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When I started baking sourdough bread, I found a number of US sites with completely implausible instructions. In particular, it seems that all US sites claim that sourdough starters will die without daily “feeding” (doubling in size). Here one example:

Sourdough starter at room temperature must be fed no less than twice a day. If you feed it less than twice a day, it will lose vitality and eventually become useless and die.

They also claim that keeping a starter in the fridge damages it:

Several sourdough experts feel that if a starter gets below 46F, it should be discarded and you should start over.

When I read that, I considered it nonsense, and it means either being very wasteful or throwing away lots of starter. That's completely out of keeping with the way of life in previous centuries. No German site makes any such suggestion.

So I tested this theory. In February 2010 I used a 9 month old starter that had had no care beyond being kept in the fridge (at temperatures round 6°, below the “46F” limit), and it worked well. But nine months earlier I also found time to write this reductio ad absurdum in my diary:

Monday, 27 April 2009 Today's diary Today's images top next last
Feeding my sourdough, day one

I'm following the instructions at Sourdough Home for Maintaining a Starter and Storing a Starter. Today's the first day, so I started with 100 g of culture and fed it with 50 g of rye flour and 50 g of water in the morning. It rose nicely, so I did it again with 100 g of flour and 100 g of water in the evening. Now I have 400 g of nice, healthy starter.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009 Today's diary Today's images top previous next last

Feeding my sourdough, day two

While in town, also bought a 25 kg sack of rye flour. Continued with my sourdough starter and added a total of 600 g flour, 600 g water. I now have 1.6 kg of starter, and already it's getting to be a handful. Fortunately I have containers big enough for it, but it's clear that that won't stay the case for very long.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009 Today's diary top previous next last

Feeding my sourdough, day three

My starter is now getting really big! Added 800 g of flour in the morning and 1.6 kg of flour in the morning. It's now a total of 6.4 kg, and almost completely fills the “9 litre” bucket I've put it in. I need to plan for something bigger, not just to put it in, but to mix it.

Thursday, 30 April 2009 Today's diary Today's images top previous next last

Feeding my sourdough, day four

Another thing Yvonne brought with her was four 50 kg sacks of rye meal and a 300 litre rubbish bin for the sourdough starter, and also a clean new spade, which we'll use to mix it, and later in the garden. This is gradually getting expensive. Stirring worked well enough, but it's tiring work. I now have 25 kg of starter; you can smell it all through the house.

Friday, 1 May 2009 Today's diary top previous next last

Feeding my sourdough, day five

This starter is growing healthily and steadily, but my arms! Mixing 50 kg of starter with a spade is obviously not the way to go. Over to Chris' place to borrow the cement mixer:

Even with the mixer, things aren't easy. The maximum load is about 35 kg, if I'm interpreting this stupid excuse for instructions correctly, so I needed three goes to get my 100 kg of starter. And the wheelie bin is half full already. We've put it into the guest room so that it doesn't overpower the house with the smell.

Where do we go from here? This is only day five; I have another 25 days to go. Fortunately, got an unsolicited call from Barry Jones of the Australian Wheat Board, offering to help. That'll mean changing from rye to wheat, but looking at the costs involved, I think I can live with that. He'll be sending a few truckloads along over the coming weeks. We've already decided to convert our shipping container to hold the starter, though I'm a little concerned about the temperatures.

Saturday, 2 May 2009 Today's diary Today's images top previous next last

Feeding my sourdough, day six

No question: my starter is giving off a lot of heat. It was hot and sticky in the guest room this morning, and I don't know how long it will take to get the smell out of the room. I put it in the container, still in the wheelie bin, with the cement mixer just outside.

It's clear that I haven't planned ahead enough. Yvonne brought only 200 kg of flour the other day, and I've used 75 kg already, but today I should have put 300 kg in the starter, and tomorrow it should be 1.2 tons. And the first Australian Wheat Board truck won't be coming until Monday. There's nothing for it: we'll have to underfeed. Put another 50 kg in over the course of the day, which means at least that we can still keep it in the wheelie bin. Hopefully the low feeding rate won't affect the quality.

Sunday, 3 May 2009 Today's diary Today's images top previous next last

Feeding my sourdough, day seven

Despite the lower feeding rates, my sourdough starter is looking happy enough, but effectively we've lost two days, so it looks like we'll have to extend the process by those two days, which at least gets us to the nice round number 32. Put the remaining 75 kg of flour in in two steps, 25 kg in the morning and 50 kg in the evening. Hopefully the AWB truck will be there first thing in the morning.

Monday, 4 May 2009 Today's diary top previous next last

Feeding my sourdough, day eight

Fortunately the AWB truck showed up early, as promised, and brought me 5 tons of wheat flour (or “tonnes”, as people call them nowadays). It took a couple of hours in the morning just to mix in another 250 kilogrammes of flour and transfer it into the plastic liner in the shipping container. I wonder how effective the mix was. The 500 kilogrammes in the evening were sheer torture.

Do I shut the container or leave it open? It's pretty warm, so I've left it open a crack.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009 Today's diary Today's images top previous next last

Feeding my sourdough, day nine

Went to the container this morning to work on the starter, and saw an unexpected sight: three dead kangaroos just outside. There was no sign of violence, and my best guess is that they were trying to get into the container, and were asphyxiated by the gases coming out. For the first time I find an advantage in this ridiculous amount of sourdough starter.

Mixing this starter is taking up half the day. This morning I put a whole ton (or should I go the French way and call it a tonne?) of wheat in, requiring no less than 30 cement mixers full. In the evening it was two tons, and the container is almost full. All I need now is for the plastic liner to tear and spill out on the ground.

Decided to close the doors of the container to save the kangaroos; I really don't want to kill them, just get rid of them. Hopefully enough gas will get out for pressure not to become a problem.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009 Today's diary Today's images top previous next last

Feeding my sourdough, day ten

In the middle of the night, heard a hell of a commotion, and out into the pouring rain (for once!) to find that the shipping container had exploded. What a mess! And what a waste! Several tons of starter spread all over the paddocks, and a $2,500 container reduced to scrap.

That's what I get for following instructions, I suppose. I give up. I didn't believe this approach was correct in the first place, but I feel that I've now proven beyond reasonable doubt that it's wrong. I wonder what the AWB will think. I wonder if I can convince them to carry some of the cost.

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