As some of you know I have been working on Okinawa and not been home since early February. Well, I ended up staying longer than I had planned and the pace of worked picked up. Not being able to bake, I thought I would at least start a new starter.
I haven't had to start a starter for a long time, but quickly read up on the process and it did seem familiar. The question was that of flour.
With some grumbling that if I were just at home I could grind up some fresh whole wheat and maybe spike it with a little fresh rye, I resolved that I would need to purchase flour - so to market I went.
I can now go so far as to reveal that my work has been among folks who pretty much only speak English and that by working with these folks I have access to stores where you can buy American brands (if you know what I mean). Being short of time and Japanese language skills (lessons put on hold so that I might work long days) I found, not my good old KA, but an American name brand "organic" white flour and a name brand whole wheat. The only other "all purpose" flour that I could find was bleached - which didn't seem like a good idea. Rye flour alas was nowhere to be found.
Mixed equal amounts (by weight, bien sur!) of whole wheat flour and water - fed it a bit each day - and on day three had a bubbling crude. Having read Debra Wink's work I knew that this was mostly bacterial action and that the solution had to become acidic enough before yeast would take hold. I contemplated "The Pineapple Juice Solution" but strangely for an island that produces pineapples, their juice was nowhere to be found. Not having the confidence or equipment (I flew here with only my carry on and live in a hotel)to undergo a pineapple juicing operation, I also read her advice that given enough time the starter would become acidic enough - and I had time to wait. (oh, so much time - the theme song for "Gilligan's Island" kept playing in my head)
With approximately twice daily feedings of whole wheat (during this period I did not always get to eat, and I worked as many as 20 hours a day - but my starter was fed) living in the cool environment of my air-conditioned room, it took about a week for my starter to double (just barely) reliably. As I discarded parts of it, it seemed like a normal, healthy, although immature starter to me.
Then I started feeding it the white flour. Almost immediately it began to show signs of starvation - the alcohol smell, a little hooch developing , a dead listless quality and no rise. I was feeding it well - about twice a day. What was going on? Early one morning, coming home from work, I read the bag of flour. It contained no malt. Now, unmalted flour could very well have a low enough Falling Number to assure sufficient alpha amylase action - but then again, it might not. Hard to know with the information provided on your typical bag of flour. And I don't know of it indeed was the problem.
I do know that going back to whole wheat cleared up the problem.
But my OKI starter needed OKI flour (or so I told myself in my sleep deprived state). After work tapered off a bit I was able to get to a Japanese grocery store. Still unable to read Japanese (or speak much of it) I allowed instinct alone to get me to the flour aisle and using the time honored method of looking carefully at the pictures on the package (or the big English words "For Bread" on an otherwise inscrutable bag of what I assume was flour) I chose bags of white and whole wheat flour that had pictures that seemed to be of bread like products. Again, there was the question of flour characteristics, but now I was running completely blind.
So, nothing to do but experiment. The whole wheat flour (which was really very lovely, very finely ground flour with no big flakes of bran) seemed to be a favorite of the "beasties", but was relatively expensive. Additionally, I prefer to keep a white flour starter. So I switched to white.
This was not entirely successful. While not displaying signs of hunger, and just barely doubling in 4-6 hours, it didn't seem "right." It had a sticky, silly puttyesque quality that did not seem in any way familiar. Again, I don't know if this was the flour, or just a misbehaving adolescent starter, but it was a quality that I did not enjoy. Inspiration welcome.
So I must take a mental detour and consider how much we value our "old" starters. "My teacher" once told me that keeping a starter alive and vibrant for many years was "the baker's pride." There is a lot to be said for that. To invest the time and care to keep a starter vibrant for 10, 20, 30 years or more is something in which one can take pride. More than that, although our starters undergo minor changes, I know my starter. I have had it for 10 years. While not investing it with complex emotions or personality, it is a stable colony of living organisms and has predictable reactions to things like temperature, feeding schedule and flour quality. I can read the state of its health pretty easily. This new starter, not so much. I will add that with this new starter, I was totally adrift. Not one factor- being at sea level, a humid climate, sporadic air conditioning, flour, or water- is something that I experience on my home turf. I do remember that my own treasured starter produced some bad bakes when it was young and over time, without me doing much of anything, those bad bakes went away.
So back to the day to day, I decided on a feeding regimen of ¼- 1/3 parts of whole wheat flour and the remainder white flour. With this combination the beasties seem happy and I am "less unhappy" with the general texture of the starter itself. I have been feeding at an eyeballed ratio of 1:1:1 and that starter doubles (but not much more). The discard (about how one manages that in a Japanese hotel - don't ask , don't tell) seemed lively enough for a day or so. I was pretty sure I had some yeast working in there, but wasn't confident on its strength. Inspiration welcome.
I was never really happy with my Okinawa starter and just didn't know where to place the blame.
Knowing that I would finally be leaving Okinawa, I decided to dry some of the starter and take it home. I considered making a firm starter out of it but with the rigors of international air travel these days and the significant duration of the flight, thought better of it (advice from world travelers who travel with starter welcome!).
Once home, I dissolved the dried flakes in water and used that water to make a 100% hydration starter. Of course, I also resumed baking and feeding my old starter which had been well cared for by my faithful house sitter. I wondered if my good old KA flour would do my OKI starter some good.
Day 1 and 2 saw a pretty moribund container of glop. On Day 3, like magic, the starter more than doubled. While not looking exactly like my US starter, it was definitely looking like a very active starter. It has been improving steadily day over day.
So what was it? I'm asking - I don't know. If it is the yeast in the local flour that finally took hold, this would tell us that the origin of the seed doesn't matter - the local yeasts will come on like gangbusters - but three days seemed too little for local yeasts to become so active.
I considered that it had become "contaminated" with my US starter, but I had been careful not to use the same utensils, not have the two containers open at the same time and to wash my hands before working with it. It still has an aroma that is quite distinct from my US starter, so I would not call the two the same.
Was it the flour itself giving the boost to the yeast that was formerly struggling to reproduce? Was the OKI flour just not up to the task? Inspiration welcome.
Okinawa, by the way, has more of a wheat based cuisine than I would have thought. Okinawa soba is not buckwheat - it is regular wheat - so they are a people that know the properties of wheat (and know what to do with a pig, but I digress...). The texture of the Okinawan flours was very fine and silky and my tiny mind wanders to the impact of milling processes on flour behavior, but that's a topic for another time.
I will probably dry the starter again, save some of the dry starter to revive in the US and transport some to revive in Okinawa. It's one thing to have a house sitter feed one 10 year old starter, I'm not going to tip over the edge to have him feed two.
I've worked most of the angles that are practical for finding an oven on Okinawa. Obviously I am working with people who do not put a priority on home baking (and I am glad their priorities are where they are) and ovens are rare in Okinawa housing, so I don't think I will get to bake during my next hitch - which absolutely won't be as long as my last one.
What I will be doing is shipping some Japanese flours home to see how they act on the edge of American hard red wheat country. I may even send a sample or two off to the lab to see what is going on with them. That would be interesting.
But it's going to be awhile...
Oh - and even though I thought I would forget - I can still bake (and still can't do photography)
My recently acquired shisas - the guardian spirits of Okinawa - guard the same old baguette (levain, 65% hydration) that I always bake.
The male shisa has an open mouth to keep away the evil spirits and the female shisa has a closed mouth to keep in the happiness.
The crumb shot.