Are you ignoring or neglecting your sourdough starter? Beware! This is what happened to me.
Story of a Rogue Starter
(Originally published on my old blog. I learned this lesson quickly, it hasn’t been repeated!)
I admit, I’ve been a bit lackadaisical with my sourdough starter this winter. My kitchen is pretty cool, temperature-wise. It seldom gets above 65 degrees during the day and at night is even cooler. So, my sourdough starter has happily been sitting on the counter all winter. I feed it once or twice a week, and make one or two loaves of bread each week, but basically, I ignore it. The good news, for those of you who stress about feeding your starter on a precise schedule, is that once established a starter can take an inordinate amount of neglect. The bad news…. well, eventually that neglect will catch up with you.
Springtime and Sourdough
Last week we had a whole string of beautiful, warmer, spring days and nights. It wasn’t that much warmer, but apparently warm enough to coax the crocus into bloom and convince the neighborhood kids to dig out their baseball gloves. And warm enough to have a very noticeable effect on my sourdough starter.
What is that Smell?
Late one afternoon I came bounding down the stairs from my upstairs office and was immediately hit with an aroma. No, not like a pleasant aromatherapy-type of aroma. A smelly, odoriferous-type of aroma. I emptied the garbage. Still smelly. Rinsed off the breakfast dishes that were in the sink. Still smelly. Scrubbed the sinks with Comet until they were nice and shiny. Still smelly. Was running out of things to clean when I spied the container of sourdough starter.
I had been sick earlier in the week and missed making a loaf of bread, so the starter hadn’t received any attention for a while. Believe me, it was demanding attention now! I removed the cover and was greeted with the source of the aforementioned aroma.
If your son is the kind of kid who only brings his gym bag home once in a blue moon, and then frantically tells you at 10pm that he needs clean socks for the next day, and he is all out of socks – “they must all be in his gym bag” – and you open the bag only to be knocked back 3 feet, then you are familiar with this particular type of odor. The rest of you can just count your blessings to have missed out on this particular experience.
Is Something Dead?
The starter itself was obviously ripe, but not very active. The sides of the container though were covered with a thick layer of moldy, discolored, leftover starter. As you can see from the above photo, when I pour starter out of the container, some of it sticks to the sides. This was the problem. I was tempted to throw the whole thing out.
I didn’t want to start a new starter – this one is old enough to have developed just the right amount of sourness that I love. But I obviously wasn’t too keen on incorporating mold into my next loaf of bread, and I really didn’t think it was a useful mold, like penicillin.
Time for a Revival
I carefully scooped out the starter, avoiding the mold, placed it into a new, clean container and fed it. The old container got a thorough rinsing that did nothing to decrease the odor. My kitchen still smelled like the city of lost socks. The hardened mold was impervious to a butter knife. It took a good long soak in soapy water before I could clean it out enough to run it through the dishwasher. And a couple hours of an open window to fully air out the kitchen.
Needless to say, the starter now spends most of its life in the refrigerator. But warmer days means one morning I may find my starter has been neglected to death. Later this week I will show you how to breathe new life into a seemingly dead starter. In the meantime, I think it’s time to make a loaf of bread. What are you baking this week?