my first foray into sourdough baking in December, I've baked four more batches, making incremental progress each time. The wonderful thing is, even when things go wrong, the bread has still tasted great.
My second attempt, a few days after the first, yielded a slightly more browned crust, thanks to a slower, longer rise. The loaves were soft and tasty, but still lacking a tangy sourdough flavor, so I went back to the sourdough blogs. Sourdough Home's "starter primer" in particular was quite helpful, as was Wild Yeast's post about raising a starter.
I learned I had been mistaken in thinking my starter wasn't the problem; a "starter" technically begins as a "culture", and then as it becomes healthy and established, it begins to develop the distinctive sour taste. Mine, only a few days old when I first used it, was far from being a starter--it was still a culture and as such, needed to be fed and tended until it could double itself in a twelve-hour period. Knowing that, I put off more baking to work on getting my starter going.
Rather than going back to the beginning and making an entirely new starter from scratch, I just took what I had out of the refrigerator (which is where the instructions in The Tightwad Gazette said to store it) and started feeding it per the instructions in Sourdough Home's starter primer. In order to keep it in the warm temperature range recommended by the primer, I stored it in the warmest place in my kitchen: on top of the fridge. Finally, at the beginning of this week, my starter was doubling itself every twelve hours, so I felt ready for another try.
I baked attempt #3 on Tuesday morning. At long last, sourdough flavor and a browned crust! I made a batard (oval loaf) and a boule (round loaf), but my dough ball, and later the loaves, developed a hardened "skin" during the rises. So for my fourth attempt, the next day, I baked a single loaf in a loaf pan and experimented with spritzing the towel that covered the dough with water while it rose. Still pretty dry, but getting closer.
Today was my fifth attempt. I spritzed the dough with vegetable oil during the first rise, covered it loosely with plastic wrap, and spritzed it with oil again after shaping it into a loaf and letting it rise a second time. This worked well to prevent the dried skin on the dough, although I think halving the recipe (which I did just for the sake of not having too much bread on hand) didn't make quite enough dough for the size of bread pan I used.
My latest loaf still tastes wonderful, though, and makes lovely sandwiches that my kids gobble up!