Starters: Care and Feeding of Your Yeast Friends

Marilyn had a running start with her creation. Not because I added anything to her like berries, or yogurt, or used a commercial starter. She just grew like the wild yeast that she is. The Florida weather didn’t hurt. Right from the start I was doing feedings twice a day, and I put her in the fridge a few days later. Should’ve done it sooner, but for some reason I had it stuck in my head that a starter should take a week to properly develop, and dammit I was going to follow rules!

So there’s the first lesson learned: know when to follow intuition. It’s a lesson I keep re-teaching myself. This was quickly followed up with don’t keep your starter in the fridge door. Seriously, it’s the warmest part of the fridge and my household is made up of 6 hungry people. Put it on a shelf and let it get pushed toward the back. Just don’t forget it’s there for months on end like that leftover soup you were definitely going to have for lunch.

Your experience with creating a starter will vary from mine, especially if you don’t live in a warm climate. You’ll probably find your starter takes longer to develop, and that’s perfectly okay.

This is the “formula” I use for Marilyn. “Formula” is in quotes here because the process is a lot less fussy than it sounds. I took cues from Tartine’s first cookbook and use a 50/50 white and whole wheat flour blend. Add an equal amount of water, (going by weight, let’s say 50 grams of flour to 50 grams of water) stir until everything’s mixed together, and leave it alone on the counter for a while. A glass jar (or bowl, etc) with a loose fitting lid or cloth cover is a good home for your budding culture.

It’s going to bubble and rise, and after a few days you’ll start smelling the yeast. Be sure to feed it around the same time daily by discarding half of your starter and making up the difference with fresh flour and water. It’s best to move your starter into a new container in the process to keep things clean. Move 50 grams of starter to the new container, add 50 grams of the flour blend and equal amount of water. Repeat cycle daily. Throw away the leftover starter for now. When you’re ready to use the starter, this discard will be what you use in a recipe.

You might find your starter develop a layer of brown liquid on the top. This is called hooch and it means your starter is hungry. Pour it off and feed the starter soon, and make a note to make feedings earlier in the future.

Some people in cooler climates leave their starter in the oven to help speed along the fermentation process. Be VERY careful if you opt to do this, as there are many stories of people accidentally baking their starters when they or their partners turned on the oven without checking.

Your starter is ready to use when it passes the “float test.” take out a small amount of starter (about a teaspoon) and drop it in a glass of water. A developed starter will have enough bubbles from fermentation that it will float. If your starter sinks, it’s not developed enough. This is when I move the starter to the fridge and switch to weekly feedings.

That’s the very basic owner’s manual for a sourdough starter. Feel free to experiment with the flours and feeding ratios to see what you like. Maybe you want an all-white or all-wheat starter. Maybe you want to try a starter with rye flour. Maybe you saw someone selling an heirloom starter online and want to see what the fuss is about. If you don’t want your finished products to be so sour, you can add more flour and water to your feedings, discard a higher percentage of the starter, or don’t wait as long between feedings. The yeast and bacteria in a starter are extremely hardy and can put up with a lot of tinkering. Have fun with it!

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