Slow Starter

Artisanal bread bakers, let’s be honest, the can be a little…flaky. Crunchy. Granola. You know what I mean. As a group they’re a hugely enthusiastic bunch, and more often than not make amazing bread. But when I hear one say something like I feel about my starters the way most people feel about their children, I get that heavy-lidded, slack-jawed, OK honey, and let me know when the shuttle lands look on my face.

For that I’m surprised at how like a child a starter really is: unreliable, obstinate, prone to disobeying even the simplest instructions. I’d be lying if I said they weren’t lovable though, filled as they are with unique personality traits. Mine, the one I grew at the start of the summer for a sourdough bread project, is, how should I say this, special. By conventional measures it’s a little slow. Actually it’s a lot slow, but since when have standardized tests had the last word on potential? And anyway it has many other endearing qualities. A little extra love and attention is all that’s needed to bring its true charms out.

I thought about this yesterday as I set out to make a sourdough bread from one of my favorite books. The schedule seemed reasonable enough, plenty of time for a starter to work, yet when it came time for pencils-down, my boy was just sitting there, utterly flummoxed. What to do when company’s coming at 7 and your starter isn’t performing? The answer, what the pros do: “spike” the dough with commercial yeast, re-knead it, and proceed as you would for a conventional bread. Which I did with very pleasant results. Don’t worry son, nothing to be ashamed of, everybody gets a little performance anxiety now and again.

I mention all this because I want to underscore that when you’re dealing with wild-caught starters, you never know what you’re going to get. This is as true in the rising department as it is for flavor. Whatever little beasties happen to live in your neighborhood (and they truly can vary even block-to-block), there’s no telling how yours are going to behave once they take up residence in your kitchen.

Starters as you may recall are tag teams of wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria. No matter where you live, once your starter finishes fermenting, that yeast will be some form of saccharomyces cerevisiae, or “sugar fungus”. As for the bacteria, it’ll be a lactic acid bacteria of some kind, but as to the species, you never know. In the partnership the yeast is mostly responsible for the leavening and the bacteria is mostly responsible for the flavor. Up until now my assumption has been that both critters thrive under the same conditions, that they behave the same way (they live in the same flour-water soup, don’t they?). As I’m learning, this is not necessarily the case, and I need to start looking at them as distinct creatures with distinct needs.

The yeast is a slow-grower as I’ve said. It takes about 175% as much time to rise as the starters in most sourdough recipes, but it does the job, and has the expected yeasty taste and smell. The bacteria is a very different matter. It’s even slower to grow than the yeast, and I find that if I bulk the starter up fast (by say, giving it quadruple its weight in food and leaving it to rise overnight), the yeast will do well but the bacteria won’t. How can I tell? Because the pungent sour smell is noticeably muted, and takes many more hours of fermentation to return to normal.

It also prefers a dryer environment. If I make a wet starter (a 50-50 flour-to-water mix) I don’t get nearly the aroma that I do if I make a pancake-batter-thick one (about 60-40 flour-to-water). But too dry (a dough-like consistency) and I start losing the smell again. I’ve also found that I can kill the bacteria entirely if I leave the starter to ferment for too long. You might remember me mentioning that I usually leave my starter out on the counter 24/7. I can get away with this because it grows so darn slowly, and all will be well as long as I refresh it every day. But skip a day of feeding and the alcohol builds up to the point that the bacteria dies, leaving a sharp, beery odor.

So what has it all shown me? That if I want to bring out the best in my starter (namely its great acidity, which makes for a surprisingly tangy Midwestern sourdough) I have to adapt recipes to fit it instead of the other way ’round. In other words, stop making it conform to outside expectations, and start immersing it in an environment where it can succeed. If there’s a better definition of good parenting, I don’t know what it is.

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