24 May, 2008
Getting Startered: Flakey beginnings
There are a few ways of getting a pre-made starter
- You’re given some liquid starter in a jar by a friend
- You’re given or buy a ball of stiff starter dough
- You’re given or buy some starter flakes
Whether these are purchased or given by a friend, they’ll be handled as described below. Then, of course, you could make your own from scratch and that’s a whole ‘nuther set of instructions which you can find here.
The first two methods mentioned above mean you’re going to basically just keep feeding your new starter as it had been before; the place or person you got it from should have given you their process which is really just your standard feed. Their particualr methods may use more or less water or flour, so just learn what was used and keep it up.
For the flake version, however, you need to rehydrate/rejuvenate it and get it up to speed again and from that point, you too are on to the maintenance process. But first we need to get those flakes turned into a viable, wet starter.
Those flakes are simply actual, lively starter that’s been spread on a surface (parchment, wax paper, silicone mat) and allowed to dry then crunched up (see the post about drying starter here). At that point the starter could then be delivered to friends or customers without worrying about time or conditions too much. It’s a very handy and easy way to pass on starter to people far away and it’s also a great way to keep some starter you’ve used and like as a reserve in case someone accidently dumps your starter or some other mishap. So let’s look at how to rejuvenate those little flakes
What you’ll need (basically):
- Starter flakes, about 1/2 teaspoon
- lukewarm water, about 85ºF
- Flour of your choice but usually Unbleached All Purpose
- a bowl to mix stuff in
- a whisk – small one is handy, $1 at the local Dollarama
- a spatula – I use a ‘spoontula’ again $1 at Dollarama
- a small glass (juice or shotglas for example) to wet and start your flakes up in
- a clean, 2 cups+ lidded jar to keep your starter in – anything clear glass or plastic with a wide mouth you can get your spoontula into is fine. If it can hold 2 cups of water or better, excellent since you’ll make and keep about 1/2 cup of stater that will expand to about three times or better
- Kitchen Scales: VERY important, you’ll use this for a lot of your work and bread recipes. Be sure it reads in 1 gram increments. A spring one is OK if it’s accurate and has grams, a digital one is better as it lets you “tare” or zero the ingredients quickly as you add more. You can get decent digital scales for about $30-$40
- Time and patience: probably the MOST important ingredients in sourdough bread making.
Take about a half teaspoon of your flakes (a good guestimate is OK) and put them into the small glass and add one tablespoon of lukewarm water and let this sit and soften up for a few minutes then give the mix a stir and the water should get pretty milky. You don’t need to wait for all the flakes to dissolve, as long as they’ve had a chance to soften up you’re good to go.
FLAKEY TIP: You can keep the remainder of your flakes stored in the freezer for at LEAST 6 months (likely much longer) as backup or give some of it away to a friend and let them start some up. You can make your own flakes at any time with active starter discard that has recently been fed. Again I have a post about drying your own starter here.
Now add one tablespoon of flour to your watery flake mixture and stir. You want the mixture to be like pancake batter so if you need to, add a little more water. After adding the flour, there will still be a few flake lumps in our glass, that’s fine. Let the glass sit at room temp for a few hours, loosely covered (put anything on top to keep it from drying or things falling in).
After a couple of hours, you might (or not) see a few bubbles as the yeastie beasties begin to perk up and start chowing on the flour soup. Scrape/pour/scoop this small amount of starter into a small bowl, add 60g of lukewarm water to your “soup” and whisk up a little froth, then add 60g of flour and stir. Don’t worry about the batter not being 100% smooth, the yeasties will take care of that for you. Transfer your starter batter to a wide-mouthed jar. Cover loosely and keep at room temp or (better) a Warm Spot like the top of your fridge for a few hours more.
Sometime in the next 4 to 8 hours, your starter should beging to bubble and increase in volume to about double. When this happens again, stir it down and again add 60g of water, stir and add 60g of flour. By now you’ll have about a cup; let this expand once more. Your starter is now revived and ready for regular maintenance and you’ll begin to feed your new baby about every eight hours for the next couple of days. Don’t worry, it’s very quiet and won’t wake you up at night.
From here on, you’ll be reducing your starter to 30g and feeding it 60g of water and 60g flour. Do this every 8 hours following “standard feeding” for at least three days until you’re certain your flakes are up to speed.
CLEANUP TIP: When feeding or working with sourdough starter, try to put your tools into cool water as soon as you’re done with them since dried flour/water paste is a MAJOR PAIN to get off things. It IS used as glue, after all.
“Where can I buy starter flakes?”
There are a few places where you can get starter flakes on the internet.
One popular source is from an organization called “Friends of Carl” who distribute a starter reputedly carried on from an original one made or at least used in 1847 on the Oregon Trail in the USA. Carl Griffith is not that old but he did get his starter handed down from a couple of generations and decided to set up a system to keep his heirloom starter going by giving it away. When you’re handling starter, it’s pretty obvious that you have plenty to spare as you’re feeding it and discarding a portion somewhat regularly. What’s better than to share the wealth? All the Friends of Carl people need is a self-addressed, stamped envelope and they’ll send you a couple tablespoons of dried starter. Yes, basically for free. If you’re outside the USA, they can still send you some, just read their page at CarlsFriends.net for the details.
Another popular place is from Sourdough International (sourdo.com) which sells a variety of starters from several different locations. The claim is that the starters from each region is distinctly different is flavour, activity and so forth. Some people say the starters will stay different, others say it will soon revert to whatever yeasties you are introducing via your particular flour. Whichever camp you fall in to, they can still get you set up with a dried starter easily, although their prices are decidedly higher than Carl’s.
New York Bakers (NYbakers.com) lets you pick up to three different starter types and they’ll send it to you free. Yes, free. If you order other bread stuff from them, that’s cool too.
Breadtopia (breadtopia.com) also offers dried starter as well as live (stiff) starter for $5 and $6 respectively. They also sell something called the “Alaska Golden Spoon” starter – a wooden spoon (new of course) dipped in heirloom starter that dates back over 150 years. This would make a cool gift, at $10.95.
King Arthur Flour (KingArthurFlour.com) also sells both dry (French Sourdough Starter) and fresh sourdough starter. Note they suggest using their dried starter to make loaves directly. If it is actual dried starter, it would make more sense to turn it into a starter you keep than using it up directly. At $9.95 for 5 grams, there’s little point using it up directly. Unless you want people to just buy more.
A search on the internet for dried starter for sale should get you even more potential sources.
“What’s the deal with these old old starters?”
Are they any better or different from ‘normal’ ones?
Well, that, along with regional starters, is up for debate. And plenty of debate there is. Some say that the heirloom aspect means you’re actually using starter that is X years old or carries the traits of region Y, others say it’s really just a nice, historical and romantic point but the starter is not any different from any other. Others believe that the original starter’s characteristics are part of the specific yeasts and bacteria that make up it’s specific taste/attributes and that adding your own flour does not change them since those yeasts and bacteria are able to keep new intruders out.
My personal take? It doesn’t matter. Since you can manipulate any well developed starter to be more or less sour, more or less active, the intricacies are of a minot point to your average baker who’s simply looking for good bread.
But it may be fun to give these exotic starters a go and see if they really do make a difference and if they keep their particular characteristic over time. At the worst, you’ll have a bunch of tasty sourdough breads. And there’s nothing bad about that.