The Day the Starter Died

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

Oh My God! I've killed the starter!

It smells dead. It smells worse than dead. It smells positively rank, has weird veins all through it.

Maybe it's not dead, maybe it's very, very sick. Close to death, though. Definitely not well, anyway.

I looked up all my manuals (a couple of obscure things translated from German and one Aussie coffee table bread recipe book), and got on the phone to my one experienced sourdough baker buddy in Melbourne, who scratched his head and said 'dunno'...

Finally I got a hold of my only fleeting contact at the Bread Research Institute in Sydney, who drew much breath (possibly because he was sucking on a cigarette at the time) and told me 'Mate, sounds like Rope.'

I had never heard of 'Rope'. Except of course for using to hang oneself at times like these...

It was 1997. I was an 'expert', according to the Sydney Morning Herald, whose various food reporters rang me on a regular basis to discuss the virtues of Sourdough Bread, Organic Flour, Sourdough Bakeries (other than mine) and the like - as if I knew All and Everyone. I guess I was in their contact list at the time (which might well have consisted of myself and none others). Anyway, my ego managed to rise to the occasion each time, and I was able to talk at great length to them about stuff I knew very little about. They never seemed to ask me questions about stuff I knew about - but that's another story.

And I was completely stumped right now. Highly unlikely to ring the Herald to tell them the news that my sourdough starter was gravely ill, possibly with 'Rope', and I knew bugger all about how to fix it.

So I looked up 'Rope' in my Bread Research Institute textbook, 'Breadmaking in Australia'. Bear in mind that the internet in 1997 was more of a possibility than an everyday reality, and Google didn't exist yet. In the well thumbed pages of the BRI textbook, I found 'Rope' was the most deeply heinous bakery sin known to human kind, brought about due to poor bakery hygiene and wanton use of everything I rejected, including yeast.

Indeed, had I not recently invested in a brand new stainless steel 'specialist' fermenting bowl, complete with temperature control, which I believed was capable of turning out one hundred kilos a day of perfect sourdough starter?

Well, that was the vision - actually, it had been used in organic cosmetic manufacture, and I was really just punting that it would suit my purposes. But more on that later...

It didn't make sense. And the 'cure' involved throwing out my fifteen year old authentic sourdough starter, disinfecting the entire bakery, sandblasting the bread tins, trays, baking sheets; boiling all utensils, spraying with boiling water the moulding machines; scrubbing down the mixers, the ovens, and basically everything that bread would come into contact with.

I need to mention that the bakery, at this stage in its evolution, was large enough to process about 4 tonnes of flour a day - we had some 400 bread tins, another hundred baguette trays, possibly 200 baking sheets, 3 mixers, two huge ovens, and some moulding machines. This 'cure' was shaping up to be no small task.

I called in all the bakers. I hired a sand blaster. I got everyone who wasn't working in the bakery shop up the road in Leura to stop by with something to scrub with. We set to work.

A day and a half later, the whole bakery and every utensil, machine, rack, wall, fixture and fitting had been scrubbed, blasted, disinfected, sprayed, and boiled to within an inch of its life. I had kept a cup of sourdough culture to rebuild a new batch. And I had to rebuild it fast, because, like all worthy disasters, this one happened on the preparation day before our biggest day in this bakery's four year history.

After working like trojans to clean everything in the bakery, everyone eventually just collapsed from exhaustion and went home. I had one cup of starter to turn into 100 kilos in approximately twelve hours. I had two tonnes of flour to turn into bread, which translated to just over $5000 worth of orders to make by the following morning. And today had cost me about that much already. If I didn't fill the orders, I would be trying to fend off about ten grand worth of bills.

So I was fighting for economic survival, as well as for the survival of my teenage starter.

I had to devise a plan to grow a lot of sourdough starter very quickly. Luckily, the small amount I had retained was very ripe, and didn't look unhealthy at all (strange...). I also had about a bucket's worth of frozen starter from some time ago, for just such an occasion. And one of my 'occasional' bakers had a small amount of John Downe's sourdough starter he had been keeping at home for his own experiments. And that was about it.

Science was never my strong suit at school. Neither was maths. But it's strange how we learn stuff anyway, and somehow retain it till it is needed.

In science, I remembered that method was critical in experimentation. Only change one thing at a time in an experiment, otherwise you won't know which of the things you changed actually might have had an effect. The reverse was also true - by changing one thing, you change everything. Luckily, prior to this I had only changed one thing. I had changed from using plastic tubs to store my starter in, to stainless steel. So It was time to return to plastic tubs. I remembered the science teacher at school: 'eliminate the variables...'

In maths, I learned about 2 cubed. 2 x 2 x 2 = 8. Then, 2 X 2 X 2 x 2 = 16. Then, 2 X 2 X 2 X 2 X 2 = 32.  So in only two stages, we have gone from 8 to 32. If I was to turn one cup into one hundred kilos of sourdough starter in one day, I needed to use this basic mathematical principle. I knew that starter was a living thing, and so it reproduced by multiplication on a cellular level. This might work!

I put my cup of starter in a small plastic tub. I added half a cup of warm water and the same of flour. Then I mixed it up, and placed it in the proofer ( the 'proofer' in a bakery is a warm, moist box used to cause dough to rise quickly. It's set at about 28 degress celsius, and really is a baker's friend).

Meanwhile, I drove home and retrieved my bucket of frozen sourdough starter. I asked my occasional baker to bring in some of his John Downes starter too. I put them both in the proofer to thaw.

An hour later, I fed my two cup starter with a cup of water and another cup of flour, put it back in the proofer, and waited. By now, the starter was beginning to bubble, so I knew there was activity.

Another hour later, the two extra starters were ready to add in, which I did, and waited half an hour. I added two cups more of warm water and the same of flour.

Another hour, and it was quite active - more than last time. So I added about a kilo of flour and the same of warm water. Another hour in warm, wet conditions. And, Eureka! Very active starter to feed with two kilos of flour and two lites of water.

By now, I had about eight kilos of active, fermenting starter. I doubled its size two hours later, adding 4 kilos of flour and the same amount of warm water - so I had about 16 kilos ready. Still eighty four kilos to go. Next feed in two hours, with eight kilos of flour and eight litres of warm water. Thus, I had 32 kilos of starter in eight hours.

I didn't think I going to make it, but I did have 32 kilos of ripe starter in eight hours. From one cup, just eight hours earlier!

At this point, I needed to begin doughmaking for the next day. I sent off a few kilos of the starter to be mixed into sourdough. The dough looked okay, but I wouldn't know until some time later.

It was early evening. The starter looked active, but I was rushing it along. As anyone would know who has had anything at all to do with sourdough breadmaking, starter won't be hurried. I knew this, but paying the bills was at the front of my mind, so I pressed on regardless. I checked my dough about an hour after making it - it seemed to be working, but very slowly. My confidence began to wane.

Two hours after the last feed, I fed the starter again, only with about 8 kilos of flour again, not doubling it as I had been doing up till now. This still gave me a total of about 45 kilos, so I was almost half way there. I kept the mixture in the proofer to keep the temperature up, all the while maintaining a core temperature of about 28 degrees celsius.

I checked my dough made earlier in the evening. Virtually no progress. This was going to be a long night, I could tell.

I decided to make some 'semi leaven' doughs, which are mild sourdoughs made with a little yeast added in the mixer. They are wonderful, reasonably light breads, which will find their way in the form of recipes into this site over time. These doughs were more promising, as they began to rise immediately, and would give the bakers something to work with in the morning when they arrived, just in case the rapidly made starter was not yet active enough to use. My sourdough, made earlier, was doing very little after three hours, so I didn't hold much hope for it.

All night, I continued to ride the starter, feeding it as soon as it became active with a little more flour and water. At about midnight I made one more sourdough dough to be used the following day, and fed the starter for the last time. I had managed to get 100 kilos of ripe starter ready from just one cup in one day! While it wasn't perfectly ripe, it would now rest overnight and had a good chance of being ready for the bakers who would begin their day in only a few hours' time.

Meanwhile, the dough I made early on had finally begun to rise. By the time the bakers got in, it might well be useable. I cut and moulded the semi leavens, ready to be baked in the morning too.

I decided to call it a day, exhausted. I had the sourdough starter back, but whether it would actually produce decent bread remained a burning question. I wrote lots of notes to the morning bakers, with mad jottings of 'Plan A' and 'Plan B' scenarios. I really had no idea, but I hoped my tired ramblings might make some sense.

They didn't. Most of the bread produced that day was unsaleable. The semi leavens worked, but they were not great. A mixed batch of sourdoughs emerged - some were OK, some went straight in the bin. Some were held back and baked the following day. Not quite a disaster, and we were still in business. But this had been an enormous learning curve.

And the final analysis?

It's quite likely that my bakery never had 'rope'. If it did, damaged flour from the mill would have been the likely culprit, though contamination from the sourdough process could also have contributed. Bits of old dough finding their way into the ferment could have caused the problem too, though most likely the sourdough starter was simply too acidic.

Many years later, I learned that ferments used in sourdough production do not like stainless steel at all! It's virtually one of the unwritten rules of making sourdough bread. The 'Rope' diagnosis was a worst case scenario brought about by panic and ignorance. Had I been able to access more information (for example, the internet), and had there been more knowledge about sourdough bread freely available at that time, I would have been able to more accurately identify the problem. Certainly, 'Rope' was a disease not uncommon in bakeries, and it is possible that this was the cause. However, once the ferment was handled using only plastic containers, and fed more often, the problem simply disappeared.

So, for the benefit of those who have read this far:

  • Sourdough starter reproduces rapidly if all the ingredients are held at 28 degrees celsius.

  • Higher temperatures than 28 degrees celsius are detrimental to the growth of sourdough starter

  • Sourdough starter is a living thing, and as such can reproduce rapidly if one understands how it reproduces

  • Sourdough starter hates stainless steel

  • Stainless steel is invented to restrict fermentation and bacterialogical activity, and if you want something to ferment, it's probably not the right thing to house it in. Plastic or porcelain containers are ideal.

  • Be careful of old, dried dough finding its way into your starter - it can cause an acid / alkali imbalance, and may have lodged in it particles of unwanted bacterium.

  • If flour used is damaged, it can cause problems. This is especially true if the flour has gotten wet or is stone milled.

  • Clean bread tins and dough containers regularly. The easiest way is to let the dough dry, and scrape it out thoroughly when it has dried using a plastic or metal scraper. Moist dough is really hard to deal with - dry it out first! If you feel the need to wash things, do this after the dough has been scraped out, and use really hot water. Don't use detergent - it will be counterproductive, because it has a long residue, which kills everything including helpful bacteria and yeast.

So that's the story of the rise and fall and rise of a sourdough starter. I commend you on your perseverance!

If you want more of these stories, let me know! I have fifteen years of bakery history and yarns to tell. Some of them are suitable for these pages, but many of them are not. They may well find their way into words one day. Your feedback will help me decide if I want to commit to the 'truth or consequence' process some more...

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