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In April 2009 I started baking with sourdough. Sue Blake sent me a starter along with instructions to feed it regularly, or it would die. This kind of instruction is not Sue's idea: it's widespread. I disagreed and wrote a reductio ad absurdum in my diary at the time. It's repeated below

In reality, maintaining sourdough starters is so simple that I hadn't thought it necessary to mention it, but on request here's what I do.

Getting an initial sourdough starter

The easiest way to get a sourdough starter is to find somebody to give you one. I suppose you can also buy them. Alternatively, you can just mix flour and water, keep them warm, and gradually a starter will form; more details at SourdoughHome's Starting a starter. I've also made my own starter using flour and kimchi, which contains large quantities of Lactobacillus. It ended up tasting almost identical to the one that I already had.

Maintaining the starter

  1. Use the starter to make bread. My standard method is

    • Start with 50 g starter and mix in with 150 g flour and 200 ml water.

    • When this has happily fermented and the yeast and lactobacillus have multiplied (in my case, about 5 to 6 hours), add another 350 g flour and 300 ml water (making a total of 500 g flour and water) and leave to ferment again.

    • Remove 50 g starter and put in the fridge. Use the rest to make bread.

  2. Repeat when you're ready starting at step 2.

And, from the point of the starter, that's all. The starter will keep for months in the fridge with no apparent loss of vitality. No waste.

And now, as promised, my reductio ad absurdum:

Monday, 27 April 2009 Diary entry

Feeding my sourdough, day one

I'm following the instructions at Sourdough Home for Maintaining a Starter and Storing a Starter. Today's the first day, so I started with 100 g of culture and fed it with 50 g of rye flour and 50 g of water in the morning. It rose nicely, so I did it again with 100 g of flour and 100 g of water in the evening. Now I have 400 g of nice, healthy starter.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009 Diary entry

Feeding my sourdough, day two

While in town, also bought a 25 kg sack of rye flour. Continued with my sourdough starter and added a total of 600 g flour, 600 g water. I now have 1.6 kg of starter, and already it's getting to be a handful. Fortunately I have containers big enough for it, but it's clear that that won't stay the case for very long.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009 Diary entry

Feeding my sourdough, day three

My starter is now getting really big! Added 800 g of flour in the morning and 1.6 kg of flour in the morning. It's now a total of 6.4 kg, and almost completely fills the “9 litre” bucket I've put it in. I need to plan for something bigger, not just to put it in, but to mix it.

Thursday, 30 April 2009 Diary entry

Feeding my sourdough, day four

Another thing Yvonne brought with her was four 50 kg sacks of rye meal and a 300 litre rubbish bin for the sourdough starter, and also a clean new spade, which we'll use to mix it, and later in the garden. This is gradually getting expensive. Stirring worked well enough, but it's tiring work. I now have 25 kg of starter; you can smell it all through the house.

Friday, 1 May 2009 Diary entry

Feeding my sourdough, day five

This starter is growing healthily and steadily, but my arms! Mixing 50 kg of starter with a spade is obviously not the way to go. Over to Chris' place to borrow the cement mixer:

Even with the mixer, things aren't easy. The maximum load is about 35 kg, if I'm interpreting this stupid excuse for instructions correctly, so I needed three goes to get my 100 kg of starter. And the wheelie bin is half full already. We've put it into the guest room so that it doesn't overpower the house with the smell.

Where do we go from here? This is only day five; I have another 25 days to go. Fortunately, got an unsolicited call from Barry Jones of the Australian Wheat Board, offering to help. That'll mean changing from rye to wheat, but looking at the costs involved, I think I can live with that. He'll be sending a few truckloads along over the coming weeks. We've already decided to convert our shipping container to hold the starter, though I'm a little concerned about the temperatures.

Saturday, 2 May 2009 Diary entry

Feeding my sourdough, day six

No question: my starter is giving off a lot of heat. It was hot and sticky in the guest room this morning, and I don't know how long it will take to get the smell out of the room. I put it in the container, still in the wheelie bin, with the cement mixer just outside.

It's clear that I haven't planned ahead enough. Yvonne brought only 200 kg of flour the other day, and I've used 75 kg already, but today I should have put 300 kg in the starter, and tomorrow it should be 1.2 tons. And the first Australian Wheat Board truck won't be coming until Monday. There's nothing for it: we'll have to underfeed. Put another 50 kg in over the course of the day, which means at least that we can still keep it in the wheelie bin. Hopefully the low feeding rate won't affect the quality.

Sunday, 3 May 2009 Diary entry

Feeding my sourdough, day seven

Despite the lower feeding rates, my sourdough starter is looking happy enough, but effectively we've lost two days, so it looks like we'll have to extend the process by those two days, which at least gets us to the nice round number 32. Put the remaining 75 kg of flour in in two steps, 25 kg in the morning and 50 kg in the evening. Hopefully the AWB truck will be there first thing in the morning.

Monday, 4 May 2009 Diary entry

Feeding my sourdough, day eight

Fortunately the AWB truck showed up early, as promised, and brought me 5 tons of wheat flour (or “tonnes”, as people call them nowadays). It took a couple of hours in the morning just to mix in another 250 kilogrammes of flour and transfer it into the plastic liner in the shipping container. I wonder how effective the mix was. The 500 kilogrammes in the evening were sheer torture.

Do I shut the container or leave it open? It's pretty warm, so I've left it open a crack.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009 Diary entry

Feeding my sourdough, day nine

Went to the container this morning to work on the starter, and saw an unexpected sight: three dead kangaroos just outside. There was no sign of violence, and my best guess is that they were trying to get into the container, and were asphyxiated by the gases coming out. For the first time I find an advantage in this ridiculous amount of sourdough starter.

Mixing this starter is taking up half the day. This morning I put a whole ton (or should I go the French way and call it a tonne?) of wheat in, requiring no less than 30 cement mixers full. In the evening it was two tons, and the container is almost full. All I need now is for the plastic liner to tear and spill out on the ground.

Decided to close the doors of the container to save the kangaroos; I really don't want to kill them, just get rid of them. Hopefully enough gas will get out for pressure not to become a problem.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009 Diary entry

Feeding my sourdough, day ten

In the middle of the night, heard a hell of a commotion, and out into the pouring rain (for once!) to find that the shipping container had exploded. What a mess! And what a waste! Several tons of starter spread all over the paddocks, and a $2,500 container reduced to scrap.

That's what I get for following instructions, I suppose. I give up. I didn't believe this approach was correct in the first place, but I feel that I've now proven beyond reasonable doubt that it's wrong. I wonder what the AWB will think. I wonder if I can convince them to carry some of the cost.


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