Sourdough starter or just random fungus?

Joined Jan 18, 2007
I've seen a number of sourdough starter documents that recommend all sorts of procedures that reek of superstition and magic. Some use "yeast" from the air, some from grapes and I just read about one that uses pineapple and/or it's juice.

With all the thousands (millions) of random bits of biological material floating around, why would this make a starter culture, instead of, for example athletes foot or some random mushroom spores from the front yard. "Creating a friendly environment for yeast" just doesn't seem like a very reliable or even safe method of producing a food ingredient.

Is there something I'm missing here?
Joined May 5, 2010
Basically, it is the flour and water mixture that ferments and creates Lactobacillus culture in a symbiotic relationship with the yeast to create the sourdough. This mixture is the reason sourdough has its' unique taste and texture.

It is the nature of the flour and water to create these good bacteria, if prepared correctly.


You mentioned grapes. The one I use was made from grapes over 20 years ago, and I have had the honor of keeping it alive for the past 13 years.

There are wild yeasts in the air around us that will get into the starter if left on the counter for a day. When made correctly, a starter will not need yeast in the bread recipe (or at least not very much).
Joined May 5, 2010
.......And I might add that when a starter goes bad, there's no way you can not notice it. The smell is horrendous.
Joined Feb 13, 2008
Yeast are not bacteria.  They are fungi.   It takes both yeast and lactobacilli to make a sourdough starter.  You don't have to worry about the bacilli.  Start a starter with yeast and they will come. 

Flour and water do not spontaneously become sourdough without yeast.  Some sourdough yeasts are airborne and local.  Some got into the flour at the millers and are packed into the bag by the time you get it.

The addition of grapes to a starter's starter is an attempt to get the yeast from the grape skins into the starter; and/or to feed the sourdough yeast spores as they reproduce.

Some of the things people do in the kitchen aren't well thought out.  They do them because they work, or because they worked once, or because they worked once for someone's grandmother, or they worked for some schmo who wrote a cook book, or worked for her grandmother, or because someone else told the schmo they would work, or...

There are sourdough yeasts, good sourdough yeasts, and great sourdough yeasts.  Since you can acquire a great one for free, it doesn't make sense (at least not to me) to take a chance on what might come in the bag of flour or through the window.  Nevertheless, you KNOW I'd try it wherever I moved.  Venice - good sourdough.  Hollywood - OK sourdough.  Monrovia - really lousy.  Who knows?  Maybe it's the lactobacilli. 

You can usually get a good starter going by making a poolish with conventional yeast and just keeping the little SOB going.  After even four or five days on the counter it gets nicely sour.  I'm not sure if this has something to do with local yeast getting in the poolish and taking it over, or it just happens when you give commercial yeast a chance to stretch its wings. Like sending a kid to college, you know that whatever comes back with its laundry won't bear a lot of resemblance to what left your house with a suitcase full of clean clothes.  Sic transit.

If you don't use a starter to start your starter, you not only stand the chance of getting one which doesn't taste particularly good or doesn't pack enough rise, you run the risk of a more robust, local yeast taking a sponge over.

I've killed a few starters, and watched others die out for no apparent reason, and even had one linger like Camille, getting weaker for months before I got bored and trashed it.  But I never lived with one which went bad in the way Ross describes.  I believe it though.  Under the best of circumstances keeping a starter can be interesting in the same sense the word is used in the Chinese curse.   

Anyone you know who bakes and keeps a sourdough starter -- and by keep, I mean like a zoo keeper -- will almost certainly be happy to share some live starter with you.  We are a very nice group of people.  Or, misery loves company.  We bake.  You decide.

If you want to get a great starter but otherwise begin from scratch, buy yourself a couple of envelopes and a couple of stamps, navigate your browser to Carl's Friends, click on the appropriate link and follow the directions.   Other than the stamped envelopes, it's free.  Download the recipe booklet while you're at the site.  It's a good start.

Last edited:
Top Bottom