Tempted by the Larraburu sourdough posts here, and having grown up on Larraburu bread in the SF bay area back in the good old days, I decided to try my hand at getting a starter going.
I read dozens of Internet posts and threads on the subject and got some KA AP flour. The first starter recipe from the web I tried was a total bum steer. It called for way too little water (yes, I used spring water) and made a thick paste like pizza dough which dried out in no time -- practically overnight. I tried again using more liquid to make it the consistency of pancake batter. After several days there started to be some activity. I then read Debra Wink's fine posts and learned that this activity was fool's gold. It smelled cheesy, like cottage cheese about to go bad. I concluded based on what I had read that my starter was growing leuconostocs instead of yummy candida humilis (sourdough yeast). Undaunted, I kept at it, trying myriad different liquids and waiting for days and days for something to happen. The temperature in my environment is in the 70s. Having read about the acidic environment needed, I tried pineapple juice, a dilution of water and white vinegar with a pH in the neighborhood of 3.5, I tried wine (slightly less acidic than pineapple juice depending on the type). After days and days, nothing -- no bubbles, no activity. The only distinctive odor I could make out was that of the liquid I used. I then decided to switch to KA WW flour using the same array of liquids. Nothing. They all just sat there as flat as a week-old glass of Coke. Using the WW flour, the residue that stuck to the side of the bowl grew plenty of mold, which unfortunately is not an ingredient in sourdough. I've been at this for several weeks now, after waiting about a week for each one to take off. I work for a living so I can't schedule my life around sourdough starter to feed it every few hours. I just wanted to see if I could get any kind of yeasty activity going.
I have read recipes for "can't fail" starter calling for honey and packaged yeast as well as buttermilk and yogurt, but this would be cheating. I should be able to get a starter going with just flour and water or some acidic liquid, right? I'm keeping in mind what resources the 19th-century Basque sourdough bakers up in the Pyrenees had available to them. They didn't have canned pineapple juice, that's for sure, and they didn't have packaged yeast. They likely had wine (which is why I tried it) and maybe they had vinegar, but they certainly didn't know about pH, didn't have microscopes or pH paper and didn't know about leuconostocs. After reading Debra's posts I thought I had the scientific advantage going for me, knowing about pH and the acidic environment favorable to yeast growth, but alas, no. I'm skeptical of mail-order starters not knowing what magical ingredients they could possibly have that my KA flour lacks. After all, the sourdough bakers of generations past didn't have an Internet with people selling mail-order envelopes of San Francisco sourdough starter on it.
I am now officially stumped. I'm almost out of ideas, short of going up to SF and waving my bowl of starter around in the air at 3rd avenue and Geary (the location of the erstwhile Larraburu bakery). I can only conclude that the air in my kitchen, my plastic bowls, my measuring spoon, my kitchen counter, the lighting, something or some combination of things is conspiring against me and lacks the magical powers needed to start a starter. Maybe it's the ionization. Something isn't properly ionized. I'll have to look for an ion meter to tell me. I suppose I could try beer, with a pH around 4. It has yeast in it but not candida humilis, right? Or maybe malt vinegar? It's acidic and I hear those sourdough critters like maltose.
Meanwhile, the 49er gold miners are beyond hungry. They are pounding their fists on the table and seem unwilling to wait another two weeks for my failed efforts at sourdough starter to turn around.