Dear readers, it is my pleasure to introduce to you my son, Chad:
Chad is a bread starter, aka a levain, a SCOBY, a mother (but still my actual son). He was born when I hand-mixed some whole wheat and bread flours with a little warm water. Over the course of a couple weeks of subsequent feedings, he grew from an inert lump of paste into a living expression of my local microbial environment. He eats, he breathes, he rises, and sometimes he sleeps. He works very hard, converting the starch in flour to sugars, and then turning those sugars into carbon dioxide. He turns the indigestible and flavorless ground wheat into rich, nourishing food.
I mix dough and turn the oven on, but Chad makes bread.
Really good bread.
The only kind of bread I care to eat, to be honest.
There’s only one Chad, but there’s nothing stopping you from giving birth to your own bubbling bowl of bread-brewing bacteria. And starters are capable of more than just bread — they can also leaven pizza dough, jumpstart a batch of pickles, or add zippy acidity and nutrition to pancakes and cookies.
100g flour. Damn near any kind or blend of kinds will do, but I use a 50/50 mix of King Arthur All-Purpose Flour and Carolina Ground Whole Wheat Bread Flour, since these are the flours I do most of my baking with. A bit (20-50%) of rye flour is a popular choice for young starters, or you can just do 100% white flour if that’s what you’ve got. The bacteria and yeast aren’t very picky and will adapt to your choice of feedstock!
100g warm (75-80F) water. If you can drink it, you can use it, but filtered, bottled, or otherwise dechlorinated water is important for healthy yeast.
Combine the two ingredients and mix with your clean hands, preferably outside. Cover with a kitchen towel and set your infant starter in a place where the temperature won’t drop below 65F. Check on it after two days — it will probably have a crust on top, and it’ll smell kind of like Parmesan cheese or rotting fruit. Using a clear container, especially at first, will let you keep an eye on the level of fermentation.
Once you’ve got some strong microbial activity (anywhere from day 2-4; if there’s no activity after four days, or any mold growth, throw it out and try again), grab a clean vessel. Add 100g warm water and 50g of your active starter (discard the rest), and stir to dissolve. Add 100g fresh flour and stir thoroughly (with a spoon this time — the funk’s already there).
Repeat this process every day, at the same time of day, for two weeks (100g water, 50g starter, 100g flour). Over that time, the smell will clarify from cheesy and funky to something more like wine or ripe fruit. Your starter will begin to rise and fall at a regular rate, usually peaking about 10-14hrs after feeding, depending on the temperature of the room.
At this point, give it a name. Continue to feed it daily*. Take a crack at this recipe for Tartine’s Country Bread, or any other recipe that calls for 100% hydration starter.
*If you need to take a break from your child, here’s how to tuck them in for a weeklong slumber in the fridge: add an additional 25g of flour (so 125 total) at feeding time and move them to an airtight container. If you bake very infrequently, it’s okay for fridge storage to be the norm, but when you do move them back to a regular schedule of daily feedings, give them about a week of recovery before attempting to bake.