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I made some sourdough starter from scratch, using garden grapes, flour and water. It was wonderful for the first few batches. Today, I was going to get another bread batch going, and when I looked at the refrigerated starter, there was a good layer of fuzzy mold on top.

Of course, I threw it out. But was it exposure to unwanted bacteria, or the temperature of my fridge (I kept it in our beverage fridge, which is warmer than our main fridge), or the length of time (two weeks) I let it sit unused that did it in? Or does homemade sourdough keep less well than what you can get commercially?

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3 Answers 3

Just scrape the molded bits off. It's sort of like cheese in that way. The mold doesn't get any further than the surface.

It does mean you've got a bit of a weak starter though.

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There shouldn't be any significant difference between an established homemade sourdough culture and one that's seeded from something you bought (I'm assuming like the culture that King Arthur Flour Co sells online). In fact, no matter where you bought your starter culture, over time the local bacterial flora would crowd out the bacteria that was in the culture you bought. But, I'm sure the mold infection had nothing to do with rogue bacteria. (Bad bacteria can spoil a starter too, but that would be a different set of symptoms from the green carpet on top.) It could be that your starter didn't get well established, but it doesn't sound like that was the problem if you successfully made some bread from it.

In a sourdough culture, the acid produced by the bacteria and alcohol produced by the yeast make an environment that's somewhat resitant to bad bacteria (like salmonella) or mold. But the culture needs to be fairly active to maintain its resistance. After two weeks in a warm fridge, your yeast would be dormant and the bacteria would probably have run rampant for a while (after the yeast went dormant) and then started to also die off.

In a warm fridge you could maybe go a week without feeding the culture. At room temperature it's one day optimally and two days max. The best way to avoid infection is to have two small covered containers about 1½ to 2 cups in size. To make a new generation of your starter, begin with a clean container, add equal parts by weight of the previous generation of starter, flour and water. So for example, 25 grams of starter, plus 25 grams of flour and 25 of water. Mix it up and put it in the fridge. In one week, get the other container, clean it out, and do the same thing over again.

I always keep the old generation in its container as a backup (in case of a mold or other infection). You just need to keep track of which container has the fresher starter, so you can clean out the old one when building the next gen. I did this for more than 3 years with no infections of any kind.

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Though, really, it should be fine w/o using a cleaned container each time. Just wipe off the sides, and switch containers every once and a while. Saves some washing. –  derobert Jan 6 '11 at 21:31
    
Good point, I didn't ever wash mine with soap and water. I just dumped the older starter, rinsed with water only and wiped it out with a paper towel. I suppose even that could have been overkill. –  Cold Oatmeal Jan 6 '11 at 22:45

My understanding is that while sourdough starter is somewhat mold resistant thanks to the yeast and the bacteria that make it acidic, it's still vulnerable to mold.

My thoughts are that if you're finding that your homemade starter is going moldy faster than a bought starter, perhaps yours was a little weak in the bacteria department. That would leave it less active and less acidic, opening the door for the mold. It might also be underfed, since lively yeast action should help with mold too.

I haven't even tried to keep a starter alive for more than a little while (I invariably forget about it and throw it out after months), so it's all kind of theoretical for me.

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