How Many Starters Do You Need, Anyway?
Sometimes in the different web sites and newsgroups you'll run into someone who talks about having 5, 10, 15, 20 or more starters. And if you look at the Sourdoughs International web site you'll see that they have a number of different cultures for sale. And of course, Friends of Carl have their wonderful starter, and King Arthur Flour carries several more that I haven't tried. And there's Sourdough Jack's (if you can find it, since it's been off the market for several decades), Gold Rush starter (of more historical than culinary interest, imho), and the cultures that you and your friends have caught on your own.
It's not too surprising that beginners get caught up in the idea that they should collect a bunch of starters to get the one that does what they want it to, that will make the perfect bread. Other beginners wonder, well, how different are they anyway?
I got caught up in that, and currently have a collection of five unique starters, and some of them are being kept in several versions, fed on white, whole wheat, or rye flours. And it has begun to dawn on me that while the starters are in fact different, I don't use any of them often enough to really know what the differences are. It is also likely that because I don't use them often enough, none of them are really reaching their prime.
As with many things, you have to decide why you're involved. If you're a microbiologist who feels a need to collect and classify the taxonomy of each strain, maybe you do need dozens, if not hundreds, of strains of starters. However, for the rest of us, I think they just get in the way of understanding your starter, and making better bread. Worse, for those of us who aren't microbiologists, there is a very real danger that we'll cross contaminate the starters, and they will begin to lose their unique characteristics. There's not much point in having a dozen bottles with different labels that all really contain the same starter.
I've already decided to ditch one of the starters, and will winnow them down until I have no more than two starters. Of course, your spouse or room mate will thank you for reducing the number of starters you have, as you'll have more room in your refrigerator for beer, or hot sauce, or whatever is REALLY important in their lives.
Oh - you want to know which ones I'll be keeping? Right now, it's a tight race between an Austrian starter a friend gave me, Carl's 1847 Oregon Trail starter, and the starter that I caught here at home. All of them are flavorful, reasonably fast, and flexible enough that I can do anything I want with them. Of course, your needs and tastes may be different from mine.
An update on May 16, 2007. The selection process is over. My wife may have a heart attack when she sees there is again room for something other than starters in the refrigerator. In conjunction with my recent update of the "start a starter" pages, I caught a very, very nice new starter. It happened to be using the "Starter My Way" method, but I really think that was just luck of the draw. As a result, I have, today, finally ditched all the starters other than that one. I have two canning jars of it, but that is because when I re-feed my storage starter, I have more than a single jar's worth. Only one starter to feed, only one starter to understand, only one starter! I feel liberated! Of course, when I get back from Camp Bread, I plan on grinding 10 pounds of fresh whole wheat flour and trying to make a Desem starter and then Desem bread. How long that starter will be kept around is another story. (And, yes, that does mean I haven't, as of this writing, actually made a Desem starter.)