My friend M is a bread master. I've tasted a few of her loaves and each one sends me reeling with lust for another bite. Her stuff is absolute perfection. M says her bread is amazing because of her twelve year old starter which she received from a baker up north.
While preparing to test a Christmas bread recipe that provided instructions for making a starter from scratch, I asked M for advice. The recipe is an old one and calls for a baker to combine water and flour and let the stuff alone for a few weeks, after which you sniff the starter to decide whether is is bread-worthy or destined for the garbage.
M generously offered to give me a part of her starter so I could test the recipe in style. I agreed, with trepidation. A starter is a lot of responsibility, like caring for another living being without understanding what it needs, when it needs it, and why. Would I be able to keep the baby alive long enough to test the recipe over the long holiday weekend? The whole experience reminded me of the Amish Friendship Bread starter a well meaning neighbor gifted us when we moved into our home. It took a few days before I finally, without guilt, tossed the thing and never looked back. But this time my starter was planned for, a wanted child.
Meanwhile, M sent me an article published in the NYT last March. Sam Sifton wrote about the popularity of starters and equipping those of us interested (and terrified) of the bubbly concoction living on our counters or refrigerators with an owner's manual synopsis. Starters are, apparently, the Pet Rocks of our time. I was relieved to learn I am not the first to name my starter. (My starter is named Baby.)
To keep starter alive, you must nurture it: feed it, water it, give it air, and watch it closely to make sure you are doing it right. I am told that the care of a starter gets easier once you learn to read its cues. Apparently, as your relationship with the starter develops, you know instinctively what to feed it and when. For now, you may want to say a prayer for the yeasty Baby living in my kitchen.