Pre-marital counseling: advice to my baby brother, an aspiring sourdough baker
Ruth (our sister) left her sourdough starter in the refrigerator at Pelican Way (vacation home). I plan to use it when we're back here in a few weeks. Where shall I start?
I'm so happy that you have decided you are mature enough to enter into a long term commitment to a levain. You have, no doubt, heard the expression "starter marriage." I assume, like most, you have the impression this refers to the failed marriage of two people at a young age, but, as the Egyptians first discovered some 5000 years ago, it really refers to the successful long-term relationship between a baker and his or her wild yeast culture.
This can be one of the most rewarding experiences anyone can have, but it only works if there is mutual respect, an understanding of the partner's needs and a willingness on the baker's part to be patient and flexible, especially in the first months of the relationship. There will be disappointments, inevitably. You must accept these adversities and work through them together. If you do, your starter will reward you with nourishment for your body and soul. It will become resilient and forgiving. It will provide an endless variety of pleasures - pain au levain, pain de campagne, sour rye, challah, even croissants!
As you feed your starter, it will awaken and come alive. It's yeast and lactobacilli will grow and multiply and produce the CO2 that raises your dough and the alcohol and acids that strengthen your gluten and lend complexity of flavor to your bread. But, if you neglect it, it will weaken and ooze liquid (hooch) as it's strength fades to nothingness. Yet, if you feed it again and again, it will revive and forgive you, time after time. Who cannot but treasure such loyalty?
The material requirements for a successful relationship are minimal: Your starter, water, flour and salt. Bowls and spatulas and ovens you have. You will need a scale to accurately measure ingredients. It should measure to 1 g (1/4 oz) and have a tare function. The most inexpensive but very acceptable one I know is made by Escali and costs less than $30.
Your levain can be fed all purpose (AP) flour, but it really likes its feeding spiced up with a bit of rye and/or whole wheat (WW). The mix I use for feeding my starter is 70% AP, 20%WW and 10% rye. (All measurements are by weight, not volume.) So, I advise you to mix up a batch of starter food, say 210 g AP, 60 g WW and 30 g rye and keep it in a quart jar.
I generally keep my starter at 75% hydration. (This means 4 parts flour to 3 parts water.) And when feeding it, I mix together 1 part starter with 4 parts flour and 3 parts water. For example, mix 15 g starter with 60 g flour (the flour mix described above) and 45 g water. This makes 120 gms of starter. Mix this in a medium sized bowl (3-4 cup size), cover the bowl and let it ferment for 12-16 hours. It should double in volume and be all bubbly with a domed top. I like to do this in a glass or clear plastic container. Before using the starter to make bread, repeat the feeding. Discard all but 20 g of starter and feed the starter with 80 g of flour and 60 g of water. You now have 160 g of starter. It may now double in 6-8 hours. It is now ready to use to make bread.
I would start with a simple San Francisco-type sourdough bread. I would plan on making the same bread several times before you feel you "know it." Then, choose a variation or another type of sourdough bread. I know you like my Sourdough Italian Bread, so you may want to work on that. It is a little trickier, in that it is a wet, sticky dough. I can send you formulas for these or other types of sourdough bread.
There is a wealth of information online. You know TFL. Read Sourdough Lessons  which has links to a number of sources. Mike Avery's Sourdough Home - An Exploration of Sourdough  also has a lot of good information and tips. You may also want to explore Susan Tenney's Wild Yeast  blog for inspiration. If you read my blog on TFL, you will find many formulas, most of which contain detailed instructions for procedures. I'll be home next weekend (making bread, no doubt) so feel free to give a call.