February 14, 2011
by Gareth Mark
At its most fundamental level, bread is a magical mixture of flour, water, salt, and yeast. The one ingredient in that short list that causes fear is yeast.
There are four forms of yeast available to the average baker: fresh, instant, active dry, and wild. Fresh yeast is the most difficult to find unless you're in a large city or have a dedicated artisanal bread maker working nearby. Instant and active dry yeast are very similar. Both are dried, granulated forms of yeast that are pretty much interchangeable. Instant yeast, sometimes called rapid rise yeast, was formulated for bread machines, but works outside the machine quite well. Active dry yeast is somewhat less active than instant yeast.
Wild yeast, or sourdough, is readily available to anyone willing to grow a culture. It just isn't all that hard to do. You'll need a nonreactive container with a lid (glass, stainless steel, food-grade plastic), flour (all-purpose, rye, or whole wheat), unsweetened pineapple juice or water, and time. The water should be pure spring water or filtered water that is left to sit at room temperature for 24 hours before using.
Step 1: Mix together 3½ tablespoons (1 oz) of flour and ¼ cup (2 oz) of pineapple juice or water. Cover loosely and let sit at room temperature for 48 hours. During the two days it sits, stir it with a wet whisk or spatula at every meal time to aerate the mixture. You probably won't notice any change, except the odor changes a bit.
Step 2: Add 3½ tablespoons (1 oz) of flour and 2 tablespoons (1 oz) of pineapple juice or water and mix. Cover loosely and let sit at room temperature, stirring as before at meal times. Sometime in the next 48 hours it should begin to get bubbly. Don't expect wild frothy bubbles unless you live in San Francisco. When it gets bubbly, move to the next step.
Step 3: Add 7 tablespoons (2 oz) of flour and 2 tablespoons (1 oz) of water (no more pineapple juice). The mixture will be a lot drier now, because the ratio of flour to water has changed from the original 1:2 to the opposite, 2:1. Do the cover and stir thing for the next 24-48 hours, during which you're looking for more signs of life, including bubbles and expansion. When you see it has expanded, you have a good seed culture started. Go to the next step.
Step 4: Measure out ½ cup of the culture and add to it 10½ tablespoons (3 oz) of flour and 2 tablespoons (1 oz) of water. Mix thoroughly, cover and stir as before, and let sit 4-24 hours, until it doubles in size. The seed culture is finished. Now to make it into a mother starter, or chef.
Mix together 2¾ cup (12 oz) flour, 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (9 oz) water, and ¾ cup (4 oz) of the seed culture, which is about half of it. Save the remainder to make a second mother with a different flour, give it to someone, or compost it. Once the ingredients are mixed together, knead for about two minutes, then place in a lightly-oiled nonreactive container. Cover loosely and let sit at room temperature 4-8 hours, until it doubles in size. It might take a little longer than 8 hours, and if it more than doubles there's no harm.
Turn it out onto a work surface and knead for a few seconds to degas the mother. Form it into a ball, return it to the container, cover tightly, and refrigerate. You now have sourdough mother.
If you start to run low, or just haven't used the mother for a couple of weeks and it smells a bit alcoholic, you'll need to refresh it. If you have 4 ounces, just use the above instructions. If you have less than 4 ounces, you'll need to build up to that amount by using 3 parts flour to 1 part mother to 1.25 parts water. As long as you have an ounce of mother you'll be just fine.
This stuff will last as long as you feed it. It's alive, you know.