Dough Quandaries: Sulphurous Sourdough

A recent sourdough crisis has prompted this latest post in what is to be a series involving ‘dough quandaries‘! I decided to build a new starter around a week ago, as the Yeasty Thing has been lying dormant in the fridge for far too long and I think it may have had its day! As described in an earlier post (linked above), the Yeasty Thing was built using Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s method – a straightforward flour and water concoction which is fermented, to begin with over a week, to attract and promote the growth of wild yeasties. This starter is fairly wet and, at first, I kept it bubbling away on the work surface (in a container, obviously!) feeding it a couple of times a day. But starters which contain a high proportion of liquid often rise and fall more quickly than more dense starters and the Yeasty Thing’s feeding schedule began to get out of hand – so she was banished to the fridge to slow down a bit!

My latest foray into sourdough was on the instruction of Peter Reinhart in ‘Artisan Breads Every Day’. His ‘mother starter’ is built in two stages. The first of which requires building up the ferment in four ‘phases’ over 7 (or so) days. He suggests using pineapple juice in the first stage, the acidity of which discourages the  growth of certain bacterias (including leuconostoc), which can overrun the yeast. Bacteria is present in all starters. It is the interaction between the yeast and bacteria cells which creates a successful culture that will raise dough.

I followed Peter’s guidelines to the letter, using pineapple juice in the first stage, and my starter behaved as it should; producing all the delightful aromas he mentions all the way into the second stage, when I formed a denser, more flour-heavy ‘mother starter’. Reinhart prescribes refrigeration after the mother starter becomes active, and this is what I did. I was pleased that I potentially wouldn’t have to replenish my starter for 5 days once it was in the fridge – a boon to any busy working mum!

So it was all good – my starter was safely nestled in the fridge, sedately swelling away between the milk and the orange juice. I quickly felt a sourdough loaf coming on and raided a portion of my new born starter to get baking. Reinhart’s book is sadly lacking in the sourdough loaf department – there are only a few recipes which call for a starter, so I referred back to Old Faithful, Whittingstal’s recipe for a basic sourdough loaf in ‘River Cottage: Everyday’. It calls for the starter to be fermented overnight with some flour and water, which is then mixed with more flour, water and salt to make the dough. Everything was going well, until I lifted the lid on the pre-ferment and reeled back in disgust at the sulphurous, eggy pong emanating therefrom!

I hit the blogs and the Fresh Loaf came up trumps with multiple articles about sourdough smelling like rotten eggs – all describing a similar situation in which gases from the dough itself omit this unpleasant odour. Meanwhile, the starter itself still smelt perfectly normal – acidic, almost winy. Even having discovered that this was unusual, and potentially due to an overgrowth in bacteria, I went ahead and baked the dough. It resulted in a pretty good sourdough loaf with a great tangy flavour.

This is the loaf that resulted from my stinky starter!

This is the loaf that resulted from my stinky starter!

My curiosity was still unsatiated and I was almost certain the eggy pong would return, should I attempt another batch of dough using the starter. So I have been searching the web ever since and have found out lots more about sourdough in the process. One interesting point to make is that in some countries, bread raised by bacteria is popular. Yeast is actually inhibited to promote the growth of natural bugs, which respire producing the gas that raises the dough (see this article about ‘Salt-rising bread‘). Maybe this is what I had produced!

Sure enough, I tried another batch of dough using my new starter and, sadly, it gave off a sulphurous whiff even more pungent than the first lot. During my online research into this, I came across lots of people who swore that one Debra Wink would be able to help. I was surprised to find that the ‘solution’ she was proposing, backed by extensive research, was to replenish your stinky starter with pineapple juice! (see ‘The Pineapple Juice Solution‘) I was back where I’d started! Maybe the bacteria which developed in my dough was different to that which Debra is trying to stave off? Or maybe it is the same, but managed to take hold once I began feeding my mother starter with spring water? Who knows? Either way, something doesn’t add up! In desperation to salvage my starter, I have started feeding it again using pineapple juice rather than water. I will keep you updated on its progress over the coming weeks.

I would really appreciate the input of anyone who can shed light on the mystery of my sulphurous sourdough starter! Happy experimenting everyone! 🙂

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