The best starter is made from wild yeast growing on grape skins. (It is responsible for the distinctive white coating found on grapes.) Unsprayed fruit from your own garden are a great starting point.
Yeast is a living organism and your starter will initially be vulnerable to infection by other, more fit organisms. Therefore, for the first few weeks cleanliness is very important: the new starter must be protected from contamination from tools, bowls, or gauze used in bread making, and from fruit fly infestation. As it ages, the starter becomes stronger and more resistant to invasive yeasts or bacteria.
Start with a 2 L container made of glass or plastic. Pour in a glass (250 mL) of wheat flour of type 450 to 550, add 2 glasses of lukewarm pre-boiled or filtered water, and mix with a wooden fork (excellent for breaking up flour granules) or spoon. Don’t use this utensil for anything else to avoid infecting the starter.
Place a glass of unsprayed grapes on a piece of two-layer gauze bought at the pharmacy. Tie up the gauze with a strong thread, creating a bundle, and cut off the excess fabric. Place the grape bundle in the water-flour mixture. Cover the container with many layers of gauze or a tea towel, tightly tying it with string to keep any insects out (but allow air in). Store the container in a warm (but not hot) place, say next to a radiator or on an electric blanket on its lowest setting. An electric blanket is worth buying if you don’t have one, as you’ll get to use it every time you make bread.
Over the next 3 days, stir the contents of the container 3–4 times a day using the dedicated utensil. The grape bundle will occasionally inflate like a balloon due to the ongoing fermentation and float to the surface. When this happens, compress it gently against the container wall to force the bundle contents to mix with those of the container. At this stage the mixture may take on changing colors depending on the variety of grapes used. Gradually, bubbles should start appearing on the surface.
After three days sign of fermentation should be clearly visible on the mixture’s surface. Remove the grape bundle, squeeze its liquid contents into the starter container, and discard the bundle. You now have the beginnings of a starter, but it is still too vulnerable and weak for use in bread making.
Over the next ten days, the starter will be tempered. Stir the contents of the container and discard all but a glass of it into the sink. At this stage, you can transfer the remaining starter into a smaller, 1 L container. Add half a glass of flour to the starter, pour in enough lukewarm water for the mixture to have the consistency of heavy cream, stir with the wooden utensil (feel free to ignore any flour granules), cover it up as described above, and store it in a warm place. This feeding cycle should be repeated every 8 hours, remembering to discard excess starter at every stage. Throwing out your lovingly cultivated starter may seem barbaric, but otherwise you would soon need to move the culture into a bath tub. Discarding excess starter also decreases the amount of flour needed.
If the 8 hour feeding cycle can’t be reconciled with your other commitments, you can increase the amount of flour added by 50% and feed the starter every 12 hours instead.
After the ten days the starter should be ready to use. It must still be protected from infection (it’s best to dedicate a container, utensil, and covering tea towel exclusively to the starter), but you are now ready to make bread.
From now on, the starter will spend most of its time in the fridge. To make bread, you must remove the starter from the fridge and let it recover using the following procedure:
- Remove the starter from the fridge. Add 2/3 of a glass of flour and some lukewarm water, stir the mixture, and store it in a warm place for 8 hours.
- Discard all but a glass of starter. Add 3/4 of a glass of flour and some lukewarm water, stir the mixture, and store it in a warm place for another 8 hours.
- Put all but a glass of starter (so, the bulk of it) in a separate container: this is the starter you will use for making bread now. Add some flour and lukewarm water to the glass of starter remaining in the container and return the container to the fridge for future use.
I have been baking bread at least once a week since 2006, and this cycle keeps my starter in good condition.
If you plan on taking a longer break from baking, you can freeze the starter for many months. After defrosting, you should go through as many cycles of feeding as necessary until the starter looks active and ready to use eight hours after feeding (as shown on the picture above).
Another long-term storage solution is to dry the starter. To do so, smear out freshly fed starter over parchment paper and thoroughly (to avoid mold infection) dry it in a dark, well-ventilated room. Once it’s dry, the starter will peel off of the paper as flakes; these flakes can be stored for many months in an airtight container in a cool, dark, and dry place. To activate the starter, place it in a small amount of water, let it ferment and acquire a sour smell, and then feed it for a few cycles until it becomes fully active.
If you ever lose your starter or are not interested in cultivating it from scratch, I am happy to send you some of the batch I have been maintaining since 2006. You can order it here.