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! 🙂

Advertisements

The Yeasty Thing

Let me introduce you to…The Yeasty Thing…

The latest sourdough starter to come out of Charlton!

The latest sourdough starter to come out of Charlton!

Yes baking fans, you guessed it, this is my latest sourdough starter, bubbling away vigorously in its garish Sainsbury’s picnic jug!

The thing I love about making a sourdough starter is the fact that every single one is unique. The bread I bake from this one will be different from the bloke’s down the road, from those I’ve made from other starters, even from the loaf I baked from it yesterday! The character of a starter is down to the airborne yeast spores that happened to be merrily floating by on the day I started it, coupled with how long it’s been fermenting away – and I love that about it!

While preparing my starter and growing it ready for the first bake, I like to pretend that I am a scientist, working methodically and observing closely as I go. However, the reality of growing a starter are not quite as precise. All it takes is a bit of strong white flour (this must be organic, I’m told, otherwise the yeasties will steer clear!); roughly 100g, and some warm water. Mix this to a thick paste (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, henceforth HFW for obvious reasons, suggests it should resemble the consistency of ‘thick paint’) and leave in an airtight-ish container (like my trusty picnic jug) until you see little bubbles forming on the surface. This seems to happen for me in a matter of hours, but apparently it can take up to 3 days! So some patience may be required!

I have read some instructions for building sourdough starters, which prescribe adding all manner of grated fruit to this simple flour and water mix in order to encourage the yeast to settle and grow. I have never tried this and see it as totally unnecessary; especially since you are often advised to remove said fruit once the yeast has got going – err, no thanks!

Whisk the flour and water together, to create lots of aeration, and wait for the magic to happen! When the bubbles appear, it’s time to feed your new pet. Actually, this is why mine is now known, in our household, as ‘The Yeasty Thing’; because my two year-old likes to sniff it each morning and watch me ‘feeding it’ as if it’s a new addition to the family! I rather like this way of thinking about it, and it is conducive to me remembering to feed it every day rather than leaving it languish and turn into, well, a floury bloody mess!

Yes, that is everyday – as in, every 24 hours you must feed your starter another 100g of organic strong white flour and mix in enough water (it can be cool water straight from the tap from hereon in) so as to bring it back to that thick paint consistency. You will start to see your starter bubbling up with delight each time you feed it and then over night it will begin to fall back frothily in anticipation of its next meal.

Once you have lovingly repeated this routine for at least 7 days you’re ready to bake!

Look out for future posts with more juicy sourdough deets!