In medias res

stuck in the middle with you

I’ve spent the month or so since I received my Substack fellowship agonizing about how exactly to reboot this newsletter. After having to pull the plug on it abruptly back in April and letting it lie fallow ever since, I have found myself at a loss knowing what to say or to focus on with my first new post.

Which is why I finally decided just start right in the messy middle. I’ll have lots to say about what happened back in April (funny story, that), what I’ve been up to in the intervening months (aside from being locked down at home like everyone else), where I hope to take you now that I’m back (so many places!), and what exactly this newsletter will cover (sourdough, of course, but so much more as well, not even just bread, but definitely tons of bread). But instead of trying to cram all that into one mega omnibus reintroduction post, I’m going to roll it out over time, while at the same time sharing recipes, techniques, and more.

So stay tuned! And—whether you’ve been hanging around since the beginning or have just joined recently—thank you for being here, I’m so happy to share this space with you. These first few weeks and months are necessarily going to be a bit herky-jerky as I get the newsletter back up and running and find my rhythm with it, but my long-term goal is to share new posts with you 2-3 times a week (most likely M, W, & Fr).

In keeping with this “in medias res” theme, this first new post is about general sourdough starter maintenance, i.e. how I keep my starter happy from day to day. I know this seems like a humdrum topic to launch with, but it’s a key one for much of what will follow, and I want to be sure we’re all on the same page before the recipes drop.

Following this method requires that you have a starter already. If you do not, you have options:

  1. You can start one from scratch, which will take about a month to arrive at something that will leaven a loaf of bread (and maybe another month before it’s really rocking). I’ll have a new version of my “quarantinystarter” recipe here soon, but I want to re-write it from the ground up. In the meantime, the original one I detailed for the Cook’s Illustrated website is right here, and it should remain in front of the paywall for awhile. (One thing I’d now recommend that I didn’t back then: Use rye flour if you can get it—along with high protein AP or bread flour—since I now think rye in particular is the magic fairy dust needed to jumpstart activity.)

  2. You can get one from a friend.

  3. Or you can get one from your friend Andrew by ordering one here for $5. As instructive as it is to create a starter from scratch—doing so can definitely teach you all sorts of breadbaking-useful lessons, not least of which is patience—there’s no shame at all in starting in the middle with an already established one. I have a pile of dried starter ready to mail out now, and I’m drying more this week. (If you do want one, please email me directly rather than commenting below, so I can easily keep track of orders.) The dried, powdered starter will come with instructions for reviving it, after which you can use the recipe below.

Maintaining a sourdough starter, the basics:

To keep my starter healthy and ready for baking, I refresh it using a 2:2:1 flour/water/starter ratio, proof it at room temperature until it has doubled in volume, then move it to the fridge, where it slows down and remains ready to bake with for up to a week. (If you aren’t baking with your starter, you can forget about it in the fridge for at least a month. But keep in mind that the longer you leave it there, the more twice-daily room temperature feedings it will need before it’s happy again.)

Left at room temperature longer, the starter would eventually triple in volume over 8 to 12 hours before collapsing and needing refreshing again. Arresting this process by cooling it down—before it has exhausted all the nutrition in the flour—is the secret to long-term viability in the fridge.

Note that I use only white flour here, another key to success with this particular approach: The somewhat limited nutrient content of white flour keeps the starter from overproofing while it’s in the fridge. Save the whole grain flour for the bread, or for if and when your starter seems to be flagging (in which case I’d recommend using 30% rye flour).

Finally, the method below is only for a healthy, mature starter; if you use it with one that is immature and/or weak, it won’t work, and you’ll likely only compound the problem by doing so (slowing down an already slow starter will just weaken it further). How to know if your starter is mature I’ll go into in detail at some point soon, but one key indicator of maturity is that it does what it is supposed to do at the end of step 1, provided you follow the instructions as written (i.e., it doubles in volume in 3 to 6 hours time). If it doesn’t, it isn’t there yet, and you should instead keep refreshing it at room temperature twice a day, using the same ratio, but at a smaller scale—say 50g flour, 50g water, 25g starter—to conserve flour.

Care and Maintenance of a Mature Sourdough Starter

This method works whether you are baking on a regular basis or only once in awhile, but it is scaled for regular use. If you don’t bake often, you’ll probably want to scale it down by 1/3 (i.e., 50g flour, 50g water, 25g starter), so as to not waste flour. If your kitchen is above 85˚F, use cool (65˚F) water. If it’s below 70˚F, use warm (80˚F) water.

150 grams high-protein AP or bread flour

150 grams water, 75˚F

75 grams mature starter

1. Combine flour, water, and starter (return remaining starter to fridge as a backup in case of disaster) in bowl and stir until uniform. Transfer to clean, tall, narrow, & straight-sided container and cover (loosely if using mason jar). Mark starting level with rubber band or marker. Proof at room temperature until doubled in volume, 3 to 6 hours.

2. Transfer to refrigerator and store for up to 14 days before refreshing again. (Cold-stored levain is best used for baking within 7 days.)