If you’ve been reading about sourdough starter and all of the ways to manage it and care for it, you may have come across some interesting tips and tricks and thought, “Ummm what?” For instance, why on Earth would you make sourdough starter with pineapple juice?
Well, there’s actually some interesting science behind it, and I can tell you from direct experience…it does work. But what, actually, does it do? Is it right for you and your environment? Read on to find out.
It’s difficult to know if your starter is going well or not when you have no frame of reference. This is why it’s easier to just follow along with a routine for a specific number of days at first. And if you need a basic explanation for how to get going, check out this article on how to make a sourdough starter first.
However, when you know what to look for, the days don’t really matter. When you have the knowledge built up of how starter behaves, the process becomes much easier. You’re a lot more able to recover from potential disasters as well.
What gives you that knowledge, though, is time, patience, and the benefit of learning from lots of mistakes. There’s no substitute for that kind of experience. But smart people learn from others’ mistakes, and hopefully, I can give you a bit of that here.
The science behind sourdough starter with pineapple juice
Sourdough starter is all about microorganisms and how they grow and thrive in your environment. It’s actually very fascinating if you’re into that kind of thing, which I am. While you don’t need to know any of the science behind it in order to get a good starter going, understanding the different phases that the development of a sourdough starter will go through can help you to troubleshoot when problems arise.
When you mix flour and some liquid together, such as water or pineapple juice, you start to wake up some of the organisms that are present in the flour. The longer you give them an environment that they like, the better they will be able to grow and thrive. You’ll be creating a situation where different bugs will start to grow at different times, which is why it takes a week or more to get something usable for making bread.
An article written by Debra Wink on The Fresh Loaf website is where I first came across this method. It’s a very well-known article and is actually in two parts so if you head over there to read it, make sure to read both parts so you get the full story. What I’d like to summarize here is what the four phases look like and what to watch for.
This is a very short phase, usually a day or two, where you’re basically waking up the organisms in the flour. It’s a good idea to use whole wheat flour here as it tends to contain more of the beneficial bugs that will make up your starter. Visually, you won’t see much. The starter will most likely look like a thick batter. You also probably won’t notice much in terms of smells at this point either.
This is where things start to get interesting, and the microbes (like lactic acid bacteria) really get going. There are generally two distinct “waves” as Debra calls them that you may or may not experience depending on whether you’re using plain water or something like pineapple juice.
The first wave is where “leuconostocs and other ‘highly undesirable organisms that stink terribly’” will begin to grow, as Debra writes. This is where you might notice some really bad things happening, and when you are most likely going to toss the whole mess and start again. I did have a batch of starter actually explode on me in this phase, which was less than interesting. My wife will attest to that since she was the one who woke up and had to clean up the mess.
A day or two before it exploded, the starter began to smell like vomit…really really bad vomit. I did a lot of research, and it turns out that this is not entirely unheard of. I’m guessing this is all down to those highly undesirable organisms mentioned above. The thing is, if you keep feeding it and being patient, you can make it through this phase once the pH levels drop low enough to be inhospitable to those stinky organisms.
This moment in the process, wave one of phase two, is exactly why I started using pineapple juice. I noticed that if I used pineapple juice instead of water during the first several days, I was able to completely bypass this monstrosity. Thanks to the acidic nature of pineapple juice, we can move on to the second wave of phase two where the good bugs start to take over. This leads us to phase three.
This is a short-ish phase, no more than a day or two, and one that is more of a bridge between phase two and phase four. The smell might become a little more pungent, but not awful or gross. You might also notice small bubbles on the surface of your starter in this phase as well. You probably won’t notice lots of big bubbles and big rises in volume just yet. But taking note of this small change is a really good indicator that your starter’s environment is doing well.
Phase four is where you finally start to see those big, lovely bubbles and you will most definitely notice a pleasant yeasty smell start to form…because yeast are growing. You probably also want to be feeding your starter twice a day in this phase to give the yeast lots to eat for a while.
Don’t rush this phase though. Let it go for a few days and really watch what’s happening. Start to notice how quickly or slowly your starter reaches its full ripeness. How long does it take to get as big as possible in terms of volume before it starts to deflate again? Watch for patterns.
When you’ve gone through several days of seeing your starter rise after a feeding and fill with lots of big bubbles and then relax back to what looks like batter, you’re ready to start using it to make bread.
The practical aspects of using pineapple juice with your sourdough starter
For me, using pineapple juice meant that I could more reliably produce something usable in a shorter period of time, and more importantly, I could bypass that horrifying first wave of bacteria in the second phase of development. For a while, I was using pineapple juice instead of water for weeks. I wasn’t sure how long I was supposed to be substituting it. After reading Debra’s article more carefully and understanding the four phases, I started using the juice for about a week then switching to bottled water.
So, I recommend trying pineapple juice in your starter routine for the first three to five days. That always seems to work for me, and the extra acid never seems to harm anything. If you try this out and have other experiences, let me know.
Should you use pineapple juice with your sourdough starter?
Definitely give it a shot. It won’t hurt anything, and it may make your experience with sourdough starter a lot more pleasant. Either way, once you do switch back to using water again, I do recommend using bottled water.
Even if your water is great, using bottled water is a good way to remove one variable just in case something does go wrong and you have to start troubleshooting. You can always switch to your tap water, or tap water that’s been filtered, once you get your starter to a healthy, stable state.
If you do give this method a try, please let me know in the comments below and mention anything special about your environment or interesting experiences.