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For quite some time, my grandmother has had a sourdough starter kept in the fridge. I observed her making muffins and whatnot on an infrequent basis, with the intervals sometimes increasingly greater than the 14 days I see recommended on various sites. My first question is did I just miss her "washing" the mix or is there a secret way to store the starter long term that I am not observing?

The jar has been stored in a static location in the back of the fridge, and is mostly full with a clearish layer (presumably the alcohol layer), apparently airtight, and without noticeable discoloration. With my grandmother's increasing age and decreasing health I doubt this has been touched in between one and two and a half years.

My second question is what beyond obvious (pink, blue, green) color changes am I looking for that tell me that I have to chuck this and start over?

My third question is if I do not get any "stop" signs (from question two) what would the best way to extract a viable sample for my own mix without contaminating or making significant modification to the existing jug? My first thought is to us the trick where you put your finger over the top of a straw to lift out a liquid. And then can I just pick up where I am reading elsewhere about washing and resurrecting old starters?

Thank y'all for your help!

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My dad had a sourdough starter that he had kept alive for 15 years. When a grandchild unknowingly threw it away, it was as if the grandchild had accidentally killed Dad's dog. Tread Lightly –  Jolenealaska Jan 21 at 11:34
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Your "third question" should probably be separated out into another question entirely. You can edit your own question with the button to the left of your name, then start a new question. Are you wanting to make a starter of your own with your grandmother's starter as a base? That's sweet. –  Jolenealaska Jan 21 at 11:46
    
The idea is to NOT kill this thing if it is still salvageable. Do I need to build a biohazard like container -- the one with the gloves built into it like you see in horror / alien movies -- in order to keep the original sample unaffected by anything airborne? –  Dan Melks Jan 21 at 11:50
    
I can't answer your question, but I know there are people here that can. Be patient, they will be attracted to this question like moths to a flame. –  Jolenealaska Jan 21 at 13:31
    
Perhaps it is just due to my poor English skills, but I don't understand if the jar with the starter has been closed and not used for two and a half years, or if it is used infrequently (more than 14 days) but kept refreshed in the same jar? –  Lorenzo Apr 5 at 17:22

2 Answers 2

I've kept a starter in the fridge for a couple of years now. Frequently, I will forget the weekly feed and have to bring it back to life. I would just stir and then scoop out a quarter cup or so, mix with equal parts water and flour, cover loosely and leave on the counter. If it starts to bubble (might take overnight) you are good to go...use or build up by adding flour and water so that you have about a pint...return to fridge in covered container, try to remember to feed weekly by discarding half and replacing with fresh flour and water.

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You may have missed seeing her feed the starter, it doesn't take long and really only has to be done every week or two if you aren't making bread regularly. Once a starter is well established, its acidity and biological activity will protect it from neglect. There are ways to make a culture last longer in the dormant stage. Usually this is accomplished by making a stiffer starter, around 50-60% hydration, allowing it to ferment 4+ hours, then refrigerate. Keeping it in the fridge slows down the metabolism of the yeast and bacteria, while the stiff starter provides plenty of food for them. No matter what, there are limits to how long it can be kept and every culture is going to have it's own failure point. I've revived a culture that was neglected for 4 months, but I've also had one that had only gone 1 month between feeding that I couldn't revive.

In addition to discolorations, cloudy/milky hooch and Funky, putrid, or acetone (nail polish remover) odors are other indicators of contamination. Some of these can be overcome by washing and feeding the starter but may require additional steps including the use of pineapple juice to inhibit some bacterial growth.

Just remove a couple tablespoonfuls of the starter and dilute it with a cup of tepid water. Feed it with a cup of flour, then give it at least 24 hours on the counter to see if there's any activity. If the existing starter is dead, it's dead. The same goes for extreme contamination. The best thing you could do in that case would be to wash out the mess and use the container to start a new culture in honor of your grandmother.

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I'd like to point out that acetone odor is perfectly normal for a starving sourdough culture. Whenever I neglected mine for a bit too long, it smelled like that and it's always revived just fine (the acetone odors went away quickly after feeding the culture). –  Anpan Jan 26 at 22:32

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