Revisiting the Manifesto, and Recalcitrant Sourdough Starter

As my older readers know, not every blog post that I write is about a triumphantly successful recipe where nothing goes wrong.  I am not one of those bloggers whose every post is about something totally perfect, and whose every dish is styled and photographed in seeming bright daylight even if it’s supposedly for dinner (my evening photos are often done with a flash because in these latitudes, half the year dinner happens in pitch darkness and normal room lighting is sorely inadequate for magazine-perfect photographs).  And no, I am not apologizing for this, either.  So I suppose, to expand on my original manifesto, not only is all butter on this blog real, but so are all the photos – all the pictures you see here are taken during the cooking or prior to eating of the dishes spoken about.  No margarine or staged photos here.

But, back to not everything always being perfect: several days ago I have decided to try reactivating my sourdough starter which has spent a year dehydrated in flake form in a bag in the refrigerator.  It’s the same starter I have used to bake any number of gorgeous sourdough breads you can see on this blog, and it was friendly and dependable when it lived in my Stockholm fridge.  I’d dried some of my old and reliable starter before the move, and brought it over with me, but for the past 11 months I haven’t felt like bothering with sourdough baking, because we were busy settling in, and then it was spring, and then summer, and we were away, and then it was way too hot to bake or even cook for weeks.

Finally, the weather has cooled, and I pulled the bag out of the fridge, hoping to have a happily bubbling culture soon enough – only to have the starter sit there and sulk, despite smelling good and tasting mildly sour when I cautiously poked it with a finger.  There were a few bubbles breaking the surface, so I don’t think the culture is entirely dead.  From what I can tell, it’s simply being cranky and acting annoyed at me for neglecting it for a whole year.  No, I am not (entirely) anthropomorphising – the sourdough starter is a living symbiotic community of organisms (yeasts and usually a few strains of bacteria), and it can be weak or unhappy with its environment.  It might not express its unhappiness by pooping on the rug or clawing the furniture, but it is no less alive for that.

What to do when a sourdough starter is being cranky?  My immediate solutions have been to buy it some yogurt, pineapple juice and rye flour – yogurt water (not yogurt itself but the whey that collects in the bucket) is a good source of happily live Lactobacillus (and the brand of yogurt I bought is the exact same one I used when I started the starter originally, so same strain), pineapple juice is a good way to gently lower the pH of solution to help microorganisms that prefer low pH to break dormancy, and rye flour is just something that my starter culture simply adored eating (in about 1:5 parts to white wheat flour) when it was active, so I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I’ve given it all those a couple of days ago, which appears to have improved the situation (the few bubbles appeared and the lowering of pH is hopeful), and will continue to feed it on standard (1-2 feedings/24 hours) schedule for another couple of days to see if anything happens.  Supposedly (I haven’t reactivated a dried starter before this, so I have no personal experience here), it can take 5-8 days to reactivate a dehydrated culture since the microorganisms need to break dormancy and multiply before I will see any activity.  If I don’t see any within the next week, I may start a new culture using one or two different methods.  Although, it may be noted, that I might as well continue the feeding schedule of the currently difficult culture since it doesn’t appear to be contaminated with anything bad, and starting an entirely new one may just set the development back by a week or two, because my most tried-and-true sourdough starting method is simply to start daily feedings and continue as I have been until a culture is created.

This does bring up a question regarding starter cultures – at what point does a culture containing my ‘old’ sourdough dehydrate can be counted as reactivated ‘old’ culture vs. being an entirely new culture which has taken root due to the sourdough-friendly feeding schedule?  Thoughts?

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