Some notes on sourdough starter that I sent a couple friends who got jars going from my starter culture, and then it occurred to me that with more folks I know getting into it, I should probably just post it here and point people to it.
You’ll notice that from-scratch sourdough recipes aren’t just lists of ingredients, they are multi-page narratives of carefully choreographed machinations that are 2 parts science and 1 part superstitious voodoo nonsense. Just go with it…here’s a few notes on the starter part…
I built my starter from a Yukon starter culture, but mine has been around enough to have been heavily influenced by local microbes. I think in the grand scheme of things, anywhere on earth where you add water to flour, you’re going to get roughly the same microscopic party going on, so the origins aren’t super crucial — despite all the mythology around the issue.
I split mine between a room temperature jar and a fridge jar; since the latter does everything slower, this lets me keep feeding it without having to throw out as much. When the room temp jar gets full (usually every week or two), I dump a bunch into the fridge jar, and when that gets full (or whenever I feel like it), I’ll use the stuff in there to make things other than bread (crackers, pancakes, waffles, fritters, etc., etc.). You can get away with just the one jar on the counter at room temp, but that increases the odds of having to dump a bunch of it out unless you have great timing with your baking activity; likewise, you can survive on just a jar in the fridge, but it means some advance planning to invigorate that culture with 2-3 days of feeding at room temp before you attempt baking bread from it. Dumping *some* out is a necessary evil, and until c-19 stopped everyone’s show, we’d end up with a cup or two going into the local compost pickup every week or two…it’s a necessary sacrifice.
I use a ceramic jar/lid for room temp that doesn’t really seal completely (which is fine, that’s the more active culture, so it’s pushing CO2 out in steady state, just keep it temperature stable); for the fridge jar, I have one that seals well, but also has a check valve in the lid that lets CO2 but doesn’t let air in. Keep the lid and lip of whatever contain you use clean with a wipedown (no cleanser, just a wet paper towel) to reduce the odds of the wrong critters getting in there. In general, a well fed culture will fend for itself pretty well, and you don’t have to worry about invading microbes of the wrong sort taking over. The jar I gave you is too small to be practical; you want something more toward a quart in size, with a wide mouth that lets you stir vigorously with a spatula, scraping the sides.
Room temp culture
Frequency: daily if possible 2-3 times/day ramping up to bake time, and you can skip a few days without killing it…it just might need a big discard and big meal if it’s too “ripe”.
Food: equal parts white (ideally bread flour, w/more protein, etc.) and water (room temp, filtered – no chlorine) is fine for keeping it going. When you approach baking time, you want to spike it with more nutrients, so whole grain is better, and a mix of rye and red wheat is best.
I find feeding the starter equal parts freshly milled hard red winter wheat and rye flourfor a day or two before baking gets the culture very excited and the end result is better on all fronts. Recipes will have specific ratios of types of grain, amounts of starter, etc. but they all want to start with an *active* culture, which, unless you bake every day or something, you have to ramp up to with more feedings of higher nutrient flour. As far as the amount, it’s equal parts flour/water (by volume is fine, though you’ll notice recipes are all by weight, with confusing references to percentages that don’t add up — again, just go with it), and the amounts may be dictated by the size of your container and/or frequency of feeding. I’ll do as little as a tablespoon of each, and as much as a 1/2cup of each (if I do a big discard or use a lot).
Freshly milled flour is totally worth the effort at bake time. Think of how much better coffee is when you grind the beans right before you brew it — same deal. I use aKitchenAid KGM All Metal Grain Mill Attachment
KitchenAid grain mill attachment, but if you hate money, you can get one of those fancy german mills. For maintaining the culture, it’s fine to go cheap and use white bread or AP flour.
Same idea as above, but in slow motion; you don’t really mess with it more than once a week, and maybe you feed it a little to keep its attention, or maybe you discard/use a bunch in non-bread consumables and replenish with a large portion of your room temp — up to you.
Either fridge or room temp will benefit from being dropped via discard to a fraction (as low as 5-10%) of its original volume, and ramping back up with fresh “food”. You will notice that the aroma will change from grainy/floury, to sweetly fruity, to overripe fruit, and eventually to alcoholic / nail polish (yes, acetone-like from acetic acid). When it gets to the nail polish stage, that’s when a big discard is in order, and you want to plan ahead enough that you aren’t trying to bake the day after you do this; plan to ramp up so it’e somewhere in the sweet-to-ripe fruit phase and good and bubbly when you pitch your levain for fermenting the next day…and yes, baking is a three day process this way — day one: pitch your levain, day two: bulk ferment/proof, day three: bake. It takes some coordination, but just remember that all the innovations we’ve made to speed up this process have resulted in less healthy food, and, worse, millennials getting the idea that they can’t eat gluten, which as you know, is an essential building block for developing a sense of personal responsibility…but I digress…
You don’t have to take my word for any of this, and you want to do your own research anyway, being a lawyer, etc., and while there is no shortage of info online, as with everything else online, there is a very broad gradient of validity and value. To get you started with info I trust, I highly recommend this site:
…whose author really knows his shit, and steals from the best (e.g. Tartine). The Tartine Walnut Levain recipe is what led me to that site, and you can probably make Maurizio your bread guru and start and end your research there. It’s on a very short list of self-funded sites where I *immediately* made a donation, mainly out of sheer awe at how thorough he is on every front — not just recipes, but gear, ingredients, etc.
My main use case for starter is to pitch a levain the night before doing a mix for baking. You want the starter you use for the levain to be active (i.e. bubbly), and ripe, (i.e. aroma to be in the slightly sour ripe fruit stage — shouldn’t just smell like wet flour (too young), shouldn’t smell like nail polish (too old)).
To get it there, first get it to room temp (if you normally store it in the fridge), do a big discard a couple days prior to baking, followed by higher frequency feeding (not necessarily quantity — a huge feeding will drop the potency, since that means more flour/water, less critters). I also increase the nutrients in the feed: 50/50 white / whole wheat is my ‘maintenance’ food, whereas 50/50 fresh milled rye and red wheat is my ramp food — the fresh milled grain, particularly the rye, makes for a very active culture. The night before I mix the dough, I make a levain:
200g flour (50/50 freshly milled red wheat, rye)
50g ripe, bubbly starter
…keep covered at room temp, and by morning it should pass the float test (without stirring, scoop a spoonful off the top and see if it floats in a glass of water). If it was too cold overnight you might have to wait a bit — near a mild heat source (top of fridge?) might be good if “room temp” is much under 70F. Assuming the levain is ready, stir that up and drop 250g in for a batch of bread that uses 1kg of flour (that ratio is pretty good regardless of batch size); I pitch whatever is left back in my starter jar.
What you’ve done there is guarantee that you have a really active culture that will get a lot of work done during the bulk ferment stage, and you’ve also controlled the hydration rate (i.e. 4 parts at 100%, 1 part at whatever your starter’s hydration), which means the levain won’t mess up whatever target hydration rate you are going for with the dough. You can be more approximate with hydration for things like pancake and waffle batter, but with bread, you can’t fix it later, so measuring upfront is key. A large levain means an active ferment, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of the wrong hydration target.
P.S. — One of the superstitions is that you give your starter a name…as if personifying it will inspire you to care for it better. This is clearly in the ‘1 part nonsense’ column, but I would just suggest you don’t give it a weak, skinny, turtleneck wearing, techno-listening name like “Dieter” (my coworker had a starter by that name, and it died…I rest my case). Mine is secretly known as ‘Greta the Lacto-basilisk’.