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wild yeast sourdough starter

Trying to make a wild yeast starter with spring water & organic rye flour. Day 2 & 3 smelled like sugarcane rotting in the fields (not a bad smell, mind you). The surface showed pale white fluff & overall it was quite bubbly. Day 4 smelled like paint thinner, and the surface fluff was grey. I fed it last night, and by this AM, it wasn't bubbly at all (65 degree overnight room temp). Today is day 5--it looks like pancake batter, not bubbly yet. I'm sticking with it, but when does it start to smell like something more appetizing than acetone? (Note: my last starter attempt--in warm weather--went south by day three...ugly pink & green stuff growing wildly).

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  1. I think one of the tough things with starter is that it grows best when there is an abundance of wild yeast nearby. In Belgium, there are beers that are fermented using wild yeasts, but beer has been brewed in this places for generations, so there is a lot of yeast around.

    What you want to happen is for wild yeast to infest your starter and grow rapidly so that it, for the most part, takes over and does not leave room for other organisms, i.e. other bacteria, fungi and such.

    I've made starters using packaged yeasts, and left them sitting out and over time watched the yeast seemt o change it's character, without the starter ever getting too overrun with what I thought were bacteria. You'd probably only know by the taste and lack of action.

    If you want to encourage wild yeast to grow in a place, then you might need to get some things on which is can grow in the environment and also bring in soem things with yeasts on them. Wild yeasts are everywhere, but you could also being in things like grapes which have wild yeasts on them, or you could bring in things that have yeast in them, like other doughs and craft-brewed beers, and use them to introduce yeast to the environment. If you use a bunch of things, then the environment could have some yeasts, and possibly different strains.

    The other thing I've noticed is that cleanliness does not always make for good starter.

    I've tried to create a number of starters over the years and only one has ever been a success when I did not begin with a source of yeast.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Captain

      RE: yeast-friendly environment...I live in an old, raised wooden house in warm, damp, south Louisiana. I bake regularly using commercial yeast. So theoretically, I should have an ideal environment for wild yeast, but thus far, it seems I have the ideal environment for ALL micro-organisms!

      1. re: Hungry Celeste

        I am curious about the "yeast friendly environment". (The idea that a much-used bakery or kitchen or even bread machine harbors yeast, and that improves the quality of newly-baked loaves.) I've heard this several times, but don't understand--is the yeast supposed to be in the air? On the walls? In crevices that are remote and never get cleaned? If you wash walls and open windows are you sacrificing your bread quality?

        1. re: blue room

          It's in the air. I suppose it could also be on the surface of a bread machine or oven. I imagine large amounts of anti-bacterial sprays and bleach would not be good for the wild yeast.

          1. re: JGrey

            Antibacterial agents will kill your wild yeasts. If your wipe everything down with bleach or ammonia, then most of the yeasts on the wiped surfaces will be killed. In some of the breweries that use wild yeasts, they just don't clean somethings and want the cobwebs to accumulate. So, you could be killing your chances to have wild yeasts by being too clean. Of course, not clean is also terrible, and by not cleaning you may be allowing the wrong organisms to thrive.

            1. re: Captain

              LOL--this sounds like almost everyone's kitchen--clean enough, certainly not sterile, and a few cobwebs!

    2. well, damp and south does work for lots of micro-organisms. The ugly pink and green stuff had to be from other fungi, and probably multiple ones.

      For me getting one started without it becoming something that seemed to have lots of bacteria has been tough, unless I flat out put yeast into it. So, I'm not much help. But my attempts tell me that the grey stuff on day 4 was a bad sign.

      As I said my successes with starters have come with yeast added. Perhaps, you could start something that was cultivated. I think my best starter ever was begun with a combination of fleishman's, a packet of lager yeast and something I drained out of the bottom of a beer bottle. Unfortunately, it did not thrive for long because of my then bachelor-lifestyle.

      1. Hi Celeste -- we successfully got a starter going last fall, with the grapes method mentioned above (we followed the directions in Nourishing Traditions). Grape method only takes 3 days. The book also has directions for a rye flour and water only starter. In the directions for that, it states that by days 2 and 3, it will get bubbly and develop a wine-like aroma. It will go through a frothy period and then subside. What you are describing sounds about right. You'll get the bready smell back when you mix it with a large amount of flour to make the bread on day 7. The directions also say to transfer to a clean bowl each day when you mix in more flour and water. If you want to see if it's still alive, put it in the oven overnight with the light on. I might crack the oven door, though, it'll get above 90 in there. 65 sounds a little bit cold to me.

        I've made three batches of bread so far (using all whole wheat flour). 1st batch was EXTREMELY dense, and fairly strong tasting. I actually could only tolerate it sliced very thin and toasted, so it was more like a cracker. (My darling husband thought it was the greatest thing ever. Probably because it was his first batch of bread that he helped make.) The next batch, the dough was much wetter, and I believe I subbed in a cup of bread flour as I ran out of ww. That rose a lot, then fell, but still had a more traditional bread texture. This last batch (all ww) was a little lighter than the first batch, but still very brick-like. I'm going to make an effort to keep the dough very wet on the next batch and see what happens.

        All this to say, stay the course, I think it's working.

        3 Replies
        1. re: JGrey

          Thanks for the encouragement...I expected some odd smells, but was surprised by acetone, and I don't remember enough of my organic chemistry to know what I'm smelling.

            1. re: JGrey

              Yes, actually, it did help. I had the starter tightly covered for the first two days (as per the cookbook I'm following), then loosely covered after that.

        2. I've never tried it myself, but I think rye is not the easiest thing to get going. Was this wholegrain rye flour? Natural yeasts are mostly on the outside of grains and if most of the brain was removed it could be a problem. I don't live in sourdough-friendly territory, but the only way I've been able to get a spontaneous starter going is with at least some wholewheat flour in the mix, even with organic white flour.

          If you're using bottled water, you should also aerate it (pour from container to container, shake in a not-full jar) - sourdough microorganisms are aerobic and bottled water is generally pretty "flat" by the time you open the bottle.

          As a last resort, there's a guy who used to have a small niche business of selling specific starters (sort of a sideline to a book he'd written, or vice versa), try googling "sourdough of the world" to see if he's still in business. I'm sure he had at least one specifically rye starter.

          3 Replies
          1. re: MikeG

            I'm not buying a starter, that defeats the whole purpose of the project. If this rye starter goes south for good, I think I'll try again with wheat flour. I did use local spring water and not Evian or Fiji! I used rye b/c several sources suggested starting with rye (though they provided no rationale, so I'm just blindly following).

            1. re: MikeG

              I think rye is just fine for a starter. Some cookbooks say it sours quicker and more easily than wheat.

              When I was maintaining a starter sometimes I fed it whole rye grains that I sprouted and ground in the cuisinart. The starter gobbled that stuff up. I figured the sprouts, which had been soaked in water 8 hours and then rinsed and drained in a jar twice a day for a few days, must have had plenty of rye-friendly yeasts all over.

              Some salt may inhibit unwanted growths. Also, are you stirring the starter regularly? Yeasts are anaerobic, but molds and such need air, so changing the area of the starter exposed to air might give the yeasts a better chance.

              hope this helps

              1. re: aroques

                If you let the rye germinate, then you might have malted it as one would with barley before making a beer. Malting convertys starch to sugars, so it might have been easy for the yeast to use it. However, if it worked, it worked.

            2. As you mention, your environment is likely pretty bacteriologically overwhelming - like the way you get a zillion bugs along with the amazing flora and fauna. ;) "Yeast friendly" in a general sense means warm and humid, but that assumes the yeast you want to grow is there to make nice with the friendly environment. I don't Lousisiana is exactly natural rye country, so trying to catch "wild yeast" from somewhere other than the grain itself will be random and not necessarily satisfactory. You'd probably get the right thing eventually, but you'd likely have to go through a few bad batches to get there.

              I'm in the no-grapes camp so I haven't tried that, but apart from commercial starters, I've always had to try a few times before I got a good starter going from scratch. Just keep plugging away, changing method only a little at a time so you'll eventually figure out what worked.

              5 Replies
              1. re: MikeG

                Gosh, now I feel lucky ours took the first time. I'm in Louisiana, too, but maybe urban New Orleans has enough toxins in the environment to kill off the bad bacteria. Heh. Lead doesn't produce pink and green mold, so what I don't know won't hurt me, right? We did it with grapes and rye flour, in a bowl covered by a clean towel.

                1. re: MikeG

                  Bacteriologically overwhelming....what a nice turn of phrase. Here I thought all this time that it was just funky.

                  1. re: MikeG

                    That's interesting because San Francisco is neither warm or humid yet they have a pretty famous local wild yeast.

                    1. re: coconutz

                      Sure, SF's not exactly warm, but not humid? by the bay? all that fog?

                      1. re: Hungry Celeste

                        Yeah, I don't quite understand the mechanisms, but SF definitely is not humid (fog isn't the same thing, and anyway is mostly in the summer).

                  2. The grape skins should have provided lots of yeast (albeit of a different sort), so that's not quite the same thing as spontaneous fermentation by naturally occurring grain yeasts and bacteria.

                    1. I don't understand using spring water. Who knows what that's introducing into the mix. When I made starter many years ago, I used only potato water and flour and it worked.

                      1. My understanding is that no matter what you use to start your starter, in a few generations it will be replaced with native yeast. So you might want to consider using starter just to establish a strong yeast colony and keep all the other bugs out until the natives take hold.

                        1. I've done a few wild starters. Been lucky I guess. I'd stick it out a couple of more days. Give it a feeding once a day and the smells should turn nicely, well, yeasty in a slightly fermented kind of way.

                          By the way, I've tried the grape thing (following Nancy Silverton's method) and found absolutely no benefit. But that's just me. Her recipes are awesome, but I find her starter maintenance to be way too high strung.

                          1. Starter update: it was indeed bubbly yesterday evening, but very alcoholic in smell. So I ditched the plastic wrap covering called for in the cookbook and substituted a piece of porous clean cloth. After stirring, feeding, and a couple of hours rest, it smelled beery rather than drunken. This am (day 6), the volume had increased maybe 20% and it smelled pleasant. So I'm going to let it breathe & keep feeding it...I think the cool temp (60-72 degrees) of my kitchen is slowing things down quite a bit.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Hungry Celeste

                              Sounds like it's working! I think ditching the plastic wrap is a good idea, everything I've read says use a clean towel or cheesecloth. Gotta let that alcohol get away. And I think you're right that the cool kitchen is slowing it down.

                            2. "That's interesting because"

                              Warmth and moisture encourage yeast and bacteria growth. but there's yeast and of course lactobacilli pretty much everywhere on earth - probably plenty of spores in Antarctica even, though presumably not much actively growing cultures. ;)

                              And for that matter, while SF may not be "warm" by SoCal or Florida standards, I'd be shocked if the mean temps there aren't a lot higher than much of the of the rest of North America.... And if you don't think it's humid, you must be from the Gulf Coast or something. (shudder, LOL)

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: MikeG

                                San Francisco isn't warm by anyone's standards. It's not cold, which isn't the same thing. Basically, San Francisco proper (the city, not the surrounding areas) has a very narrow temperature range -- it rarely goes below 40 (with this week being an exception) but it also rarely goes above 85. Most of the year the daytime highs are in the mid-to-upper 60s. Not warm. And certainly not "a lot higher" than other places, except in the dead of winter.

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