One important element of cooking, of course, is proper food storage -- assuming that you, like most of us, can't get farm-fresh produce and meat that was harvested or slaughtered/caught this morning for cooking this evening. People usually think of this in terms of making sure that dead things stay dead: that bacteria, molds, and so on don't colonize the food before we get a chance to put it in our mouths. But another important element of food storage is making sure that things that are alive stay alive. This is really obvious in produce -- if you can deceive a lettuce leaf's cells into continuing to go about their business as usual, you can keep it fresh much longer.
It's also true of sourdough starter. Mine has been living, untouched and unfed, in my refrigerator for more than three weeks now, and it's time to see whether it's dropped dead or can be salvaged.
There are a few different schools of thought as to the storage of sourdough starter. (Assuming you can't actively care for it, by which I mean feeding and stirring it every week or ten days or so, which is ideal. Actually, really ideal is to bake with it regularly, and feed the extra sponge back into the bottle -- that way you have a healthy starter and
lots of fresh bread.) One school says that you should give it a good feed right before you leave, in the hopes that it will stay reasonably active until you come back. Another school says that you should let it go dormant and allow most of the colony of yeasts to die out, and then rehabilitate the few that manage to hang on. (You can also freeze it or dry it, but success rates for that are not stellar, I'm told.) I went with the 'dormant' theory, not so much because I thought it was actually wiser but because I didn't want to add sponge-making to my list of pre-trip chores. My starter has sat in the fridge for three weeks, patiently waiting. Or perhaps dead.
But I volunteered to bake twelve loaves of bread (one per month) for a charity auction. (This is my standard trick: fresh homemade bread every month for a year. I haven't done it since high school, when it was my contribution to the school's fundraising auction, but livelongnmarry
inspired me pull it out again.) The recipient gets to pick the bread type, so I need to see if the starter is alive -- so that if she wants sourdough for her first loaf, and if the starter's dead, I have time to build a new starter.
I pulled the starter out of the fridge. I keep it in a glass bottle -- an old Classico spaghetti sauce bottle, the label peeling off from being repeatedly scalded to clean it -- and it became immediately clear that the hooch had separated. Hooch is a liquid that sometimes rises off sourdough starter; as the name implies, it's got some alcohol content, and smells a good deal like very sour beer. Hooch is actually not a bad sign: it rises above the flour slurry, and the slightly alcoholic, acidic liquid layer helps keep starter from molding. Sure enough, I'd avoided mold, which would have been a sign that the starter needed to be discarded. So I poured off the hooch and dumped the glob of starter at the bottom (thick, with the liquid wept out, but still very moist) into a big mixing bowl.
Usually when making sponge, I use two parts starter, one part new water, and one part new flour. This time I used equal parts of all three -- so about twice as much new flour-water slurry as starter. I want to give the sponge plenty of food, in the hopes that it will grow, and quickly. I broke up the glob of starter in the water, then added the flour. Now it's sitting on my counter, covered with a tea towel, giving any remaining live yeasts a chance to wake up and eat. I'll peek at it in six hours, then again in twelve, then again in twenty-four. If I have not got a good layer of bubbles after twenty-four hours, chances are good the starter died, and I'll have to build a new one.