Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hooch and keeping your Sourdough Starter alive

Sourdough starter really is a living creature.  The wild yeast that are in there feed on the water and flour in the starter, also sometimes referred to as the "sponge".  It gets the name "sponge" after it has been fed enough times to make it a large mass for your baking needs and  a little extra to store as "starter" for your next round of baking.

How old can a starter be?  I had one make it 20 years before it died due to a lack of electricity and refrigeration after the Northridge Quake.  Boudine's starter in San Francisco is documented at over 100 years old.  Urban legend in Paris is that the Poulin bakery starter dates to the French Revolution.  Not unlikely as well cared for starter used continuously has a chance of going forever with little care.

Storing starter in the fridge helps extend its life.  2 weeks is  your maximum storage before it sours, IE too much hooch built up that effectively kills it.  You can extend with a mid-term feeding and get a month out of it but I would not recommend.  Use it or lose it is the motto with a good starter.

What is "hooch"?  Hooch is alcohol, the remnants of the feeding cycle (excrement if you will) of the wild yeast in your starter.  It builds up first along the side of your starter and will eventually cover it if you don't monitor often.

 Its not bad for you.  In fact the old 49'ers and Sourdoughs skimmed it off and drank it.  I tried it once.  Bitter, burns and a nasty hangover as it has more than its fair share of bad alcohol in it.  An experiment not worth repeating.  But I digress and need to move on a bit.

I'll give you two recipes here.  One for keeping your starter alive.  Another for feeding to build a sponge for baking.  The latter, the one tool I cannot recommend enough is the use of a large pyrex measuring cup of 2 quarts and well marked.  IT will make the sponge building so much easier as guessing is pretty well eliminated.

The hardest thing to remember for me when baking with Sourdough is that when I start the first step ALWAYS must be to pull off 1 cup of the sponge to store as starter.  Really, get in the practice of doing that as the first step and life is always easier.  OF course if you forget you can always beg someone you gave some too or you got yours from initially for a new starter.

There is a debate between measuring by weight vs good old imperial measuring cup.  The weight people argue it must be equal weight as flour can have different moisture content and anything else is heresy.  Pffftttt...I learned with the good old imperial measuring cup and it worked for me all these years so why change is my motto.  Henceforth, all my stuff is by measuring cup when I refer to stuff in my sourdough recipes.

Starter (Staying Alive)
1 cup starter 
1 T Flour and Water
Stir in flour and water at the 2 week and 3 week mark.  Stir in whatever hooch has developed as it really is just character building for your starter.  Do not extend feeding without using beyond one month as your risk of death by hooch building increases.

Always store your sourdough in a well sealed, non-reactive container in the coldest part of your fridge for maximum life of your starter.  Do not freeze as that will kill it.

The sponge building part is pretty easy.  Remember you are constantly doubling the size of your starter until you get a sponge quantity in the amount needed for your recipe.  Your starter will start at 1 cup, you feed  equal 1 cup flour and water to bring to 2 cups total sponge.  Cover with plastic wrap or a tea towel for 3-4 hours later at room temp when it is bubbly repeat the feeding, this time with 2 cups each flour and water for a sponge of approx 4 cups and let it sit at room temp 3-4 hours until bubbly).  

At that point you look at your sponge vs recipe needs and feed enough to have 1 cup starter for yourself and enough to cover recipe needs.  (You can even add extra flour/water combo to give starter as a gift to someone).

Sponge Building
  • 1 cup starter
  • water
  • flour
Feeding 1:  In large volume marked non-reactive bowl add 1 c each water and flour to starter.  Cover with plastic wrap and allow to sit at room temp 3-4 hours until bubbly. (approx volume 2 cups of sponge starter)
Feeding 2:  Add 2 cups each flour and water.  Stir until just mixed.  Do not over mix as you will develop gluten which you do not want at this point.  (approx 4 cups volume)
Feeding 3: Add up to 4 cups, equal volumes of flour and water to get the amount of sponge needed plus 1 cup to reserve for future starter needs (for yourself and others).

Of course I had a little brain barf while typing this and thought of the old Bee Gee's song "staying alive", how appropriate for the starter post.  Enjoy, hope it gets stuck in your head as it did mine.


Adam said...

I've actually had a difference experience with refrigerating starter. I've had starter in the fridge for 2 months with no feedings and recover fine after feeding it twice. I'm sure it's better to do it more often, but it seems to work if it sits there awhile.

WurdBendur said...

Adam: It's possible that two months killed it, and it took two feedings to revive it because it was essentially a new starter, plus the remains of the old one.

shelby-knitz said...

Nice info about hooch.

I have known people to save some healthy starter in a bag in the freezer in case theirs dies. They just let it get back to room temp and start growing it again.

Wichita said...

I have starter that I have had for years. It doesn't seem to care if it stays in the fridge for 6-8 months at a time. When I make waffles, I put in two cups of flour and two cups of half and half. This last time, I let it sit one year before it started making hooch. I stirred the hooch back in. Now it has started making black flakes after being fed and sitting at room temp. for one day. Is it ok to use???

frazgo said...

Wichita...black flakes could be from two sources, one the jar you are using or fungus has set in. I'm not so sure about hanging onto it if you can't ID the black stuff.