On Day 5, the bubbles that had greeted me so cheerfully since Day 2 had vanished. In their place was a pool of pinkish liquid. It floated on top of the batter and my precious yeast was trapped beneath.
The pink liquid scum lingered for days, fanning inside me, underneath my calm exterior, the flames of a small hernia. I scoured Silverton’s instructions but found nothing about pink liquid. I was torn between three courses of action: leaving the culture alone, stirring the liquid back into the rest of the culture, and discarding the liquid down the sink. If the liquid was a vital part of the culture, wouldn’t I be compromising the yeast by dumping it? But if the liquid was (as I suspected) a result of my overly zealous grape-crushing back on Day 1, shouldn’t I discard it? Didn’t yeast like to breathe, too?
Desperate, I cheated on Silverton. I cracked open Reinhart’s book, and what I read made my stomach tighten like a wad of overworked dough. He said one need not crush the grapes when mixing up the yeast culture, as the yeast are found only on the surface of the grape skins, not in the juice. It was Day 6, and I was five cups of flour and one pound of grapes deep into this journey. The amount of anticipation I’d invested so far, reading about bread, dreaming about bread, breathing bread, couldn’t be measured. By the end of the day my instincts took charge and I dumped all of the pink liquid, now two inches’ worth, down the drain.
The liquid reappeared the next day, and the next. I kept pouring it off every morning. It still came back every day over the next five days, but I could see that it was losing its fight each time. Soon it was down to a thin watery film.
Day 10 finally arrived. The culture entered a new phase of life called, in Silverton’s book, “Building the Starter.” Still following her instructions, but somewhat dubiously now, I fished out the grapes, touching them as little as possible. After ten days of languishing in a lagoon of room temperature batter and yeast, the grapes were not so much grapes but more like a mushy purplish pulp. They gave me the creeps and I wasn’t going to miss them.
I also discarded about eight cups of the culture, or a whopping four and a half pounds, a task that involved searching through the rats’ nest of plastic grocery bags underneath the kitchen sink for ones without any holes. The discarded portion of yeast culture filled a grocery bag, turning it into a creaking bladder. I double and triple-knotted the top of the bag and then double-bagged for extra measure, but still the short trip to the garbage can in the garage made me sweat. I would have to do this daily for the next five days. By the end of it, plastic grocery bags would become a hot commodity in the household, and my garbage can would house five ticking time bombs full of ripe batter. It beat the alternative, which was a clogged kitchen drain.
The remaining two cups of culture enjoyed much better treatment. I spoiled them rotten with three feedings a day, each one large enough to double the previous volume of the culture, delivered on schedule, for five days straight. To keep the volume manageable, I continued discarding eight cups of culture at the start of each morning. I didn’t know how I felt about this. On the one hand, I was wasting four and a half pounds of material daily. On the other, if I didn’t, by the fifth day I’d have 32,768 cups of starter on my hands, or 294,912 ounces, or 18,432 pounds. Obviously this was impractical—no store gives away grocery bags that big, and if one did, the bag would probably have a hole somewhere near the bottom.
On Day 15, the culture technically graduated to become a starter. I say technically and with such little fanfare because according to Silverton, my container should be a raging party of yeast belching hearty fermentation bubbles that I should be able to pop like bubble wrap between my fingers. What I had was more like a deserted hot tub with the jets turned off. My starter didn’t look like it was up to starting much of anything at all.
Find out what happens next in Stalking the Wild Yeast, Part 4.