You know, at this point in human history, we can travel hundreds of miles in an hour and carry gigabytes upon gigabytes of information in our pockets, but there are few things that really feel like "magic". Old-fashioned film photography was one: dipping a piece of paper in some nasty-smelling chemicals and an image suddenly appearing – that was like magic.
I humbly submit sourdough starter as another modern miracle. Well, not so much modern, because it's thousands of years old, but the idea that by simply mixing flour with water and letting it sit around a while, you can develop your own little ecosystem, teeming with life, all in a delicate balance that's ready to leaven and flavor your bread ... there's something wonderful and mysterious about that. Even if you understand the underlying microbiology, it's still amazing to see a seemingly inert mixture of ingredients spring to life before your eyes.
Making it is simple – I followed the directions in the Tartine Bread cookbook. Equal parts of whole wheat and bread flour are mixed to create a reserve of starter food. Some of this blend is then mixed with an equal part of water to make a thick batter, covered with a towel, and allowed to sit at room temperature for two to three days. The wild yeast and bacteria present in the flour, in the air, and on your hands will then start to munch on the flour and multiply, creating carbon dioxide bubbles and a host of funky smells that will eventually contribute lactic (sour milk-like) and acetic (vinegary) bites to the finished dough.
It might have been due to the low temperature in our kitchen, but it took a little longer than the prescribed two to three days to see much action on the starter. But by day four, it was bubbly and starting to smell pretty weird (which is good). I did have a problem with the water separating out from the flour, but quick stir remedied that and it didn't seem any worse for the wear.
Once you've gotten your starter started, you need to feed it regularly by discarding about 80% of it and then adding more water/flour mixture to make up the difference. As the day goes on, the fresh grains will fall victim to your teeming hordes of microorganisms and keep the process going. From what they say in the book, the starter is pretty hardy, so you can feed it on an every-other-day schedule (or less) ... you don't have to worry about arranging a sitter if you go out of town, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend packing it in your luggage to tend to while you're away.
Now that it's been about two weeks, it's time to try making some bread with this. Tartine Bread's recipe is many, many pages long, and I don't anticipate getting it right on the first try, but in any case it'll be neat to see how the special magic in the starter makes the bread unique. Check back soon!