About the Starter
What: Although I often refer to my starter as "it," and sometimes fondly as "he" much to my husband's aggravation, it/he's actually an entire gooey ecosystem of wild yeasts and bacteria frolicking in flour and water. If you want a real explanation, this is a nice writeup; and if you like it really technical and scientific, try this.
Why: Well, kids, it all began with my bread. My utterly tasteless home-baked bread. Confounded, I began searching for the secret to flavorful bread, and the name Nancy Silverton kept popping up. I had seen her a long time ago on an episode of Martha Stewart's show, but all I could recall was that she had seemed a little uptight around Martha (but then who wasn't?), she made rather heavy-looking croissants, and she was the owner of La Brea Bakery somewhere...in California. But now I was paying more attention and it was Silverton this and Silverton that, and most notably Silverton Starter, which people claimed was the answer to delicious bread. Admittedly, I was equally drawn to the idea of embarking on a home science project, especially one involving food. Catching wild yeasts with fermenting grapes--I was ready!
But being me, I had to read about starters until my eyes started turning inside-out. And I soon learned that although Silverton is a much respected bread baker, those same people with all that respect--p'tooey!--spit on Silverton's starter recipe. Forget adding fruit, vegetables, instant yeast, or sugar; all you need to catch your own yeasts are flour and water--so I was told.
When: Summer 2004
Where: Right here in my current apartment, which means that these are Tokyo yeasts and bacteria, just as the famous San Francisco sourdough bread is made from local San Francisco yeasts and bacteria.
How: I mixed together the bait: whole wheat flour and bottled water. Left my trap (a clean peanut butter jar) out, with its lid set loosely on top. And within one day, I had yeasts! It was that simple. If you want a more detailed account of how I caught my yeasts, I made notes!
Personality: Picky picky--refuses anything but whole wheat flour and mineral water, while I make do with tap. Huh. Tried weaning it onto cheap white flour and it literally fizzed out.
Good Qualities: It gives my breads the most delectable crusts. I can't get that fine, crisp texture with commercial yeasts ever. Also, the breads I make with my starter definitely have a more complex and satisfying flavor.
*I have a post that rambles a bit but eventually lists and summarizes some excellent websites on sourdough here.