that there was some other dough I had not put away.  That is when I noticed that the wheat starter had almost doubled.  So, there were viable yeasts in this culture after all.  But they were very slow to respond.  Imagine: this thing should have doubled in 4-8 hours.  This was closer to 20 hours.  But it has indeed pretty much doubled.

I decided to give it one more chance. Rather than toss it out, I would degass it and put it in a cool place, and I would refresh it a couple of times before trying to bake with it, like the rye starter.  If by then it is not performing well, I may indeed toss in the bin.  But it looks like this whole wheat starter has redeemed itself at the last moment.  I won't give up on it quite yet.

I went back to bed after the cat debacle, but when I awoke again a few hours later, I degassed this wheat mother starter and set it in the fridge.  Now it fits again in a yogurt container.

Notes to Myself:
  • The refrigeration stage of these sourdough starters is an inhibiting factor for me.  Especially now as we enter into summer, there is not enough room for 2 starters and the several doughs I might have in the fridge.  What did our ancestors do? 

    "My Grandmother didn't have a refrigerator for most of her life," my wife told me.  "She didn't get one until the late 1960's"

    "What did she do with her sourdough starter?" I wanted to know. 
    "She would have kept it in the cool cellar, along with her sauerkraut."
    That is why I am thinking that maybe these sourdough starters do not actually need to be refrigerated.  I probably will end up keeping them in the cool basement during the summer, and the cold garage during the winter.
  • Get into a routine with your starter: for example, feed it on the first day that you are not working (on a nurse's schedule, I work 3 days on, 2 days off, 2 days on, 2 days off, etc.)  That will more or less work out so that you refresh it about twice a week.  You don't make enough bread to refresh it every 8 hours like the big bakeries would; or once a day like the small bakeries do.  But find your rhythm with the yeast.
  • Get into a routine so that you are not discarding any starter: rather than toss some away during a rebuild, you take that starter and also build a dough for bread.  
  • You might want to do this after 2-3 discards prior to this one, however, so that your starter gets stronger.

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