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SafeFood Newsletter - Winter 1996/1997 - Vol. 1, No. 2

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Safety of Amish Friendship Bread and Similar Sourdough Products

Recently, magazine articles have revived interest in sourdough-type starters used to make various kinds of breads and cake-like breads. People are encouraged to pass portions of the starters and bread-making instructions along to friends. One such product is "Amish Friendship Bread," although it may or may not originate from the Amish community.

Several extension educators in New York State and in other states have questioned the safety of the Amish Friendship Bread starter because the instructions call for leaving the product, which contains milk, at room temperature for ten days before it is used to make the bread.

After discussing the safety of a product such as this with two fermentation experts at Cornell University and two experts at Oregon State and Washington State, Donna L. Scott, Senior Extension Associate in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, has concluded that there is little risk of contracting foodborne illness from properly prepared and handled starters, whether or not they contain milk. Properly prepared starters are safe because they become acidic due to the fermentation action of lactic acid-forming bacteria present in the mixture. These bacteria and the acid environment formed inhibit the growth of other bacteria, but do allow yeast, if added, to grow and help leaven bread products.

However, bakers of Amish Friendship Bread should be aware of the following:

  • It is difficult to prepare a sourdough starter "from scratch." Microorganisms naturally present in the ingredients may not be the ideal ones for producing a good starter or some other necessary condition may not have been met. It takes experience with the art of sourdough to recognize a really good starter. Most bread cookbooks have sections on sourdough.
  • Discard starters which smell bad, turn reddish or orange in color, or grow mold. Good starters are bubbly and have a sour smell; the Amish Friendship Bread starter should smell sweet and tangy.
  • Neither pasteurized nor raw milk are good choices for preparing a starter "from scratch." Pasteurized milk probably will not produce enough lactic acid to form a good starter because pasteurization kills the lactobacillus organisms in the raw milk that would initiate fermentation. Eventually you just get a foul-smelling spoiled mixture. People are able to keep already-started starters going with additions of pasteurized milk because the organisms are already there from the original starter culture (which may have been started from raw milk, a possible source of pathogenic bacteria).
  • Starters originally started with raw milk may be a source of pathogenic bacteria, such as E. coli O157:H7. Never taste a raw starter. Baking to doneness will destroy harmful bacteria that might be present.
  • Cultured buttermilk, water, or yogurt with active bacterial cultures are good choices for preparing a starter. For starters that call for water, flour and sugar (and perhaps yeast), the use of whole wheat or rye four may give a better inoculum of lactic acid- forming bacteria than white, all-purpose flour. Val Hillers, Washington State University, recommends discarding the milk-containing Amish Friendship starter altogether and using a starter that calls for water. Be sure to wash carefully pieces of vegetable that may be added to an initial starter.
  • Follow the usual recommendations for personal and kitchen cleanliness while preparing starters.
  • One can refrigerate or freeze starters, and Cornell recommends storing starters in the refrigerator after the fermentation has progressed satisfactorily (follow the recipes for this). Sure, it "slows them down," but one can get them going again by warming them to room temperature a few hours before use in baking.

    Source: Fnspec (Food and Nutrition Specialist) listserv. June 1996.



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