My Sourdough Story

Every now and then I get this irresistible urge to make sourdough. With my eyes closed I can conjure up that wonderful, slightly sharp flavour, wide-eyed texture and meaty crust. Sourdough looks, smells and tastes a-mazing, right? All my bread books (I have a library of them) wax lyrical about it.

Sourdough uses natural flour-borne and airborne yeasts (rather than commercial baker’s yeast) to ferment and raise bread. The technique was probably developed by the Egyptians in around 4000 BC, who had the necessary raw materials – finely milled wheat, water and salt. That’s all you need. Simple, huh? Well, actually no. Not at all.

First you have to beg, borrow, steal or make your sourdough starter. I made mine (I wrote that with a nonchalant look, accompanied by a toss of the head and some rolling of the eyes). I selected a big glass jar and set it on the counter. Then I weighed out 75g tap water and 75g rye flour (you need to do lots of weighing when you make sourdough, I discovered – volume measurements don’t cut it). The flour came from my favourite Minoterie Moderne in Hirsingue, which I love to bits for its range of superb flours, plus the fact that it’s the most resolutely un-moderne place you could possibly imagine, housed in a classic Alsatian half-timbered building and full of ancient wooden contraptions, monstrous bits of machinery driven by flapping canvas belts and staffed by a team of flour-dusted millers.

Minoterie Moderne Hirsingue Alsace by Sue Style

I mixed it all up to a porridge-like consistency, draped a damp J-cloth on top and left it on the counter for several days. On about day four it began to smell reassuringly sour, with an unappetising layer of greyish liquid sitting on top of the sludge beneath. As instructed in the books, I stirred it up, threw away about half of it and replaced it with another 75g water + 75g rye flour. Every day I came down in the morning, peered anxiously at it, prodded it a bit, stirred it around and sniffed it. Pretty? No. But sour? Definitely.

Sue Style's sourdough starter

When I’d ‘refreshed’ my starter (impressed at the techy lingo?) several times, things began to get seriously exciting. After I’d removed and discarded half of it for about the sixth time, I made a mark on the side of the jar to see how far it would go forth and multiply. This, the books assured me, would show that my starter was on the move, possibly even ready to be pressed into service for a billowing, blowsy loaf.

By now I was becoming passionately attached to my starter, like a parent to her firstborn. The idea of actually pushing some of it out of the nest to make bread seemed terrifying and heartless. Deep breaths, out went half the starter, in went more water and flour and within only an hour or so, ferocious activity was underway. The starter more than doubled in volume. It looked scarily active – like I imagine Goldilocks’s porridge pot must have looked.

Sue Style's active sourdough starter

My first crack at a loaf went like this:

300g bubbling starter, wrenched from its ‘mother’, to which I added:
450ml lukewarm water and mixed them well together.
Then I added 350g white flour + 150g wholewheat flour + 50g rye flour + 1 tablespoon salt and mixed it up with the dough hook of my electric mixer to what could never by any stretch of the imagination be called a dough, but a batter, yes definitely. It was very wet and sloppy, but this was the recipe I’d chosen, I told myself bravely. Besides, I wanted big holes in my bread and apparently too tight a dough would not produce big holes.

I left it to rise in the bowl, covered it with a plastic bag and after about 4 hours and a lot of huffing and puffing (from me, mostly), it had managed to double itself. I prepared an improvised banneton or proving basket using a bread basket with a cloth lining,

Sue Style's improvised banneton

and tipped in the dough/batter. Then I heated the oven to 220C and placed a black baking tray in it, lined with the silicone mat on which I’d hitherto baked all my loaves. When the oven was good and hot, and the dough/batter had climbed to the top of the basket, I opened the door, half-pulled out the oven rack with the baking tray and tipped the dough/batter onto it.

This was where things began to go badly wrong. Slowly, inexorably, the batter (no dough, this, I have to be honest) spread itself out over the edge of the baking tray, slithered through the bars of the oven rack and dropped in great gobs onto the oven floor. Panic took over. I grabbed a fish slice, scooped up the batter as best I could from the tray/rack/oven floor and threw the whole caboosh unceremoniously back into the mixing bowl. I scraped what I could from the oven, the rack, the silicone mat and the floor, threw it in the bin and pondered my next move.

Because the batter had slightly cooked and firmed up on its first encounter with the hot oven, it came together a bit more firmly when I switched the mixer back on again. While the dough hook was doing its work, I put the baking tray back in the oven to heat. When I felt brave enough, I stopped the mixer, opened the oven door, pulled out the baking tray, threw the batter-almost-dough onto it, shoved it back in and shut the door with a bang and leaned against it, panting slightly.

My oven has a glass door so I could see what was going on in there. Things didn’t look completely hopeless. It spread itself about like an elderly aunt subsiding into a large armchair and it did rise a bit but it was more like a Northumbrian Stotty than a real loaf. “Good first try”, said my husband encouragingly.

Sue Style's sourdough

It took me a few days licking my wounds before I plucked up courage to have another stab. And yes, I admit I broke down and made a rather delicious, finely crusted, loose-crumbed, yeast-risen loaf using a bit of snatched starter and far less yeast than usual. I just needed to remind myself that I could actually make quite decent bread.

Second attempt was less messy and the loaf a definite improvement. I used the same amount of bubbly starter, mostly unbleached white flour with a little wholewheat, and I reduced the water to 350ml. I mixed it all up and let it rise overnight in the fridge (good tip that). Next morning it had risen quite nicely – nothing dramatic, as when I use baker’s yeast, but going in the right direction. I collapsed it again and scooped it into my floury proving basket. Experience had shown that using my silicone mat was a bad plan, so I just dusted my baking tray with polenta flour and put it in the oven to heat. I opened the door, pulled out the sheet and once again tipped the dough (definitely qualified as a dough this time, albeit a slack one) onto the sheet. Quite a bit of slithered off the edge and through the bars again but I rescued it with my fish slice, banged the door shut again and peered anxiously through the window for the ensuing 35 minutes.

Sue Style's sourdough

It came out pretty well, a bit flat but good flavour and impressively big holes (“another good try” muttered my husband, “but your ‘normal’ bread is wonderful too…”)

I’ve persisted with my sourdough experiment. The results have been, ahem, uneven. Seems like sourdough is pretty fickle stuff and you never quite know what you’re going to get. Over many months, I think I’ve arrived at a workable formula. I’ve been helped a bit by the latest addition to my bread library, in the shape of Le Larousse du Pain by the formidable and uber-fashionable baker Eric Kayser. This is a variation on his pain de campagne – the chief difference between my recipe and his is that I bake it in a cast-iron casserole in the oven (as for my regular-yeasted, no-knead bread, here), which makes life a whole lot easier – no risk of the dough slithering about between the oven bars.

Here’s how I go about ‘my’ sourdough:

For a loaf weighing about 900g, you need:

1) 100g active [i.e. bubbly] sourdough starter raided from your stock – mine lives in a jar in the fridge. I replace the raided portion each time with another 75g rye flour and 75g water, mix it up well, cover it and put it back in the fridge

Sue Style's sourdough starter bubbly

2) A smidge of fresh yeast (do I hear a sharp intake of breath? I know, I know, but a tiny bit of yeast is permissible – Eric Kayser specifies 2g, but unlesss you have an accurate digital scale this is tricky to measure, far less visualise – it’s just a little corner pared off the edge of a cube – or use 1/2 a teaspoon of instant-blending dry yeast)

3) 500g flour made up according to your own formula – I like a mix of about 200g rough-milled wholewheat (i.e. with recognisable bits of bran) + 300g white flour

4) 2 level teaspoons salt

5) about 350ml lukewarm water

  • Place all the ingredients except the water in a big mixing bowl (I use my electric mixer with dough hook fitted).
  • Switch on, mix everything up a bit and gradually add the water till the mixture comes together into a rough dough. Continue kneading with the dough hook for about 5 minutes. The dough will be quite soft but should start to clean itself off the sides of the bowl. If necessary add a shower or two of flour till this happens. (Conversely, add a little more water if it’s too firm and dry.)

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  • Encase the whole bowl in a large plastic bag and leave to rise at room temperature till doubled in bulk – the time needed will depend on your starter, the room temperature and a few other variables, but allow at least a couple of hours. Don’t try to hurry this – forget radiators/airing cupboards/cool ovens etc. – the slower the rise, the better the flavour. (It will even rise in the fridge if you give it enough time, and be all the better for it.)

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  • When it’s nicely risen, use a dough scraper to lift it up from the sides and dump it back in the centre again to collapse it.

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  • Cover again with the plastic bag and leave for an hour or more to recover itself and regain some of its volume.
  • Lavishly flour your banneton or select a deepish basket into which the dough will fit, lay a teatowel in it and flour it generously. Tip the dough from the mixing bowl into the floured basket and leave it for at least 30 minutes (it may need more, don’t rush it) till it reaches almost to the top of the basket.
  • Heat the oven to 220C and place a cast-iron casserole in it to heat (Le Creuset or similar, oval or round, whatever ya got). When the oven and casserole are thoroughly hot and the dough risen, remove casserole from the oven and place on a heatproof surface. Tip the risen dough from the basket into the casserole and snuggle it in a bit with a wooden spatula or spoon.

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  • Cover with a lid and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the lid, spray or splash the top with a little water and return it to the oven, without the lid. Bake for a further 15-20 minutes or until golden brown on top and outrageously fragrant.

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  • Tip it out onto a rack and let cool.

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  • Slice, spread with sweet or salty butter and eat (and no fighting over the crust, please).

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