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February 2013

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Feeding the Bitch: The Never Ending Story

I started this experiment five weeks ago. Other than practically killing the starter within 72 hours, it's been going well. Instead of doing any more day by day rundowns (which would be boring as hell. Also impossible at this point), I'll just pass on what I've been doing.

I mentioned in my first post that I had tried creating and working with a starter twice before -  30 years ago, and 7 years ago - with no success. The first time I had no idea what I was doing, and the second time I had no idea what I was doing, and I made the mistake of following Nancy Silverton's method. I say "mistake" not because I think she has her head up her ass. She's made a name for herself and her bakery by producing what's considered the best sourdough to be found. I say "mistake" because she assumes the reader already knows something about baking bread. That's not a bad thing. I'm a firm believer in knowing the basics before going into something more complicated. It's not impossible to create and successfully work with a sourdough starter when you don't know much about making bread, but a starter can be tricky at the beginning. In 2003, I encountered a lot of problems while I was trying to get the starter going, and had no idea how to fix it them. I probably threw out more than one starter that could have been saved. I should have been working from a source aimed at beginners, but I thought Silverton was the first and last word on sourdough.

This time I was able to follow my instincts. After a few days of trial and error, I settled on a routine that's working for me. I keep the starter on the counter instead of in the refrigerator. I make bread every 2-3 days, and there's not much sense in taking it in and out that often. Plus, it's in a gallon jar, which takes up too much room in the fridge.  I feed it once a day, almost every day, with about 1/4 cup flour and a little water, enough to keep it on the thin side. I also give it a stir sometime throughout the day.

I remove some of the starter every few days. I do that to keep it fresh, not because it's gotten out of control and is spilling all over the kitchen. I've managed to strike a balance between a healthy, growing starter and The Great Flood of 2010. (I mean, Durham has enough problems. There's no point in making it harder to fix the streets. Although now that I think of it, dried sourdough starter is like concrete. Maybe they could use it to build some damn sidewalks.) I seldom throw it out. I either put it in the freezer or pour some into a mason jar and put it in the refrigerator.

I usually start my bread dough at night, so that morning I'll throw a cup of flour and some water into the starter. After I mix the bread dough in the evening, I give the starter another full feeding of 1 cup of flour and some water. In the morning I go back to the small feeding.

Although it's considered best to use starter 8-12 hours after a full feeding, I've made bread with starter that hadn't been fed for over a day, and there was little, if any, difference. I sometimes forget to give it a small feeding on the in-between days, and it hasn't suffered. Sourdough starters are like roses. Everyone thinks they need non-stop, meticulous care, when you just need to give them a little care on a regular basis. That doesn't mean it's not a pain in the ass sometimes. Starter is sticky and it dries fast. Putting a dough together takes longer, because even at its thinnest, starter makes the dough denser and harder to mix. I wash everything immediately after making dough or feeding the starter; otherwise, as I said before, you'll have concrete.

After I ended up with a dough that was so wet I could barely handle it, it occurred to me that I should use less water in the dough when I add starter to it. Of course that makes sense now, what with the starter being a liquid and all, but sometimes the brain - it is slow. The problem is it only takes about a tablespoon of water to send bread dough over the edge into too-wet territory. At that point you have to add a lot more flour (at least a cup) or deal with a sticky mess later on. I usually go with the sticky mess and, while kneading it the next day, add just enough flour to make it relatively manageable. It stays a sticky mess, but it also creates a great loaf of bread.

Here are some basics:

Bread rises more slowly when made with just starter. You can add yeast or a lot of starter, e.g. 2 - 2 1/2 cups of starter to 3 cups flour. Really, you can add as much starter as you want. Just keep in mind that, with a high ration of starter to flour,  the bread will have a strong sourdough flavor . You'll figure out your tolerance fast enough. I prefer just a hint of sour flavor, so I add about 1 1/4 cups of starter to 3 cups of flour.

You can also heat the water a bit if you want to give the dough a little push.

Add water a little at a time. You can start with 1/2 cup and go from there.

Sourdough starter produces a different texture than a regular dough does. I've been getting the elusive crackly crust the no-knead bread recipe promised and never fully delivered. It practically shatters when I first cut into it. By the next day, it loses the crackle, but the crust and the crumb are chewy and delicious.

Other than adjusting the amount of water you use, you shouldn't have to make any changes to the bread recipes you're using now.

That's it for now. Since this is The Never Ending Story, I'll be posting updates on my progress and any new info I stumble across.

Comments

this bread, OMG

Just wonderful. The highlight of my Thanksgiving week eating, I kid you not. And we're talking out of four meals.

Phil

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