So I’m crazy, but I’m trying to start a sourdough starter from scratch (again). I think most remember my ever-so-memorable sourdough bread fail I blogged for posterity here. Yikes, that’s embarrassing. For the record, I tossed that starter and have decided to start over. (Partly helped by the fact that I had it in the oven with only the oven lights on for warmth and it started baking. Yeah. Ultimate baking fail.)
I’ve dabbled with starters a few separate times before, but never managed to get my subsequent dough to rise properly. I don’t know why I think starting my own starter (by that I mean with no added yeast but depending on the natural yeast in the environment) is a good idea when I haven’t had starter yeast work for me.
King Arthur’s Flour is a great baking website, one I like to stalk when I need inspiration. I haven’t made a lot of recipes from their blog, but every once in awhile they throw something up there I can’t resist. Since I had to toss my sourdough starter when we moved across state (I suppose, if I had felt so inclined, I could have dried or frozen some), I determined to begin anew. Anyway, here is the “recipe” for sourdough starter that I am following.
Days 1 & 2:
I began my starter Tuesday morning and fed it for the first time early Wednesday afternoon. If anyone has messed with sourdough starter before, you’ll know that it is a commitment to take care of it. Feedings should occur about every 12 hours, unless refrigerated, and then probably weekly.
If you intend to use a refrigerated starter, you first have to take it out a day or two before and feed it to wake it up.
To my great surprise, my starter bubbled up over the past day! I left it in the proofing box the entire time, filling the water tray only at the start of Day 1. I forgot to feed it last night before I went to bed, which should have been the second feeding. Instead, I fed it about 20 hours after its first feeding. But I needn’t have worried, for it grew!
I’m always encouraged by the air bubbles in my starter, and it’s wonderful that the starter doubled over the past day. I think my last starter suffered by having an inconsistent temperature and couldn’t grow well in our cool house, where we turn off the heat at night and when we aren’t home. (Hey, heating oil is expensive!)
Last time, I tried to compensate for the cool house by using both the “proofing” setting on our oven (which is a 100˚F setting, significantly hotter than the 68-70˚F suggested by King Arthur’s Flour), and by simply putting the starter in the oven with the oven light on. Apparently, our oven lights are HOT, as the starter began bubbling–but when I took it out hours later, the top had begun to bake. What?! How hot do those lights get?!
There is something satisfying about feeding a culture and seeing it grow. When I TAed for a microbiology lab, it involved prepping a lot of cultures for class. You get pretty good at it, and you also realize just how hardy bacteria and yeast are. The biggest concern in the lab, of course, is contamination. Here, I’m actually encouraging the natural yeasts and bacteria in the Alaskan environment to grow. I, of course, use clean utensils and bowls, fresh water and measuring scoops, I don’t want to poison myself, but the nature of flour encourages certain types of growth, and that’s how sourdough starts.
The incubation time is where the magic happens. If you don’t have the right growth conditions, you can feed the starter all you want. Temperatures on either extreme can kill or inhibit the growth of yeast and bacteria (each species has a “sweet spot” where it will grow best. For sourdough microorganisms, that’s around 68-70˚F).
Now, if you don’t have a proofing box, it’s not the end of the world. A heating pad with a towel on top, a warm spot in your house, or if you keep your house warm, or (usually) in the oven with the door closed and the oven light on will do the trick. But make sure and keep an eye on your starter–if the temperatures are too cold, growth will be slower. If the temperatures are too hot, you’ll most likely kill your starter and have to start over.
I’ve been feeding my starter every 12-24 hours. Some days I just can’t manage to deal with it before bed, so it waits until morning. Bacteria and yeast are hardy. Like a cockroach.
So far, at one week, the starter is lively, but never doubles in size. I increased the temperature of the proofing box to 73˚F, after rereading the instructions, it sounded okay. I haven’t killed it, but not have I seen a huge increase in production. So I am continuing with my feedings and seeing where it goes. Eventually, I should have a lively starter.
It’s been over a week now, and I’m still feeding my starter daily. It doesn’t quite double in size, which is where I want to get it before I refrigerate it. I need a healthy starter that can double before I allow it to go dormant in the fridge.