Reader Jen offers a stellar idea for those who are intimidated by the prospect of growing their own starters from scratch: use packaged yeast to initiate your starter. Now why didn’t I think of that?
There are all sorts of ways to get starters, well, started. One of the most common is to introduce a little packaged yeast to a 50-50 (by weight) mixture of water and flour. You let it sit about three hours and boom, you’ve got a starter. It’s what’s known in baking circles as a “poolish” starter. Normally you use one of these right away, but in truth once one of these things is going you can just keep it and feed it like you would a home grown starter. It will work just as well.
Genius! Thank you, Jen.
If there’s one small drawback to this method is that it’s not as immediately flavorful as a regular slow-grow starter. That’s because it takes time for other flavor-creating microbes — local wild yeasts and strains of lactic acid bacteria — to move in and establish themselves. They’re the secret ingredients that give well-tended home starters their unique character. They will, in time, get established. Probably over a period of weeks if you use the starter a lot, months if you use it less. But in the short term your starter will have a little less flavor than it otherwise might.
Here I should take a moment to bust a myth. Home-grown starters are not, at least not primarily, cultures of wild yeast strains that live in your neighborhood. They’re cultures of wild yeast strains that live in Kansas. Or North Dakota, or wherever the wheat that went into your flour was grown. Wild yeast covers the outsides of wheat berries in the same way it covers the outsides of grapes you buy in the supermarket (that white film? Bingo.). And even though the outer husk of the berry (the bran) gets stripped off the wheat before it’s ground, plenty of Kansa yeast makes its way into the final grind before it’s bagged and shipped.
Which means that every time you feed your starter, you’re re-introducing millions, really billions, of Kansas yeast cells into your starter. That’s not a bad thing, however, since every starter — especially an old and well-used one — is a diverse neighborhood. With time the critters that live on your end of the block will find a way to cohabitate with their Great Plains relatives, giving your starter its own special character.
Oh, and to find a recipe for a poolish starter, just look in the menus to the left under bread: starters and preferments.