Sourdough starter - the making of Grumpy
To mix together flour and water and expect it somehow to come to life almost seems to defy logic and science. It is of course the magic of life and I am thoroughly in awe of my beloved Grumpy. Sourdough starter is simply made by mixing flour and water and the yeast that is naturally on the flour and lactobacillus bacteria that is mostly on our skin will take residence and start to ferment. Since there is a lot of micro organisms all around us, it is possible that some of them will try to take over the starter. You will know that your starter is fine if it has a pleasant tangy smell. Somewhere between beer and fruit. The yeast likes an acid environment, oxygen and a temperature between 18 and 29 C (65 and 85 F), the middle being optimal. I saw somewhere that some people put a tablespoon or so of pineapple or orange juice in the starter to increase the acidity. I tried this once when I felt that the starter was a bit sluggish and it only improved.
But back to the birth of Grumpy. I had made a starter previously. That time I "cheated" a bit and put in some dried yeast. That was fine, but I wanted to make it without any help. So I took a straight sided jar and put about 50 g. /1.8 oz of Rye flour into it. Then I added the same amount (50 ml /1.7 fl.oz) of room temperature water. I used water from the kettle that has been boiled and cooled to room temp only because the cold water is really, really cold. We have very good tap water here, no fluoride or chlorine added to it. I would consider using bottled water if I lived where water quality is questionable. Then I stirred the flour and water to make a smooth paste and get some air in there. Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini suggest that one should have a wooden spoon dedicated to this and avoid using metal. She didn't explain why, but I liked the idea and I now have one. I also read somewhere that in Finland (the Finn people are renowned for their excellent rye bread) they had a special wooden bowl for the dough and it is scraped clean rather than washed. That way the yeast culture simply dries and is easily refreshed with water and a feed next time. I will consider buying a wooden bowl next time I go to Helsinki. But for now I use a glazed earthenware bowl that my mother in law gave me.
Since I love rye bread I really wanted to make a rye starter. Which is fortunate because it is one of the easiest flours to use to make a starter. Even if one doesn't intend to bake a rye bread one can use a rye starter. Or, alternatively, one can start with a rye starter and turn it into a wheat starter by feeding with increasing amounts of wheat once the starter gets going.
But back to Grumpy. I placed the jar on the kitchen counter and waited. Now, this was in February and even if I usually keep the house at 23-25 C (72-77 F), it will be cooler close to the windows in very cold weather. Therefore it makes a bit more sense to start a starter in spring or summer. It didn't take more than about 2 days for bubbles to appear. Then I threw away some of it and added water and then some more rye. This I repeated every day. I discovered later that it is better to feed the starter twice a day and be sure to pour away half of it, feed it with equal amounts of flour and water. Now I throw out all but 1-2 tablespoons and then add about 35 g. /1 oz of water and the same amount of rye flour. I first add the water and make sure that it is at room temperature. The water that is standing in the kettle is perfect for that. Then feed the starter twice a day for a week. That way you should get a very lively starter.
Being the miser that I am, I really suffered when throwing away half of the starter. But you have to do it. It is much less wasteful. When the starter gets going it will double in a few hours. Since you need to feed it an equal amount twice a day you would soon end up with a bathtubful of starter and the next day, two tubfuls, then four! You get the drift. It's exponential growth. So throw away half! Some people use what they throw away in waffles, pancakes, cookies or pizza dough, but I don't bake those, so I weep and waste.
Now the test of the starter isn't only the smell (which should be pleasantly sour) but the rate at which it rises. You should not attempt to bake a bread with it unless it doubles in about 6-10 hours. It won't be strong enough to raise the dough sufficiently if it doesn't. Believe me, I tried!
But back to him. I have been baking one bread a week and I store him in the fridge in the days between baking. What now works for me is this: I take him out early on Friday, measure about 70 g. of Grumpy, add 70 g. of water and 70 g of flour and stir. I put him on his shelf and keep an eye on him. If he doubles I make a sponge in the evening. If he doesn't double I feed him once more and make the bread in the morning. For the bread I use anywhere from 100 g to 200 g of the starter. I use double the amount of water and triple the amount of flour in any mixture I like (so 1-2-3) and then I add nuts and seeds as I fancy. What is left of Grumpy gets a feeding and goes into the fridge until the next time. And I just want to say that is is way easier than I ever thought baking bread would be.