Starting the starter (leaven)
A little leaven leavens the whole lump. (Galatians 5:9)
You can bake great bread with commercial yeast, but prosphoro deserves to be made with leaven or 'starter'. It is a sourdough starter but made prayerfully in a particular manner. ( read my blog on "Fast, Easy Prosphoro")
Commercial yeast makes the preparation of breads quicker but leaven, or starter carries a timeless tradition. Baking with commercial yeast is very different to baking with natural leaven. It confers a very different feel and texture to the dough; it rises much faster, smells different, and the taste is not the same. Bread made with leaven tastes wonderful and importantly, keeps much longer before becoming mouldy.
The starter in most parts of Greece and in Greek Orthodox parishes around the world, is prepared with the basil which has been dipped in Holy Water and blessed by the priest on the day of the elevation of the Precious Cross (Sept 14th). It's called "starter of the Basil". If we miss the date, we either borrow some starter from other faithful and wait till the next September to make ours. Or we make it the same way with all the prayers just without the blessed basil, and call it "traditional starter". Starters can last many years.
See a list of requirements here.
After bringing home some basil received from the hand of the priest we mix equal weights of water with flour (approx 60 grams of each). We chant the apolitikion of the Cross "Save O Lord your people, and bless your inheritance...." While chanting, two small twigs of the basil are placed on the top of the mixture in the shape of a cross.
The water should be without chlorine, either bottled/spring water or tap water that has been boiled or left overnight to air the chlorine. Chlorine kills the microbes...it kills our leaven. The flour needs to be non-bleached and where possible, organic. Best results are achieved when using the same flour that we hope to use to make our prosphoro and ideally a flour with a high protein level. These are variously known as "hard"or "yellow"or "baker's" flours and have over 12% protein content.
The mixture is allowed to ferment in a clean glass jar with vertical walls, covered but not sealed, in a warm draft-free place overnight. A rubber band is placed around the jar, at the level of the top of the mixture to reveal any change in mass.
The following day, putting the basil aside, we add more water and flour of equal weight, and mix thoroughly, replacing the basil in a cross, chanting the apolitikion, and allowing it to rest another 24 hours.
This feeding is repeated daily or twice daily in summer . However, by the 3rd day and subsequently it is best to always discard some of the starter, keeping only about 40-60 gr of it each time, and feeding it with the same weight of water and of flour.
Soon bubbles appear, and a mild aromatic, and sightly acidic or alcoholic odour develops and the level of the mixture rises - showing life.
By the end of the first week, it should rise to over double it's original size within hours of "feeding". It is probably ready to leaven a prosphoro - one test being that it floats in water. (Video on the Float Test)
Feeding the starter
After all, it is alive
Once your starter is active and vigorous, you need to keep it that way.
If you're baking every day (bread for home etc) then you'll use most of your starter for each bake, leaving a small amount of starter (30-40gr) to feed and keep as your leaven for subsequent bakes.
Feed this remnant with the same weight of flour and water (1:1:1), stir, cross, chant the prayer and mark the level before storing in a warm place until it begins to rise.
Rising is evidence of it's vigour. You can confidently leave it till the next day's bake. However in hot climates the starter will peak in just a few hours. If left long after it's peak, it will have used up it's food supply and produced more acid and alcohol. It will smell beery and taste sour. The level drops leaving streaks from it's highest point. To keep the taste mild, you could discard half the risen starter and feed it every 12 hours.
If you're baking less frequently... say once a week for prosphoro, rather than feed every day or twice daily, you can store your starter in the refrigerator. At 2 to 4 degrees C it only needs feeding once or twice a week.
Whenever you have fed your starter, watch for a good rise. A clear rise within hours means it is very active and healthy. It is best to put it in the fridge well before it has doubled in height. It will need reserves of food even in the cold. Also ensure it is sealed well against the odour of other foods.
You can use active starter straight from the fridge -cold, or let it reach room temperature. Some people remove their starter from the fridge several hours before using it so they can give it a "quick feed" before it goes to work leavening a prosphoro. I've found this gives the bread the least acidity and a delicate milky, mild taste.
When you've taken the quantity needed to leaven the prosphoro, the remnant is fed (unless you had given it a"quick feed" only hours before) and again stored in the fridge after some rise occurs.
Storing the starter
Keeping a starter vigorous and active takes time, effort and can use up much flour.
Traditionally for much of human history a small portion of the leavened dough would be kept as leaven for the next day's baking. It was commonly stored as a lump in the flour just under the surface, able to feed and ready for the next day's bake.
Folks who bake very regularly often feed once or twice a day between bakes. So, storing the starter is not an issue.
For those who bake less regularly, storing the starter in the refrigerator allows for feeding weekly with little detriment. As mentioned above, some of us give our starter a chance to reach room temperature then get a "quick feed" a few hours before leavening a prosphoro. It is vital to keep the starter well sealed against odours from other foods. I like to draw large crosses on my storage containers (with permanent marker pens) so nobody can mistake the starter for anything else.
If baking much less frequently, a healthy starter can be stored much longer in the freezer. To bring it back to its best for baking, it needs to go from the freezer to spend a day in the refrigerator then back to room temp. It should have a feed before baking. Starter can kept in the freezer without detriment, for many months.
For longer term storage and as a reliable backup in case of any accidents with your active starter, it is wise to dry a batch of starter. Dried starter, clean and kept sealed should keep for years. (It's akin to a pasta)
In brief, you take 50-60 grams of very active starter, fed with a much higher flour to water ratio (less hydrated). When it begins to rise, it is brushed onto clean baking paper in a very thin layer. Allow this to dry completely away from any dust or other contaminants. Then crumble the pasta-like flakes and store them in an airtight glass container. To bring this starter back, it will need to soak in water and then be fed once or twice before leavening a loaf.
Alternatively, watch how to make some "starter-flour" as a back up.
Trouble-shooting the starter
Before identifying problems let's describe the ideal starter
A HEALTHY STARTER
ivory - creamy colour
stringy and with stretchy slightly elastic strands when scooped (dependant on hydration level)
floats when a spoon of it is placed in water - see video
smells pleasant with an aromatic scent and very faint acidic or alcohol tones
tastes floury with barely a hint of sourness
rises to well over double it's height within hours of feeding
displays many bubbles of gas through the sides of the container and bubbles and holes on the top surface on rising for a time
it effectively leavens and rises a prosphoro or loaf of bread
If you've accidentally fed your starter with chlorinated water or killed many of the microbes by some other means, then you will have...
AN INACTIVE STARTER
does not rise much after a feed
has few if any bubbles and most are tiny
does not sufficiently rise a prosphoro or loaf of bread
if any rise occurs it is very slow and the bread tastes very sour
Most of us who are keen to prepare our gift offering to God will also be careful with our starter since it's the foundation of our prosphoro. However, occasionally our starters go unfed for longer than we had anticipated and while they are not "sick", they may become flat and more acidic than we'd like.
In those situations we can "bathe the starter". We place it in a clean container, pour in enough warm water to cover it, and gently stir it ... we do not try to dissolve it, just to break it up a little. After an hour we repeat the process and pour/strain off the second bathwater. Then we take up some of the washed starter and feed it with a generous amount of flour and water and hope for a refreshed starter with a good rise and a better smell and taste.
Sometimes however, our starters have lacked care for too long...
A SICK STARTER
darker grey or brown colour or with mottled areas of different colour
evidence of mould on the surface (image left)
a grey liquid floating around the top
pungent smell like mouldy strong cheese or with an intense acidic or alcoholic scent
smells like dirty sports socks
If you think your starter is sick.. it is best to discard it and begin another.