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Making a Sourdough Starter from scratch

You may not know this, but a mere year and three months ago was the first time I made a yeast bread...and felt comfortable with it!  I was scared of those little yeasties.  What was that secret that I wasn't privy to.  The secret of the bread bakers.  Passed on only during the wee hours of the morning when most mortal beings are deep in the fits of REM.  I don't know why it was that Pumpkin Pie Brioche chose to let me into the club.  But that day back in November of the year two thousand nine, I felt a whisper tickle the tiny cilia in my ear.  And the world has never been the same since.

Fast forward to this month, February of two thousand eleven. I'm feeling comfortable in my breadie skin and I realize that I'm ready to take my bread making a step further.  Being comfortable in the deep end was all it took.  That, and a little, unassuming book called The River Cottage Bread Handbook.  I originally picked it up at the library, but once I sat down and read it from cover to cover, I knew it would be an invaluable resource to me.  I really felt a connection.  I think it's a fantastic and informative step-by-step guide for people like me, wanting to get out of the deep end and start climbing that high-dive. While there are many, many things I love about this book, I'm not going into a review today.  All I'll say is that I highly recommend checking it out if you're comfortable around yeast and want to go deeper.  That deeper for me, was the world of Wild Yeast.  I'd heard the words tossed around.  Poolish.  Levain.  Yet, they were elusive to me.  A bit scary, still.
But I was ready.  I wanted to bake sourdough.  This meant that I needed to create wild yeast...or a Sourdough Starter.  Um.  How stinkin' cool is that!?  Creating a living, breathing thing that needs to be cared for.  That, if treated right can live for years.  As a matter of fact, many more years than we ever could.  Phew.   That's quite a responsibility.  And here I thought I was done having kids.  I suppose that's why people name their starters.

What exactly is a starter?  Well, simply put, it's a fermenting batter (or dough) that is used to raise bread. Something I didn't actually realize is that sourdough is a broad term that is applied to breads that are raised with wild yeasts.  Sourdoughs are defined by their (pleasantly) sour flavor and slow fermentation.  This flavor and slow fermentation process are caused by the "presence of certain bacteria, among them lactic acid bacteria."*  Lactic acid bacteria are the ones also used to make yogurt and they "colonize" the starter along with the yeasts.  By providing sugar, warm, and moisture, you can make your own sourdough starter.  You can use any type of flour you like.  Whole grain flours will produce faster and more "vigorous" results.  Although, there's no rule that says you can't use white flour.  I chose to use whole-grain spelt flour for its antiquity status.  I don't know.  Just seemed like the thing to do.  For me.

Here is a look at my journey into the world of wild yeast.

Stage One:
1 c. whole-grain spelt flour
1 c. warm water

You don't have to use this amount, just use the ratio, one to one.  Place both in a container, about 4x the volume of your initial batter.  Whisk them up vigorously.  This incorporates and in turn, more yeast spores.  If you want to do it in a stand mixer, whip it for ~10 minutes.  Pour your batter into your chosen container (use earthenware, plastic, or even glass...with a lid), put a lid on, and leave it in a fairly warm place for anywhere from 12 hours to a day or two or three.  This depends on the type of flour, the warmth of its resting spot, the amount of air whisked into it, etc.
my initial batter...whipped and poured into jar.
Check on your starter every 12 hours or so.  When you see the first signs of fermentation, give your starter its first feeding.  It took mine 25 hours to get to this point.
first signs of fermentation
First Feeding:
1 c. whole-grain spelt flour
1 c. warm water

Once you see those signs of fermentation, give your starter its first feeding by whisking in another cup of flour and another cup of warm water.  Once again, replace the lid and leave it in its warm resting spot.  Since its already active, you'll probably see activity a lot faster this time.
immediately following the first feeding
After just 2½ hours, my starter had risen to the top of my jar.  There was crazy bubbling and tunneling activity going on.  And the smell...oh, the smell!  It was a fabulous burst of rotting apples in my face when I opened the lid to take a peek!  I could smell the sour and it was glorious.  I had a totally stupid grin on my face and was pretty much glued to this jar, to this fascinating activity and growth happening right in front of my eyes!
2½ hours after first feeding!
You may not sense rotting apples when you sniff yours.  Perhaps you'll get eau de spoiled milk or vinegar or even brandy.  It'll be either "sickly sweet or sickly sour".  And this is exactly what you want!  I let my starter finish its second 24 hour rest.  The aroma began to shift ever-so-slightly in this time period.  Still rotting apples.  Still fascinating.

Subsequent Feedings:
1 c. whole-grain spelt flour
1 c. cold water

Next, take that starter that you're inevitably fascinated with by now, and dump half of it out.  Into a baggie or an old container, whatever.  Discard half and feed it with another cup of flour and another cup of water, cold this time.  Let it sit for another day, at a fairly cool temperature now.  
Day Sourdough Starter!
Don't worry if you see separation.  This is a good sign.  It means you're doing something right!
separation and bubbling- good things...the liquid is called "hooch"
Now it's time to find your starter a permanent home.  You know, one it could be comfortable in for the next, say, 60 or 70 years.  At least.  For the first week, keep feeding your sourdough.  I did it every other day for the first week...the same way, discarding half and replacing it (cold water).  You'll notice the smell begin to mellow and gain nuance and complexity.  Develop a relationship with your starter.  Establish a routine that works for both of you.  Get cozy with it.  Name it.  Cuz we all know we're less likely to kill something that has a name, right?

Meet Sally.
 After about a week into your daily routine, when fermentation is "vigorous and regular", and you're starting to notice an "established" smell, your starter is ready for action!  While there are several options for how to keep your starter, I will be keeping mine in the refrigerator, with a weekly feeding.  When you use some for baking, simply feed it by replacing the amount with an equal-parts-combo of flour and water.  If you do decide to keep your starter cold, be sure to bring it back down to a warmish temperature (by setting it on the counter) a day or two before baking.  This will help it to become very active again so that it can do its job!  A good whipping could be in order every few weeks or so, just to give the yeasts a good hit of oxygen.  Get familiar.
*Quotes and process are all from or based on the method layed out in The River Cottage Bread Handbook.
Updates:  (4/10/11) Every once in a while, if I get a layer of hooch that seems like it's "too much", I pour most of it off.  (4/23/11) Today I fed Sally with an all natural Whole Wheat Flour instead of Spelt.  I'd been using the spelt flour regularly, but it starts to get expensive, so I wanted to see what would happen if I switched up.  Sally seems to love it...she's looking exceptionally wild right now.
Sourdough Adventures:
(in alphabetical order...check back for updates)