Well... it's been a whole lot longer than I'd intended, since last I wrote. And I've read so many people's articles and blog-entries, that I don't think I can possibly reconstruct it all now. But the important thing, I think, is this: I haven't given up. My Sourdough Pet is still alive... and it DOES seem to have gotten stronger, over time.
That's just one of the (many) things I wasn't aware of, when I started all this... that it really does take TIME for a sourdough culture to develop strength enough to actually lift bread up in the air. It's not just a matter of taste... the culture actually needs time (like a month or two) to get strong and vigorous.
Further, it appears to me that the culture will NOT develop that strength while sitting in the fridge. When you put a sourdough starter in the fridge, it severely slows its' growth. In fact, some of my sources say that it declines, and actually starts to die back, while it's in there. So even when your starter is strong enough to make bread with, it still needs to be removed from the fridge for two or three feedings (figuring you're feeding it twice a day at room temperature) till it's likely to be back to its' old self and ready for action.
So naturally, since I figured that out, I've been keeping the starter on the counter, in a jar, and feeding it twice a day. More or less. Some days I forget, and it goes longer than it should... but at this point, it seems to be fairly forgiving.
I'm doing some things differently now. One thing I've changed, is the hydration-- meaning, the amount of water in the dough, which in turn determines whether the starter is like mud, or like a ball of... well, dough. My starter was originally at 100% hydration, or one part water, by weight, to one part flour. It is now at 60% hydration. That means that for every 100 grams of flour, my starter contains 60 grams of water.
It's actually a very important point, which I've been frustrated to find many people blithely overlooking when they write about this subject, that measuring things by weight is NOT the same as measuring things by volume. If you put 100 grams of flour with 100 grams of water, you will make a 100% hydration dough. But if you put a cup of flour with a cup of water... it's not the same thing at all. Water weighs a lot more than flour... and flour is HUGELY variable as to how much air it has in it. So while it's entirely possible to grow a sourdough starter without measuring by weight, it's NOT possible to be precise about it.
Don't get me wrong... I know that precision isn't everything. But it is very helpful when you want to write down how to do something, or you want to be able to do it the same way next time. So I confess to being a convert to the "measuring-by-weight" brigade. I figure I'll be careful about things at first, while I'm figuring them out... and then get more relaxed later, when I can pretty much feed Desi in my sleep.
Oh, yeah, that's its' name--Desi. Short for "Desem", which means (I think) "dry dough". I thought at first that Desem referred only to a particular kind of bread, the Belgian kind made popular by Laurel Robertson in her "Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book". Desem is supposed to be really terrific bread... Laurel gets all worshipful when she talks about it. But it's pretty finicky stuff... needs absolutely pure, fresh, chlorine-free water and organic, fresh flour, and a very cool, consistent temperature (as in, no higher than 65 degrees F, if i remember right). Oh, and it goes through TONS of flour, especially at first. I looked at all those requirements, and at my 700 sq. ft. apartment, and realized immediately that traditional Belgian Desem was NOT in my future. (But hey... if you have a basement, or you live in someplace chilly... it might be perfect for you).
Anyway. "Desem" refers not only to the Belgian bread, but also more generally to the technique of keeping a sourdough in a more "lumpish" state, where it contains more flour and less water. When a starter has less water in it, it doesn't expand as quickly after feeding... probably (I'm guessing) because the simple thickness of the dough slows things down. It's easier to push a spoon through pancake batter than through a stiff cookie dough... same deal. The little yeast-and-bacteria beasties can reach their food more quickly in a more liquid medium.
So a desem-style starter doesn't expand as dramatically after feeding... but (from what I've been reading) it's stronger. It's also more forgiving if you miss a feeding. In fact, supposedly you can keep a desem-style starter alive for weeks in a bag of flour, without refrigeration. That's how the old miners did it, apparently... carried the starter in a bag around their necks. Try THAT with a goopy, 100%-hydration starter!
Anyway... hydration affects all sorts of things, but the starter will still grow. I just picked 60% because it makes feeding simpler. Also I wanted to throw away less flour! My starter is a lot smaller now, too, only about 60 grams after feeding, thanks to Daniel Dimuzio, who is an admirably clear writer and noted bread-guru. His writing helped me to begin to understand baker's math (still working on that) and hydration... and how much starter I should be adding to how much fresh dough, at a feeding... and how to plan the size of the starter I maintain, so that I can easily increase it to the right size to have enough to make bread and also continue the starter.
It's a little complicated. It appears to be true that you need less of a strong, healthy desem-style starter, than you do of a more liquid-y one. There's a site called Sourdough Home, where the author has done a translation of Laurel Robertson's basic whole-wheat bread recipe from regular yeast into sourdough, using a 100%-hydration starter. I knew I would need less starter than was listed in that recipe, because mine is lower hydration. I knew I could figure out how much total flour was in the recipe, and I knew 210 grams of 100%-hydration starter is made up of half flour, or 105 grams of flour. So I figured out that recipe contained about 25% of its total flour, as flour-in-starter. Since the amount of flour contained in a recipe, or in a starter, is what everything is figured from (that's "baker's math" again), I was able to figure out how much of my 60% starter I would need, by weight, for the flour in it to be 25% of the total flour in the recipe.
See what I mean, that it's complicated? I HATE math!! I suspect a lot of other people do, too. But it IS possible to figure it out... and I've started writing all that stuff down, and making lots of notes... so I can remember what I did, and what worked... and what didn't.
And... Desi is thriving! Even in the cold weather we've had lately, and my need to keep the house cool at night so I can sleep, he swells up very respectably in his jar, like a small, tan snowball. When I rip him open, to take out the twenty grams I need to keep him going in perpetuity, he is all nicely spongy inside... really, he looks very much like a bath sponge in the middle! I weigh the flour and water for his feeding, in a small bowl, put him in, work it all together... and they all become ONE. Back in the jar he goes... renewed, and ready to eat up all that lovely flour and strengthen and multiply himself.
It seems to me that, when I make bread, my starter doesn't rise as fast as those of people I've been reading about... I'm hoping that's just a matter of maturity, on Desi's part. Time will tell!
Okay, that's it for now. May your pets thrive, and your bread be wonderful!