Is my sourdough starter supposed to do that?
February 29, 2008 2:49 AM   Subscribe

DumbQuestionFilter: Is my sourdough starter supposed to shrink?

A couple of days ago, for the first time ever, I made a sour dough starter from a recipe I found in a book. I followed the instructions to the letter and used 375g flour, 3 tsp yeast, and 4.5dl water, all mixed well in a glass jar and then covered with a kitchen towel and left it out on the counter top. For the first 6-7 hours it grew and grew, was all bubbly, but then it collapsed to a quarter of it's largest size.

It has tiny bubbles throughout and smells a lot like beer, has a cm thick layer of goopy frothy bubbly liquid on top, so I *think* it's doing well, but is the shrinkage supposed to happen? Nothing I've read about sour dough starters mentions any collapses so I was wondering if there are any MeFites who have made their own sour dough with experiences to share?

Also, I want to use this sour dough to make sour dough no-knead bread. Any and all favourite recipes are gratefully accepted.
posted by esilenna to Food & Drink (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about the starter, but you might try this recipe. Story about it in the NYT here.
posted by duende at 2:57 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I believe this is normal, although I've never made starter by adding in store-bought yeast; just by mixing flour and water together, waiting a day, dumping out half and adding more flour and water. This process took about a month IIRC, but once I got a good culture going I had pretty much what you describe - good growth followed by shrinking, beery smell, brownish liquid. I think you're probably okay, although it made not be very sour since your starter is mostly store-bought yeast right now.

If you're patient, I recommend waiting a week or so before you use your starter, refreshing it each day like I've described above.
posted by the dief at 4:06 AM on February 29, 2008

Best answer: Here's the recipe I followed when I made my starter.
posted by the dief at 4:11 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's normal. The yeast have exhausted the available sugars in the flour and have stopped producing repiratory gases which are what puffed up the starter. Ideally before you let it get to that stage you will feed it again with some flour and water. Because you are using commercial yeast, it probably isn't a great idea to let it become exhausted, as you have, because those yeast prefer an environment less acidic than the one created by exhausting the sugars available to them.

(Typically, "sourdoughs" made with commercial yeasts are considered sponges, because sourdoughs get their properties from acid loving bacteria, about half wild yeast and half lactobacilli, that cannot live in large numbers in the same pH range as commercial yeast does.)
posted by OmieWise at 4:20 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds to me like your starter needs to be fed. Usually when it falls like that it means that the wild yeasts have consumed all the nutrients the flour had to give and exhausted themselves and the gluten in the flour. I feed my starter a 1:3:3 ratio of starter:water:flour about every 24 hours because I keep mine at room temp so I can be ready to bake anytime. You can also keep it refrigerated and feed it less frequently if you're not on a baking schedule. For a great discussion of how to cultivate and maintain a starter and wild yeast breads in general go to My breads have improved a a great deal since discovering that blog! Also check out The Fresh Loaf, another bread blog. Good luck.
posted by saffry at 4:31 AM on February 29, 2008

Best answer: I'm a bit surprised seeing the yeast in the recipe. Domesticated yeast will compete for resources with the wild yeast so I'm not sure how this might turn out. The sour in sourdough comes primarily from other non-yeast organisms which create the the micro-environment with wild yeast that makes up the sponge, but those other organisms live in harmony with wild yeast. They get their little butts kicked by domestic yeast which is very aggressive and will out compete for resources. You will get an active sponge, but it will not be as sharp in flavor until a long period of cultivation. Shrinkage shouldn't make a difference. As long as it doesn't smell "off". The beer smell sounds like it's just fine.

Making a sponge from scratch is really a separate skill from making bread. It's like the difference between making cheese or making yogurt. Yogurt is much easier. Making sponge is more like cheese.

King Arthur sells starter sponges. It's amazing. Pricey, but worth it.

Another option is to get a bit of dried starter from a baker and then resuscitate it. I've had the same starter for about 15 years now and I've dried some (slow bake in a very low oven) and put it in the freezer in case of catastrophe. My very own doomsday vault. But once dried it can travel pretty well. This was how yeast traveled across the frontier.

The other traditional way to start a starter is with potatoes. Using the water from a potato soak. and then feeding it flour for a week or two. Kind of high maintenance at the beginning.

Here's my stock sourdough no-kneed recipe.

After halving the fresh-fed sponge, I add about 5 cups of high gluten bread flour, about 1/2 a tablespoon of salt, about a quarter cup of milled flax seed, and a little over a cup and a 1/3 of hot water. Mix, let sit. 14 -18 hours later I take the sponge from the bowl and fold it once, maybe twice on a floured surface. The idea is to preserve you bubbles while putting a light coat on the surface folding the sticky bottom onto itself. This gets put on a sheet of parchment in a bowl, sprayed on the top with no-stick spray, which is then covered by saran wrap. Let sit for two hours at least.

Pull the pre-heated cast-iron dutch oven out of the 450 oven and remove the lid. Remove the saran from the top of the loaf and lift the dough out the bowl using the four corners of the parchment. Lower parchment into dutch oven, cover put back in oven. After 20 minutes remove the lid. Remove about 20 minutes after that.

Enjoy and good luck.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:02 AM on February 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: When I started making sourdough, I was surprised at how strong, and not entirely pleasant the smell was. Yeast fermentation is quite sweet and nice in comparison. Sourdough to me smells a bit like white glue, with some vinegar notes. Or, appropriately enough, "sour". Not like beer at all.

I make primarily rye sourdough, and there is a sort of rise and fall process that occurs as you describe. I add flour to my starer and then in 8-12 hours, i will start to see larger bubbles forming in the dough. If I wait another 24 hours or longer, the starter will start to lose the bubbles and go flat. So, if I see it going flat (it's in a tupperware container on the fridge) I just add a bit more rye flour and give it a stir.

When I want to bake a loaf, I take 4/5 of the starter from it's little tupperware home, and put it in a bowl. I add flour to replenish the starter and as much to bowl to make a loaf. I add more water to make quite a sticky gooey mess, and put it in a plastic bag. In 6-12 hours, the bubbles have started to form. I add some flour around the edge of the bowl, and then using a butter knife work the dough away from the side of the bowl. This means i end up with a ball of wet dough that doesn't stick to my bowl.

I bake the bread like i do with other no-knead receipes (in a pot with a lid). A bit of caraway on the top (or mixed into the dough) complements the sourness wonderfully.
posted by kamelhoecker at 8:10 AM on February 29, 2008

Best answer: Yes, it's supposed to do that. And as others have pointed out, you don't really need to use commercial yeast to get a sourdough started - just plain flour and water. I've been maintaining a starter for about 3 months now, and since I only bake on the weekends, I take the shrinkage to be a sign that the jar of sourdough needs to be popped into the fridge. Today, when I mix some more no-knead bread, I'll feed the jar, leave it out overnight and put it back in the fridge tomorrow. Works really well for me too.

And welcome to the world of sourdough baking.

Also: try doing up a batch of sourdough pancakes sometime. Yum.
posted by Arthur Dent at 1:11 PM on February 29, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the links, recipes and reassurances that my starter isn't dead! I've fed it using a 1:1:1 mix and it's growing again, yay!

Shall read more about sour doughs, sponges and starters and ignore the rest of the advice in the book I used initially. It told me to use the sour dough within 2-5 days and throw it away after a fortnight.
posted by esilenna at 5:41 AM on March 1, 2008

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