Here's the first question that came, from Doc.Dough. He must be a doc, for sure, as it takes a little study to understand the question -- but I'll take a stab at it and then all of you can chime in with comments.
Over on TFL I see lots of people slavishly following very exacting instructions without understanding what the instructions are intended to convey. Perhaps Peter could attempt to articulate the difference between importance and exactness or in some way provide some useful guidance to set expectations a little lower with respect to the behavior of sourdough cultures in the amateur's kitchen. There is the "you have to do it enough times to have seen it go wrong occasionally" method of teaching, and there is the parametric sensitivity derivatives analytic approach which is fine for the science crowd but pretty useless for the average home baker. Is there a happy medium?
I think the answer is both yes and no. Let me see if I can elaborate: there are dozens of legitimate ways of making and keeping a starter. I have offered to send a file on the subject to anyone who requests it (write to me at
to make the request -- hundreds of you already have), but the main thing to remember is that a starter is just a medium for the cultivation of wild yeast and lactic acid and acetic acid-forming bacteria. The speed of development and the creation of a hospitable environment for these micro-organisms is partly determined by temperature and also by what organisms are already living in a dormant state on the grain and, to some extent, in the local air. The biggest mistake I've seen in recent times is that people abandon their starter in the early stages (we call it the seed culture stage) because they think it is dead, or it isn't activating on the same timetable as described in whatever method they are following. Other errors include trying to jump start it with commercial yeast (which is too fragile to survive the acidic conditions and will die and then give off glutathione which wreaks havoc on the gluten), or thinking that their old "mother" starter is no good after sitting in the fridge for months so they throw it out.
It is true that an old starter will turn to mush in the fridge and is not structurally sound enough for using in a loaf, but it only takes an ounce or two of it to re-establish it in a new, strong, viable "mother" starter in a day or two since the micro-organisms are still viable even if the dough itself is spent and chewed up by the acids.
There are a number of theories floating around about why it seems to be taking longer for a new
seed culture to get up and running, one of which I discuss in the file referred to above, but I've found that the best way to ride out the waiting period is to knead or stir the seed culture, at least twice a day, until it wakes up and starts growing and smelling acidic (starting at phase three in the process; again, this is all spelled out in the file). But the reason for this stirring/kneading technique -- and this goes to Doc's implied question about understanding functionality as well as blindly following instructions -- is to prevent invading bacteria and molds from establishing themselves on the surface of the seed culture while we're waiting for it to establish it's own strong colony of yeast and bacteria cells. It's all very dramatic when you look at the dance involved in creating the conditions for this cultivation and symbiosis between yeast and bacteria (usually referred to as LAB, since the "lactic acid bacteria" are the heroes of sourdough bread -- at least the "good" bacteria are, the ones who are defending their turf against the moldy ones -- along with the wild yeast). Again, too much to spell out here, and I'm sure there will be some counterpoint discussion out there that, I hope, comes in as Comments here. But it's a start.
Bottom line: there is a lot of science involved in all of this but you don't have to be a scientist or to know all the science to make killer sourdough bread and to make and keep a mother starter. But it does help to understand the functionality of ingredients and how they affect the drama. There is a lot of folklore out there on starters, some of it true and some of it simply custom that just happens to work, but almost by accident rather than because of science and function (I'm thinking of things, spoken of as "rules," like using onion or potato skins or even wine grapes to get the starter going -- yes the starter does work but not because of these things). Like Doc.Dough asks, can we lower the expectations of needing to know all the science and make it accessible and easy? Yes.
Maybe this is the time to ask all of you, do you have any useful pieces of this puzzle to share that will make sourdough cultivation easy for amateurs or home bakers? Are there any myths you'd like to dispel or get clarification on? Scientists, this is your chance to build some bridges! Let's get a discussion going....