Sourdough started, now how to finish?
April 6, 2007 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Is my sourdough starter ready?

I've been building a sourdough starter for the last few weeks, starting with organic rye flour and then transitioning to organic bread flour. Usually feeding once or twice a day, about a half cup each of flour and water (having dumped out an equal amount first). It smells the way I think it should (fresh, sour, kinda like fresh paint) and is nice and bubbly and is clearly doing something good but how do I know when it's ready to go? I've heard that it should rise up to double its size after feeding and it's not doing that at all though it does rise a slight bit and bubbles up. It's been about 3 weeks of minding the starter and I'm wondering how long it could possibly take......sure I know that they continue to mature and change over many many years, if you treat it well but I want sourdough bread now!! Does it matter that I'm doing a batter-style starter as opposed to a firmer dough style?

It usually sites out on my kitchen counter in a mason jar with the lid loosely closed. Once or twice when I know I won't be around for more than 24 hours, I've put it in the frig after feeding and then brought it out again when I'm back to resume a regular feeding. That doesn't seem to present any change in behavior.

Any and all tips to sourdough starter success are welcome.
posted by otherwordlyglow to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Don't put it in the fridge. If you have a gas stove with a pilot light, keep it on top of the stove. You want to keep it between 70-80 degrees (F). Keep it in the fridge when it's done.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:01 PM on April 6, 2007

Oh, and even if it doesn't puff up, it's done when it gets bubbly and frothy.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:02 PM on April 6, 2007

Actually, forget that last part- my apartment manager (who is a professional baker) say that if it's not puffed up quite a bit, it's hard to get the bread to rise, although you will still have a sour taste. I've never had a problem with it rising, though I've only ever made pancakes and waffles with it.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:08 PM on April 6, 2007

Here's a copy & paste from the sourdough tips sheet I send people when I give them some starter:

- Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator with the lid loosely screwed on.
- Starter can go for weeks or more in the fridge without being fed. Just make sure to put it through a couple of feeding cycles before using it in a bread recipe if it's been sitting for a while. (Pancakes should be okay, though.)
- You can dry starter by spreading it on a pie plate or wax/parchment paper in a thin layer and setting on the countertop; when it's completely dry, powder it in the blender and store in the pantry. Good if you want to take a break from sourdough for a while or to keep some in reserve in case of contamination. Reactivate by adding powder to water, then add flour.
- You only need to reserve half a cup or so in the fridge. You can feed it to make as much starter as you need for your recipe.

- Remove from the fridge and stir in the hooch (dark liquid on the top).
- Add about 1 cup bottled or unchlorinated water to starter and stir well, then add 1.5 cups flour (or any amount flour/water in approx. that ratio). The consistency should be like a thick batter or mud. You can experiment with your starter once it's established to see if it will thrive on tap water rather than bottled - just remember to save some back in case the chlorine kills it!
- Allow mixture to sit at anywhere from room temperature to 90 degrees until doubled; the warmer it is, the faster it will rise. The longer it takes to rise, the more sour flavor it will develop.
- When doubled, starter is ready. Reserve half a cup for the fridge, then use the rest for cooking.
- If you use too much starter for a recipe, you can even scrape down the sides of the jar it was in and use that for your fridge culture. Feed it normally to bulk it up, then reserve in the fridge.
- You only need a small amount of starter to begin with; as small as a teaspoon will activate 1.5 cups of flour/1 cup water. If you need to re-feed your starter, pour out most of it and only reserve a couple of spoonfuls, then feed. This will also make the starter healthier.
- Active starter should smell like beer, wine, bread, or other similarly pleasant aromas.
- If your hooch becomes pink or red or the starter smells bad, it might be sick. Take a very tiny (pea-sized) amount and mix with 1 cup water/1.5 cups flour to "wash" it. You can repeat this several times. It's very rare for starter to suffer a catastrophic failure, and this washing procedure can bring most anything back from the brink of extinction. This also helps to perk up a non-producing starter.

- Sourdough takes longer than commercial yeast for rising.
- The longer the proofing and rising, the more sour flavor develops.
posted by Addlepated at 3:24 PM on April 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

For future sourdough queries (and any other bread or baking questions), may I reccomend the King Arthur Flour forums. Full of extremeley knowledgable, friendly people who are eager to tell you all about bread.
posted by rossination at 5:07 PM on April 6, 2007

Also, you can make unchlorinated water out of ordinary tap water just by leaving it out in a wide bowl overnight; the chlorine evaporates off pretty readily.
posted by flabdablet at 5:17 AM on April 7, 2007

A batter is gonna double in size?

I mean, I can readily imagine it increasing in volume somewhat. All those bubbles taking up space ... maybe like 30-50% above its stirred-down volume. But doubling without any gluten development? (And by gluten development, I mostly mean kneading, long-rise no-knead recipes from the NYT notwithstanding.) What is gonna keep all those bubbles inside a runny matrix that's no bigger than they are? Glycerin?

(Please, for the love of Bob, don't take that seriously. Glycerin does not make yummy sourdough.)
posted by eritain at 6:24 AM on April 7, 2007

Best answer: Actually, here's a more helpful answer: What is meant by a "fully activated" starter? from the Sourdough FAQs. And, contrary to my speculations above, they do say a thickish starter can 'at least' double, even without kneadingGluten Development Protocol, v. 1.7.

Among those FAQs and references, you may also find the Starter Doctor FAQ extremely informative, as I do. See 'New Starter' and 'Preparing starter for bread recipes' especially.
posted by eritain at 6:32 AM on April 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

And, just to complete my foot-in-mouth status (mmm, surprisingly tangy, with a very unusual-tasting yeast!), here's the NYT article with the infamous no-knead recipe, in which no less an Überchef than Harold McGee explains exactly why leaving a wet batter to sit for a long time will develop its gluten and thereby let it rise to double or more. McGee 1, eritain 0.
posted by eritain at 6:39 AM on April 7, 2007

I think you can use that starter whenever you want. Traditionally, starters were not babied and were used heavily. You may not get the best taste yet but it will raise your bread. Store it in the fridge, otherwise you are going to be throwing a lot of starter away. A wet starter will not hold onto the gas like a firm poolish so don't look for so much increase. I used my starter heavily and never had to worry about its ability to raise my bread. I also backed off of it and forgot about it for about four months, pulled it out of the fridge, fed it, and was up and running again that week. Fresh bread with a starter, even a new one, will kick ass so don't be worried. Just do it! Hell, I used to throw in some salt and enough flour to please me, rise it twice, and bake it at some randomly arrived at temp and things went swimmingly.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:14 PM on April 7, 2007

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