Once you have made/obtained a starter you need to look after it. You will hear all sorts of stories about how a neglected starter was revived after six months of being ignored but, if you want it to function effectively and produce great bread, feed it regularly and store it properly. The best way to do this is to stick to a routine (yawn) and the easiest way to do that is to bake regularly.
Things didn't immediately start to go right after I began my second starter towards the end of 1999. I was still keeping it fairly stiff like a regular dough and, whilst the bread it produced was OK, it didn't have a lot of lift. Everyone has that special bread book that inspired them and transformed their bread making. For me that was Alan Scott and Dan Wing's The Bread Builders which I got my little mitts on in early 2000.
Starter one week after being refreshed. It has a greasy look and has started to produce 'hooch' water and a touch of alcohol that has separated from the mixture. Just mix this back in. Hardly active with few gas bubbles
The following is Dan Wing's method which meant switching from a stiffish dough to one with equal quantities of plain flour and water (100% hydration). With the change, most of my bread making problems disappeared. At 100% hydration it is easy to handle and mix. I use plastic pudding bowls with lids or cling film, you can refresh your starter in the bowls just by stirring without any need to get your hands or your work surface messy.
Starter immediately after refreshment. Flat creamy texture and, as yet, no gas bubbles.
Basically the yeasts in your starter are voracious little buggers who like lots of food and warmth in which to multiply and they would like to be fed every eight hours or so thank you very much. That is fine for the starter which is going to leaven your bread in the near future but, for the starter you are storing for subsequent bakings, you need to feed it well but then keep it cold so that it develops slowly and doesn't require further refreshment for several days.
Starter several hours after refreshment. Active and full of bubbles.
The proportions of food vary according to whose method you use, but the way I do it is as follows:
Most of my recipes call for twice refreshed starter. The proportions for the first refreshment are 1 of starter, 2 of water, 2 of plain flour by weight. For the second refreshment, about eight hours later, the proportions are 1 of starter, 1 of water, 1 of plain flour.
Close-up of active starter - the stuff of nightmares!
Most of my recipes work to a two day cycle. For example, if I am going to bake on Saturday afternoon I do the first refreshment on Friday morning, the second on Friday evening before I go to bed, make the dough Saturday morning, bake Saturday afternoon.
I keep 500g of starter in the fridge because it is handy for all sorts of things like batters as well as bread. My routine goes like this. The morning before baking I take my starter from the fridge and I make up two separate but identical refreshments, one for my store starter and one for my dough. So I take two bowls and weigh out 100g of starter for each to which I add 200g water and 200g plain flour to each. I stir one, leave it out for an hour or so and put it back in the fridge for the following week. Anything left gets thrown away. The second starter gets left out at room temperature until the evening when I add 500g water and 500g flour. Obviously, if I need less starter for baking I start off with 50g or less.
If you see this call a builder, it's dry rot and it appeared in my kitchen!