Obsessing on starters

They were just a little obsessed, it was decided. Sitting in tight groups, eagerly whispering back and forth on cast-iron skeletons of summer chairs. The story went that as one sat down down, conversations’ well-worn fugues changed to something else entirely. On brightened eyes or the filigreed gardenette. Or weren’t the blood grapefruits chosen with care?

About ten years ago, I read a piece depicting that scene. The breakfast awkwardness of staying at a health farm dedicated to the delicate art of enemas. The writer was at first puzzled at the hushed tones at their first morning, but once initiated, they found themselves drawn into the obsessive turning and returning of their daily extrusions. This past weekend, I began an experiment on extrusions of a different sort, that weirdly transfixed me in the same sort of way. It make me think of the Enema Cult.

No, it’s safe for work kids.

In Ireland, we have the *worst* bread in Europe. I’m convinced. On the continent, there’s rye, corn, milk wheat, ciabatta. Stuff that comes in great big wheels with white doily moustaches or pointy headed baguette, or seedy rolls every colour in the wind. Breads that last for days. We have densey dark bread or sliced pans. Last week after another bout of kitchen procrastination (read pinning), I decided to try to make a sourdough starter.

Baking enthusiasts can skip this next bit, but to the uninitiated, a sourdough starter is just a culture that makes sourdough bread rise during baking.

So why the weird introduction to this post? Well, I’ve kind of become obsessed with its growth or lack thereof. I kill plants at first sight, but starters, well, when they are growing on me. In a lovely beery, civilisation kinda of way. Ahem.

Should you want to make a starter and perhaps become a little obsessed with them, read on.

The thing about starters, is that it requires freshly milled flour. Ideally, freshly ground grains. The grains house the organisms that we’re going to feed. Flour that’s been sitting on the shelf for a while loses its potentency. I scouted around the health food shops and specialty food stores of Dublin all last week in a vain mission for rye berries or rye grain. I’m pretty sure that if the health food shop assistants were stuck in a market event together last week, they would of shared stories of the crazy lady looking for rye berries. “She was clearly bonkers, Your Honour.”

Failing to find the right raw ingredient, I settled on a bag of organic rye flour from Fallon and Byrne. Starters, don’t always end up working. The temperature might be a little chilly. Flour not husky enough or just too old. Or you just might be unluckly. To mitigate against that I tried two recipes at the same time. This first boosted it with fresh, unsweetened orange juice and I put it in a glass jar. The second just a mixture of flour and water and I used a plastic container. Both methods used exactly the same flour.

I would have put my money on the fruity one. It had sugar. The other was just plain flour and water. No sugary goodness for the micro-orgs to chow down on. Well, today’s Day 5 and the fruity one is dead. My plain one is alive and kicking. I have the sneaky suspicion that the plastic container is insulating the mixture more, so it’s hold onto heat longer, giving the bacteria more scope to grow.

On Day 3, my live plain starter began showing signs of life. Bubbles and a lovely beery-smelling liquid appeared on the surface of the mixture.

Feeding the mixtures differs according to recipes, and the stage you’re at with mixture. For the plain starter, I mix the starter well, throw away half of the mixture, add a cup of flour and a cup of warm water and put the container back onto the kitchen worktop. Worth noting I’ve read that the ratio of flour to water should actually be 3 cups of flour to 2 cups of water, but my regime worked for me.

Now that it has stabilised into a beery starter, I’ll cut down on feeding and move the starter into the fridge. I’ll only need to feed it once a week from now on. Yes, the obsessiveness of comparing size, smell, form and consistency will continue, albeit, in just once a week bursts.

I’m planning on kicking out a few loaves this weekend, so I’ll post some snaps if I remember to take photos before cutting. If you try it out, let me know how you get on.

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  1. Ha, I’ve had the same starter-obsession for the last few months, too, so I know the feeling! Every health food shop on Dublin has seen me this summer searching for kombucha starters. Now I obsess about them and their growth, types of sugar to feed them, and levels of fermentation. It’s really fun, though! Please post pictures of the breads when you have ’em, curious to see how they turn out. Enjoy!

  2. Martha – how is the kombucha starter progressing? Never thought about how it was made. Fascinating. Did you pick it up in Dublin?

    On the pics, yep I shall post a few!

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