OK, so Days 4 and 5 were fairly disappointing, and reminded me a bit of those mail order Sea Monkeys that we used to get as kids. They were supposed to turn into cute little water monsters, but somehow the water only ever got murky, with zero signs of life in it. Not that I’m saying that sourdough starters anywhere near the kind of hoax that sea monkeys were. Just that they aren’t quite as guaranteed to spring into life as you might think.
The container of batter stayed uniformly calm, though the presence of little bubbles, and the lightly sour smell definitely indicated some sort of activity, just very little. I did a little more research, and found a useful FAQ for troubleshooting sourdough. The rec.food FAQ offers four classifications for the stages that sourdough goes through: dead, flat, barely living and healthy. You can find more detailed information about these stages here. I think that the state that best describes my starter throughout this process is barely living. Smooth, a few bubbles, but no happy froth on top, and very little inclination to rise up puffily during the proofing stage.
By about Day 6, I was pretty fed up and decided I wasn’t talking to my starter anymore. The friendship was starting to take strain. So I left it in the cupboard and kind of ignored it for a couple days. I think it still classifies as “barely living”; I notice that a layer of hooch (watery liquid) has separated off from the main mix, and there are still a few bubbles all the way through. Since the literature all tells me that it’s damn near impossible to kill a starter, I figure it’ll just sit there, pathetically holding onto life, til I throw more feeding at it. Hmmm.
I guess in total I’ve wasted 8 or 10 cups of flour on this little experiment; hardly the biggest outlay for a culinary learning curve. (It doesn’t come close to the time I set a lemon tart on fire, or the three batches of choux pastry that got thrown away before I discovered the thing about the hot water.) So. Perhaps later I’ll dredge up some sympathy for the starter and try the 1-tablespoon revival method described on the FAQ site. Or perhaps I’ll stick to Mike Avery’s advice and write away to the Friends of Carl Griffiths for a sample of his 1847 sourdough starter. Or maybe both…