Life of a Sourdough Starter

While on a vacation two weeks ago, I discovered a copy of The River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens. It's an amazing book, very much like The Tassajara Bread Book both in it's informal approach to breadmaking, and with it's "hand holding" steps. The instructions on how to make and feed a sourdough starter seemed so simple that I thought even I could do it.

I have been wanting to make a sourdough starter for a while, but it seemed a bit complicated. Now I'm giving it a shot. I'll be documenting the life of the starter on the blog, and mirroring the posts on it's own page here.

 Day 1: Conception
7/16/2011 2 pm EST

Step 1: Found a large container with a lid, big enough for the starter to double 4 times.

Step 2: Cleaned it.

Step 3: Mixed 1 cup whole grain flour (whole wheat, rye, spelt) with 1 cup warm water. I used dark rye flour and bottled water. Added more water to get a thick batter.

Step 4: Beat the batter for a few minutes (10 minutes in a stand mixer is optimal) - the more it's beaten, the more yeast spores get into the starter and the better it is.

Step 5: Put it into the large container and put the lid on top.

Step 6: Named starter "George", going on the theory of I can't kill what I named.

Step 7: Labelled the top of the container "Day 1: 7/16/11" so I can keep track of when I have to feed it.

Step 8: Put in a warm place in the kitchen where I can see it but it's out of the way.

This is as far as I have gotten. We'll see how it turns out..

7/16/2011 4:35 pm
The first 3 bubbles appear! It's ALIVE!

Day 2: First Feed
7/17/2011  8:39am

Checked on George this morning, found many bubbles and some doubling!

There are mini bubbles inside the "batter" that can be seen through the plastic of the container, so he seems to be happy.

Smells a little musty, but then again so does the flour before I used it.

Added 1 cup dark rye flour and 1 cup water, beating for a few more minutes.

Before first feed
7/17/2011 1:03pm

Bubbles have appeared inside the batter, again visible from the side. This is so exciting, kind of like having a 5th kid. :)

View of the side of the container, showing the bubbles inside the starter. Four hours after first feeding.

7/17/2011 3:30pm

George had fully doubled in size, a lot of fermentation activity!

Opened up the container and smelled the batter. Ew. Smelled rather like garbage, so I gave the batter a swift beating for about a minute. Smelled much better, so I'm thinking it was maybe carbon dioxide from the fermenting yeast.

Day 3: What the Heck is That Smell??
7/18/2011 7:43am

Actually most of the work was last night.

At 8pm last evening, noticing how vigorously active the starter was, to the point where I feared it would escape from it's large container overnight, I removed the cover to beat it down (anyone who has seen the kitchen scene in Woody Allen's "Sleeper" will get the idea).

The smell coming from the starter was similar to that of an open sewer, which I don't think is the smell we're going for. I've used clean equipment, the flour coming from a bulk food store. Maybe the flour was contaminated, but I decided to divide it and refresh a little earlier than Day 3.

I removed half the mixture- maybe slightly more than half- and refreshed with 1/2 cup COLD bottled water and 1/2 COLD dark rye flour.

I decided to use smaller amounts as I had no idea how much flour this would wind up using in the long run.

I again beat the mixture for a minute or two, and then sprinkled some rye flour over the top of the starter as suggested in Jeffery Hamalman's Bread.

I also put it into a cooler part of my house, not my kitchen, to let it rest overnight. This morning it has a milder, more vinegary smell rather than a sewage smell.

If it continues to smell like sewage, I'll discard George and start again.

7/18/2011 11:30am

Divided again, tipping out 1 cup of the starter and refreshing it with 3/4 COLD water and 3/4 COLD dark rye flour. I may have to switch to whole wheat as I'm running out of rye flour.

As I stirred it before removing the 1 cup there was a faint sewage smell again, but I think as I'm removing the original Mother starter (or Father as he's male :) ) the smell will be removed. It had a mild vinegary smell before I stirred it up, so I have hope.

Tomorrow at feeding time I may remove George from his container, wash the container and return him, just to make sure the container is fresh and clean.

7/18/2011 4:30pm

Fed George 1 cup cold water and 1 cup dark rye flour. He smells like vinegary apples. :)

Day 4: Divide, Freeze and Feed
7/19/2011 9:30am

This morning George had a nice applely vinegar smell with no trace of the stinkiness that I had at the beginning, but the sheer volume of him was overwhelming- 5 cups of sourdough culture!

So I beat him for a minute, got out a clean food storage container and poured 3 cups of him into it. I covered it, labelled it and put the container into a freezer bag, sticking it into the very bottom of my chest deep freezer in the basement. Realizing that I still had 2 cups to care for, I took a smaller container out of my cupboard and did the same thing. I love those Ziploc Twist 'n Loc containers, they work beautifully for this kind of thing.

I fed the remainder 1 cup of cold bottled water and 1 cup of rye flour. Hopefully I haven't hurt my starter by removing so much and replacing with so little, but I don't think it would be long term damage.

Day 5: Who's A Lovely Starter? Who?
7/20/2011 8:30am

This morning, George was all frothy and lovely on top, a pleasant slightly sour aroma emanating from his container. My husband, however, refused to sniff him! He had also risen quite a bit, so it looks like he should be ready to use in about 4 days.

At 8am, I removed 1 cup of batter, froze it for future use - I'd like to get a white flour starter going form the discarded bits of rye starter. Fed him with 1 cup dark rye flour and 1 cup cold water.

At this point I'm not sure if I should feed him twice a day or just the one time. The River Cottage Bread Handbook doesn't mention more than one daily feeding, but Jeffery Hamalman in Bread does mention to feed twice as does Susan over at "Wild Yeast" in her fabulous sourdough tutorial.

I'll feed him once a day for now and watch the activity. If it slows down then I'll feed him twice a day.

He should be ripe enough to use on Day 9, barring anything terrible I do to him between now and then.

Day 6: I Couldn't Wait.
7/21/2011 3:50pm

Well, despite George being underage, I couldn't wait to make bread with him. He'll probably be better in a few weeks, but he smelled too good and was very active. Unfortunately, he wasn't active enough at the time to give my loaves a good "spring". As the loaves are still baking I can't vouch for the taste, but they smell delicious.

After removing the required starter last night to make the sponge for the bread, I fed the starter 1 cup dark rye and 1 cup water, then stuck him in the fridge. He's got a little bit of life showing, but I want to slow him down as I cannot bake with him every day.

As I want to get a white starter working, I took some of Georges frozen remains out to defrost to turn into a white flour sourdough starter. Named it "Lucy".

Starting A New Sourdough Starter
7/22/2011 9:20am

George is doing wonderfully sitting in my fridge, percolating happily away on his flour and water. I want, though, to have a white starter to use in my bread baking.

I took out from my freezer some of the rye starter I had made, hoping to turn it into a white starter. Maybe I'm too impatient but all I got after two feedings was some liquid on top of the batter and no activity at all.

So I'm going to start Peter Reinhardt's sourdough culture using pineapple juice.

I have it in a copy of his Whole Grain Breads, but I found a better explanation of how to start the starter as whole wheat and turn it into a white starter over at "The Fresh Loaf".

I am cutting and pasting the post by "SourdoLady" here so I can reference it later, all credit to her and Peter Reinhart.
Procedure for Making Sourdough Starter

Day 1: mix...
2 T. whole grain flour (rye and/or wheat)
2 T. unsweetened pineapple juice or orange juice
Cover and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 2: add...
2 T. whole grain flour
2 T. juice
Stir well, cover and let sit at room temperature 24 hours. At day 2 you may (or may not) start to see some small bubbles.

Day 3: add...
2 T. whole grain flour
2 T. juice
Stir well, cover and let sit at room temperature 24 hours.

Day 4:
Stir down, measure out 1/4 cup and discard the rest.
To the 1/4 cup add...
1/4 cup flour*
1/4 cup filtered or spring water

*You can feed the starter whatever type of flour you want at this point (unbleached white, whole wheat, rye). If you are new to sourdough, a white starter is probably the best choice. All-purpose flour is fine--a high protein flour is not necessary.

Repeat Day 4:
Once daily until the mixture starts to expand and smell yeasty. It is not unusual for the mixture to get very bubbly around Day 3 or 4 and then go completely flat and appear dead. If the mixture does not start to grow again by Day 6, add 1/4 tsp. apple cider vinegar with the daily feeding. This will lower the pH level a bit more and it should wake up the yeast.
I haven't yet named the starter..

Day Two Of New Seed Culture
7/23/2011 2:47pm

I've been reading a lot more about sourdough starters (see, I called it a "culture"! Ha! Nothing gets by me. :)) and they way they work.

I read the section in Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads, discovering that he makes a "Mother starter" from his seed culture, something I didn't do with George, my River Cottage starter. Hauling out The River Cottage Bread Handbook, thinking I had missed something despite reading it closely, it seems that George doesn't have to be made into a "Mother starter" (or "Father starter" in his case), that the River Cottage uses the starter in a different manner. So George is alright, I gave him a nice stirdown today, he was nicely frothy and smelling more sour.

The new starter, tentatively named "Phyllida" although I'm not married to that, is progressing more slowly than George did at this point. I added the 2 tbs whole wheat flour/pineapple juice yesterday to begin, coming back and adding a 1/2 tsp more juice to get it a bit wetter a few hours later and a few hours after than giving it a bit of a stir for 30 seconds to aerate it. It seems the more air you add the better it can be. There were a few small bubbles, but nothing really active.

Noticed the separated liquid on top of the starter, stirred it back in. Apparently it's called "hootch" and not a problem. It smelled like latex paint.

Today at 11:30am I added 2 tbs whole wheat flour/pineapple juice to the original, not discarding anything. Again I beat it for about 30 seconds. Hootch again on top, still smells like latex paint, and  a few small bubbles, but still nothing really active.

I'll stir it again later this afternoon just to keep it airy.

Before I finish this post, I'll give you the definition of "Mother starter" from The Yumarama Bread Blog, I love their page of terms:

Mother Starter

The Mother Starter is the “go to” sourdough starter from which you would then cultivate new batches for each baking session. It is always maintained, typically it is kept in the refrigerator and fed weekly. In my kitchen, it is never completely used up so that I retain at least a couple tablespoons to grow more “mother” starter. Some recipes tell you to use the mother in building the dough, then keep some of the now built up bulk starter and turn it back into your mother. I don’t do it that way for the very real fear that one day I’ll forget to “keep some back” and bake the whole thing, loosing my starter in the process. Yes, it happens. So instead I always use a “discard” from a feed to build up the required dough starter. It works precisely the same without the risk of baking your mother by accident. And you don’t want to bake your mother, right?
This is also referred to as a “Chef starter” or simply “starter”.
And in my house, it has also referred to, over time, as Audrey, Carl and, currently, PJ. Yes, my starter has a name. No, I’m not the only one with a named starter (in cases you were wondering).

Day Four of the White Starter
7/25/2011 3:38pm

I didn't post Day Three of the new whole wheat flour/pineapple juice starter, it was just more feeding. TODAY was the big day!

This morning at 11:30am (I'm trying to feed at roughly the same time each day) I removed 1/4 cup of Phyllida (still not married to that, please feel free to recommend a name) and put it in a small cleanish container. It was the container I was storing the small amount of whole wheat flour I was feeding the starter with, so I figured it didn't have to be spotless.

I then added 1/4 cup of unbleached all purpose white flour and 1/4 cup cold bottled water. I'm trying to turn this into an all white starter, so I guess it will take many feeding to get it full white.

A few minutes ago I noticed her bubbling away, nicely doubling. She has an alcohol tang, the clean crisp alcohol smell you get when you make alcohol at home. At least, it's the same smell my high school chemistry project had when we had to make alcohol from sugar, flour and yeast at home.

Some side notes:
I read in several books that if you bleached all purpose flour contains nothing for the yeast to eat, eventually they die off. Now I don't know if that's true, but I'll err of the side of caution and feed the starter only unbleached flour. I'll buy her small bags and keep it only for the starter, I cannot get large bags of inexpensive unbleached white flour anymore.

After reading the post from "The Fresh Loaf" I wrote about yesterday and posted on my "Troublshooting Bread Dough" page, I gave myself a migraine trying to determine the math behind changing rations - I am not a math person. After consulting all the books in my personal library on bread - and boy were they really unhelpful! - I posted a question on "The Wild Yeast" blog regarding the pesky mathematical conundrum I was facing. Susan came to my rescue, her advice was great:
"If you are converting from one hydration to another, I find it easiest to disregard the discrepancy in hydrations and just start feeding with the new hydration ratio. Initially the hydration of the “converted” starter will be off, but after a few feedings the difference will be negligible. "

As I have found her postings on sourdough very helpful, I will post links here to the three most important posts on Sourdough that I feel she has written:
  1. Flour + Water = Starter - Sourdough Starter from Scratch
  2. How I Maintain My Sourdough Starter - Techniques on keeping your starter alive
  3. How to Convert a Liquid Starter to a Stiff Starter - Changing the hydration percentage of your starter
All three have been terrific!