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 🙂

Baking your own bread

This is now basically part of my weekly routine. About 18 months ago, I read about just how bad for you processed white bread is and decided to learn to make my own bread. As it turns out, although getting the dough to my taste took a little while, the technique for bread making isn’t too difficult. I still love white bread – which is easier to make than brown – but have really enjoyed having fresh bread where I have seen exactly what has gone into it. Even if you don’t have time to make your own bread every week, it is a lovely skill to have, even for the occasional treat.

The yeast

As well as the quality of flour, the yeast is what will mainly determine the quality of your bread. You can buy dried quick yeast which is very convenient, but definitely not the best in terms of quality. It has the advantage that you can keep it in the cupboard pretty much forever, and you can literally just throw it into the bowl and it’s ready to go. However, better quality yeast will give you richer tasting bread.

Supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco will often give you a chunk of fresh yeast for free/a few pennies, and this is by far the Rolls Royce of yeast. On the downside, it will only last you about two weeks in the fridge, and needs to be given a bit of time to get up to room temperature and to ‘wake up’ in some warm sugary water. I’m making my first experiments with caked yeast next week, so will report back!

The middle road option is live granulated yeast. I strongly recommend Allinson’s tinned Dried Active Yeast – it keeps well, tastes pretty good and is easy enough to use. Like the live yeast cake, it will want a little bit of ‘waking up’ time (about 15 mins) but the results are far superior.

 The recipe

So let’s start at the basics… white bread!

You will need:

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 300ml warm water
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 1/2 tsp quick yeast OR 1tbsp live yeast

 – If you’re using quick yeast, then mix together all the dry ingredients, and then rub in the butter. Gradually add the water – it’s best to mix it with your hands.

 – If you’re using active yeast you’ll need to do a little more preparation. For the granulated yeast, whisk a teaspoon of sugar into half the warm water, then whisk in the yeast. Leave it somewhere warm for 15 mins to froth up! Add to the dry ingredients, then use the remaining 150 ml to swill out the bowl the yeast was in, and add it to the mixture as well.

 – You’ll then need to knead your dough! This video shows you how to knead dough very well but if like me you can’t be bothered to click links, the idea is to stretch out your dough so that it rises properly. Place it on a lightly floured counter and hold the dough against the counter with one hand. With the heel of your other hand, stretch the dough out away from you along the counter.  You want to stretch the dough not break it, so stop before you end up with two separate balls of dough. Be firm, but gentle! Fold it back into a ball and turn 90*. Wash, rinse, repeat! It will take about ten minutes in total. The dough will look and feel smooth, elastic and springy. When you poke your finger in it, the dent should stay there and slowly spring back.

 – Well done! Now leave the dough to prove: put the dough into a lightly oiled bowl covered with a damp cloth until doubled in size. On a nice warm day this takes about an hour, in winter I give it an hour and a half. Get the kettle on!

– Once your dough has risen, tip it out of the bowl and knead it lightly. This is called knocking it back. The idea is just to gently squash out the dough, not to pulverise it. Once you have done this, either smooth it off into a nice round for a ‘farmhouse’ loaf (god alone knows why it’s called that – surely they have loaf tins on farms!) and put it on a baking tray, or put it in a lightly oiled loaf tin. Rub a little oil over the surface of the dough and prove for another 40 mins.

– Preheat the oven to 200* when the dough has nearly done proving. Bake at 200* for 10 mins, then turn down to 180* for another 15-20 mins. The bread is done when it sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom. If you’ve done it in a tin you’ll obviously need to take it out to test this – putting it back in the oven without the tin will make a crispier crust so if it needs a little longer bear this in mind. If you want a nice crunchy crust you should give it abother 3 mins or so without the tin.

 – Here’s the difficult bit – once that bread is done, DO NOT CUT IT UP UNTIL IT IS COOL(ish). It continues steaming and cooking while it is hot for one thing, the bread will risk going a bit dry if you cut it too soon. Similarly, the bread will still be steamy and sticky – if you crush the loaf while it is hot, it will stay that way! I usually try to get it so that the first slice you get is just warm enough to melt a little butter 🙂

And that ladies and gents, is how you do white bread! Enjoy 🙂