Care and feeding of 130-year-old sour dough (well, it was 100 years old in 1974 when I got it).
We keep about a cup of our sour dough starter in the refrigerator in a sealed 24 oz. yogurt container (just a pinhole in the top). Since the yeast is anaerobic, it doesn’t need to “breathe air” but of course, if left sealed for too long, it would eventually suffocate by carbon dioxide from respiration. IT’S ALIVE! We’ve left the starter sealed in the refrigerator for as long as six weeks without apparent damage (if your starter is getting old, pour the gray liquid off the top, waste some starter and add fresh flour and water). It’s better to feed it more often than that. Once a week is best.
We usually feed the starter on a weekly basis by simply making sour dough pancakes each Sunday morning. I start the evening before by mixing the approximately one cup of starter with about a cup of white unbleached flour and enough tap water to form a thick batter. Half of this batter is returned to the refrigerator in its container. For your pancakes, it’s at this point that you can add more warm water and flour, whole wheat or buckwheat, etc. You can experiment with the thickness of the batter, but remember that it will grow and become slightly wetter/less viscous overnight so you need a fairly large bowl with a good cover. Also, in the morning, you’ll be adding the moisture in an egg and some honey and oil so if you like thick pancakes that rise, you’ll need to make the batter thicker than what you want for the final product. It has a bit of a “personality” and turns out a little different each time (plus, I never measure anything). Thicker batter rises more than thin. The correct overnight temperature is important: 75 to 80 degrees is good (I used to have a range with pilot lights, that was perfect in the winter, now I sometimes slightly warm the oven and leave it closed up in there overnight). I cover the pancake batter with something that maintains high humidity. Otherwise, you get a dried “skin” on the top of the batter). The longer it sits the sourer it gets. For pancakes, in the morning I add:
1 warm egg 1 tablespoon honey 1 tablespoon oil 1/4 teaspoon salt mix well
Cover and return to warm spot. In an hour or so I ladle it onto a hot dry griddle for pancakes.
Or if you’re just making bread, leave out the egg. Add enough flour of your choice and warm water for the right kneading consistency. Follow a bread recipe as to kneading time, temperature, punch down and baking. Whole wheat flour rises less than white, buck wheat even less. I use a bread machine.
I have found that 10 minutes of hand kneading helps me get my unmeasured moisture level right. I sometimes have to add a little flour as the machine mixes everything and eyeball the consistency, or a little butter if it gets heavy and dry. Dough that is too wet falls, too dry cracks, so slit the top just prior to the baking cycle. This works for us, but like the pancakes, the bread has personality, and seems to turn out more or less sour, light or dense, according to some internal inscrutable will of its own... The point is to maintain the starter in plain flour and don’t add the “other stuff” until you’re making bread or pancakes or paper mache (I can’t spell French), or whatever.