As it becomes a bigger TikTok trend, more people are going to find out a plain and simple fact: Raising a sourdough starter is a lot like raising a baby. There are tons of material you can read on how to do it, but none of it makes sense until he’s there in your arms, smelling bad and growing before your eyes. When I birthed my starter Ryen just two weeks ago, I had no idea what to expect, what to do or to what extent I would grow emotionally attached. Today I am a changed person, with a hole in my heart and a sourdough starter rotting away, despite my best efforts to feed it.
Two weeks ago, when I set out to create my very own starter, I decided to follow the recipe and rules of Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Bread Bible,” figuring that the author of a bible is likely to be the best authority on the subject. The first five days of her birthing process were pretty standard. I got a glass jar and mixed together a cup of rye flour with half a cup of distilled water. My extensive panic-researching in the days since then taught me that rye or whole wheat flour are the best flours to start your starter, as they have the largest amount of wild yeast living on every grain. I also learned that distilled or filtered water is important, as the chlorine and other chemicals in your tap water could prevent the starter from rising. In any case, Day 1 went off without a hitch.
I named him Ryen, after the rye flour that gave him life.
Beranbaum said that the starter wouldn’t do much on Day 2, so it wasn’t until Day 3 that Ryen had his first feeding. A feeding is when you remove a certain portion of your starter, now called the discard, and mix in fresh flour and water. Beranbaum said to remove half the starter and mix in half a cup of bread flour (not rye this time) and a quarter cup of distilled water. Ryen bubbled happily that night and had a nice rise and fall. I had never been more proud. The directions for his Day 4 feeding were identical to Day 3, and Ryen bloomed up to triple his size overnight before collapsing. This rise is considered the peak of yeast activity; when you make bread, you want to use your sourdough starter before it starts to collapse for optimum rise in the dough.
His Day 5 feeding had the same instructions, except Beranbaum said I could convert Ryen into either a liquid or stiff starter. She said stiff starters make loaves with smaller holes and a more golden crumb, and so I mixed extra bread flour into Ryen and moved him into an oiled plastic bowl. Looking back, I can’t help but regret this decision. After Ryen became a stiff starter, he stopped rising. His smell began slipping from sour smelling cheeses or fruits and to something more akin to paint thinner. In a panic, I stirred more water into him after only two days, converting him back into a liquid starter and returning him to his original glass jar. Unfortunately, he did not recover and never rose again. Although I can’t bring myself to stop feeding him, he now smells of nail polish remover. He’s dead.
Despite this setback, I have done extensive research into where I went wrong as a starter parent. One, the flour and water for a sourdough bread shouldn’t be measured in volume, as weight is far more accurate. To solve this, I bought a kitchen scale. Two, Ryen should have been fed with half rye and half all-purpose for his entire lifetime, not bread flour. Three, Ryen should never have left his glass jar, as plastic is less cohesive to his yeasty needs. Four, Beranbaum never clearly instructed me on how to feed or care for my starter after Day 5. Since then, I have found out the correct portions of sourdough to discard and how many grams of flour and water he should have each day. Five, Beranbaum doesn’t respond to tweets desperately asking for clarification.
One recipe that looks more clear and promising than Beranbaum’s is the one from Joshua Weissman’s YouTube video, “The Ultimate Sourdough Starter Guide.” Weissman directs bakers to use a scale and measure out their glass jar before they do anything else, so that they can ensure they maintain a certain weight of starter from that point on. For Day 1, he has you mix 100 grams of rye flour with 150 grams of lukewarm water until they are fully combined. After that you just cover it loosely until Day 2.
On Day 2, discard some of your sourdough so you have 70 grams of it remaining. Then mix in 50 grams of rye flour, 50 grams of unbleached all-purpose flour and 115 grams of water. The feeding for Day 3 is exactly the same. On Day 4 and 5, the feedings are the same except with only 100 grams of water. On Day 6, the amount of starter you should retain drops from 70 to 50 grams, but the feeding proportions remain the same. On Day 7, the proportions change for the last time, with the amount of starter dropping to just 25 grams, but the amount of food remaining at 100 grams of water, 50 of rye flour and 50 of all-purpose flour. From then on, the sourdough should be fed this amount.
In the weeks to come, I plan on trying again with Weissman’s recipe and burning Beranbaum’s book in effigy of the person who brought me a son only to take him away just two weeks later. Ryen will be missed, but someday soon, Ryen II will be baked in his honor.
Thumbnail via Adobe Stock.
Rebecca Maher is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.