Please read my current (February 2013) post, which actually outlines, photographically and written, how to begin a rye starter that is wholly 'guaranteed' to be issue free. If you are having problems with your whole wheat/AP flour starter, this may shed some light for you and help you realize a viable starter more successfully in just 9 days.
After a few emails from people feeling daunted about spawning their own sourdough cultures, I created a simple photographic summary which you can follow. I included, along with the photos, an in-depth outline to clarify any obscurities that you might encounter.
I encourage you to start your culture now. Follow the directions below, and in about a week, you should be well on your way to the fabulous world of wild yeast risen bread. It's not difficult, costly or time consuming. For now, all you need is flour, water, and a reliable scale.
Have a look:
UPDATE: I actually use all rye flour to maintain my starter, and I would not go back to adding white flour. Rye flour has an abundance of nutrients that make maintaining your starter foolproof. I will keep the instructions as is, because rye flour can be admittedly expensive, and you may want to keep costs lower by using a mix of rye and all purpose. Just know that you CAN use all rye flour for your new starter, and to maintain one. And it will be easier for your starter to grab hold if you do go this route. The options are endless. You can make an all white starter from this new starter once it grabs hold, you can keep doing a blend of rye and white, you can do all rye, you can do a blend of whole wheat and white, you can do all whole wheat. I just wanted to update you and let you know what I personally do for my own starter. And just a reminder, every detail in my posts outline exactly what brand and type of flour I use, exact ratios and times, and what sort of starter and levain that I use.
Weigh your empty jar, write the weight on the jar with a Sharpie. You will see why we did this tomorrow.
Place the jar on the scale. Tare the scale to zero. Mix to a smooth paste: 50g h2o, 25g rye flour, 25g all purpose flour this will equal 100g of starter. Put in a warm spot in the kitchen for 24 hours.
This was my starter after a mere 17 hours, and I thought I might share. Your starter may look like this, but it's unlikely, unless you live next door to a bakery. The reason mine is already active is because I bake bread often, so the presence of wild yeast in the air is greater than the average household that does not bake bread. Your starter may not look much different than when you mixed everything together the first day. Perhaps there are a couple of air pockets in the paste, maybe it's a bit frothy. Whatever the case, you are right on track.
Before you feed your starter, there is one other thing, aside from the appearance, that you should be looking at. Smell. Have a sniff. Mine was moderately sour smelling, pleasant, and with overtones of rye. The nose of your starter is something that you should check in on regularly. It should smell crisp and vinegary, though in the beginning, there will only be hints of these notes. When your starter is mature, it can burn your nose if you take a big whiff, not gravely, but like vinegar might if you shove your nose in it. It should not smell foul or funky or unpleasant at all. Remember, this is a fermented food, so it should smell pickled and sour. But there is a difference between sour and just plain gross.
OK. Its been 24 hours, you are ready for your first feeding. Put the jar on the scale. The number there is the weight of the jar PLUS the starter, of course.
Now you will learn why we wrote the number on the jar. The total weight of the jar plus 100g os starter should now be around 358g (100g of starter plus 258g for the jar). Pour off or scoop out (into an awaiting container) enough culture so that the jar, with starter, weighs the gram amount of the empty jar PLUS 50g, because we want to save a total of 50g of starter to keep going with our project. For instance, my empty jar weighs 258g. I will scoop out enough culture so that my jar, with culture, will weigh 308g (258g for the jar, 50g for the starter). To make a 150g starter, I want 50g of starter to remain.
Once you make weight (50g of starter), you can safely toss the excess culture. You don't want to toss your cast-off starter directly into the trash because, well, you can't fish it out again if you accidentally remove too much.
Now, tare the scale to zero. To your 50g of starter, add in 50g of bottled h2o, room temp, 25g all purpose flour and 25g rye flour. This will total 150g.
Mix thoroughly and apply the lid.
Pop back into its cozy spot, and in 12 hours, you will feed the starter again as you just did.
Note: From here on out you will feed your starter every 12 hours, so pick a time when you will be awake for both feedings. i.e., 8 am and 8pm.
Here are a few more photos of my starter after just 21.5 hours. Pretty remarkable, but a little unfair. When you bake bread at home, there are more wild yeasts in the air than a home that does not bake bread, so a new starter has many more yeasts to capture in my home, which is what begins the fermentation process. Once you get your starter going and bake regularly, you will build the amount of wild yeast in the air, and this sort of crazy fermentation will happen for you quickly as well.
This is what my starter looked like every day for the next six days, predictably rising and falling.
Don't worry about the falling part, your starter is not dying, this is part of the process. It just means that the culture has eaten all of the sugars from the flour that you added, and it will patiently wait until you feed it once again. You don't have to feed your culture more than once every 12 hours, no matter how deflated it looks. I will admit, I knocked the starter down a bit so that you can see what it looks like when its thoroughly fallen. This starter is really active!
You can try to make bread with your starter on the 6th day, but it is wise to wait till the 9th. Why? Because your culture will gain strength, reliability and complexity with age. The stronger your starter becomes, the more reliably it will raise your dough. Your culture will develop structure and complexity as well, and you will notice that as it matures, it develops its own flavor identity.
Before I continue reading, my starter is not as active as yours, and its been a week, what should I do?
The same as you have been. Feed it every day, every 12 hours. And make sure that you 1) use bottled water to start, 2) measure things as accurately as you can 3) store the starter in a warm place 4) use an appropriately sized jar. For the amount that we are making here, I recommend using a pint jar, nothing larger.
I feed my starter every 12 hours in very hot weather because when the temperature rises, the bacteria in the starter eats the sugars in the flour a lot quicker than when it's cooler. It has been hot in L.A., so, I feed it once in the morning and once at night. If it's uber hot, I will feed it 3x in a day. This is not unusual, but it is rarely the case. I live in L.A. and in the summer it can get to 100+ degrees.
Where do I store my starter?
I keep mine on the counter, next to the scale and my jugs of flour. I also keep a small 'dump container' handy, just a cheap plastic takeout container, where I scrape the exhausted starter and can easily pitch when it's full. You have to keep your setup efficient and accessible. If you have to dig out flour, scale, dump bucket and starter from a million different places, it will discourage you from keeping your bread baking endeavor alive. As well, now that my starter is powerful, I don't have to keep it in a very warm spot. When you begin your starter, keeping it in a warm place helps it to take hold.
Speaking of water, I used tap, is that OK?
In the beginning, I found that my new starter preferred bottled water. It was a baby, and more sensitive to the environment. But as your starter matures, you can use filtered tap from here on out, like, from your Brita pitcher. This is what I use. If you don't have filtered tap, use regular tap that has been sitting out for 24 hours. The chlorine will dissipate if the water is left to sit out for a few hours. And it is chlorine which challenges the growth of the bacteria in your starter. We don't want that.
Don't worry. It won't die. Your starter is resilient. This post was designed to make you realize just how so. OK, travel plans: If I plan to go out of town, I pop my culture in the fridge and there it happily awaits, unscathed, until I come back. Why? Because colder temperatures retard the starter just like proofing loaves. The slower it eats the sugars in the flour, the less often it needs to be fed. When you return, simply put it back on the counter and resume feedings as you normally would.
That's fine. You can keep your starter in the fridge if you only want to bake periodically. Lets say that the last week of every month your grandmother comes to visit and she must have freshly baked bread. Fine. Just keep your starter in the fridge, and then 3 full days before she is due to arrive, take the starter out and feed it twice a day (every 12 hours) for the three consecutive days before her arrival. On the fourth day, you can bake bread with it. When granny is safely on the bus back home, feed your starter, then pop it in the fridge after a feeding. You don't have to think about it again till the week that she comes back. Just be sure that if you do plan to use the refrigeration method, you plan your baking in advance so that you have at least three full days of 12-hour spaced feedings before bake day so that the starter is running at optimum strength.
I want to bake once a week like you, but damn, it's expensive to feed my starter twice a day!
It doesn't have to be costly. Remember, you only need to feed it once a day if the temperature is moderate, increasing the feedings to twice a day just two or three days before you bake bread. Aside from that, I keep a very modest amount of starter going. Did you notice the small amount in the jar pictured above? Here's what I do:
I only feed my starter(s) 20g of flour in a given feeding so that I maintain only about 60g of total starter at a given time (20g of water + 20g of flour + 20g seed starter = 60g of total starter; and just a note, I use 1/3 rye flour and 2/3 all purpose, that's 13g all purpose and 7g rye). That's only one spoonful of all purpose and one smaller spoonful of rye, once a day most months out of the year, and twice a day if its hot outside.
UPDATE: I now use ALL rye flour in my starter. No all purpose. And I still only maintain 60g of starter. So 20g of seed starter, 20g of water, 20g of rye flour. Please see my current post (CLICK HERE for the new post)
If a formula that requires a larger volume of starter piques my interest, I simply build the starter to increase its volume, instead of casting off the starter during feedings. For instance, we keep 60g of starter using the method I just explained above. If a formula calls for 100g, I would feed 40g of my starter with 40g of flour and 40g of water, which will equal 120g (40g starter + 40g water + 40g flour = 120g). Remember though, you also want to have some left over, right? You don't want to use all of your starter, then you have nothing leftover for future baking. Now you have 100g of starter for your project, and 20g is left over for you to keep feeding.