Sourdough bread-making methods
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Starter 911

Oh oh. When I pulled my starter from the refrigerator to refresh it late yesterday afternoon, I realized just how long it’s been. Take a look at this yucky mess.

The starter is flat, with no discernible bubbles. A little greyish-colored hootch lies on top, looking almost blue in the wan light seeping through the windows from the storm-darkened, late afternoon sky.

Usually, I can leave my starter for two or three weeks without a problem, but that’s when I keep it in Fido jars. They make such a nice, tight seal. Stored in these jars, foods just plain last longer.

When I last refreshed my starter, all my Fido jars were in use, so I used a glass Pyrex bowl. I won’t make that mistake again!

Fortunately, the sponge had a clean, yeasty odor, just like it should, although a lot more acidic than usual, downright hootchy, in fact. I scraped off all but a small amount at the bottom of the bowl.

Normally, I’d put that in a sourdough discards container and make pancakes or biscuits with it over the weekend, but given how weird this looked, I dumped it in the compost bin.

Flat as the starter appeared on the surface, I expected underneath would be spongy and airy, as it always is. Not this time. With almost no bubbles, it looked dead. Would it revive? Or would I have to start over?

 

A couple of tablespoons of yeasty, if somewhat acrid-smelling, starter remain after I spoon out the hootch and the discolored top portion

A couple of tablespoons of yeasty, if somewhat acrid-smelling, starter remain after I spoon out the hootch and the discolored top portion

Setting a clean Fido jar on the scale, I cleared the tare and dumped in the remaining starter, which weighed 64-65 grams, the scale fluctuating back and forth. I wish it gave tenths of grams!

Clearing the tare again, I added half the starter weight in both filtered water and whole wheat flour, or 32-33 grams, each.

After whisking the ingredients together, I latched the lid on the jar, sans rubber ring to leave a little gap so gasses could escape, took a photograph to mark the start level in the jar, and placed it on top of the refrigerator.

Fed starter, ready to incubate atop the refrigerator

Fed starter, ready to incubate atop the refrigerator

Four hours later, the starter bubbled away. Though the volume level on the side of the jar hadn’t changed, the top puffed with bubbles. A few tiny, gassy bubbles pressed against the sides of the glass here and there. You will have to trust me on this. I neglected to take photographs.

Trying out a new starter-maintenance method

Today, I’m taking my cues from the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking book. They devote an entire chapter to making sourdough bread with whole grains, including one 100 percent whole wheat loaf made only with a wild yeast sourdough levain.

Like America’s Test Kitchen, King Arthur tells us to feed the starter at least once every twelve hours several times before bread-making day. I refreshed this starter last night around 4:30 p.m. No way I was getting up at 4:30 in the morning to feed a second time, so around nine o’clock, I set it in the fridge to finish incubating more slowly overnight.

By  morning, the starter showed little sign of bubbles. In the side view, below, you can see it hadn’t grown at all. Gone, the puffy top, so promising last night. No bubbles percolated on the sides. Perhaps the refrigerator was a mistake.

Sideways view of refreshed starter after taking it from the refrigerator today

Sideways view of refreshed starter after taking it from the refrigerator today

One encouraging note: When I peeled away the top layer with a fork, the mixture gave off that little “shwoof” sound we hear when we stir down a starter. You can barely detect the somewhat spongy texture in this photograph, but it was just enough to give me hope this starter would revive.

The refreshed starter, taken from the refrigerator this morning--no bubbles, but spongy

The refreshed starter, taken from the refrigerator this morning–no bubbles, but spongy

Without dividing the starter, I fed it as usual. Our apartment is chilly today, so I set it in the oven to incubate and set the timer for two hours.

Deep in a project when the timer went off, I neglected to take a peek for another hour. When I did check it, I did a little happy dance. Here’s the starter just before I set it in the oven.

The starter, fed and hydrated, ready to incubate in the oven

The starter, fed and hydrated, ready to incubate in the oven

Here it is again, three hours later. The volume is nearly double, and full of gassy bubbles, some large, some tiny. Looking at the view from the top, though, we see that there is plenty of unconsumed wheat. How much more time will the yeasts need to finish doubling?


Setting the timer once again for two hours, I placed the jar back in the oven. Not two, but nearly three hours later, the starter nearly filled the jar. When I opened it, a softly sweet, yeasty aroma tantalized, evoking visions of a crunchy-crusted, moist, tender loaf.

I’d say the starter is awake, wouldn’t you? Time to start my next bread-baking project.

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