When breadsong took the lid off her container of rye starter during last month’s Baking with Natural Starters Workshop in Victoria, BC, there was a collective gasp of surprise then a few seconds of reverent silence before we all exclaimed about the extraordinary honey-like aroma. Breadsong took a long sniff and said that while she had sometimes detected beautiful fruity aromas in the heat of summer, she had never picked up on such a honey scent before. We speculated about what might have caused it: it could have been a simple mass effect (she doesn’t usually mix such a large amount of starter); it could have been the flour (she had been stayting with Diane for a couple of days and using Diane’s rye flour instead of the one she uses at home; it could have been the presence of countless wild yeast cells in Diane’s kitchen. We may never know. What I do know for sure is that I have never seen or smelled such a rye starter as hers. So of course I asked her if she could explain in details how she cares for her starter and what she does to prepare it for baking. Below is what she wrote back. Thank you, breadsong!
“When I took Jeffrey Hamelman’s rye breads class, he recommended a schedule for maintaining a rye starter at home. I try to follow a similar schedule, feeding my rye starter every other day when I am not baking. If planning to bake, I’ll increase the feeding to daily, then twice-daily feeding, just before building a rye levain for a bake.
When well-cared for and regularly fed and refreshed, the rye starter contributes lovely aroma and flavor to the baked rye bread, so I try to keep up the feeding schedule. I can’t always maintain this schedule if time is short or if away travelling, but the rye starter seems to bounce back quickly when the feeding schedule is resumed.
The rye starter is maintained at 100% hydration, with feeding being equal parts rye starter, water, and flour (30g rye starter + 30g warm water (un-chlorinated) + 30g whole organic whole rye flour). The top of the starter is dusted with rye flour after feeding, to help make the starter’s expansion and ripening more visible. I place an elastic band around the container, at the level the starter is right after feeding, to help me see how much the starter rises while fermenting.
Temperatures in the low 80’s are recommended dough temperatures for sourdough rye breads in Jeffrey Hamelman’s book, so thought I’d try 80F as a target temperature for fermenting the rye starter when getting closer to bake day, to try to make sure the rye starter has lots of vigor prior to building the rye levain.
I aim for a rye starter temperature of 80F after feeding. If I’m not planning to bake soon, I let the rye starter ferment at room temperature until the rye starter has peaked or matured (has domed, doubling in height compared to its height in the container when freshly fed; has cracks on the surface ; with lots of fermentation bubbles visible along the sides of the (clear) container it is fermenting in). After the starter has peaked, I refrigerate it to prevent the starter from over-fermenting before the next feeding (I don’t like how the starter’s consistency breaks down when it over-ferments).
When getting closer to bake day, I use the Brød and Taylor proofer to keep fermentation temperature of the rye starter at 80F – the rye starter really seems to be happy at this temperature.
As an example of the feeding schedule I use, to prepare for a Sunday bake:
- Monday morning, feed starter and let ferment at room temperature until it peaks, then refrigerate
- Wednesday morning, feed starter and let ferment at room temperature until it peaks, then refrigerate
- Friday morning, feed starter and let ferment at room temperature until it peaks, then refrigerate
- Saturday morning, feed starter and let ferment at 80F until it peaks, then leave at room temperature
- Saturday evening, feed starter (upping the quantities, if necessary, considering the amount of rye starter needed to build the rye levain); let ferment at 80F until it peaks, then leave at room temperature
- Saturday night or early Sunday morning, when rye starter peaks, build rye levain for Sunday bake (fermenting at 80-83F preferably, sometimes fermenting at a cooler temperature, hoping to time it so the rye levain will be at its peak at a convenient time for mixing)
- After building the rye levain, feed rye starter and let ferment overnight or until it peaks, then refrigerate until Monday morning. If building a rye levain of 100% hydration or less, will dust the top with rye flour to help make the starter’s expansion and ripening more visible.”