Vacation with Your Sourdough Starter? F$%K THAT! :)

I was on a home baker’s forum and saw a post where some dude’s wife took pictures of him proudly displaying his jar of sourdough starter that he just pulled out of his suitcase. The caption read something like, “My hubby took his starter with him on vacation!” When I saw that picture and read the caption, I chuckled, then thought to myself, I thought I was obsessive… But this takes it to a whole different level! Several people chimed in on the discussion thread and said they had done the same. That kind of amazed me.

Then I asked myself, “Why in the world would someone do that?” The only thing I could come up with is that home sourdough enthusiasts seem to have this notion that they have to feed their sourdough every day – some even twice a day – thinking that their starter will die if they don’t feed it.

Though I do my best to be nice, there’s no other way to put this: Your starter won’t die if you don’t feed it. And yeast is extremely hard to kill! In other words, go on your damn vacation and don’t let your starter dictate your schedule! 🙂

I studied Biology in college with an emphasis on Microbiology and Virology. Though that was decades ago, one of the things I learned about yeasts is that they’re extremely hard to kill. As opposed to dying, when they don’t have a food source, they enter into a sort of suspended animation and go dormant. They can be in this state for thousands of years and be revived, amazingly enough (click on that link – it’s pretty fascinating).

So where does this daily feeding thing come from? Probably from professional bakers or home enthusiasts who bake sourdough every single day. They have to be on a schedule because they need their starter daily. But for those who don’t make sourdough every day, there’s just no need to feed the starter until it’s needed. In the meantime, it can sit in the fridge.

And why go through the hassle of discarding all that flour? It’s nonsense. From a purely practical standpoint, how many crackers and pancakes can you eat? Sheesh!

Look, I bake every day, but I don’t feed my starter daily because I don’t make sourdough every day. So when I’m not making sourdough, my starter is in the fridge. When I know I’m going to bake sourdough bread, I begin feeding it the day before – no discard, by the way, and I’ll get into my method below – or early that day if I make my dough in the afternoon.

For me, I use a tailings method with all my starters (I currently have 3 in my fridge right now). In each Kilner container, I probably have 100 grams of starter. When I’m going to use one, I remove it from the fridge, add 100 grams each of warm water and flour for the first feeding, then when it doubles, I do another feeding. The amount of flour and water I use varies based on how much starter I’ll need. I’ll actually make more than what I need so I will have extra once I add the starter to my dough. That extra – the tailings – goes back into the fridge.

This morning, I revived some tailings that are well over a month old as I have been traveling this past month and have only managed to bake yeasted bread while I was home. As of this writing, the levain I’m building is in the midst of its second feeding and it’s highly active. I’ll be ready to build my dough in another hour or so – that’s literally four hours since I removed it from the fridge! The point is that I let it sit for a long time and it still came back.

That said, yes, a starter can indeed slow down. But kill off the yeast? It’s highly unlikely unless the starter was exposed to some really extreme conditions. But in a cold environment like a fridge, all the microbes slow down, so competition in the environment will also slow (read: You can let it sit for quite a while).

But… if you want to take your starter on vacation, no one’s stopping you. But if it’s because you feel you have to feed every day, you just don’t need to do it. Pop your starter in the fridge and go enjoy yourself. Don’t let your starter dictate what and when you can do things.

How Much Flour and Water Are in My Starter?

The other day, I made a big batch of Biga Naturale which is a biga made from a sourdough starter, at 75% hydration. Once it was mostly risen – nicely domed with bubbles forming on the surface as pictured above – I divided it into 4 X 200 gram portions (for pizza/flatbread starter that I’d store in the fridge for the coming week) and a single 360 gram portion that I’d use to make a double recipe of Pane di Como Antico.

All was well. I used two of the pizza portions to make some pizza dough for dinner last night, and early this morning, I took the 360 gram biga out of the fridge to bake my Pane di Como Antico for a community service event this afternoon.

Normally, I would’ve followed the recipe exactly, but this time, I was doubling the recipe and changing the hyrdration a bit so I needed to figure out the hydration of the starter. Had my starter been a 100% starter, it would’ve been a no-brainer to figure out the formula percentage of the flour and water – they’d both be 50%. But because I was using a 75% starter, I needed to figure out the actual formula percentage that each ingredient contributed to the overall mass of the dough.

For any given hydration rate, to figure out the flour and water percentages, it’s simple math:

Flour Percentage = (1 / (1 + Hydration Rate)) * 100
Water Percentage = 100 – (Flour Percentage)

So where did I get the 1? When calculating decimal fractions, we always use 1 as the “whole.” In this case, 1 represents the total amount of flour. So when we add 1 and the hydration rate, what we’re looking at is the representation of the flour and the water together.

Then to get the mass of the flour and water, it’s again just simple math:

Flour Mass = Dough Mass * Flour Formula Percentage
Water Mass = Dough Mass * Water Formula Percentage

Here’s a simple table where I’ve done the calculations:

Hydration RateFlour Formula %Water Formula %
60%63%38%
61%62%38%
62%62%38%
63%61%39%
64%61%39%
65%61%39%
66%60%40%
67%60%40%
68%60%40%
69%59%41%
70%59%41%
71%58%42%
72%58%42%
73%58%42%
74%57%43%
75%57%43%
76%57%43%
78%56%44%
79%56%44%
80%56%44%

Mind you, this is not totally accurate. We’re not taking into account the weight of the microbes (which will be minuscule anyway) and we’re also assuming that there’s no water loss due to evaporation. But it’ll get us close enough to get the job done in calculating an overall contribution to the final dough.

Also, you’d think that you could apply this technique to figure out the weight of any ingredient in the final dough. I suppose you could if you built the dough under a tightly controlled and consistent environment. But the problem with that is that during mixing you may add a bit of flour or water, to adjust for temperature and humidity. So it throws off the actual flour and water you may have used. In this case, the best you can do is get an estimate of an ingredient. Personally, I’ve found that the margin for error is about 10%.

And even with the starter calculation, it’s not totally accurate. But we’re only dealing with a two-ingredient dough, so there’s not going to be much else to take into consideration.

I’m Making Nancy Silverton’s Grape Starter!

I’ve resisted making a sourdough starter for a long time. It wasn’t that I was completely averse to it. It was just that I didn’t want to divert my focus from the other steps in bread production. To me, a levain is just a leavening agent, a tool. But it’s a tool that needs time to develop; honestly, time that I just didn’t want to spend, having developed and maintained a culture in the past.

But I got to the point where I’ve gained enough confidence in my process, so I started to create starters (yes, plural). I have one that I feed every day that focuses on the yeast that I use for baguettes and ciabatta. And I have one in the fridge that I use to really bring out the sour notes in my bread, and just this past weekend, I started creating a grape starter, inspired by acclaimed chef and restauranteur, Nancy Silverton.

I’ve been intrigued by this sourdough starter ever since I read about it in some random blog post. To be honest, I had known about Nancy Silverton for a long time, but I had no idea she had made her starter from grapes! When I read that, I started doing research and vowed that once I had the time, I’d make this starter. Well that time came a few days ago.

Nancy’s recipe calls for unwashed organic grapes. This is important because they’re covered with natural yeast. That said, even washed, organic grapes will still have microbes on them, but if you look at fresh-off-the-vine grapes, they’re covered with a dusting of natural yeast.

Luckily for me, my best friend works at Eden Rift Vineyards in Hollister, CA. So I took a day trip down to Hollister this past Saturday and after drinking some VERY GOOD wine, he clipped a cluster of grenache grapes from one of the vines. Talk about fresh! If you look at the picture of the cluster above, you’ll see the dusting of yeast all over the grapes.

For recipe guidance, I referenced two different articles from Food.com and The Quest for Sourdough. If you reference the Food.com article, the “real” instructions are actually in the first comment in the comments section. I used the “The Quest…” article as simply a reference for the weights as I didn’t have the same weights listed in the Food.com article.

So now I’m on Day 3. What I’ve noticed with this particular starter is that the fermentation bubbles are actually much smaller than with my other starters. I forgot to take a picture of the starter before I mixed it, but I was amazed at the difference between how those wild yeasts act vs. the wild yeasts from my regular starters (which I suspect has a lot of commercial s. cervisiae).

The smell is fruity of course and quite alcoholic. With that grape juice, wine is also being made – those fine bubbles that I mentioned above are reminiscent of champagne bubbles – very cool. Taste-wise, the sourness is actually much milder than I expected, though I imagine it’ll get more intense once the two-week process to grow this starter is complete.

I’m SO looking forward to using this starter!