I have been a baker for years. Growing up in the granola-filled 60’s & 70’s, I amassed a decade of bread memories before I learned to drive.
First there was pumpernickel, the dense dark bread of my Danish heritage, layered with Tilsit cheese or smeared with Castello. In high school there were trips to my best friend’s house which, bustling with seven kids, had white, wheat and rye bread all at the same time, and finally the eye-popping “how to knead bread” demonstration by a speech class classmate that left me astonished–“you mean teenagers can bake bread?!”
Alas my culinary development was delayed and this inspiration stayed latent until my 20’s. But in an early apartment, I started to cook. A classmate in a night class gave me an employee “reject” copy of a Red Start Yeast cookbook (with stickers placed strategically over typos) that remains one my most coveted bread books today (along with “Beard on Bread” and “Smart Muffins”) and I worked my way through it from rolls to dessert.
Over the years my bread-making waxed and waned according to the rhythms of my life. Lately I have been baking like crazy and I knew I needed to take the next step—sourdough.
The Starter Trials
My first attempt at starter was a failure. I mixed flour and water, fed it twice a day and by the third day had a great foamy brew. It smelled a bit strange, but doubled and bubbled so I figured I was on my way. By day five, it was flat (they told me to expect this) and when in was still in that condition on day nine, I threw it away.
I thought about just trying again but remembered the old saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So I did a bit more research. One site actually went into the science of sourdough and the key point that the “wild yeast” needs an acid environment. The first organisms that grow live in an alkaline mixture of flour and water but produce acid, setting the environment for the real yeast, which then take over. They suggested shortcutting (definitely a boon for impatient people like me) the process by beginning your starter with a sweet acid liquid like orange or pineapple juice instead of water. Here is what I did for starter # 2:
Day 1-3: mix 2 T OJ, 1 T rye flour, 1 T wheat flour. Let sit in covered glass container
Checkpoint: some slight bubbling and a bit of a sour smell
Day 4-5: remove half, then add 1/4 c filtered water & 1/4 c unbleached flour
Checkpoint: still only slight bubbling
Day 6: remove half, then add 1/4 c filtered water & 1/4 c unbleached flour & 1/4 t apple cider vinegar to re-acidify the mixture, per the website suggestions
Day 7-8: remove half, then add 1/4 c filtered water & 1/4 c unbleached flour
Checkpoint: Looks alive but sleepy—I don’t think the starter could cause dust bunnies to rise much less a sodden mass of bread dough. I scoured the comments for ideas on what to try next. The best suggestion seemed to be keep the starter warmer and feed it more
Day 9: remove half, then add 1/4 c filtered water & 1/4 c unbleached flour twice a day. Move to anyplace warm (over a container of lidded hot water—which unfortunately needed constant changing, by the vent of the oven when I cooked, etc)
Checkpoint: Definitely foamier. Not doubling or frothy like some of the online descriptions, but my gut is that it is working.
Day 10: Stopped removing any of the old starter and fed twice in preparation for baking. Kept moving it to the warmest place I could find (why didn’t I try this in summer…).
Evening of day 10—prepared to bake!
Next: my first sourdough bread!