A few months ago I started an experiment in bread baking. I had been using the basic bread ratio in Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio cookbook. It gave consistent results, but it was never quite what I wanted from bread. The texture was a bit too dense, it was low on flavor and it didn’t have any of those nooks and crannies that an artisan loaf should have. No matter how I tweaked the rising times, baking times and oven temperatures I couldn’t get what I was looking for.
So I decided to strike out on my own and see what I could come up with using no recipes and a homemade sourdough starter. The first hurdle was getting the starter. I read quite a few articles saying that it was just mixing flour and water, feeding it every day, and in 3-5 days the starter should be ready to make bread. The first attempt resulted in a pile of paste after 5 days. A few weeks later I tried again, feeding every day and monitoring the temperature where it was sitting. After 3 or 4 days I saw a few bubbles and thought it was on the right track, but after a week it settled down and I assumed whatever had been living there briefly had died. So I went back to the Ruhlman ratio.
About 6 months ago I thought I’d give it one more try and did a little extra research. Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice suggests beginning the starter with a darker flour and pineapple juice. He mentions that a certain strain of yeast can produce carbon dioxide bubbles at the beginning, which gives the appearance of a successful starter, but once this strain dies out it will appear the starter is no longer active. This sounded like the problem I had with the previous attempt. The book’s timeframe for a successful starter was the same as others I’d read: 3-5 days. After 6 days it should be easily doubling in volume every day.
After mixing pineapple juice and whole wheat flour and feeding diligently every day, after 5 days I had: nothing. Not even a bubble. The pineapple juice is only used for the first 2 days, after that it’s a switch to regular flour and water. I even used bottled water on the chance that the chlorine in tap water might be interfering with the starter’s development. At this point I couldn’t think of much else to do differently so I just kept it going. Every morning I poured out half of the paste, added a new scoop of flour and an equal amount of water and stirred it all up. After 10 days of this, still nothing.
But then, around the 15th day, bubbles started emerging. I added the rubber band in the photo to keep track of its expansion and kept discarding, feeding and watering every day. Eventually, after about 30 days and a full 5 pounds of flour, I got the expansion in the photo above. I have no idea why it took 4-5 times longer than any method I’d read about.
I’ve managed to keep the starter going for about 4 months now and haven’t used any commercial yeast in that time. The next step is taking the starter and using it to produce some consistent satisfying bread. My goal is to document various attempts and show successes as well as failures and see what works and why.