Scary waffles
January 20, 2008 9:22 PM   Subscribe

How do you know when sourdough starter goes bad?

This morning ms. umbĂș and I had some sourdough waffles using our jar of her family's 40-year old sourdough starter. They were great: airy and tangy, as they should be. If you've never had sourdough waffles or pancakes, you should. They're amazing.

The thing is, we almost didn't make them because it has been a while since we used the mason jar of starter, and sitting in the back of the fridge it has gotten pretty scary looking. There was some black liquid settling on top, for example, more dramatically than usual.

Now I know the starter is supposed to be alive and changing. However, is there a certain point where it passes a point of no return and you should no longer eat it? If so, how do you know when it has passed that point?
posted by umbĂș to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I was just told by my girlfriend's mother that if it turns black it's bad. Maybe that's just her though.
posted by pwb503 at 9:29 PM on January 20, 2008

You can tell by the smell... a yeasty, sour-beer kinda smell is just dandy. If it smells -- well, foul -- then it's prolly picked up some bacteria you don't wanna eat.

Try turning out the "cleaner" bits of your started into a new container (I'd hold on to the old one... you might get a try or three at this) to see if you can give it a fresher home.
posted by deCadmus at 9:38 PM on January 20, 2008

From this page on Step by step instructions for activating dried sourdough starter:

"After several weeks you may see the plastic bulging at the top and a greyish black liquid gathering on top of the white starter. This is normal. The dark liquid is actually a mixture of water and alcohol produced by the starter. A couple of days before you want to use your starter take it out of the fridge, Stir the liquid back in, stirring well and feed it. Pour off some first if you need room in the jar. Continue to feed and pour off as necessary until the starter looks like the batch in #8 above."
posted by junesix at 9:46 PM on January 20, 2008

I keep mine in the fridge and "wake it up" about once a week for baking. It ALWAYS has a dark liquid separated on the top. I just pour it off before feeding.

Visible mould or bad smells are not good, but what you're describing sounds like "hooch" and is perfectly normal.

Sourdough starter can also lose its leavening potency if the wrong bugs get the upper hand, but that doesn't seem to be the case here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:53 PM on January 20, 2008

Generally it takes some effort to wake up a starter after it's been dormant in the fridge for more than a few weeks. I've been guilty of neglecting my starter in the past, and I've seen the "hooch" settle on top, and even turn dark and cloudy. I think the environment is still so inhospitable to any beasties aside from your beneficial yeast and bacteria that I've never seen it start to grow anything scary, even after 3 or 4 months of neglect. It will take some time to restore the proper balance of yeast and bacteria, however. The fridge will put your yeast completely to sleep but your bacteria will still have a little activity meaning that the bacteria will be a bit strong on the mix just after taking it out and restarting feeding. Give it a couple weeks of a regular feeding schedule at room temperature to get it back into balance.
posted by rocketpup at 5:30 AM on January 21, 2008

The mailing list had a pretty good writeup of sourdough starter maintenance in one of their December issues. It's the last message in the link. Full of good info on the nuts and bolts of sourdough starter.
posted by clockwork at 9:51 AM on January 21, 2008

You married into 40 yr old sourdough? Wow, that's my kind of wealth.
posted by theora55 at 4:07 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

You can "wash" the starter by putting a pea-sized amount of your starter into water and doing several feeds. It might take 4-5 cycles until it's back to its former level of robustness, and even then it might be a little slow on bread (but perfect for waffles or flapjacks). That way you have the continuity of the old starter but the peace of mind that there's nothing icky going on with it.

FWIW, I've let my starter languish for months at a time in the fridge and have ended up with hooch colors anywhere from clear to red to grey or black, and it's always come back after some TLC.
posted by Addlepated at 6:12 PM on January 21, 2008

I have been keeping sourdough and I've found that the color of the liquid 'hooch' on the top depends on the type of flour used - white flour causes the liquid to have a light to dark tan color. Whole wheat flour on the other hand causes the liquid to be much darker - almost black.

In my world, sourdough starter has two states - alive and dead. When mixed with flour, if the volume doubles in 12 hours, the starter's alive. If not, it's dead.
posted by Arthur Dent at 9:09 PM on January 21, 2008

On preview - what theora55 said.
posted by Arthur Dent at 9:10 PM on January 21, 2008

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