“I don’t care how good the bitch is, don’t let me keep any,” my mother said as she walked into the kitchen.
This was a few weeks ago. The back story. I had traveled home to Syracuse with two quart containers of sourdough starter, a scale, some rice flour to prevent sticking, and—what shall now be known as—my “travel” bench scraper.
The starter? Destined for my brother, visiting from D.C. The gang of baking oddities? Tools for making sourdough when traveling. My mother? A woman who knows her weakness for bread. And who—only in the right company—will curse for comedic emphasis.
The thing about starter is, well, to put it in
unladylike motherly comedic terms: it’s a bitch. When Dave brought some home from Canary Square, it came labeled as such.
Bitch. Written in block letters on a piece of masking tape. A point quickly reinforced.
A starter requires daily feeding. If you are not careful, you can overfeed it. Which is what happened when I was home. The bitch expanded, popped its top, oozed out of its container (so much that it tipped sideways), and covered an index card that had installation measurements for my mother’s new door.
Hence her quote. She has yet to get a dog, so she definitely isn’t going to be tied down by sourdough. No matter how good.
And it makes very good bread. The recipe I use faithfully is from Tartine Bread, a cookbook from their San Francisco bakery. Their country sourdough requires 8 to 10 hours start to finish and involves 15 pages of instructions. (In fact, I am not going to write the instructions for fear of carpal tunnel.) Instead, I have included a picture of the final product (starter itself isn’t going to win any beauty contests). Suffice to say if you enjoy making bread, I highly recommend the book.
In the meantime, here are some tips for feeding a sourdough starter. Which, it turns out, is a lot like the parenting you’d provide a small child (minus the bit about ‘nam). Though you might want to think of a name other than bitch. My brother started to refer to his as “Animal.” Which is very appropriate. Brother, this is for you.
How to Feed
Your Starter Your Animal:
Replace what you take.
To feed your animal (which I keep in a plastic quart container), remove about a third of the starter and replace it with roughly the same amount of a mixture of flour and water (about 60/40, respectively).
Use what you have.
No need to feed with bread flour, AP will do. Or use bread flour, if that's what is around. Whatever.
If you don’t feed it, it will die.
Starter becomes cultured with wild yeast and bacteria. These things need food. If they don't get food, starter will die. The end. (You should feed the starter once a day, if kept out at room temperature.)
Mistakes will be made.
It’s pretty hard to kill a starter, unless you utterly neglect it. A healthy one will double in volume after a feeding. If yours doesn’t perform this parlor trick, it may not be strong enough to raise bread. Try taking out more of your starter, and feed it again with more flour and water. When it floats in warm water, it is ready for bread making.
This is like ‘nam. There are no rules.
Trust your instincts. Does your starter seem a little wet? (It should resemble a loose dough.) Add a bit more flour. Traveling from Boston to Syracuse? Best to slightly underfeed it, so the starter does not crawl out of your bag and all over your car.
If you will not be regularly baking bread, keep it in the fridge and feed it about once a week. Remove the starter two days before you intend to use it. Feed it once or twice a day, so it gains strength. And be sure to feed it about 8 hours before you plan to use it. It’s like training for a sports event. Properly hydrate and eat enough carbs. (If I don't have time to bake bread, I'll take the starter out and let it come to room temperature before feeding it. After that leave it out and feed it daily or put it back in the fridge.)
-The starter you use in a bread recipe is called a leaven. It naturally raises your dough. There are detailed instructions for making your own starter culture in the book. You can also always make a new friend with someone that has a starter. I had a generous boyfriend.
-These instructions work well for my Boston-grown, Canary Square-birthed starter. (It’s coming from a persevering place, fueled by good beer.) I don't always get a chance to make bread regularly, so I've adapted my instructions as such. Dive right in and experiment.
-I have nothing but love for this starter, despite its moniker.
-It seems Martha has published Tartine’s recipe.
-A special shout-out to the Quicks, whose baby bun is no longer in the oven. May she have many good loaves in her future. Lots of love, new family of three.