Starter'd from the Bottom, Now We're Here


As soon as we began our mighty bread quest, we realized if we were going to be truly dedicated bread-makers, we would have to confront the strange and mysterious entity that is the "starter". Specifically a sourdough starter, but as you can see in the image above, we went a bit starter mad & ended up with an all-purpose/white starter, a rye starter, and a whole wheat. But we'll get to all that.

Starters are a common way of describing a blend of flour & water that has been allowed to cultivate yeast, the magical creatures (for they truly are alive & have personalities) that what give bread its indescribable complex yumminess. Using a starter, as opposed to active dry or instant yeast, is also among the oldest ways to make bread. Although our modern technologies can provide us with pellets of captured yeast that we can just chuck into a dough to force a rise, this process barely dates back a century. Prior to this, you'd have to find a way to harvest the naturally occurring yeast in your surrounding environment. Heck, go back even further, say earlier than the 17th century, people didn't even know there was such a thing as yeast that was giving beer or bread its lift or bubbles. 

So, of course, the best way to celebrate our modern inventions is by refusing to use them at all. Right? 
Right.

In any event, understanding the role of yeast in bread is critical if you're going to bake bread with any regularity or hope of success. And making your own starter is a great way to explore the wild woolly world that is yeast. You begin to understand that, even today with all our technological capabilities, yeast is a fickle beast. There are many "recipes" for getting a sourdough starter going; however, inevitably every one of them will make the stipulation that the ways of coaxing a starter to success are more art than science.
And it's true.
How your yeast will grow and develop is highly contingent on not only the water, flour, and any other ingredient you use in getting the yeast going, but also where you store it, what you store it in, the temperature of the room, the elevation, the cycle of the moon, the will of the gods, etc. You can try to control all of these factors- and it's certainly a good idea to try and at least understand what is contributing to the success (or failure!) of your starter, but it's also important to remember that yeast has a mind of its own. At some point, it may get unhappy. And you may not have any idea why. 

Thankfully, although yeast may be fickle, it's also remarkably resilient. You can do quite a bit to a starter and still, with enough dedication, pull it back to a useable state. That's the good news. 

Below is recap of our own starter experience. Feel free to use it as a guide for getting your own little beastie(s) going. Remember, there is more than one way to skin a cat & certainly  more than one way to start a starter. We used a couple of different methods in our experiments, with varying results.

We also consulted a number of resources. There are probably millions of sites on starters and yeast; however, we found these particularly reliable as we were facing down our own yeast-based monster:




Basic Equipment and Ingredients

Flour

We recommend Rye Flour (organic if possible) and/or Hard Unbleached All Purpose Flour (aka Bread Flour)

Believe it or not, there are "easier" and "harder" flours to get a starter going with. Although we were looking for an all-purpose/white sourdough starter, we often found that folks recommended getting the starter going with a more resilient flour- such as rye. Just because you begin a starter with a particular kind of flour doesn't mean your starter has to stick with that kind of flour for all of its life. We'll talk about how to transition from one kind of flour to another later on, but when you're getting a starter going, rye is a very forgiving and hearty flour that will be a great base for any kind of starter. Because we also wanted to get a white starter going, we used some all purpose flour as well. I'd like to say we picked up the bread flour on purpose (there is a logic to using bread flour for a starter that you will use to bake bread), but really it all ended up as a happy accident. We did find that our all purpose starter really responded well to it, so we kept using it whenever feeding him. We used the Oak Manor brand for all our flours, straight out of Whole Foods. Arguably, you can use whatever flour you like & I don't necessarily think that any "organic" flour is better than another. However, I can't deny that once we switched to these, the starters really did start performing better overall, so take that grain of salt advice as you will. 




Water
Now this is going to sound ridiculous, but if you wanted to do something easy, you wouldn't be going down the starter path anyway. So, water. Absolute purists will tell you to use purified or bottled water for your starter. Some of their justification makes sense. Tap water, depending on where you live, has all kinds of things in it, notably and most frequently, chlorine. Although such stuff is in very small quantities, just a little may hinder or even kill your growing baby yeast in the starter. We were able to get one starter going just using tap water; however, we found the starters responded much better to water that we had boiled in our kettle and had left to cool to room temperature. We'll call this "purified" water for lack of any other easy adjective (because "boiled and then cooled water" just doesn't roll off the tongue). We found this to be the easiest and laziest method of providing a non-chlorinated water for our starter- no need to go out and buy your starter some bottled water. 
That brings us to another point...

Temperature
Yes, we're going to put this under the ingredients/equipment section just because I almost killed two starters by messing with temperatures. We made the "interesting" decision to start this project in the middle of a Canadian winter, in which, even in the warmest room of the house, it was barely getting to 70 F and could drop much much lower during the evenings. This is not ideal for getting a starter going. It took me weeks (longer than it should have) to realize that my cold kitchen and giving my starter cold water out of the tap was not making it very happy.

Yeast likes a nice comfy living environment, right around the 72 F mark- just like humans. A little cold won't kill your yeast (unless you're dumping ice cubes in it), but it may slow its development considerably. Eventually cold (as in, the temperature of your home fridge) will be a good thing when you're maintaining your starter because it means its slowed development will also slow down its feeding schedule. A room temperature starter usually needs feeding once-twice a day. A cold or fridged starter can go for a few days, even (arguably) a week without feeding. But when you're just starting out, you want to make sure that everything that's going into the starter (the flour, the water, the juice, etc.) is room temperature. You also want to make sure you're storing the starter at room temperature (or even a little warmer). Again, a cold kitchen won't kill a starter necessarily, but you don't want to slow the development of your starter when you're just getting it going. 

Pineapple Juice (unsweetened, as organic as you can)
Lots of folks will tell you a combination of just flour and water works for getting starters, but I have to recommend the pineapple juice method. Now, I'm no scientist, but I'm willing to believe that a bit of fruit acid helps the yeast get going and mixed in with the flour and water. Remember what I said about art vs. science? You'll only need a very small amount of the juice, so don't go out and buy a gallon of the stuff. You'll also only need it (at most) for the first few days just until the starter gets going. 

A Tall Container 
Technically, you can keep your starter in anything you want, but I found the easiest method was to keep it in some form of tupperware that you could easily put plastic clingfilm or other loose top on. I did eventually keep mine for a time in a mason jar, but they can be tricky to clean and I found the plastic tupperware was often the easiest solution. The best way to monitor your starter's rise (and fall) is something that has a bit of height to it. It will also safeguard against accidental spillage when your starter does take off and starts rising significantly during the day (you don't want to come home to an exploded starter!).


Getting Your Starter Going

Again, if you do a google search for sourdough starter recipes, you're liable to come up with hundreds of different methods. The methods we mention below aren't the only ways to get a healthy, happy starter going, but they are the ones we had the best results with- eventually having three distinct starters, happily bubbling away.

Method 1: A Rye Starter Using The Pineapple Juice Method

We found this to be the fastest and most foolproof method of getting a starter going- we were noticing significant bubble action by Day 4-5. 

Day 1: Mix 3 1/2 tablespoons of rye flour with 1/4 cup unsweetened pineapple juice in a tall container. Cover loosely and set aside at room temperature for 48 hours. Stir the mixture as often as you can remember- at least twice a day. 

Day 3 (after 48 hours has passed): Add 2 tablespoons of rye flour to the mixture and 2 tablespoons of pineapple juice. Again, set aside at room temperature, this time for about 24 hours. As before, you'll want to stir the mixture a few times during this period. 

Day 4 (after 24 hours has passed): Add 1/4 cup of "purified" room temperature water (see my note above about water) and 1/4 cup + 2 tbsp rye flour to the mixture and stir well. 

After this point, this will be your basic starter feed (1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup + 2tbsp rye flour), once every 24 hours, keeping the starter at room temperature.

You may begin to see some activity at this point- bubbles are usually the first indicator that something's happening in the mixture. If you're really lucky, you may even get some rising action, but with my starters, I've often found it can take up to two weeks for the starter to start to noticeably rise after a feeding. 

You can see some bubbles in this early form of my rye starter, so there is some yeasty activity. But it's still early days for this little guy. 

Maintaining the Starter

You can keep your starter at room temperature for as long as you like, but remember that a room temperature starter will need more regular feeding than one that's put in the fridge. Many people recommend a twice a day feeding; however, mine did just fine on a once a day regimen (i.e. every 24 hours).

Each day add 1/4 cup of purified water and 1/4 cup + 2 tbsp of rye flour to the mixture, stirring well each time.


An active and bubbly rye starter, after about a week of daily feeding at room temperature.

After three weeks, my rye starter really got going & started to double in size every time I fed it. 
The rye starter after three weeks- great bubbly structure and serious rise after each feed.
How Much Starter is Too Much? 
AKA How Do I Avoid an 800 lb starter if I'm Feeding It Every Day?

An excellent question. Although flour is not the most expensive thing in the world, you will find yourself going through a surprising amount of it if you keep up a daily feeding schedule. Many recipes will recommend that you throw out all of your starter except for a 1/4 - 1/2 cup every time you feed it. That's right- you're throwing half of your beloved starter pet down the drain (or in the trash, depending on the quality of your plumbing system) every single day. So it's perhaps inevitable that the question of waste does pop up. But there is good news on the horizon & a couple of different options.

Option 1: Don't throw half your starter away every time you feed it. 
This may sound remarkably basic, but I spent a good month dutifully measuring out 1/4 cup of my starter, transferring that to a clean container, adding the requisite flour and water combination, and throwing the rest away. This grew tiring after just a few days, as it meant I had to wash a starter-y container almost every day. And if any of you have had the joy of cleaning up flour- you know it's not the most lovable of tasks.

So I decided that I would stop with the endless cleaning and dumping schedule and just keep feeding my starter the same basic amount until I ran out of room in my container. Only then would I do the recommended dump of 1/4 - 1/2 of the starter. This saved loads on my dish washing routine and, weirdly enough, seemed to actually promote more growth/activity in my starter than my previous regimen. So if you don't wan't to throw it away, you don't have to! If you're feeling guilty or wasteful even throwing that amount away, try the next option

Option 2: Use your extra starter in other recipes
Now you may have begun your sourdough starter to make the best sourdough bread in the world and have a singular mind to do so. Well, that's lovely- but surprisingly enough, that's not the only thing that starters can be used for. There are a number of recipes that even call for "underripe" or "developing" starters, so even if your starter is still in its early stages, there are plenty of ways for you to use that lovely yeasty mixture without having to commit it to the rigour that is making sourdough bread. These recipes are great if you're also unsure of your starter's ability to rise yet. You don't want to spend 25 (or more!) hours on a beloved sourdough bread recipe only to realize your starter wasn't ready yet. In the next few days, I'll post some great alternatives for using sourdough starters that will make you forget all about your "unready" starter.


Maintaining Your Starter in the Fridge

I don't recommend putting your starter in the fridge until it shows serious signs of activity (lots of bubbles and a noticeable rise and fall after each feed). Once it does, you can decrease the feeding to once every 3-4 days, even perhaps up to a week (although this is frowned upon by the die hard bakers among us). There are apocryphal legends about people reviving fridged starters after 6 months, but it's not something I would recommend trying without being willing to lose your starter altogether. The most common philosophy is to treat your starter as something between a house plant and a pet- it will need somewhat regular feeding to keep it healthy and happy. That's not to say you will kill it if you forget to feed it once, but you do have to at least remember to feed it every once in awhile. The longer your starter lasts, the more complex and lovely the flavors it will impart to your baking.




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