Note: I made this batter and used it over the course of two days. The second day, the vegetables had released more moisture. I was able to fry it without adding more flour, but you may find...
Keeping A Sourdough Starter Long-Term
Okay, I've started you on your levain journey, and hopefully you have a good basic idea of how to begin. But the thing about a starter is that it's a long-term relationship. Or at least it can be if you play your cards right.
As in any relationship, the first days are blissful and exciting. You're learning a lot, and the rewards are great. But after those first few loaves of bread, situations are going to arise. Situations in which, oh, say you're going on vacation or perhaps one of your loaves turns out to be a dud. You will be tempted to toss your starter. "Starter," you will say, "you were fun for a while, but, gosh, you're just so slow and old-fashioned." I'm not going to lie to you. Keeping a starter is something of a commitment. But as with any rewarding long-term relationship, as you get to know your starter better, you will be glad you stuck it out through the hard times.
Even more important in my estimation is that you will become a better, more knowledgeable baker through the process of keeping and using a starter. You will be able to troubleshoot, modify, anticipate, and roll with the punches. I won't go quite so far as to say you'll be a better person, but...well...you might.
Just as the seasons affect everything else in your life (although I say this from a temperate climate-dweller's perspective and realize some of you may not experience dramatic seasonal changes)--from the clothes you wear to the foods you eat--so will it affect your starter.
As you might imagine, cooler weather will slow your starter down. Fermentation is affected by multiple variables including sugar content, liquid to solid ratios, and surface area, but perhaps the most obvious variable is temperature.
There are tons of little reactions and processes going on in your starter, and they're fascinating to read about. For now, though, rather than inundate you with scientific information, I will just tell you that when the temperature cools, your starter will slow down.
In practical application, what this means is that you will be able to feed your starter less frequently and it will take longer to mature after feeding. For instance, this past winter I fed my starter every other day instead of every day, and sometimes I even went longer between feedings with no ill effects.
Conversely, in the summer you will need to feed your starter more often. Generally, I feed mine once a day in warm weather, but if your kitchen is very warm you may need to feed it twice a day.
Retarding Your Starter
Some people are crazy about levain-raised breads. They use their starter weekly or perhaps even more often. But this may not work for you. You may love your starter and want to hold on to it for a long time, but you might only want to make bread once every couple weeks or perhaps once a month.
You could keep your starter at room temp and feed it every day, but this would be a huge waste of flour. The better option would be to refrigerate your starter. Refrigerated, your starter's rate of fermentation will slow drastically, enabling you to feed it occasionally and not worry about it surviving. To do this, I recommend making a "stiff" starter, which will slow fermentation even more. To turn your starter into a stiff one, simply take 2 tablespoons of mature starter and add to it 2 parts flour to 1 part water. For instance, one cup flour and one half cup water. Put a lid on the container that the starter is in, and place it in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Here it can stay up to a month without being fed at all. I know, it's amazing. I wouldn't believe it either unless I had tried it myself. Some people advise you to feed it once a week if you keep it refrigerated. This is good advice. But know that it can go longer if you need it to.
You can even freeze your starter if you like. There's not much of an advantage here over just putting it in the fridge, but freezing it may suit you better.
Stiff Versus Liquid Starters
I mentioned a stiff starter in passing above, but other than reducing the rate of fermentation what else does a stiff starter bring to the bread-baking table? My personal opinion, having tried breads made with both types of starters, is that there is very little, if any difference in breads made from stiff starters and breads made from liquid starters. It's really a matter of how you like it.
I keep a liquid starter. I find it very easy to simply dump a handful of flour into my starter bucket and then add enough water to make it easily stirrable. It would be slightly more cumbersome to me to have to knead my starter every time I feed it, so I don't.
The theory behind stiff starters is that they result in milder-tasting, less "sour" breads. However, some people believe the opposite to be true. It's not something I would get my knickers in a wad over, folks. If you like your starter stiff, then keep a stiff starter. If you like it liquid, then keep a liquid one.
Converting Your Starter
As you experiment with your starter, you will inevitably run across recipes that call for a starter different from the one you have. I have bread books that deal exclusively with stiff starters and other books that only use liquid starters. No need to panic.
To convert a stiff starter to a liquid starter, simply take 2 tablespoons mature starter and add equal parts flour and water. To convert a liquid starter to a stiff starter, take 2 tablespoons mature starter and add 2 parts flour to 1 part water. Easy peasy.
But what about different kinds of bread? Rye for instance. Do you need to use a rye starter? The short answer is no. You can make a perfectly wonderful rye bread using a white flour starter. If you are of a perfectionist bent, you may want to use rye flour to feed your starter before making a loaf of rye bread, but it is not necessary
Prepping Your Starter
Hypothetical situation. You've been keeping your starter in the fridge but want to bake bread with it this week. How do you get it to come out of hibernation?
I like to allow three days between fridge storage and baking. On day one, I take the starter out of the fridge in the morning, discard most of it, and feed it. That evening, I feed it again. On day two, I feed the starter twice again--once in the morning, once in the evening. On day three, same deal, except for the evening feeding I feed it whatever my bread recipe calls for. For instance, if I need a cup of starter, my recipe may tell me to feed my starter with one cup flour and one cup water. By morning, the starter is ready to use.
The three-day grace period is not set in stone, however. Really what you're looking for is a "return to normalcy" with your starter's behavior. You want to see it rise and fall regularly. If your starter is still acting erratic after a few days on the counter, it may need more time before you use it to bake bread.
Using A Starter Instead of Commercial Yeast
You can convert any bread recipe that uses commercial yeast into a levain-raised bread. Consider that a cup of starter has about the same rising potential as a packet of yeast. Also consider that your starter, if liquid, contains equal parts water and flour. Thus, if you use a cup of liquid starter in a bread recipe designed for instant or active dry yeast, you need to subtract 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup liquid from the recipe.
You will want to tweak this to your liking. I prefer a wetter dough when baking levain-raised breads, as they seem to rise better and I prefer the more open crumb, so I might subtract 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup liquid for every cup of starter I use.
Another thing to take into account is that levain-raised breads take a lot longer. Your favorite sandwich bread may be ready to go into the oven after 3 hours of rising, but when converted to be used with your starter it will take much, much longer. Of course, the vast majority of this time is hands-off. But anticipate an 8 to 12 hour rise. Further, there's no need to go through the double rising that most bread recipes call for (the first rise in a bowl and the second in the loaf pan). Simply shape the kneaded dough, place it in the loaf pan, and allow it to rise once.
Other articles you might enjoy: Sourdough or Levain? Debunking the Myths and Mysteries of Wild Yeast, Basic Levain