One question I get asked a lot is how can you tell a good Amish Friendship Bread starter from a not-so-good Amish Friendship Bread starter?
This is tricky for a number of reasons, because:
- every starter is different (i.e. if it’s been passed on or if you’ve made it from scratch)
- every kitchen is different (drafty or warm, different wild yeasts in the air)
- ingredients may vary (i.e. milk can be whole, 2%, skim or non-dairy)
- maintenance may vary (you mix your starter daily or just giving the bag a small squeeze when you remember)
- your starter may not turn color but is no longer active–it’s basically batter in a bag
Here’s another scenario: starters that are refrigerated or frozen for long periods of time do tend to change color, usually going a shade darker.
No two starters are alike, with the exception being on Day 10 when you divide your starter to share with others. But once those starters go out in the world, they become unique and individual. Occasionally you’ll keep all your starters and several will be super active and another one, meh. (By the way, the “meh” starter is probably still good, just not as excited as its brothers and sisters.)
Here are two Amish Friendship Bread starters, side by side. One is good. The other … not so much.
It’s pretty easy to tell which one looks healthier. The color, for one thing. The presence of a few bubbles is another. And if you were able to crack the bags open and take a whiff, the one on the left smelled nice and yeasty while the other smelled like nothing at all (this will not always be the case—old, underfed or spoiled starter can smell quite awful. Read more about that here). This particular bag had been neglected in the fridge for a few weeks so it was underfed and no longer active. As hardy as the starter can be, it needs to be fed. Period.
(Note: if for any reason you are using water instead of milk for your starter, be sure to use non-chlorinated water, as the chlorine can kill the good stuff in starters that keep them thriving.)
You should also be seeing some bubbly activity within 24-48 hours of every feeding. If the amount of bubbles starts to decrease, you might need to reduce your starter to one cup and start feeding it as if it were Day 6.
Other signs your starter may be N.G.:
- Presence of mold. This usually happens to people who pop their starter in the fridge, wanting to buy a couple of days of no feeding but not wanting to commit to freezing their starters, and then forget about their starter. Yes, AFB starter is hardy, but it needs to be fed. If your starter turns pink or has pink splotches, throw it out.
- After feeding it, nothing happens. Again, every starter (and kitchen) is different so you don’t want to be impatient. But if you’re feeding it at the proper ratios (1 cup starter = 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup milk) and nothing happens for the next 24-48 hours, then maybe give it a pass. I say maybe because if you have a cooler kitchen, you may want to go 72 hours. If you’re seeing SOME bubbles, this is a good sign, even if your bag isn’t blowing up or your starter overflowing. Move your starter to a warm place and give it a chance. If it looks flat after three days, let it go.
- It still smells bad after feeding and/or discarding a portion of your starter. That sharp acetone smell isn’t a bad thing exactly — it just means your starter is hungry. So feed it at the proper proportions (see paragraph above). If you have a lot of starter, say 3 cups, that means you need to feed it 3 cups flour, 3 cups sugar, 3 cups milk. I know you know someone who feeds their starter a minimal amount and it’s bubbly and thriving. That can happen, but starters need to be properly fed, so build a hardy starter by keeping the proper proportions. If necessary, stir well and then toss 2 cups of your starter and feed the 1 cup of starter with 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup milk. If it still smells strongly of acetone and there’s no activity, say goodbye.
The more you care for your Amish Friendship Bread starter, the easier it will be to determine if your starter’s ready to be baked or if it’s gone down a path of no return. Good starters require proper feeding ratios, lots of patience, and lots of love. And once you have a starter that just won’t quit, don’t forget to name it!