What’s that smell? No, it’s not a hunk of provolone you forgot to put back in the fridge. Follow your nose, and it will lead you straight to a small bowl in a corner of the dining room. At this point the starter is, in Robertson’s words, “very ripe”. Yeah, I’ll say it’s ripe.
Now that I’ve got a stinky mess of frothy flour on my hands, the next step is to discard 80% and feed the little bugs living in the remaining 20%. Luckily, the organisms are relatively low maintenance, requiring a fresh dose of flour and water only once every 24 hours.
The goal is to cultivate a wild and thriving community of yeasts and bacteria. One that will be strong enough to leaven a loaf to lusty heights, throwing a gorgeous ‘ear’ (yes, that is an actual bread baking term) with impressive oven spring. The wild cultures also add a certain je ne sais quoi that is missing in breads made with commercial yeast. Think of a vanilla bean versus vanilla extract-they both get the job done, but one has the soul of vanilla. The starter is the soul of bread.
My starter doesn’t rise and fall as predictably as it will, ultimately, need to. But I am keeping the faith. If I nurture it through these awkward adolescent days, then this ugly duckling can become a beautiful swan. Or at least a slightly less stinky duckling.