Jeff Hamelman, author of Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes as well as Bakery Director and Certified Master Baker at the King Arthur Flour Company, to whom I had forwarded a reader’s question about maintaining a rye starter, was kind enough to send the following information in reply:
“We do feed our cultures twice daily at the King Arthur Bakery, seven times per week. Aren’t those cultures lucky to be in a bakery that requires them to be healthy every day? For maintaining cultures when they are not going to be used daily, each person has to decide for him/herself what approach to take. I know people who bake just on weekends who feed their cultures twice daily every day—that’s a level of commitment I don’t think I could take on! On the other extreme, there are people who proudly make bread with a culture that has been refrigerated and utterly neglected for weeks, and claim that their bread is just fine. This is mentally indigestible to me (the bread is probably pretty indigestible too).
We must first and fundamentally acknowledge that our culture is a living environment, and like us, will be in best health with regular meals. That said, it’s just not practical to feed a culture 14 times per week if it is only going to be used once or twice a week. In that case, I would give at least four feeds per week, more if possible, and spread them out to fit one’s schedule. For example, one might feed the culture Monday morning before going to work and then refrigerate it in the evening. Then do the same Wednesday and Friday, and then Friday evening make levain for Saturday baking. I’m kind of making this up as I write, but some sort of regimen like that may be suitable. There are, of course, other considerations, such as time of year, ambient temperature and humidity, and so on, so some adjustments may be necessary along the way.
What kinds of adjustments? Well, let’s assume we want the culture to ripen in 12 hours. In winter perhaps our build here in Vermont might be:
Mature culture 100 g
Flour 150 g
Water 90 g
After 12 hours, all looks good, the culture has domed nicely and is fully fragrant and ripe. Come summer, the kitchen is so much warmer and more humid that the culture would ripen in eight hours if we continue to use those proportions. We might therefore reduce the amount of mature culture in the build to 50 or 75 grams, or whatever is required so that the culture is mature in 12 hours. As bakers, we have to be very attentive.
My good friend James MacGuire always brought his culture with him on vacation, and as he delightfully recounts, he could never stay in the same hotel twice because he had left such a floury mess, not to mention that weird smelling paste that was in the bin. He now has another method—one that I’ve not tried, but James is not just a great master, he is also completely committed to quality, and he wouldn’t do this if it didn’t work: he feeds his culture, maybe a bit stiffer than usual, and then after an hour refrigerates it. It is, of course, unripe at this stage, which means there is a nutrient supply available during the refrigeration phase. I’m sure there are other strategies for long term storage, but there is one important consideration regardless of the method used: once you’ve returned home, give the culture a couple of days at room temperature with two feedings daily to reinvigorate it.”
Jeff will monitor the comments to this post, so if you have any questions, please feel free to add your grain of salt as we say in French.
Thank you, Jeff!