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By the Book: Chad Robertson’s Starter

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

I had heard about Tartine Bakery through foodie shows, blogs and this video. Ever since I watched Chad Robertson make breads and pastries, I’d been planning an indefinite trip to San Francisco during which I eat at Tartine for breakfast every morning.

When I learned that a book of his bread recipes was out, I was excited to give it a try. I wanted to make a baguette. Only problem was that Robertson’s baguettes, just like all the bread recipes in his book, required making a starter. It was my first time making a starter and, being fairly new to bread baking, I found that this book was a bit overwhelming.

Tartine Bread is more advanced than my beginner status. I needed more specific and concise instructions. Instead, the instructions were long and sometimes vague like: “fill a small bowl halfway with warm water and add a handful of flour to the water.” I found the lack of measurements to be confusing. I never knew whether I was adding too much or too little flour to my starter.

{my inactive starter}

Making this starter can take several days.  After a few days of keeping my starter, it looked and smelled like the book said it should: crusty and stinky. After feeding it, however, I realized that it was no longer matching the description in the book. I waited a few more days for the starter to begin to rise and fall, but it never happened. The starter was dead.  The lack of measuring how much starter to discard and how much water and flour to add was probably what killed my Tartine bread dreams.

The book is beautiful and the pictures of the bread look delicious, but I think this read is better suited for the seasoned bread baker. I guess I’ll have to wait till I can make it to San Francisco.

Making a Starter

• Mix 5 pounds of bread flour-half white and half whole wheat. You will use this 50/50 flour blend to feed your culture and develop your starter. All-purpose flour will work as well. Fill a small, clear bowl halfway with lukewarm water. Add a handful of the 50/50 flour blend to the water and mix with your hands to achieve the consistency of a thick batter with no lumps. Use a dough spatula to clean the clumps off your hands and tidy the inside of the bowl. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and place in a cool, shaded spot for 2 to 3 days.

• After 2 to 3 days, check the culture to see if any bubbles have formed around the sides and on the surface. If the culture seems inactive, let it sit for another day or 2. By this time, a dark crust may have formed over the top of the mixture, which is typical. Pull the crust back and note the aroma and bubbles caused by fermentation. In this initial stage, when the culture smells strong like stinky cheese and tastes sharply acidic, it is very ripe. Now it is time to do the first feeding.

• To feed the culture, discard about 80 percent of it. Replace the discarded portion with equal amounts of water and the 50/50 flour blend. Mix to combine just as you did in step 1. You have now begun training your culture into a starter.

• Repeat the discarding and feeding process once every 24 hours at about the same time each day, preferably in the morning. Don’t worry too much about the quantities of water and flour in these feedings. You want a thick batter. The important thing is that you feed the starter and pay attention to its behavior as it develops.

• As the balance of yeast and bacteria is established, the volume of the starter will increase for several hours after feeding and then begin to collapse as the cycle winds down. Note how the aroma of the starter changes from stinky and sharply acidic to sweet milky just after the feeding, when the starter is at the freshest or youngest stage in the cycle. “Fresh” and “young” are expressed and understood here in two ways: 1) The sweet stage of ripeness having been fed the normal 20-percent inoculation (2 to 4 hours) and 2) and/or many more hours (4 to 8) after having been fed using a very small inoculation (percent), yet still at the same sweet ripe stage. When the starter ferments predictably – rising and falling after feedings – you are ready to prepare a leaven and mix your first bread dough.

• Keep in mind that training your starter is a forgiving process. Don’t worry if you forget to feed it one day; just make sure to feed it the next. The only surefire way to mess up a starter is to neglect it for a long period of time or subject it to extreme temperatures. Even then, the cycle of regular feedings will usually restore the vitality of your starter.

Reprinted with permission from Chronicle Books

Have any tricks for making and feeding a starter? Tell us about it in the comments section below for a chance to win a copy of Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. We’ll announce the winner in next week’s By the Book column.

And now, we’d like to congratulate Steve, whose comment on last week’s By the Book has won him a copy of Flour Water Salt Yeast. Steve, keep an eye out for an email from the Sauce crew.

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