The saga of a starter

I recently gave some of my sourdough starter to a dinner party guest. I had known Donna only a few hours when I passed her the salad and piped up, “Want some of my starter?”

She just seemed like the kind of lady who I could trust with a living piece of ­­my baking.

Donna had made a splash of an entrance earlier in the evening, ambling up the pathway with an armful of gifts: a two-pound bag of daffodil bulbs she’d arduously dug out of her garden; a spray of wild daisies and sea mist from her fields; and a large fistful of dill that she urged me to dry and re-seed.

The twain had met and I couldn’t stifle the urge to give back.

IMG_7883But that night, after the guests departed and a very full dishwasher rumbled in the kitchen below, I lay sleepless, fearing Donna had left my precious offspring in the trunk of her car, or indoors in a smelly closet, or amid cobwebs in an attic storage room.

I emailed Donna the next morning, very early, nagging with the bossy subject heading, “Feed your sourdough starter”.

I’d barely pushed “send” when my phone rang.

“I fed it,” she reported instantly. “I gave it 3.5 ounces of distilled water and 3.5 ounces of organic white flour. It has some bubbles. What next?”

IMG_8618What Donna should do next is enough to fill a book. I’ve been kneading and mixing and pulling lovely mounds of dough for almost two decades and am still transfixed by the mystery of it all.

Is the starter active and vibrant enough to use? Am I using the right flour? How’s the temperature: Should we rise at room temperature or refrigerate? Does an overnight rise mean 8 or 12 hours? Did I stretch and fold the dough enough?  Am I shaping properly?  Will we get a better rise if I bake in a combo caste-iron cooker or a steamed oven, outfitted with unglazed quarry tiles? Does it matter if I wash my KitchenAid mixer bowl with soap or should I just clean and scrub with hot water? Should the bulk ferment take one and a half hours or three? Is it better if my starter has been kept alive for a decade, or a month?

Baking draws me in like a puzzle and rewards every time.

However, everything, I mean everything, predicates on a live starter. And Donna had to promise me she wouldn’t kill it.

After the first feed, I recommended she wait 24 hours then remove 3.5 ounces of starter, throw out the remainder and feed it with 3.5 ounces each of water and flour in a glass bowl that is big enough to let it grow three to four times in size. Mix it with a fork until smooth and fully dissolved, then cover with plastic wrap. If desired, mark the surface line with a piece of masking tape on the outside of the bowl so that rising progress can be  clearly gauged.

IMG_1093After each feed, Donna will get to know her starter better and better.  She’ll know how many surface bubbles appear, how high it can rise and that critical moment just before it drops and deflates.  After one to three days of consecutive feeding, she will watch her starter grow to its fullest potential within 8 hours. Now it’s ready to use.

I can’t tell Donna exactly when that will happen because temperature, flour and water all affect the outcome. As will the energy she gives – for the baking gods are always about us.

But once it’s ready, she can make a levain. If Donna bakes bread every day, she won’t need a starter because she’ll remove and set aside 1.5 ounces of her levain and use it in the next day’s levain. But that’s unlikely.  Donna has told me she wants to bake only once a week.  That’s why she needs a starter and this recipe.

The rest is all up to the magic of baking .


50% Red Fife Levain

  • Servings: 2-3 loaves
  • Print

This levain highlights the richness of whole wheat without letting it overtake. Toast it for  breakfast with almond butter and blueberry preserves – bliss!


8 oz               organic unbleached white

5.2. oz           water (spring is best)

1.3 oz                starter

Mix in a medium glass bowl until a stiff dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap. Ferment at room temp 12 -16 hours.


1 lb                 red fife or organic whole wheat

8 oz                organic unbleached white

1lb .6 oz         water

2 tbsp             honey

.6 oz                sea salt

Levain minus 1.3 oz (reserve in a small bowl in the fridge).

Put all the ingredients of the final dough in the bowl of a spiral mixer, mix for 3 minutes at first speed, then 3 minutes at second speed. Transfer to a lightly oiled large bowl covering with plastic wrap, or in a plastic tub with a lid.

Bulk fermentation at room temperature 2.5 hours, stretching and folding twice at 50 min intervals. (To stretch and fold, run your hand under cold water and use your wet hand to pull up the dough to as high as it will stretch, then fold over surface, pushing down firmly.  Turn the dough a quarter turn and repeat three times).

Preshape into 2-3 pieces for free form or sandwich loaves. Bench rest 5 min. Place into floured banneton or oiled loaf pans. Put in large plastic bags and close with twist ties.

Refrigerate 5-6 hours.

Preheat oven loaded with dutch ovens (if making banneton loaves) on second from the bottom rack at 500 F for 30 min. Invert bannetons loaves on to parchment-lined baking sheet. Score. VERY carefully place inside hot lidded dutch ovens, bake 20 min, remove lids, reduce to 460 F, bake another 20 min. or until golden brown. For sandwich pans, preheat oven at 460 F for 20 minutes and bake for 35- 40 min. spraying loaves with mister before closing oven door to provide steam.

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I live to cook. I love to write. Eating is one of my favourite things to do. All three will merge on this blog.

6 thoughts on “The saga of a starter

  1. As a native of San Francisco, and one who puts at least two loaves in her suitcase every time she departs the city of sourdough extraordinaire, I have never ever found a bread that tastes as deliciously “sour”. The word doesn’t seem to refer to anything at even the best Toronto bakeries. Perhaps yours is really sour, perhaps it depends on the terroir.

    1. I agree, terroir will affect taste. As will the type of good bacteria the wild yeast attracts. It differs, place to place. That said, the term “sourdough” is used to market all sorts of unappealing bread. Jackie, try this recipe and tell me how it tastes!

  2. I am another of Madeleine’s Donna’s, receiving my starter at an open house in the fall of 2016. We have kept the starter alive putting weekly notes on our bathroom mirror “Dough Baby” to remind us to feed our little one. I affectionately refer to Paul as the Dough Daddy, for he stirs the starter with passion and love. We tried feeding different flours to see what would happen over 7 months and I read about starter and bread making and watched endless videos. We took vacations wondering if our baby would survive, the longest being to Europe this past summer. Upon our return we were visiting a friend with whom we had made an Adobe oven in 2013 and we planned a pizza party. My heart was pounding but I knew if I said it out loud I would commit to following through, “I’ll make the dough” I piped up. And it was done. Dough Baby became a mother for the first time. A week later I made my first loaves.

  3. Now I have a question….kinda like the kid who grew up and started to wonder who their ancestors were 🙂 Madeleine, please tell me about the starter you gave me -where did it come from? Did you start it? I have some wild grapes growing along the fence in the backyard and have been wondering about making a starter from them, and researching local artisanal flour mills….thinking wouldn’t it be cool to have a starter literally from my own backyard. Of course I will continue to love my adopted baby -please tell me about our starter.

    1. Hi Linda! I am so happy to read that dough baby became a bread after you nurtured it for 7 months! I encourage you to start your own starter, since it is really easy. It just requires time and daily attentions. The starter I gave you and Donna does not have a long history. It was born the summer of 2015 after I attended San Francisco Baking Institute where master baker Didier scoffed at any baker bragging about old starters that had been kept in families for generations or decades. He said fresh starters are more flavourful, so I ditched my old one and started a new one in 2015. It may be time to start again and I will post the process and steps!

  4. Oh Monsieur Master Baker Didier warms my heart! I have also read that the fresher the flour the more flavourful…now on a quest for fresh ground flour before the birds eat my almost ripe wild grapes. Some of the best flavours are serendipitously close and spontaneous!

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