I've been trying to make starter for about 3 weeks now, and a week ago, it started to look and smell like actual sourdough starter-- it had lots of bubbles, it had a pleasent, almost vinegar-y smell, and it seemed like it would be ready for its first loaf soon. I had to leave on a trip for a week though, and while I was gone, I had my brother look after it, and during that week, he used way too much water (he was assing one cup of flour and one cup of water, while I usually add a half a cup of water and 1 cup of flour), and by the time I got back, it smelled so sharp that it burned my nose a bit. On top of that, it was super thin and liquidy, and there weren't very meny bubbles. Luckily, I put some of the good starter in my fridge before I left, so hopefully after reviving and feeding it, it will pick up where it left off. But is the starter that my brother was taking care of worth saving, or should I just discard it?
Also, how long before I can use it for baking? How can I tell when it's ready?
Once I'm ready to bake, what recipe should I use? I've never made sourdough bread (I'm actually new to all kinds of baking in general), so I don't want a recipe that's super complicated. I do want a sourdough recipe that makes delicious sourdough bread with the crunchy crust, so if anyone knows of a tasty, simple recipe, let me know!
The beginners blogs by SourDom on this site (link on top of right panel) gives a lot of good information about making and maintaining a starter and making bread. His Pane francesa recipe is about as simple as you can get and you should practice making that until you get the feel for how the dough handles and develops.
This is a pictorial on making bread that also might help you on your way. But keep in mind that it is only one of the many ways.
Starters can go through phases as the culture develops and either your refrigerated sample or some of your corrupted one could/should come good with a bit of TLC.
Good luck with your projects.