Watching a starter grow is a wonder…oh wait, I said that yesterday. It’s just that it is. Last night as I left mine contentedly bubbling away in its bowl, I headed to bed with a grin. “We have a lovely starter,” I mused to the wife. Distracted, she asked me a moment later what it was I’d said, so I repeated myself. “Oh,” she said with a sideways glance, “I thought you said we have a lovely daughter.”
Oh, yes, right honey. That too.
But it almost wasn’t a lovely starter. After an initial burst of energy, it settled down to a low bubble late last night. If I didn’t know it was made entirely of single-celled organisms, I’d have said it was depressed: pale and soupy with only the odd bubble on top. It smelled good (at least for a bread starter): sour and tangy with slightly gamey undertones. What could the problem be? Deducing the trouble might be chlorine in my tap water, I fed it with a mixture of flour and distilled water from a jug in the fridge (warmed gently in the microwave of course…we don’t want baby catching cold now do we?). I put it in a new bowl, read it a bed time story, and tucked it into a corner on the kitchen counter for the night. This morning it was literally bursting with barmy energy. I hadn’t felt that good since little Joan shook off her ear infection. Someone’s getting a popsicle!
All of which underscores a simple point: that starters are like people. All different, all with their own peculiarities. Some can tolerate tap water, others can’t. Some need a full day or night at room temperature to get a full head of steam up, others will do just fine in the fridge. You’ll need to experiment to find out exactly what it is that your starter likes. The one great advantage you have is that short of boiling the thing, you can’t really kill it.
My boy seems to be a little, well, special. By conventional measures it’s a little slow in the rising department. Actually it’s a lot slow, but since when have standardized tests had the last word on potential, huh? And anyway it has many other endearing qualities (it’s nice acidity for one, which is surprising for a Midwestern starter). A little extra love and attention is all it needs to bring out its many charms. As a rule I think it’ll need to live at room temperature the night before I bake. It also seems to favor a little more flour in the mix, so I’ve bumped the feed to 60/40, flour-to-water. It also seems partial to the Cat in the Hat and, at least in the afternoons, the Peep and the Big Wide World.
So what has this week shown me? Simply that if I want to bring out the best in my starter I have to adapt my recipes to fit my starter instead of the other way ’round. In other words, stop trying to make it conform to preconceived expectations, and start immersing it in an environment in which it can succeed. If there’s a better definition of good parenting, I don’t know what it is.