start by starting your starter with a really good starter…
© 2011 by KV5R — Rev. Feb. 5, 2011.
Sourdough bread starter is a live culture of both wild yeast and bacteria. The yeast converts sugars into alcohol (fermentation), and the bacteria converts the alcohol to acetic and/or lactic acids, which provides the sour taste. It must be fed regularly to keep it alive. At room temperature, it’s fed daily; and when refrigerated, weekly. Feeding involves adding equal parts (by weight) of dechlorinated water and flour, discarding some first to keep the volume manageable. It is warmed to room temperature and fed several hours before using.
Home bakers typically keep 2 cups of starter in a jar or crock of about 6 cups capacity, to allow room for rising. The container must not have a tight-fitting seal on the lid, so that the starter can release its carbon dioxide. Good starters should smell sour but not foul; to me, it’s sort of like a warm beer smell mixed with a yeast smell. As starters get more sour, they will smell more like vinegar. Throwing out half and then doubling it with fresh flour and water reduces the acidity, while leaving it alone in the fridge for a while increases the acidity. Starters usually do not go bad unless severely neglected, when they run out of food, die off, and get infected by a mold. Even then, the top might be discarded and viable starter found lower in the jar, used to start up a new batch. The organisms involved are not harmful and, in any case, everything is killed during baking.
You can mix up some flour and water and catch wild yeast out of the air or from fruit skins, or you can obtain some live or dried sourdough starter from someone that has a good, proven batch. After a little on-line research, I decided to buy a live blob of a highlt-rated sourdough bread starter from Eric at Breadtopia ($6). I ordered it on a Sunday, Eric shipped it Monday morning, and it arrived (Iowa to Texas) on Thursday morning. I then multiplied the few grams of his starter into a roaring 1.5 liter jar-full in a mere 12 hours. Nice!
The yeasts and bacteria in a purchased starter will eventually be replaced by local strains. Since that might turn out to be inferior, it’s a good idea to build up the good starter, then dry and freeze some, so you can revert back to the earlier strain if desired, or if your batch gets corrupted or completely killed somehow. Frozen starter, if completely dry, will keep indefinitely, and may be revived with a couple days of hydration and feeding.
Soudough bread recipes generally call for 1 cup of sourdough to replace the usual dry yeast and 1 cup of the recipe, although very long-rise, no-knead recipes call for ¼ cup since, given the 12-18 hour rise times, that’s plenty. I will provide more info on sourdough baking in later articles in this series, as I gain more experience.
Please remember that I’m a noob here, so if the experts will pardon me, I’ll just show what I did to get started in sourdough, and other noobs can also get started. There is probably better advice on every point somewhere on the web, but I’ve attempted to pull together the basics here. Now for the pictures!