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.
But 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?”
What 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.
After 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
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.