Wild Yeasts in My Backyard

(The following is a collection of notes and observations I made while going through the process of making my starter)

How to make a starter (simplified version):
  • mix a little bit of whole wheat flour and mineral water to make a muddy paste
  • leave in glass jar with lid very loosely set on top for 12 hours; should be in a warm place, about 80F/27C
  • after 12 hours, add more flour and water so that original volume is doubled (so if you originally mixed 2 tablespoons of flour with 2 tablespoons of water, add another 2 tablespoons of each)
  • keep doubling volume every 12 hours until you see bubbles
  • eventually, several hours after a feeding, starter will bubble and expand to double its height; when it does, you're done!

  • *You can find more detailed instructions on the Sourdough Home website, but be warned that the server is often down--which I discovered in the midst of starting my starter. To be safe, make a copy of the instructions!

    18 July, 10pm
    Well, sorry for the cliche but hopefully the third time really will be the charm because my first two startup starters have both met an untimely end, the second one flushed down the toilet, too dense to pour down the sink and too smelly to dump in the garbage. Both failures were due to dumb mistakes.

    Starter #1 never had a chance: The morning after I mixed it together, I got out the chopstick I had used the previous night to stir the starter, and I realized with a sinking heart that the little string looped through a hole at the end of the chopstick was missing, and could very well be happily fermenting right along with my starter... so out went the first batch.

    Starter #2 may have been destined for great things. Now I shall never know. In less than 24 hours, it was already raring to go, bubbling enthusiastically and rising almost to the lip of its peanut butter jar. Unfortunately I was in a bit of a rush the morning I checked in on it, so instead of transferring it to a larger jar, I simply deflated Starter #2 with a bit of a stir, and gave it a feeding.

    Let me quickly note that summers in Tokyo are hot. I've read that temperatures over 95'F can kill your starter, but I'm not sure if what I came home to was murdered matter. My husband was the one who discovered the... well, no delicately way of putting this: vomitous odor that had overtaken the entire room where my starter sat, looking less than innocent. I actually scanned the room for another culprit, but I knew. A closer look revealed the starter had bubbled itself right out of the jar, knocking off the lid, and spewing itself over the surface of the plastic storage box on which it sat (later, as I wiped up the cheesy smelling mess, I couldn't help but notice that it had actually bleached the plastic that it had come in contact with). I don't know what a starter should smell like, but, not wanting to take any risks, and swayed by the look of repulsion horror fear concern on my husband's face--he has been rather skeptical of this whole project from the beginning--I spooned Starter #2 down the loo. I really wish I had taken a picture, but at the time, all good journalistic intentions were overwhelmed by the stench of rotting starter. And the godawful smell remained in the room the following day, despite all my good efforts.

    Starter #3 was stirred together at the very moment that #2 was traveling swiftly through our drain pipes--and much to the incredulity of my husband ("You're going to try again? Are you sure you don't want to think about this a bit more?").

    This one, rather like a second (or third)-born child, will not be coddled as much nor treated so delicately.

    19 July, 3pm

    Starter #3 has softened from stiff wet sand to a more mud-like consistency and has a faintly sour aroma. He was already making little bubbles this morning, roughly 12 hours after I'd first mixed him up (ah, my starter seems to be a "he"). His odor had also begun that transformation from sweet wheat to something more dairy in nature, which inspired prickles of concern and an uneasy, darting glance in my husband's direction. In addition, I noticed that although the room was warm, my starter's jar felt almost hot, as if the starter itself were giving off heat. I have thus made the decision to keep Starter #3 in the air-conditioned livingroom with my husband and I, but tucked away and slightly insulated in the kitchen cabinet. Hopefully, this won't be too cold.

    Will be going out soon. Hopefully the room will stay relatively cool from the latent A/C and that we will not come home to anything odiferous again.

    20 July, 10:30pm
    Gasp, just discovered I'm supposed to be doubling the volume of the starter with each feeding! Not my fault--the darn Sourdough Home website has been down for days. So I halved my starter today and adequately fed the poor, starved thing. Hopefully he'll get a little more lively now that I know how to properly feed him.

    However... this morning, despite neglect and starvation, my starter was making larger bubbles as well as Rice Krispies-esque popping sounds. He has lost his tart aroma and now smells quite sweet and freshly wheaty--what is the meaning of this? Has the yeast grown weak, its smell becoming proportionately faint?

    21 July, 12:30pm

    My starter almost doubled in volume!

    22 July, 12:25am
    Despite having doubled in volume soon after its breakfast, this evening, my starter's bubbles were no more remarkable than they'd been previously. And the sweet, wheaty smell remains--no detectable sour odor. Is this okay?

    22 July, 12:15pm

    When I woke up this morning, I saw smudgy marks right up at the lip of the coffee bottle, my starter's new home. Don't know if that was made by stirring, shaking, or the starter rising up during the night all on its own, but I want to be optimistic and believe it's the last scenario. Still not very big bubbles this morning, but my starter had a big open crease along one side, exposing a murky streak of fluid amidst the oatmeal-like sludge.

    Poured out all but one cup of starter, fed it, and used the rest to make a blueberry quickbread, rather than dump it down the toilet. I didn't have blueberries, so I spooned out half a jar of very chunky blueberry jam, which was reaching its expiry date and would never have been finished in time, and dumped it into a colander to rinse and drain. Mixed everything together, popped the loaf pan in the oven... and about five minutes later, was just finishing clearing off the counter when I spied the package of baking soda--I had forgotten to add it to the batter. Leaped up onto the stool, pulled out the loaf pan, and saw that the thing was already forming a top crust, so gently and quickly nudged it back into the oven. I also noticed while doing this that my blueberry bread was looking pretty damn flat. Obviously. It was now up to my starter and that one weakly stirred egg to leaven the bread. The recipe was actually for muffins, so wasn't sure how long to bake the bread. Opened it way more times than should have, but feeling that it was doomed without the baking soda, was a bit careless.

    After about 30 minutes, I pulled out my blueberry quickbread. It was flat and dense looking, but it had risen, split, and risen again on the top the way I like. Not very golden brown, as in the pictures, but predicting a very dense bread, I didn't want to overbake and end up with a blueberry brick.

    Took a bite and... oh! It tasted really, really good. Of course the inner crumb was terrible: heavy and overly moist. But there was the most unusual and delectable crunch to the sides and top of the bread, and I could definitely detect a very gentle sourdough tang. It worked! Sort of! I was so proud of my sourdough starter for trying its best in rather trying conditions. I wonder what it would have been like had I not been a complete bonehead and added the baking soda! Perhaps I shall try again tomorrow when I have to pour off more starter. Feel happy though. I didn't add that much sugar to the quickbread, and it turned out more bready than cakelike in texture--thus, despite its shortcomings, I must say this quickbread has more depth of flavor than any other bread I've baked so far. Yay!

    Note: Starter rose to its peak about three hours after its seventh feeding.

    July 31
    A bit rushed right now, but quick update:
    -last Sunday, after its seventh feeding, finally decided my starter was building up a nice head of foam after feedings, and was ready to be refrigerated (meaning it won't need to be fed for at least a week, though some say a month is not too long)
    -tonight, took starter out for refreshing and to prepare for first sourdough bread tomorrow

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