The starter is the foundation of all sourdough baking, however, it is important to be patient and give your starter enough time to establish a strong thriving yeast community. This isn’t only for the benefit of your baking, but ingesting baked goods which aren’t fully cooked could make you seriously unwell; the risk of this is only increased if you’re using an immature starter.
The activity we initially see in our starters in the first few days of life comes from commensal bacteria.
These are the bacteria on our hands, the bacteria on our utensils, in our flour, on our tap and transfer to the water we feed with- they are everywhere.
The majority of these types of bacteria like a neutral environment to thrive and reproduce. In the first few days, your starter offers the perfect environment to replicate this.
The bubbles and even maybe slight rise depending on your water:flour ratio, comes from gas trapped by these bacteria respiring. It isn’t until anaerobic respiration causes alcohol to be produced, lowering the pH which results the harmful bacteria being killed and removes the competition for resources for yeast.
There are also however some bacteria which do some good when it comes to our baking. These lactic-acid producing bacteria help to lower the pH and give our yeast an environment within which they can ferment. The fermentation from the two groups is what gives our breads that sour tang and distinct flavour.
Can I Use the ‘Discard’?
If your starter is immature and not ready that means the entire pot so until you know it’s ready, don’t use any of it!
There is no real benefit whilst there are no thriving yeast colonies and in fact you could become very ill if you ingest toxin-producing bacteria which may be present in a starter’s infancy.
During the first stages, the starter experiences both aerobic and anaerobic conditions (with and without oxygen). We know this, because alcohol (hooch) is a product of respiration without oxygen. Some bacteria (usually the nasty ones!) Thrive well in such environments and so it is important we know our starter is healthy and colonised by the right microbes before we attempt to bake with it.
So how do I know it’s ready?
There are a few ways, but no way is definitive and fool proof.
The first (and in my opinion most important) is smell. An active starter should smell fruity, yeasty and maybe slightly vinegary. There should be no off-smell and this is a sign that your starter has probably gone bad. If it’s a young starter (less than 2 weeks) it may be that yeast colonies haven’t yet developed. If it’s a mature starter, it might be time to consider starting again…
You want to be at a stage where you are seeing a predictable rise and fall with your starter. My starter after feeding usually takes 6-8 hours to reach its peak. I know this and if it changes, I know something is wrong. If it’s a particularly cold day- that could be the culprit, alternatively, it’s health could be declining, perhaps detergent left after I washed the container, a different flour etc. there are many things which could impact this, however, if you feel that you are maintaining a constant environment and the starter still isn’t predictable, that’s a sign that it’s not quite ready.
Other ways include things such as the float test, although not entirely accurate, it can along with smell and texture be a good indicator to when your starter is ready to use.
The consumption of unripe starter can be extremely dangerous, and some of the commensal bacteria which may initially take hold could cause serious illness. So be patient, you will get there- your health isn’t worth a loaf of bread. It will let you know when it’s ready to use and you will be rewarded greatly!