Monday, September 13, 2010

Sourdough starter, three ways

I have several different sourdough starters in my refrigerator, but after a couple of conversations about creating one, I began thinking about possible new starters. I've always been a sourdough purist, using nothing but flour and water. No fruit juice, no potato water, no additives. Just flour and tap water.

But it's been a while since I started a starter, so my recollection of how much and how many days was fuzzy, so it made it hard for me to explain my procedure. And then I started questioning some of the conventional wisdom. I decided to do a little experiment.

And then one new starter morphed into three.

I'd read that chickpea flour gives your starter a big boost, so I thought that might be worth trying. And to see how it compared to the usual flour-water version, I figured I'd start one of those, too. And then I started questioning why you have to feed your starter before it's bubbling. I mean, it's not eating anything until it's bubbling, so why do you need to double it several times a day before it's active?

So I decided to add another element to my test. Feed one starter and just stir the other one. Stirring is good for the starter - adding oxygen makes the yeasts happy. So when I added more flour and water to one jar, I stirred the other. Vigorously. Just as vigorously as when I added the flour and water.

And while I was at it, I decided to make my flour/water starters extremely wet. Better to see the bubbling action.

Into one jar went 2 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon of flour. Into the second jar went 1 cup of water and 1/2 cup of flour. The jar with the smaller quantity was fed an additional 2 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon of flour later that day, and it was fed twice a day afterward.

On the second day, both jars began bubbling, and by the third day they had both worked themselves up to a froth.

A side view of the jars shows the flour settled a bit at the bottom of the jars, a middle layer of liquid, and a top layer of bubbly frothy foam.

Besides the volume in the jars, the only difference I can detect is that the foam on the top of the jar that I'm feeding has smaller bubbles. I'm not sure if that has anything to do with yeast growth or if it has something to do with the distance the bubbles have to travel from the floury layer on the bottom and through the liquid in the center.

Smaller bubbles here.

Bigger bubbles here.
With the mixture this wet, you can actually see the bubbles bursting from the floury layer in little plumes. Yes, I'm easily amused. The starter is on day 4 here and it's bubbling happily.

See the layers?
By day five, I finally saw a difference between the fed starter and the unfed one. While they were equal in activity at the end of day 4, the unfed starter was beginning to slow down by day 5 and has a slightly alcoholic odor. If I stirred it up, it would become active for a short while, and then go back to resting mode. My theory? There were finally enough yeasts in the mixture that they were exhausting the local food supply. Stirring the mixture moved the food around, so they could go back to work again.

Obviously, both methods have produced viable cultures. Now the question is which one will produce the best starter for the best bread.

On day 5, I changed my method. Since the unfed mixture seemed to be signaling its hunger, I will began feeding both of them at the same rate. Since they're both very wet, I decided to just add flour - no additional water - over the next few days. I'll report back on the results when it gets interesting.

Meanwhile, for the chickpea flour concoction, I started with 1/4 cup of water and 1/4 cup of chickpea flour. On the second day, I added another 1/4 cup of each. At this point, the odor was starting to change. Not unpleasant, like a new rye sourdough, but it was different. Not as beany, maybe.

On the third day, I added 1/4 cup of all purpose flour and 1/4 water. It might have been bubbling a little, but that might have been bubbles caused by stirring. It wasn't massively active. On the fourth day, I added another 1/4 cup of flour, but no more water. By evening, there was definite evidence of bubbles rising. But the idea the chickpea flour was some sort of quick-start didn't seem to hold true.

On day 4, I added 1/4 cup of all purpose flour, but no more water. By the end of the day, it was definitely showing signs of bubble activity, but still not rip-roaring ready to go. I expected more from this, and considering the activity didn't start until the flour arrive, it makes me question the whole theory about chickpea flour being a magic ingredient.

Beginning day 5, I'll be feeding it regular flour, with only enough water (if needed) to keep it a stir-able consistency. I'll post back with the results later, as well.


Adam Kuban said...

Oh, man. I wish you would have posted this *before* I started my own starter! I'll watch your experiments and glean tips from them. I'm hopeful for my own starter but am worried I won't have done something right.

dmcavanagh said...

db-I have some pictures of my resent starter experiment which are exactly the same as your's, thick bottom, layer of hooch and a foamy, bubbly thin top layer. I'm just dong ap flour and water(always use filtered), but I have feed a couple of cultures differently but haven't noticed any remarkable differences in the two. Once it's active and healthy, it think it's almost impossible to harm it as long as you feed it occasionally.

Anonymous said...

I have been dabbling with the idea of sourdough. You experiment gave me great insight into the project. Now I just need to do it!

Wayne Surber said...

Out of curiosity, which books/websites have you found the most useful in thinking about starters?

I have a handful of bread books on my shelves and tend to mix and match from all of them and find myself creating more robust and lively starters, with minimal effort.

My favorite, for home simplicity of late, has been Andrew Whitley's Bread Matters, although I love Maggie Glezer's Artisan Baking.

Curious cook. Thanks.

Donna Currie said...

I just read Bread Matters recently, so I can't say it was influential. Interesting, yes, but I haven't had it long enough for it to have soaked in.

Ed Wood's books are interesting. His descriptions of what he went through to collect some of his starters was fascinating. He had a hard time killing the critters in his native flour to create a clean environment to gather the foreign ones, and that's a pretty good testament to how easy it should be to get a starter going. What you do with it afterward makes a difference, of course. But he got me thinking a lot about foreign starters as opposed to just catching what's local.

Post a Comment

I love to hear from you! Thanks for commenting!