Sourdough starter issues

I kept a small hiatus from baking bread and even though I had stored my sourdough starter in two different methods, I still can’t get the leavening effect that I’m used to. So I set out on a look into the possible issues and trials to remedy it.

A Good starter

A good starter is very active, creates huge amounts of gas and flavour compounds. Most guides direct to test the starter’s “readiness” by dropping a spoonful on water and see if it floats. It it does, it means it is producing a lot of gas uniformly throughout the mass and not just one or two big bubbles. The wetter the starter is, the more active it usually is. It does have a pungent smell but for me, clear indication of a poor starter is if the is liquid separation from the relatively homogenous frothy mass. Usually, the liquid that rises to the top is blackish an awful.

Actively bubbling starter
Actively bubbling starter

Getting the starter perked up

First thing I naturally did was to do some research. My goto advice site, sourdough.com gave me the confidence, that I know that I can reactivate my starter over winter as well. A lot of people were telling, that they can’t get the leavening effect they’re used to. Some other¬†advice on winter sourdough use also claimed, that some people have to use dried yeast on winters to get their breads to proof.

sourdough starter
My lazy-ish starter

To try to reinvigorate my starter, I’ve been discarding about 80% and adding new flour and water to it initially once a day, and after significant increase in activity, twice a day. Even though the discarding feels bad, its purpose is to reduce the pH and the favour microbes that react quicker to the increase in carbohydrates.

I also kept the starter jar in an artificially warmer environment that the ambient room temp. I was making some sous vide oxtail, so I kept the starter jar very close to the water bath and it felt noticeably warmer (but not too hot!) immediately after an hour or so.

So after continuing this process, the starter begun to act more like it should: Frothy bubbles all around and no liquid separation. The starter had gained a more acetic acid smell than previously. Time to bake some bread and see how it works.

The verdict

I’ve started using the Tartine Bread’s direction on making a country loaf, and it works like charm for me. Make the levain, next day make the dough and bake on the third day. And the starter delivered. The bread for somewhat more sour than previously, but to an actually surprisingly positive way. The crumb was magnificent the crust crispy and thin. Here are the pics.

After bulk ferment
The dough after the bulk ferment. Waiting for the bench rest
Initial shape
Initial shaping for the bench rest
Crumb
Crumb shot of the nearly eaten bread. Turned out delicious

I’ll have to write another post that outlines my baking timeline. (edit: I did, you can find it here)

Methods for storing your sourdough starter

Now that the starter works again, I decided to look into ways to prevent this from happening again.

I’ve been storing my backup starter in the freezer. You take a bit of the active starter and reduce the water activity by adding so much flour that you have this dry crumble. This dry crumble can then be tossed into the freezer to “hibernate.” Yes, some of the microbes may/will die, but enough will survive. The dry crumble can then be rehydrated to have a new set of an active sour dough starter.

I also tried to make some dry flakes,¬† by spreading the active starter on a parchment paper as thinly as possible and allowing it to dry out. I then crushed the dried “dough” and stored it in an airtight container in room temperature. The science is the same: You’ll reduce the activity of the water to slow down the microbe metabolism.

Drying sour dough
Active sour dough starter spread on a parchment paper
crushed dry sourdough
Crushed dried sourdough ready to be put into a jar
Crushed and dried sourdough in a jar
Crushed and dried sourdough in a jar

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