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2017-05-24 From The Mailbag

A quick note - we’re taking a bit of a vacation from holding classes.  We are still open to offering special classes, but it is time to return to our roots, tightening up our formulas, and maybe cooking some BBQ to serve on sourdough buns.  This weekend, pulled pork!  More as things develop!

Another guy named John has been asking interesting questions.  This time he is concerned as he makes a number of fermented foods and asks, “…while banging around the internet I found a brief mention about not having your sourdough starter in the vicinity of "fermented food".  I'm always making homemade sauerkraut and what's not fermenting in a crock in my kitchen gets stored in the refrigerator. There's yogurt(?) in there too.   Looks like eventually the starter winds up 'on hold' in the refrigerator.

“Is this something to be concerned about?  Am I headed for problems.... if so is there an easy and practical solution that allows both my sauerkraut and sourdough starter to co-exist in the frig?"

We aren’t running medical laboratories, just kitchens.  And for thousands of years all the functions in a kitchen occurred, well, in the kitchen.  Sourdough is pretty resilient and will kill off stray microorganisms pretty quickly.  Same for sauerkraut. My practical suggestions are, keep each fermentation covered when you’re not working with it, work with only one at a time, wash your counters, hands and tools between cultures.  You should be fine.

Similarly, some people worry about how sensitive starter is to metals.  One person wrote that she inadvertently stirred her starter with a metal spoon and discarded her starter immediately after.  That was a pity.  What happens when starters and metal meet depends on a lot of things.  Like how acidic the starter is (a freshly fed starter isn’t very acidic), how warm the starter is (warmer temperatures mean chemical reactions occur faster), how long the contact was, and what metal is being used.  Base metals like aluminum, copper, lead, steel, brass, tin and zinc are pretty reactive and you shouldn’t store your starter in vessels made of those metals.  Stainless steel is fine to store starter in, and I often do.  A simple stir?  No problem because of the length of exposure.

What?  ANOTHER John?  This reminds me of a bad joke I can’t repeat here.  Anyway, yet another John confesses, “I see a lot of recipes that specify to first develop a levain - a small amount of starter mixed, at 100% hydration, with a larger quantity of flour and water - some of which is used to bake and the remainder becomes the new starter.  I can understand, for the sake of consistency, why that approach might be preferable in a commercial bakery.  But, for the home baker, what is the functional difference for a home baker, except that the latter approach results in a lot of discarded starter?”

*sigh* Americans don’t have a language for bread, so they pick up foreign words which they don’t usually understand.  Levain, sourdough, and sauerteig are all ways of handling sourdough.  There are cultural differences.  In France a milder bread is preferred, so sourdough is fed frequently (one baker feeds his every 6 hours) and lots of levain is used to produce a faster rise and milder bread.  It’s all the same organism.  It follows the same rules no matter what you call it.

Once again, I’m going to encourage people to emulate Frank Sinatra and do it their way.  If your starter works for you, keep doing what works for you! Of course, the hydration of a starter IS important.  If someone uses a wetter, or drier, starter than you use, you’ll need to adjust the flour water ratio in the bread dough to accommodate that.

My suggestion is, do it the way the recipe author suggests one time.  Then do it your way.  Then decide if the extra effort is worth it.

Starters are happiest (to anthropomorphize a bit) when they are kept at room temperature, fed regularly and used regularly. That’s great if you’re a commercial baker, have a large family to feed, or if you’re just a bakin’ fool.  So we home bakers come up with ways to try to accommodate the fact we aren’t baking constantly.  The problem is every way of doing this is a compromise.  Refrigerating starter has a lot of fans, as well as detractors.  Classically trained French bakers will tell you if a starter gets below 45 or 50F, it is ruined and should be discarded.  That isn’t our experience, or that of Dr. Sugihara.  In part this is because Americans like a more assertive sourdough than the French.  As is so often the case, the answer you get depends on who you ask.

My preferred way to store sourdough starter is to create a storage starter by feeding my starter at about 60% hydration so it is as thick as window glazing putty.  When it is doubling nicely, I feed it one more time and then put it into the refrigerator.  Between the cold and the thickness of the starter, it will be very slow in the fridge.  I have left the starter for a few months with no hooch forming.

A three or four days before I want to bake, I run a spreadsheet that will tell me how much of the storage starter to start with and how often to feed it.  As mentioned many times, I feed a production starter equal parts of flour and water by weight and enough to double it’s size with each feeding.  I feed the starter for at least 3 days. This will revive the storage starter and it will be at 100% hydration.  Yes, the first bit - usually a few grams - was lower in hydration but it was overwhelmed by its feedings and the difference in hydration is insignificant.

I try very hard to not make too much starter, so there is no waste on baking day.

Once a month or so, I feed up the refrigerated storage starter by taking a small bit of the storage starter and feeding it up.  Here’s a table that shows how I feed up the storage starter up to 500 grams.


These ratios work with any flour, however a whole grain flour starter will be considerably thicker than a white flour starter.  It may be necessary to knead the starter to get it to combine.  It IS acceptable to round these numbers - not many of us can measure 1.6 or 28.3 grams of flour.

Immediately after the sixth feeding, if the starter has been rising well, I put it in a canning jar, cover it loosely and then put the jar into the fridge.  Over a period of a few days it should rise as much as it rose at room temperature.

The real bottom line here is, if your starter is working for you, you’re doing fine.  You don’t need to change a thing!

Hope all this helps!  Until next time, may your bread always rise, even if you’re on vacation!
Mike

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