Baking your own bread – Sourdough

Last summer, as part of my ongoing experimentation with making different kinds of bread, I decided to make sourdough. This is more than likely one of the earliest forms of bread, as it simply capitalises on naturally found yeast. Unlike with regular bread, you don’t add yeast – you grow it yourself in what is known as a ‘starter’. The flavour (as the name suggests) is a little sour and the texture is firmer than normal bread (I’ve heard it described as almost ‘chewy’). It is also much slower to make than regular bread – the natural yeasts aren’t cultivated for speed, so it will need several hours at a time for proving. I find this to be something of an advantage, particularly for making bread over the weekend – once you have got the dough ready, you simply leave it somewhere warm for the day, and come back to beautifully risen dough. Still, the technique is very different, largely due to having to cultivate your ‘starter’.

This rich, dense bread really lends itself to being made with walnuts, poppy seeds, or sunflower seeds and is categorically the most delicious bread for jam and toast. The slightly sour tang of the bread really enhances the sweetness of the jam (recipe for jam here. Not as hard as you might think).

Yay, science!

The starter relies on two symbiotic micro-organisms, yeast, and lactobacilli. The lactobacilli are a type of bacteria that produce lactic acid, and create the slightly sour tang to the bread. They also break down the maltose sugar into straight-up glucose. The yeast does what yeast always does – chows down on sugar (made by the handy lactobacilli) and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. The alcohol, as in all bread, evaporates in the oven, but the carbon dioxide is what makes your bread rise.

Your starter will be full of living organisms, and as such they’ll need to be fed. You have to ‘refresh’ the starter every so often and ‘feed’ it with more flour and water. The strains of yeast and bacteria will vary from bakery to bakery, kitchen to kitchen, so you often find people getting rather possessive about their preferred starter – it becomes something like a kitchen pet.

Convinced you to give it a try yet?

Sourdough

The starter

The natural yeast you will be using needs time to get going. Your starter will need to be at least a week old before you use it.

To get it going, whisk together 100g wholemeal bread flour with enough warm water to make something like the texture of runny pancake batter – fairly sloppy is fine. Beat plenty of air into it and wander round the kitchen as you do – you want plenty of chance for it to meet up with some natural yeast. Cover it with cling film and leave 24 hours.

After 24 hours, you should see some signs that it is fermenting – it should start to bubble, and over time it will start to smell a bit vinegary/fermented. It won’t smell terribly delicious at this stage, but that’s normal. Provided it’s starting to bubble a little, tip out half and then ‘feed’ it with 100g more wholemeal flour and enough water to bring it back to that runny consistency. Do this daily for a week. Getting it going is quite expensive in flour, but once you’ve got your starter fermenting, it won’t need feeding anything like as often.

The bread

After your week is up, you should start to notice a difference in the smell and texture of the starter. It will still be a sour smell, but should have started to smell less acrid, almost a little beery. If it is mouldy, or still smells revolting, then throw it out and start over.

I tend to make it very slowly to give it the best rise, so you start the dough off the day before.

The night before mix together:
– 100 ml of your starter
– 250g strong bread flour
– 275ml water

Pop this in a bowl with clingfilm and leave at room temperature overnight. It will bubble up nicely provided your starter was a success.

The next morning knead in:
– 10g salt (essential and not just for taste – it holds back the yeast a bit)
– 200g strong bread flour
– 1 tbsp olive oil (rapeseed oil is even better if you have it, this is optional but makes a nice texture)
Give it a good knead for 10 minutes – it will be really sticky, don’t be tempted to dry it out too much by adding more flour – you’ll get a better rise this way. Be firm with kneading it – if after about 7 minutes of kneading it feels a little dry, wet the dough. How much water to add depends on how wet your starter is/how active your yeast is/how warm it is etc so experiment a bit. You do start to get a feel for it after a couple of attempts. The worst that happens is that your bread is a little dense.

Leave this to prove somewhere warm until it has doubled in size. It will take longer than regular bread (usually at least 3 hours) but can be left all day really.

Later that afternoon/evening knock back your dough, and leave it to prove either on a baking tray, or in a loaf tin if you prefer. Again, leave it somewhere warm to prove – usually around 3 hours.

Recently, I have taken to putting it in a large round cake tin, covering it with another bowl so that it doesn’t dry out, and leaving it overnight to bake in the morning. This ensure the slow, even rise that sourdough likes.

Bake once it looks good to go – either late that night or early the next morning. As with any bread, you’re waiting for it to have doubled in size – give it 15 mins at 220* and then another 15-20 at around 190*. To get the best oven spring out of it, get a spray bottle of water and occasionally give the hot oven a judicious squirt – bread loves a steamy oven.

It’s a fairly long process, but the amount of time you spend on each bit is no more than 10 mins at a go really.

How to take care of your starter

Top your starter up as follows:

– If you’re baking really regularly, do the flour and water feed daily. Keep your starter at room temperature.

– This takes A LOT of flour, so alternatively, keep it in the fridge and it will go a whole week quite happily. Just bring it up to room temperature when you want to use it.

– Even more extreme – overfeed it. Give it enough flour to get a sticky dough and it will go about four days at room temperature.

– More extreme still – overfeed and put in the fridge. We’re talking like ten days + here before it’s going to want your attention.

– If you really only want this occasionally, chuck it in the freezer. It will get going again upon being (gently) defrosted, and brought back to its runny consistency for a day.

If you forget to feed it – panic not. Yeast and bacteria tend to just go dormant until food is available, so unless it has gone mouldy, just feed it and stir it well.

It will also live very happily in a jar, so you can seal it up in there once it’s had that first week of sucking up all the yeast in the air.

Enjoy your new found love of sourdough, it’s addictive stuff 🙂

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