Sunday, January 27, 2013

Starting a Starter - A First Attempt

Looking for patience. I need some.

Starting a starter takes a long time. Recipes, videos, instructions from various sources must be consulted for ingredients, proportions and containers - not to mention for purposes of procrastination and abject fear. Finally, recognizing that a New Year's resolution was made and that nice size jars have been saved and are taking up space in the pantry and a kitchen drawer, it is time to face one's anxieties and actually begin.

Variety of recipes and advice
Once one falls down into the black hole universe of the starter world, all manner of instructions and ingredients are offered for what is essentially growing one's own yeast, really a productive chia pet made out of flour and water and substances from the air.

[Bubbles provide early encouragement.]

Water and flour, generally recommended are whole grain flours such as wheat, spelt and rye, represent the only essential ingredients for a starter and there is a strong contingent who advise only using those two ingredients. Others suggest using some natural sweetener, whether honey or fruit, to give the yeast some favorable type of food to feast upon, be fruitful and multiply into many thousands or millions of little one-celled happy creatures who will make superfluous the use of instant yeast and remind one of the thousands of years of bread making before supermarkets, parking lots and all manner of instantaneous food products. That and a starter will add a complexity of taste to a bread, giving it superior deliciousness and perhaps bestow upon its baker a sense of great accomplishment.

[Okay, one must look carefully for those bubbles, first signs of success.]

Another aspect of starters on which the experts do not agree is whether to mix the mixture and how frequently. The instructions I chose, from the River Cottage Handbook, said to mix for 10 minutes and leave the mixture for anywhere from a few hours to a few days, but not more, to become bubbly or, in more technical parlance, to become active.

All agree not to refrigerate a starter until it is active and some say not to refrigerate for the first week at all. One actually need never refrigerate a starter, however one will become the slave of a living substance that grows and must be pruned and fed on a very frequent basis - as in at least once a day, though some advise twice daily. Reading such descriptions one is reminded either of civilization before refrigeration or of people who are so addicted to a substance or activity that they give up everything else in life. . Refrigeration allows feeding to be reduced to once or twice a week depending on whose advice is followed.

[Transfer starter sample to a jar. Brilliant minds advice placing a rubber band on the jar to indicate where the beginning amount goes up to. Makes it easier to figure out if the starter has doubled in volume, that is if it increases at all.]

Day 1: Mix ingredients and watch
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup water at room temperature

Saw a few bubbles one hour later. At six hours later, many small bubbles, but not bubbling or frothy. Added, as recommended:

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup water at room temperature

Couple of hours later there are a few bubbles and it is difficult not to check every five minutes or when finishing every task, no matter how minimal, including, but not limited to, going to the bathroom. Feeling like a third grader excited about a science fair project, except I was totally never that kid.

[View of starter from top of jar, prior to a decline into inactivity and sickness.]

Day 2: Uncertainty sets in
Some bubbles, but not a bunch of large ones, and it has not doubled in volume, I don't think. There is brownish liquid on top, which, I have learned, is not unusual. Skimmed the liquid, then removed half of the starter (can be composted) and added:

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup water at room temperature

The next morning, mixed with the immersion blender for five minutes. Returned home to find the starter had some wimpy bubbles, seemed a little bigger, but no great hurrah of a plenitude of large, happy bubbles. Uncertain whether to feed it according to "troubleshooter" instructions or whether to leave it for one more day. Decide to show some patience.

Day 3: No clear path
There is a little liquid at the top that needs to go, but there are bubbles and a little frothiness. There has definitely been no doubling in volume. In fact, little or no change in that regard. The question is whether to leave this until tonight or do some troubleshooting now. Can either mix for several minutes, letting in more air, or to take some of the starter and place in a new container with equal parts water and flour mixed in - dissolving first the starter in the water.

Decide to do both. 

1/4 cup existing starter
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup whole wheat flour

Removed 1/4 cup starter and put in a clean jar. First poured in the water and dissolved starter. Just a stir or two will do. Add the flour and mix. Place a rubber band on the jar to show the level of this mushy mix, the easier to tell if it has grown. Cover with lid, but not tightly. Every set of starter instructions bears a stern warning about explosions. Since my concern is not aggressive starter, but one that is becoming active, I forget to heed the last instruction and hurry off to work, later becoming worried that the glass jar will shatter across the inside of the fridge. Later, as in 9 a.m., leaving the rest of the day to pray for a healthy starter that does not get over eager.

Remainder of the starter ready for compost
Intending to compost the remainder of the starter when I get home in the evening, I notice some good bubbles right after mixing to remove the 1/4 cup starter for the new mix. Since it will sit there anyway for the rest of the day, I continue to stir until the latest moment that will ensure being pretty much on time for work. Covered loosely with plastic, the bowl was left in the sink for the remainder of the day - headed either for the compost or the victory tour.

When returned home, threw the remaining starter in the compost and found the jarred starter had maybe three bubbles, with a generous definition of bubble. There's a reason why bread authors counsel that starters force one to learn patience. Only the first attempt.

Be patient.

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