I'm on day 6 of activating my desem starter per the instructions that came with the starter and the how to videos on this site. For one thing, discarding all but 1/2 cup of starter twice a day when feeding it has not left me with much to bake with, it doesn't seem that the starter is "growing". And secondly the starter is just getting drier and more bread-dough like the longer it's activating. As I'm reading more about Desem online, it appears that this starter is more of a sponge/solid starter as opposed to a softer, "goopier" starter, is this true? Tonight I reserved more starter and added the corresponding amounts of water and flour and now I have a little loaf-like starter that I'm keeping in a bowl overnight. Am I doing this correctly?!
To begin with, it sounds like you definitely need more water, or less flour. The starter should be anywhere from batter-like to spongy, but not denser than that. Different environments can require some adjustment to the basic instructions.
The reason you discard dough while you are activating is so that the newly activated starter is not trying to do too much work until it has become stronger. Once it is activated and you are ready to begin baking, of course you will want to let it build up.
I have been working with my whole wheat sourdough starter for a couple of months now. I feel I've come a long way, but I'm still having some difficulties. Instead of 3 feedings, I find my starter rises better if I feed it at least 6 times before using it. I'm getting better at kneading, too. The dough now fills the pan and rises a bit above it by the time I'm ready to bake it. However, as soon as I poke it with a knife to put the slits in the top, the dough collapses. Is this normal? I'm not using bread flour, but regular flour and I'm wondering if this is the problem. I've read on another website that whole wheat bread will come out softer and rise better if 1/3 cup of gluten is added to the dough. Do you recommend this? Thanks for your help!
Gluten is what lets the dough rise high (because it is stretchy and holds the flour together). A long rising time means the dough is really puffed up, and if the gluten is over-stretched, poking the loaf will cause it to collapse. More gluten will help. More kneading is good too, because that's what activates and distributes the gluten. Gluten is a protein, so if there's not an allergy problem, added gluten can provide additional strength to a dense, heavy flour like whole wheat.
I am new to sourdough and am curious, how is this starter activated and how long does it take?
The Desem Sourdough starter is activated by feeding specific amounts of whole wheat flour and water, and it may take from 3-7 days to fully activate and be ready for baking. The starter comes with complete instructions on activating, maintaining, and making fresh starter for baking.