by Caroline

Lately, it seems, many of our friends are expanding their families. Second and third (and fourth!) children are arriving, dogs and cats and guinea pigs are being adopted, and it’s all got me thinking. I don’t want another child, being perfectly content with my two, and my children don’t want a pet (though I hope someday to become the first mom in the history of the universe to talk her sons into getting a dog). But I have the time now, with the kids in school full days and my work cooking along pretty well, to take care of something. And so, for now, it’s starter. Bread starter.

My husband gave me Tartine Bread for Christmas, with its infamous 25-page Basic Country Loaf recipe, and I am taking on the challenge. It doesn’t start with store-bought yeast, or even a commercial starter. You begin by making your own starter and then, after several days, embarking on the bread itself.

The recipe is both incredibly precise, with its charts and metrics and hydration percentages, and frustratingly vague (a “handful” of flour? Obviously — and unsurprisingly — baker and author Chad Robertson’s hands are bigger than mine because it took me two handfuls to create the described “thick batter”). It is specific and a bit bossy about certain essential tools (a bench knife, a dough spatula) and simultaneously lax about others (maybe if I could use a whisk, instead of my hands, to mix the initial starter, I wouldn’t need a dough spatula to clean my hands!) But I’m trying, despite my characteristic carelessness about following recipes, to follow this one as closely as it permits.

On Sunday, I began. I got out five pounds of flour to create the requisite 50/50 mix of white and whole wheat flours, though immediately ran into a problem when I discovered I only had two pounds of whole wheat flour. So my ratio is a bit off but I trust that’ll be ok. I stirred, by hand, two handfuls of flour into a small amount of lukewarm water. I covered it, as directed, with a kitchen towel and then, afraid the unprepossessing mix might be tossed out or spilled on in the daily maelstrom of our kitchen, stuck it in a cupboard to grow:

After two days, it had started to bubble up and smell yeasty:

So it was time to take the next, somewhat painful, step: pour out 80% of the starter and replace with equal amounts flour and water. Now, pouring out 80% proved to be as easy as using 80% of an egg, and I don’t know why you’d follow up the precision of “80%” with “don’t worry too much about the quantities of water and flour in these feedings,” but I fed the mix with some more lukewarm water and flour, mixed it up, and put it back in the cupboard. Now I watch it daily, to observe when and how much it bubbles up after each feeding so that I can anticipate when it will be ready to leaven my bread. This process is called “training” the starter, and I have to say, it’s as much about training me as training a puppy or child is about training the owner or parent. But I hope it’s less effort than training a puppy or child because, well, it’s flour and water; I’m not going to give it the attention I give my children or my hypothetical future dog. I’m a little worried, though. If you google the term “tartine basic country loaf recipe” you’ll discover there’s a small industry of forums and help desks cropping up to guide bakers through their bread-making journeys.

Eventually, I hope, this little bowl will provide the starter for the delicious breads, pizzas, and waffles I will bake every week. For now, though, it’s my new pet. And let’s be clear: I’m calling it my new pet, but honestly? If it’s not the ideal pet — quiet, obedient, comforting — I’m pouring 100% down the drain and walking to the bakery.