Posted by: A Part of the Solution | February 20, 2010

Starting the Starter

It’s an exciting time in my life. I bought a farm. I’m picking out fab, retro organic seeds for the CSA garden this spring (who doesn’t want purple carrots–right?). I’m opening a B&B just as soon as I can figure out the tax code–heh, heh. And last night I debuted the first loaf from my brand new sourdough starter.

I found the recipe in… wait for it… a British cookbook about Italian food. And no, it wasn’t anything written by the inimitable Elizabeth David. I pulled the instructions from the second River Cafe Cookbook.

For those of you who don’t know, the River Cafe has consistently been rated one of the ten best restaurants in the world for about the last fifteen years. I ate there once. No one’s over-estimating the quality of food those people put out. Though I myself wouldn’t have put the place right on the Thames. That river is bleak in winter and stinky in summer. Even so, the restaurant does food right.

And a great sourdough starter comma not from an envelope in the mail is a beautiful thing. Though I warned the farm manager it would produce a loaf still young and immature as compared to, say, one of the great more-than-a-century-old starters in use in the best bakeries of San Fran.

But we couldn’t wait for that first golden brown, seam split loaf to come out of the oven. We couldn’t wait for that gorgeous, crusty sucker to cool decently. We couldn’t stop spreading slice after slice with goat butter whilst discussing improvements to crumb and means of rounding the flavor out and up. The two of us ate half of it at quarter to midnight. And it’s nowhere near its real potential.

I’ll be using and feeding that baby for the rest of my productive life, with any luck at all. And I’ll be loving every bite. Below are the instructions, modified and with wiggle room a la Americain.

Sourdough Starter River Cafe

2 potatoes, starchy type, about 10 oz.–the size of a ten year old’s fist   each–peeled and cut into dice

3 3/4 cups bread flour–or strong unbleached, or bread flour and    white whole wheat in equal proportions–about 18.5 oz

a pinch of dry yeast (really, no more)


Cook the potatoes ’til soft, covered, in 2 cups of unsalted water (16 oz). Mash them into the cooking water with a fork and let the glop cool to lukewarm. Add 1-1/3 cups of the flour (6.65 oz) plus the yeast and mix well. Put the batter in a half gallon glass or ceramic container, sterilized–the dishwasher does a good job, as does boiling for 10 minutes immersed in water on the stove top.

Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Leave in a dark place until the surface is covered with tiny bubbles (anywhere from 12 to 30 hours). Stir it down, recover it and leave it for another 12 to 24 hours.

Add 3/4 cup flour (3.75 oz) and 1/4 cup more lukewarm water (2 oz). Stir well. Cover tightly and leave for 24-48 hours.

Add 1-1/3 cups flour (6.65 oz) and 1/4 cup more lukewarm water (2 oz). Stir the starter well. Recover it and let it go for another six hours.

Now you can go ahead and start making bread, or just store the whole thing in the fridge ’til you’re ready to make bread. You’ll want to replace whatever you use of the starter with equal amounts of flour and water. It will need to be fed every week, even if you don’t make bread (take some of the old out and replace with equal amounts of fresh flour and water).

This stuff will work with any sourdough recipe. Properly fed it will last for decades. The sooner you start your starter, the sooner you get to start eating homemade sourdough!


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