The Ugly Tale Of The Long Forgotten Sour Dough Starter

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1. It's easy to revive a starter that has been well cared for. You know what they say about an ounce of prevention. However, sooner or later, you'll find a jar of starter that you forgot but time did not. And you really want to revive the starter. Can it be done? Usually, the answer is yes.

But there are some caveats here. Dr. Ed Wood, who knows more about starters than just about anyone alive, has said he's never had a starter he couldn't revive. It must help to have medical training. However, other people point out that it's not always clear if the starter your revived is the one you started with. Kinda like Pet Semetary, you can wind up with a starter that's similar to what you had, but not quite the same. And there are a few conditions that make your starter not worth the trouble of trying to revive it. So, let's look at the science experiment you are pretending used to be a sourdough starter and see what we can do with it.

2. An Important Note - I get a fair number of emails asking if I think a starter that's been stored like this, or forgotten SO long can be revived. I really can't predict if your starter can be revived. Was it healthy before it was ignored? Was it already damaged? In the end, the starter will tell you by reviving or not reviving. I answer ALL my email. However, I don't answer it as quickly as I - or you - would like. However, I am sure that if you wait a week for my email before you start trying to revive your starter, your odds just went down. When it doubt, try to revive it! It's a little flour and water and a little time. It's worth the risk, so just do it!
3. The first goal is to get a good sample of the old starter. How we do that depends on the condition of the starter. If there is a layer of liquid on top of the starter, pour it off. It is called hooch - old miners used to drink it when they were desperate for a drink. Yes, it has low-grade alcohol in it.

Was there mold on the hooch? Is there mold on the top of the starter? If not, smile and skip to the next paragraph. If there is, go to the silverware drawer and get a handful of spoons. Mold is normally a surface condition, so we'll try to get some good starter from lower levels of your starter jar. Start by scraping off the mold, being very careful not to stir the starter - you'll only stir the mold into the starter. When you think it's all gone, get a clean spoon and scrape a bit more starter off the top. Now go on to the next paragraph....

4. Chances are good that the top of your starter has discolored, having turned gray from exposure to air. You'll want to use a clean spoon to remove the darker layer, revealing a lighter colored layer beneath. If you just removed the mold, chances are good you don't need to worry about the discolored surface layer - it was scraped away with the mold.

At this point, you should have a light colored layer of starter exposed, free of hooch and mold. Use a clean teaspoon to transfer some of the starter to a clean bowl. Reseal the jar of starter you are trying to revive and put it back into the refrigerator - sometimes the first attempt at revival doesn't work, and you'll need to go back to that starter.

5. Now add 1/4 cup of water and stir the starter very vigorously. Add 1/2 cup (that was sifted and spooned into the 1/2 cup measure) of unbleached, unbromated white flour and stir again. This is very important, even if you are a whole grain enthusiast. Whole grain flours have many organisms on them that would compete with the organisms in the starter you are trying to revive. We want to give your starter the best chance of reviving. Whole grains are great for starting a starter, but not for reviving one. Now, start the usual maintenance feedings. Twelve hours later, another 1/4 cup of water and 1/2 cup of flour.
6. Now the volume of starter is where you want it, so every 12 hours pitch half the starter and feed the remaining starter another 1/4 cup of water and 1/2 cup of flour. While I appreciate thrift, frugality and the desire to save starter, I would actually discard the starter at this point. You don't know what critters are working in your starter, and until it is stable again I'd treat it with caution.

Your starter should take off in 2 to 3 days. If it is slow, or if it isn't responding, switch to three feedings a day, with each feeding being enough to triple the size of the starter. Do that by discarding 2/3 of the starter and adding 1/2 cup of water and 1 1/2 cups of unbleached unbromated white flour. If the starter doesn't start working well in another 2 days of this process, it's time to pitch this starter and go back to the storage starter in the fridge.

7. There is one condition that seems to be irreversible. Sometimes you mix up a dough with your starter and the dough quickly gets very soft, it turns into a liquid. And the starter has a strong smell of acetone, or cheap fingernail polish remover. If this has happened, bacteria that can eat the protein in your starter have taken it over. Normally starch-eating bacteria are in your starter. If you don't feed it often enough, the protein-eating bacteria can take over.

Do you remember back in the Starting A Starter page when I talked about how a starter was like a weed patch that you were cultivating? At this point, one of the weeds has again taken over. And it is a very hard weed to eradicate. I know of two people who were able to beat back the protein-eating bacteria and have their old starter back. However, the other guy and I both found that the next time we skipped a starter feeding the bad bacteria took over again. The starter was undependable and unstable. Pouring it down the drain and starting over was the only real answer.

8. After an aggressive feeding campaign to get a starter back alive you may find that the starter just doesn't have the taste it used to. Usually that is because the yeast is dominant in your starter. Rapid feedings seem to favor the yeast. Feeding the starter part whole wheat or rye flour will help restore the balance. About 5% whole wheat and 95% white for a few feedings seems to take care of this in a few feedings. If you are measuring by volume, put a tablespoon of whole wheat or rye flour in each measuring cup, then fill them with white flour. The starter should return to normal in short order.

Once you think your starter is doing well, make some bread with it. If the bread is OK, then your starter is probably OK, so you can pitch the rest of the stored starter and save your recovered starter in the fridge.

An ounce of prevention is worth several pounds of flour.... so I hope you never have to use the ugly forgotten starter recovery notes!


Tina Hyde

Member since Jun 2008

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