Monday, April 11, 2005

While We Wait 

While we're waiting for the sourdough to rise, I'll share with you some tips on capturing your own wild Yeast Beastie and how to tame her.

As you know if you've been reading this blog for long, we consider most Yeast Beasties to be female, but once in a while a male one comes along. So for this post, I'll just call the Yeast Beasties female.

The best way to get a starter is from a baker, especially if you live in a city or near someplace with lots of auto traffic. The exhaust fumes and pollution create nasty tasting starters, assuming you can even get one going.

Don’t give in to temptation and make a starter using commercial yeast – these starters may start out strong, but they tend to lose their rise and go too sour very quickly. I don’t know anyone who had a sourdough starter made with commercial yeast that was stable and useable more than 10 years after it was born Commercial yeast starters have a purpose, and they are quick and reliable, even quite tasty when young. But I'm assuming you want an heirloom Yeast Beastie, one you can share around with friends and keep for decades, a special pet.

If you live in a pollution-free area, by all means try for a wild starter. Put equal parts flour and water (half cup of whole wheat flour and either bottled water or a good tap water) in a quart sized glass jar with a double or triple layer cheesecloth lid rubberbanded on it, set in a warm shady place outdoors. Do not use heavily chlorinated or fluoridated water as this will contaminate or even kill your starter. 70º - 80º is the optimal temperature for capturing wild yeast. It may take a week before a wild yeast “catches” in the feeder. Add a half cup each of flour and water every 24 hours until it “catches” (froths or bubbles with a beery smell). If the feeder smells off or turns funky colors (red, blue, or green), toss it and start again. It may catch the first time, or you may not catch a Yeast Beastie for weeks.

You know you’ve caught a wild yeast when the feed starts bubbling and giving off a beer smell. The smell may be pleasant, sweetish, sort of like chicken soup, or slightly sour. If you brew your own beer, it will smell sort of like mash. When it starts bubbling and smells beery or sour, start the activation feeding.

The first time, throw away all but 1 cup of starter and add 1 cup each flour and water. After the first feeding, you’ll have to decide if you want to keep the excess starter you will get or toss them, because over the next 3 days, you’ll eventually end up with 64 cups of starter (or more!) if you keep them all.

You don't want to use the starter when she's this fresh because the breads won't taste right yet - too mild a flavor, no complexity. Sourdough developes her personality and flavor as she ages.

Divide the starter into 1 cup batches. Either keep 1 batch and toss the rest or put the rest into their own jars (best I’ve gotten was 3 cups starter from the initial feeder of 1 cup flour, 1 cup water) and make multiple batches to share with friends. Feed each batch 1 cup flour and ¾ cup water every 12 hours for 2 days, then wait 24 hours for the next feeding. Make sure you keep the starter at a reasonably even 70º - 80º during this time.

If necessary, set up an incubator: get a styrofoam ice chest large enough to hold all the jars. Carefully cut a small hole in the bottom and invert the cooler over the jars of starter. Set a small lamp with a 25 watt bulb at the hole, and keep a thermometer in it to be sure the temperature remains in the right range. If the lamp has a dimmer switch, so much the better because you may need to dial it to a lower wattage.

Once you've completed the 24 hour feeding, you Yeast Beastie is ready to use for baking. Let it bubble and foam (usually 2-3 hours after feeding but could be as long as 8-12 hours if you have a slow Beastie), then remove the portion with which you’ll bake and feed what remains in the jar. Let the jar sit out at room temperature for 3-4 hours, then cover it with a loose lid and set it in the refrigerator. Because she’s a new starter, the flavor may be a bit raw, but as she matures, the flavor will mellow and develop layers of taste.

The starter is a living creature and needs to be cared for like a pet – feed her regularly. Naming your starter helps you remember she's alive and needs to be treated as such. I have 7, the youngest is 30 years old.

The best care is to use your starter weekly, thus feeding her every week, but you can go as long as a month between feedings with minimal work to reactivate her. You can go as long as 6 months between feedings, but she will need some intensive care to reactivate her at that point.

You can also dry your starter (excellent if you aren’t going to be using her for a long time or if you are shipping her to a friend to share). To do this, feed your starter and leave her at room temperature for 24 hours. Stir in the hooch that forms. Spread a paper thin layer of starter onto plastic wrap and let her dry completely (up to 2 days). Break her into flakes and store her in airtight containers (I vacuum seal mine in small bags). I recommend doing this anyway just in case your starter is accidentally killed (she got too hot, or so badly contaminated you couldn’t cure her). Keep the dried starter in the refrigerator. She will keep for years in a cool dark dry place – centuries even, as that National Geographic article on yeast in 1996(could have been ’97, I don’t have it ready to hand to check) demonstrated.

Later, I'll tell you what to do if your Yeast Beastie gets sick.

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