13 June 2012

Respect the Yeast (and the Shiraz)!

Sourdough starter is often referred to as a live being, needing to be fed like a pet.  I remember reading Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential where he kept talking about "feeding the beast", with the lives of the kitchen staff revolving around not killing the starter.

So when I started my starter I made sure I fed it every day, then because I only needed to make bread every two or three days, I slipped a few times with the feeding, then resorted to keeping it in the fridge so it needed feeding less frequently.  And the results started to reflect my lack of rigour with it.  It felt like each loaf I made was a bit denser than the last.  It seemed to work better if kept at room temperature, so I took it out of the fridge again and tried to remember to feed it.  But after I spent a week with a bad cold, kneading dough for others to eat while coughing over it didn't seem like a very polite thing to do, so it sat there for a few days, and got a bit neglected.  Once I was feeling better I opened the lid of the container and was hit by a pungent smell like acetone - certainly strong enough to clear my stuffed up nose!  I hadn't read anything about what the telltale signs are of starter going bad, but I instantly knew this was one of them.  

In fact I had smelled that smell once before, when M and I had a tragic mishap in the winery.  We were given a small block of shiraz to play with, as a bad frost had wiped out most of the fruit and there wasn't enough left to make it worth picking such a small parcel.  So we gladly took it on as an  opportunity to practice winemaking and to get a barrel's worth of hopefully drinkable (if our winemaking skills made the grade) Yarra Valley shiraz.  We hand picked the grapes, used a basket press to crush them, carefully double checked everything and ended up with a full barrel, plus a bit extra in a stainless steel keg that would be used to top up the barrel as it evaporated slightly.  All good.  Then came time a couple of months later to top up the barrel from the keg.  For some reason, just for a split second, we lost concentration, and instead of checking the wine in the keg first, we just poured it in.  We'd poured about half of it when I suddenly got a waft of acetone - the very same smell I got with the sourdough.  Instantly we knew we'd just screwed up badly!  The keg had become contaminated and we'd just poured it into 300 litres of premium shiraz!!!  We kept going with the wine for a few days, but it soon became obvious that the contamination had spread to the barrel.  It was heartbreaking as the shiraz was poured down the drain, completely ruined...

Anyway, the morals of the story are to never lose concentration when dealing with precious things; and that my sourdough starter really is like a pet, it needs love and respect and regular food.  Luckily I had put half of the starter in the freezer when I first made it, so I was able to thaw that out and get it going again, and have been feeding it daily and talking lovingly to it since.  So far it seems to be working...!  


  1. I would love to make sourdough bread... especially with so many bloggers doing it right now. But you have convinced me that I am just not ready. ;-)

    1. Oh I didn't mean to put people off doing it, even with the attention required it's a fantastic thing to do and eating freshly baked bread is amazing!

      (Although given everything that you've been up to lately I can well understand that looking after another "pet" might just be more than you need - and your bread might taste smokier than really desirable at the moment too!)

  2. I often let my sourdough starter slip a bit, as there are only so many hours in a day! Sometimes I even find that frozen starter can be a bit sluggish at first, and now I would only pull it out if my main starter was truly DOA. If my starter has gone too far in the wrong direction, and needs to be revitalized, now I just do a feeding with a coarse grind dark rye flour. I leave it on the counter, stir it two or three times on day one, then re-feed the next day with my standard high gluten flour. I maintain feeding, and aerating, for 3-5 days (after a few days you can't tell the Rye was ever there). Usually by then, the starter is back up and running, and raring to go, at which point I keep it in the fridge. So far, I've managed not to really kill this starter for almost five years :) The challenge is finding new ways to use the extra starter!

  3. I'm pretty sure my starter was completely DOA! Thanks for the tip on using dark rye to get it going again when it gets sluggish. It has been like that once or twice, so I'll try that next time. When you're taking it from the fridge do you use it straight away cold or leave it out for a bit to come to room temperature first?