Starter to Leaven
Firstly, if you want some starter, please visit the Contact page and send me a message…I will tell you how to get it!
Taking care of starter was what got me hooked. I remember thinking that I was going to kill it because I didn’t know what to do to keep it alive, how often to feed it, what proportions to feed it. Finally I did kill it so I had to make my own from scratch and I learned that it was actually quite hardy. Its needs were really quite simple and it was going to be just fine with a little attention from me. I learned what it looked like and smelled like at different stages of its growth, and even how that might affect the bread’s flavor. In time I was able to learn to maintain only as much starter as I needed (which has helped reduce the amount of flour that I use!)
Now, I keep two cultures – one in the refrigerator and on the counter, the latter of which is my day to day (or every other day) mother starter. The cold starter is my first backup, and also the one that I use to make overnight leavens for the more bitter sourdough concoctions. The counter top culture get’s fed every day, and the fridge version every week (or more).
Growing From Dry Culture
Growing the mother starter from a dry culture is nothing more than a waiting game. Depending on the temperature of your kitchen – the time of year, your climate – it is a faster or slower process, and it isn’t out of the question that within five days you could have a viable ready to use mother starter. It’s probably going to take a couple more days though. The feeding schedule is simple and you can do it, or at least look at it, in the morning when you get up and in the afternoon when you get home. If you’ve never worked with a starter though you’ll need to resist the temptation to decide that it’s ready before it is ready, but once you see it double in volume, sometimes in as little as a handful of hours bubbling nearly over the rim of the jar and smelling suspiciously like bread, you’ll know. And finally, you’ll need to learn to feed up just a little more than you need so that you can grow your culture right back up. You might even end up with one on the counter and one in the fridge!
Hydrating and First Feeding
Take 1/2 teaspoon of the dry starter and put it into a small bowl, over even a small jar (like one that artichoke hearts might have come in) and add to it 1 tablespoon of luke warm water. Temperatures around 115° Fahrenheit will kill yeast, so best shoot for something safe, around 90-95° until you’re sure you know what luke warm feels like. Of course if you have an instant read thermometer you’re set.
Allow this mixture to hydrate, maybe swirling it around or stirring a bit, or both, and let it sit for 15 or so minutes to give time for the hard dry starter to soften up into the water. After it has had time to at least partially dissolve, add to it 1 tablespoon of flour (I use bread flour to feed my starters) and stir it all together with a dinner knife very well making sure that the flour is fully integrated. Cover it with plastic or very loosely with a lid, and leave it alone for 24 hours.
It’s likely that not much has happened as you observe your starter after the first day. It may look as if it has some tiny bubbles on the surface or around the perimeter, but at this point you’re just going to feed it again with 1 tablespoon of room temperature water and 1 tablespoon of flour and stir it well integrating all of the new flour. That’s it…cover it for another 12-24 hours…likely the latter.
Hopefully by now you’re seeing some bubbling, and if you stir it you’ll notice that the consistency has changed from gooey flour and water into something like heated marshmallows – it tends to fall off the knife and even maybe hold a shape when you manipulate it. Smell it. You should begin smelling the sweet and sour of starter. If don’t see this activity, feed it again as you did on day two. If you do however, it’s time to start growing it.
Discard all but 1 tablespoon of the starter and feed it with equal weights of flour and room temperature water. Now I say equal weight as this really is the paradigm of baking, not volume – volume is unreliable. If you don’t have a scale, use 1/4 cup flour and slightly less than 1/4 cup of water, and mix it all together in at least a pint mason jar if not a quart jar. This stuff is going to grow and a half full pint jar will bubble over eventually!
The first feeding will not grow as fast as the second feedings and will smell a little more acrid than sweet, but you will want to see it double, or nearly double, and then feed it again. The pictures below show the starter at its first feeding, then 12 hours later and then 24 hours later right before its second feeding. The last picture shows 24 hours after the second feeding and clearly it has doubled. At that point its ready for use just shy of 6 full days and here forward I would just use maintenance feedings.
Maintaining Your Starter
Maintaining starter is about schedule, and proportions. Not to get overly vigilant about it, I feed my counter top culture every day to two days, and every time I use it. I feed my refrigerator culture every week to two weeks. I do watch it though. If i see a layer of alcohol forming on the surface and the color begins to look a little off (orange!), then I feed it.
The remainder is about proportions, and I do it by weight, ie., “how much do I need on hand?”. If the answer to that is “300 grams”, then I’m going to proportion it in thirds as such: 100 grams room temperature water, 100 grams of bread flour, and 100 grams of starter (the rest of the starter get’s discarded or used if you’re baking).
Those proportions are exactly what I do with the fridge starter, but the counter starter I get a little loose with, especially since it is so active. First, I shoot at having 200 grams of starter on hand, because one recipe i make frequently will use 160 grams of that. It works out conveniently that after i pour off 160 grams, what is left sticking to the sides of the starter jar are enough to grow a new batch, and I just add 100 grams of water, stir it up, and add 100 grams of flour and mix it with a knife. Done. Not precision, but that culture will be ready to go by sunset again.
One last thought, and that concerns the lid of your mason jar if that’s what you’re keeping it in. Do not screw it down tight! The starter is giving off gas all the time, and you’re intention is not to keep it under pressure. The danger isn’t so much the jar exploding, but if the yeast and bacteria that you’ve worked so hard to grow can’t respirate, well, it just might die.