I wouldn’t call myself a master bread baker just yet, but in the year that’s just past us, I’ve taken to learning a bit more about bread; it taught me some things I didn’t plan on learning. Not even trying to be deep, some thoughts would just rise. Bread really isn’t that hard. Nor is it complicated though it is complex. It may be explained by science but there are things you can feel and observe to get through the process, ignorant of the science. I thought the time in quarantine would be a great time to take on the task of a sourdough starter. I had tried and failed once before but what else was I really doing? I knew sourdough took time and it seemed I had plenty of it, as did much of America.
After enough procrastination, I found a starter recipe on the King Arthur website. Obviously, it wasn’t the only recipe or method. Possibly, it wasn’t the best recipe or method. I don’t know. But the remedy I’ve adopted for combating my tendency to get tangled in the details of many options is to just pick one! If I find something better, I’ll adjust when I come to it. But no starter is effective if you don’t start’er!
Let’s back up a bit though. What is starter? A starter can go by many other names but its a portion of already fermenting dough or batter to be incorporated into a dough to give it rise. Starter can be brought to life by many different flours and can even get some help from fruits or commercial yeast (probably cheating though). The most basic of sourdoughs start with a whole grain flour, like rye or wheat, water and plenty of time.
King Arthur’s recipe calls for equal weights of rye or whole wheat flour and water. After combined, the mixture is left loosely covered at room temperature in a container with room to grow. Too loose and it will dry out. Too tight, and either it won’t ferment or you’ll have a mess on your hands. I used wheat flour and my mixture was thick and doughy. It didn’t seem to match the picture very well but I pressed on.
The next day, 24 hours later, the instructions are to discard half the mass and add to it equal parts of AP flour and water, returning it to its rest. (The discard is a part I still struggle to fully understand, much less explain, and didn’t quite appreciate it much. But what I so far understand is you’re making room for the starter to continue growing, while still providing the necessary nutrients for the developing yeast to eat and release.) A tip: if you undertake the task of starter, have some discard recipes at hand for your initial days of the process. This went on for a while, the dumping and sometimes accumulation of the fermenting goop, and the addition and mixing of more flour and water.
The smells and appearances evolved. I started with a mild, barely nutty or maybe earthy smell of the raw wheat flour- soon fruity and almost reminiscent of beer (maybe day 3). It grew more doughy in smell but still with a pleasant tang. I marveled at the little bubbles not just dispersed as the network of holes in a sponge but actively rising to the top, sneaking through the surface. If you listen closely enough, you can hear the gentle pop, sometimes provoked by a tap on the container. But these exciting times of discovery were soon silenced perhaps suffocated by doubt, moments o what looked like inactivity. I’d carried on the routine of feeding the starter beyond the suggested week or so and hadn’t yet broken through to the promised reward of a bubbling buttermilk-looking-smelling sourdough starter if that’s a thing.
Was it a waste of my precious flour and time to keep going, pouring myself into this jar? Was it a waste of my precious flour and time to call it quits? Whatever. I decided to keep at it, praying for breakthrough, encouraged by the “scriptures” printed in McGee’s On Food and Cooking, diagnosing the possible reasons for delay. I woke up one morning rubbing my eyes with terror and delight at the terrible mess that confronted me and the terrific biology that triggered it. Starter unleashed.