A Starter is Born

 

I've been on a bread baking bender (alliteration, yes!) since my brother and his girlfriend visited a couple weeks ago and we made the most delicious no knead loaf. I made olive bread and yogurt bread and rye bread. But I had a hankering for something more...something sour. I began researching sourdough culture creation methods and got to mixing!

One week later, on Monday, January 26, 2015, my sourdough starter was born. I called her Penny! 

It's been a couple weeks since I baked my first loaf with Penny (which was a huge success) and I am pleased to report that she's still going strong! We've also been through some up and downs, but the good news is I've learned from my mistakes and experiments and even developed a set of best practices!

As a means of remembering how I got to where I am now (my memory is so poor), and also wanting to spread the knowledge, I thought I'd write a few posts on sourdough bread making. I am obviously no expert, but I do have some tried and true tips and tricks under my belt. 

Warning! I am a wabi sabi baker! I don't own a scale (though it's on my list) and I like to experiment (with sometimes disastrous results). If this style of baking will make you nuts you may not want to read on past the starter recipe. Cheers!

 

Starterlandia

The first stop on the sourdough bread making journey is Starterlandia! Here we will develop the cultures that will make our bread rise and also taste so good.

The recipe I followed to make Penny is adapted from Breadtopia and produced a healthy happy white flour starter in just 5 days. I used a small pyrex storage container and covered it lightly with the lid so that it could breathe but not breathe super well, if you know what I mean.

Ingredients

  • 1 can unsweetened (meaning no sugar added) pineapple juice - I just bought a can of pineapple rounds and poured off the juice
  • All-purpose flour (you'll need a bunch of this to make bread anyway so just buy a bunch)

Recipe

  • Step 1. Mix 3 ½ tbs. all-purpose flour with ¼ cup unsweetened pineapple juice. Loosely cover and set aside for 48 hours at room temperature (I put mine on top of the fridge). Stir vigorously 3x/day. 
  • Step 2. Add 2 tbs. all-purpose flour and 2 tbs. pineapple juice. Loosely cover and set aside for two days. Stir vigorously 2-3x/day. You should see some bubbles a-bubbling on day 2. If you don’t, you may want to toss this and start over.
  • Step 3. Add 5 ¼ tbs. all-purpose flour and 3 tbs. purified water. Cover and set aside for another 24 hours.
  • Step 4. Pour the starter into a large jar (I'm using a large wide-mouth mason jar with a plastic screw top). Add ½ cup whole wheat flour and 1/3 cup purified water. You should have a very healthy sourdough starter by now. Yay!

Above are images from Step 4: bubbles a-bubbling, pouring into the large jar (I totally missed the top at first since I was trying to take pics at the same time - whoops! - starter everywhere! 

The day after I transferred the starter to the larger jar (Step 4) I fed it in the morning and then let it hang out to double in size. But when I checked in on it a few hours later I found that it hadn't grown much. Thinking this was because of how cold the house was--the jar was cold to the touch too--I put a warm heat pack around it (see image above). This did the trick and slowly but surely it grew to nearly twice its size! If it doesn't double in size in the few days after Step 4 do not be disheartened! Just keep feeding it regularly, notice the way it smells and its consistency, and the temperatures it is exposed to throughout the day (happy starters live between 65 and 75 degrees apparently, though mine has certainly weathered below 65 degree temperatures).

Maintenance

Here's my daily non-refrigerated maintenance routine (2x/day - once around 9am and once in the evening around 9pm) adapted from King Arthur Flour:

  • Pour out all but 1/2 a cup of starter (the starter you dispose of can be used for scones, pancakes, etc. apparently, though I have yet to try this).
  • Add 1/2 cup flour.
  • Add a little more than a 1/4 cup but a little less than 1/2 cup water (you'll find the balance!).

Some things to note about sourdough starter:

Smells

Smells are a part of the fermentation process! Yay! But what should you do when your starter smells like overripe apples? What about if it smells like nail polish remover? These are real questions that have asked the internet.

  • Smells like sour dough. The answer to this one is obvious. You are doing the right thing. Keep it up!
  • Smells like over ripe apples. The consensus of the internet is that your starter is hungry! Feed it! A faint aroma of overripe apples even after feeding is okay and the taste won't come through in your bread.
  • Smells like nail polish remover. The internet was split on this one. One camp says that the bad bacteria have taken over and caused your starter to stink like crazy. There is no saving it. Start over. The other camp, which I listened to, said it's probably hungry and the hydration levels may be out of wack. Feed it and try giving it more/less water. See what happens! 

Consistency

Consistency in this case means hydration levels and ratios of starter to water to flour. If you don't have a scale like me, a good rule of thumb is that the weight of 1/2-2/3 cups water is equal to 1 cup flour. This will come in handy when you start to play around with hydration (percent of water compared to flour). A 100% hydration starter means that the weights of flour to water are equal. 50% hydration means half the weight of water compared to flour. More hydration obviously means a more liquid starter. 

I have played around with hydration levels with both good and bad results. I read online that firmer, or less hydrated, starters produce a more sour dough and since I wanted really sour bread I thought I'd give that a try. Reducing my starter to 50% hydration however made it very mad and after a few days it smelled like nail polish remover. Worried, I split the starter in two and ran an experiment. I returned one of the starters to 100% hydration and the other to around 75-80% hydration, still feeding both 2x/day by removing all but 1/2 cup starter and then adding water and flour. After a few days the 100% starter returned to its healthy sour smell. The other starter smells less like acetone now and more like fermented apples but not strongly. I have only baked with the 100% starter so I don't know how the other one will behave when put into dough.

 

That's all for now folks! Next time we'll head to the next stop on the sourdough bread making journey: Breadville! All aboard!