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.
A note from the author: I want to thank all of the people who consistently take time to write to me and tell me that they love the Tartine Bread Experiment, it means a lot to me. And I particularly want to thank those who point out any errata that may be in my posts. My goal is to try to be as accurate as possible so that everyone can and will make fabulous bread 100% of the time. I go over and over and over my posts, but sometimes I miss something. Sometimes when you read something a million times, an error does not stand out (now we know what editors are for!). So thank you for being my editors, and I apologize if I have ever posted anything with an error that causes your project to go wrong. Please, if anyone every has any questions about my posts, or notices something that might not look right, or has an issue with their own starter or bread EMAIL ME. I answer every email and every comment right away. This is a very important project for me, and I really need all of you to help me make it right and perfect. Finally, thank you for all of the trackbacks. So many people have emailed me to tell me that they have had great success with my bread formulae, or have created posts of their own using the scoring techniques or formulae that I've posted and that always makes my day! This is what makes the Tartine Bread Experiment so fun and so worthwhile for me. Just knowing that you are eating fantastic bread along with me. If there is a flour or some ingredient that you would like to see me try, please let me know, and I will definitely consider it (unless it's commercial yeast ;)
Now, onto Sourdough Starter Demystified!
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: YOU MAY USE, AND I ACTUALLY ENCOURAGE USING, 100% RYE FLOUR FOR YOUR NEW STARTER. I actually use all rye flour to maintain my year and 7 month old 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.
UPDATE ADDED NOVEMBER 2012 - I now feed my 100% hydration starter with ALL RYE FLOUR and only maintain 60 total grams of starter. So, 20g culture, 20g water, 20g organic Bob's Red Mill or To Your Health sprouted rye flour. Also, for the water (and you will get to this part later in this post when you start to read about what type of water to use to maintain your starter) I just use tap water that has been left out on the counter in a measuring cup to dissipate the chlorine. I store it in a bottle in the fridge.
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 IN-DEPTH POST AND HOW TO MAKE A 'GUARANTEED' RYE STARTER IN 9 DAYS)
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.
UPDATE: I actually have been, for a while now, creating my own formulae and no longer use the Tartine book. I got to a section of the book where commercial yeast was starting to be called for for the majority of the formulae, and it is my personal preference to use 100% sourdough. This is why I don't make baguettes, usually. Baguettes are best with a little commercial yeast added to the dough's formula. It creates a more ethereal bread and a thinner crust. When I do make baguettes, I make 100% sourdough baguettes and I LOVE them. I don't mind that the crust is not quite as thin as a traditional baguette. And I prefer the complex flavor of a 100% sourdough based baguette. Personal preference!
Well, preferments allow you to control the amount of zing in your bread. Using a large volume of starter (say, 100g) is going to make your bread pretty tangy. The mark of a successful artisan baker in France is an imperceptible 'sourness'. The French think that American sourdoughs are far too sour. There is nothing wrong with wanting a more sour dough, but there is a huge and interesting bread culture out there to research, and just like any other form of art, every creator has his or her own idea of what qualifies their art (bread). If you have ever eaten injera at an Ethiopian restaurant, you will agree that they revere the tangy quality in their flat breads. Injera, incidentally, is one of my favorite breads. So you see, every culture has their own idea of what the finished flavor of a bread should be. Not right or wrong. Just different.
Just a note: you can use your rye starter for any bread formula (please CLICK HERE for an update on a 100% rye starter, that is totally guaranteed to be issue free, and that I use myself in all of my breads).
Some will specify what type of starter to use (what type of flour in the starter), but don't worry about that. The only thing that you need to be concerned with is hydration. This is a 100% starter, good for those formulae that call for 100% starters. In fact, Tartine calls for the use of its whole wheat starter which I (and evidently many people) found sluggish, so, I don't use the starter outlined in the book, but can still make breads from it. Depending upon what type of flour you use for your starter, your levain will take more or less time to come to fruition. Rye levains are super speedy. Mine only take about 6 hours to mature. Whole wheat and spelt levains are slower to come to fruition, so you should adjust your baking time to accommodate this. Never use a levain that is not at its height, or you will end up with dense, misshapen bread with a rubbery crumb.
Obviously it would be nice to have a rye, a white, a whole wheat starter, but unless you are baking around the clock, there is no need for all that. Plus, I love that my white breads have an additional bit of rye in them from the starter (I also make a rye levain for a white dough, just fyi, just because I think it adds an interesting depth to white loaves).
If you are working with a formula that calls for a higher amount of starter than you have, or a different hydration, you just need to do a bit of planning a day or two ahead of your planned bake day to transform or grow the starter.
Rest assured, I don't leave anything out with my posts, so you will always know what sort of starter I use, and how much.
To the staff of life!