The thing about Sourdough Bread which makes it unique is the Starter it is made from.
Starters are living things - they eat, sleep, multiply and, if looked after correctly, can be very productive. Starter is tough, too - in the case of my own starter, it has had a long life (over 20 years), and while it's had a few close shaves, so far it's lived to tell the tale.
If you like the site, why not book in for a sourdough workshop at my Newcastle Bakery? They are a full day, and cover all the basics to make great sourdough bread at home!
I've referred to Sourdough Starter in past articles as a pet which lives in your fridge, and for good reason - if you don't look after it, it will turn on you. Beware. But if it's well fed and housed, it will be an eternal thing which could live longer than you do. Oh, and it also helps you to make great tasting sourdough breads!
I love all these different terms used to describe a Sourdough Leaven. Being an Aussie, I'll just refer to it as 'Starter' from now on, because that's what it does - it 'Starts' the dough on the process of rising, which is essential to making any bread edible.
The story of my own sourdough starter
I began with a 'honey salt' method, which was popular with a local bakery in Glebe near where I lived at the time, Demeter Bakery. It was essentially flour and water, with a complex way of including honey and salt in there, which seemed to be part of the recipe for some quite esoteric reasons I never really understood. Eventually I simplified it to plain old flour and water, which made more interesting flavoured bread anyway.
I've used all the grains in my starter - wheat, barley, rye, rice, spelt, oats, triticale, corn, millet and so on. I've also refreshed it with water from soaking raisins and sultanas too, as well as pineapple juice. These days I run three or four starters, based on the grain they are fed with - whole wheat, whole rye, whole khorosan and white wheat flours. I keep a spelt starter too, from time to time. I have backup copies in refrigerators all around the country, and some dried starter in a plastic box somewhere in the garage.
My starter has also been infused with some of the 'greats' over the past 20 years, including an Egyptian yeast that's over 2000 years old, a 'Cowboy' yeast (which is what the 'San Fransiscan' I mentioned earlier would have come from), as well as one of the original Australian Sourdough Bakers own ferments, by a guy called John Downes. He has a book called 'The Natural Tucker Bread Book'. It's still one of the best and simplest sourdough books around, but it is out of print these days. If you come across a copy, grab it.
My Starter has lived in many locations, with many different bloodlines - I've incorporated all of the above starters into my own as a kind of 'cultural exchange', and in the process I've discovered that sourdough starter is tougher than people say it is. You just can't kill it - though you can mess it up, if you are really negligent.
It seems the older they get, the stronger they become, though. Even if I haven't fed mine for weeks, it'll come back to life within hours by just feeding it some flour and water.
I worked this starter commercially for about fifteen years - for many years I had it running at over 100 kg a day in terms of volume. It used to consume 50 kilos of flour, sometimes twice a day, and about the same amount of water too! Versions of it can be found in many bakeries and homes around the world, in cities such as Berlin, Tokyo, New York, Ohio, Sydney, Colorado, Gosford, LA, Melbourne, Dublin, and even Lawson in NSW. (which really doesn't qualify as a city, but it's still there working in a small village bakery nonetheless). It is currently running as a dough starter in my bakery in Newcastle NSW.
Feeding and Keeping a Starter - Overview
A Sourdough Starter can be fed on anything that will ferment - essentially carbohydrate. I've found that a varied diet will change the qualities, textures and flavours the Starter produces in the breads you make. If consistentcy is desired, feed it the same thing all the time. It will cope - indeed, it will thrive.
However, a varied diet breeds different microbiologies, and I believe variation breeds resilience too. That's why mine has continued to thrive - it has had various conditions throughout its life, and thus has become strong despite changes, rather than because of sameness. The same could be said for people - the most successful have had a variety of inputs and locations, and thus they thrive and are strong. Good in theory, I guess..anyway, I happen to know this starter is highly reilient, as it has thrived in many locations worldwide.
A lot of people struggle to establish a starter. Many others simply can't keep them going for very long. It has to be said that in the early stages, starter requires commitment, time and patience.
'I can't manage keeping a Sourdough Starter - I've tried!'
I can understand this. I would translate these words into 'I can't understand Sourdough Starter and I don't have the confidence to keep going with it'. Otherwise, it could also be 'I rarely make sourdough, and I don't remember to feed it'.
The first thing I suggest is to read every article you can about sourdough starter in this site. I also suggest you have a look on some sourdough forum sites, such as 'thefreshloaf.com.' These forums are very handy, but be warned, some of the threads can be a bit lengthy or just plain misinformed. However, with patience and a bit of discernment, you will learn lots.
The next thing I suggest is to be patient and don't assume you have killed your starter. Mostly, starters can be redeemed by a bit of regular feeding and care.
Finally, if your problem is feeding, or lack thereof, I suggest you look at making your liquid starter into a dough starter.
Dough starters require less attention, less feeding and are generally more stable than liquid starters. They also make great sourdough bread.