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Professor Calvel's Starter

This is a part of our Sourdough Starter Primer.

After the Second World War, American GI's returning from France raved about the bread they had enjoyed there. However, after that time, the quality of French bread began to decline. There are as many explanations for this as there are people doing the explaining. By the 60's, French bread had become largely tasteless, bland, uninspiring and uninspired.

There is probably no one who had more influence on the revival of French baking than Professor Raymond Calvel. Professor Calvel not only acted as a cheerleader for the renaissance of bread in France, but also shared the techniques that allowed French bakers to again move up to the levels that had been taken for granted a few decades earlier.

One of the best baking books I have ever read is his "The Taste of Bread". It inspires bakers to seek greatness. It offers the tools to help the baker get there. The only drawback to this book is that it is so expensive. If you can find a copy for less than $75.00, grab it, it's a bargain.

In the book, Professor Calvel outlines how he makes a sourdough starter. It is worth mentioning that this is one of my preferred ways to start a starter. It is quick and reliable. It takes him about 2 1/2 days. One thing I really like about this approach to starting a starter is that there are no bumps in the road, and no judgement calls. Follow the timings, have faith, and you'll have a starter in about 2 1/2 days. It will need to still mature, but it will be usable in 2 1/2 days.

The drawback is that at least one of the feedings will be at an inconvenient time. The middle of the day or the middle of the night. My old way of making starter was twice a day, and that didn't have to be 12 hours apart, which made it much easier to fit into most people's work schedules. You can fudge the timings a bit, but I'd definitely stay within a couple of hours. My suggestion is to do it over a weekend or when you otherwise have a couple of days off.

The process calls for rye flour. I've found that whole wheat flour works as well. Different people get different results, but it seems that starters I start with rye flour tend to go bad more quickly than starters I start with wheat flour. Your mileage may vary.

You'll need rye flour (or whole wheat flour), all-purpose wheat flour, dried malt extract (available from a brewing supply house or health food store), salt and water. Professor Calvel's starter is quite dense. A common technique when starting a starter is to use 1 part of water to 1 part of flour by weight. Professor Calvel's starter uses 10 parts of flour to 6 parts of water. As a result, mixing this starter usually involves energetic kneading.

The starter should be kept around 81 Fahrenheit or 27 Celsius. While this is not as critical as some might think, it does help the starter start quickly and reliably. However, it is worth noting that a number of papers suggest which yeast and bacteria establish a starter depends in large part on the temperature of the starter. In a natural starter, we don't ever get a "pure" starter with just one yeast and one bacteria. Many of the organisms that were on the flour to start with are still in the starter, just at lower concentrations than the dominant organisms. So, if you change the conditions you are using to maintain the starter, a different set of organisms could well take over. The sad observation that, "All my starters might start different, but they all become alike" could be because when you keep them at the same temperature, and you feed them the same flour the same way, the same set of organisms could well take over all your cultures. So, it may be helpful to create the starter at the temperature you will normally use it.

A recurring question with regards to sourdough starter is what sort of water may be used with it. Many people insist that sourdough starter can be killed by chlorinated water. Others say that it cannot be started with chlorinated water. In my experience, chlorinated water has not been a problem. I have started, fed and used starters with chlorinated water with no problems. However, I have heard that the more persistent forms of chlorine used by some cities, such as chloramine, can cause problems.

In general, if your tap water smells and tastes good it will probably work well with sourdough. If you have problems with your starters, you may want to try using de-chlorinated water. Since few home filters will remove chlorine from water, and from what I am told neither boiling nor standing will remove chloramine, I suggest that you try bottled water if you are experiencing what you think might be water related problems with your sourdough.

Two flours are used to start and build this starter. One is a dark rye flour or whole wheat flour. It should be fresh, organic and stone ground. The other is a fresh, unbleached, unbromated. organic, stone-ground all-purpose wheat flour (or as many of those qualifiers as you can find). In most recipes we just assume the flour we are using will be a wheat flour. Since this recipe contains rye flour, I feel it important to mention the all-purpose flour is a wheat flour.

Some people may want to use whole wheat flour rather than a refined white flour. I find that refined flours work better here because they do a better job of nurturing the starter without adding as many competing organisms as we'd get from a whole grain flour. Once the starter is stable, you may use it with whole wheat. Some people may prefer to use a bread flour rather than an all-purpose flour. In general, I find all-purpose flour gives a better flavor at the cost of some rise. You should try different flours and compare the tastes. Ask friends who don't know what flours you are using to taste also. You may be surprised at the results. You may want to look at our flour tests. Due to spacing issues in the chart, I'll just call the fresh, unbleached, unbromated, organic, stone-ground all-purpose wheat flour "all-purpose flour".

Notes from the current starter build feeding 1 - the starter was dry and like a thick dough. It was easy to mold into a shape. Before feeding 2 - while the starter hadn't perceptibly risen, it seemed softer, moister and almost light. After feeding 2 - while the hydration was the same as after feeding 1, the dough was wetter and softer, though still stiff.

A quick reminder - the organisms we are cultivating are already on the flour, so there is no need to expose the starter to the air. In fact, if you leave the starter uncovered, it will dry out between feedings. So, please use some clingwrap or a beautician's processing cap to cover the starter between feedings.

0 Hours (start) (No, this doesn't have to be midnight, it's just whenever you start)0 Grams300 Grams whole rye
300 Grams all purpose flour
360 Grams3 Grams3 Grams
22 hours later300 Grams (discard all but the 300 grams)300 Grams all purpose flour180 Grams1 Gram2 Grams
7 hours later300 Grams300 Grams all purpose flour180 Grams1 Gram
7 hours later300 Grams300 Grams all purpose flour180 Grams1 Gram
6 hours later300 Grams300 Grams all purpose flour180 Grams1 Gram
6 hours later300 Grams300 Grams all purpose flour180 Grams1 Gram

At this point, the starter should be doubling its size between feedings, and should be sufficiently mature to use. It is one of the fastest ways I know of to start a good starter. I have tried scaling this process down, and it does not work well when cut back to 1/10th the size given here. If anyone scales this process with success, please drop me a note.

Note: Since this was first published, I have received a number of emails from experimentally minded readers. It seems to work quite reliably at 1/2 the listed size. One person scaled it down to 1/10th the listed size and it worked, however others have had trouble at that size. 1/4 of the listed size has also worked for a number of people. The next time I need to start a fresh starter, I'll try 1/4 the listed size.

In each step after the first, 300 grams of starter are brought forward from the previous step. For the first few steps the rest of the starter should be discarded as it isn't yet stable and may not be entirely healthful. Once the starter is rising reliably, you may want to set the extra starter aside, saving it to make pizza shells, sourdough cupcakes, pancakes or other goodies.

This starter is considerably thicker than the starter the recipes in this web site use. In the interest of simplicity, I'll suggest you maintain this starter the way I suggest starters be maintained throughout this site (feed them no less than twice a day while the starter is at room temperature, feed equal amounts of flour and water by weight, and each feeding should be enough to double the size of the starter.) If I ever add advanced sourdough pages to this site, I'll talk about other options.

If you are curious about why malt extract and salt are used in this process, I suggest you buy the book to read Professor Calvel's explanation.

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