A day of feeding, preparing for tomorrow's baking, and a cautionary tale
Sourdough Scones: The Day Four baking project. (That's tomorrow!)
Hi bootcampers! Today is the day we’ll “feed” our nascent starters with more flour and water. In so doing, we’re giving the microorganisms in our starter, the bacteria and the yeast, more food to be processing.
Whether using weights or volume measures, simply add the same amount of flour and water that you started with on Day One, with perhaps a bit more water.*
80 g flour (about ½ cup)
80 to 100g warm water (1/3 cup, or 1/3 cup plus 2 Tbsp)
*You’ll see that I’ve suggested a range in the amount of water. The reasons are twofold: one, because people have been sending me photos of their starters and they’re looking a little stiff. Two, this, from Modernist Cuisine:
"The more liquid the starter, the more acidic it will be."
At this stage, we want to encourage acidity; the lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli helps to create a hostile environment for “bad” bacteria.
My suggestion is, when feeding today, go with the greater amount of water.
Stir flour and water into the starter, cover and return the starter to the same warm spot.
Tomorrow we’re going to begin removing some of the starter and replacing it with more flour and water. And we’re also going to bake something with the starter we’ve removed, as we will every day from here until the end of bootcamp.
To that end, here’s a list of some of the groceries and supplies you might want to order in or pick up at the grocery store, to be ready for the next few days.
On Day Four we’ll be making berry or fruit scones so I’ve *asterisked the ingredients you’ll need first.
Yeast, if you can find it; preferably not the instant kind
Flour (of course!)
Semolina flour (optional)
Instant milk powder
Anise or fennel seeds
Yogurt or buttermilk (or the non-dairy yogurt or milk of your choice)*
Butter (or the vegan margarine of your choice)*
Nuts—walnuts, hazelnuts or cashews—about 500 g
Figs or dates, about 500g
Frozen or fresh berries—raspberries, blueberries, low bush cranberries, commercial cranberries—about 500 mL
Fresh apples or pears—2 or 3
Gorgonzola or Stilton cheese—about 225 g
Strong cheddar and/or Parmesan—225 g
Green onions (optional)
Now, the Cautionary Tale
When I checked my starter this morning it was very bubbly and had a distinctly cheesy smell. This cheesy smell has never occurred in all my years of working with sourdough. Most alarmingly, there were crusty yellowish bubbles on the surface, again, something I’d never seen before.
I removed the bubbles and composted them, and with fingers crossed, added more flour and water to the cheesy starter.
But just to be safe, I began a new starter, as on Day One.
And then tried to figure out what had gone wrong, if indeed anything had gone wrong, consulting all the websites I know and trust, and then some.
Here’s what I learned:
In the early days of building a starter, there can be a “cheesy” smell; that smell is butyric acid, a byproduct of lactobacillii. Over time, the cheesy smell should change and the aroma become the more familiar (to me) alcoholic and eventually the tangy, sour, smells of a mature starter.
Here are some other smells you can expect, from a trusty source:
“Notes on smells. Different starters smell different, depending on the type and quality of flour that you are feeding it. Normal smells range anywhere from alcohol, vinegar, dirty socks, overripe fruit, beer, and sometimes even nail polish if it needs fed. It can be pungent and strong, it can burn your nose, and it can stink. But it should never smell like rotten cheese or moldy meat.”
The takeaway: If your starter smells like rotten cheese or moldy meat, chuck it and start again.
In these early days, the bacteria are battling it out. In a healthy starter, the lactobacilli win, producing the acidic atmosphere (both lactic and acetic acid) that other bacteria don’t like.
In my cheesy-smelling starter, which I’ve just fed, I’m hoping that the lactobacili will multiply and re-establish the right acid environment.
But that crusty yellow bubble business is worrying. A site I love, King Arthur Flour, posts a picture on its sourdough troubleshooting page that looks a lot like mine.
It could be that my starter was somehow contaminated. Even though I was scrupulously careful. This underlines the importance of keeping your work surface, utensils and hands squeaky clean. Once a starter is well-established it is much more robust, but at this early stage the starter is more vulnerable to contamination.
So I’m keeping a close eye. If the smell becomes one of rotten cheese rather than just Parmesan, and if those yellow bubbles reappear, I’m chucking it.
I'll let you know tomorrow. Hopefully all will be well, but if not I'll err on the side of safety.
The Roller Coaster Ride
Let me take a moment to say what happened today, the cheesy smell, did induce a panicky feeling. WHAT WENT WRONG?!
I remember this panic from the early days of building my first starter in 2009. It can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster. If you find yourself on that wild ride, send me a note and I’ll do my best to help. And, if you’re doing this with a friend, that’s terrific. A sourdough buddy to share your ups and downs is a big help.
It’s also really helpful to have a few trusted sourdough sites. Here are some of my favourites:
Feed your starter, get your groceries in, and prepare to bake scones tomorrow. Don't worry. Be happy.