There’s something dangerously addictive about sourdough – both making and eating it. I’ve been taking a break from my workshops this winter and spring and concentrating on writing – the plan is to resume the programme in the autumn (watch this space). During my little winter pause I haven’t stopped cooking (no surprise there…). In fact I’ve been devoting an obscene amount of time to mastering sourdough. (Some faithful workshoppers have asked if we could schedule a sourdough workshop. Trouble is, sourdough takes TIME. I’ve warned them this may have to be a residential course.)
It’s been a terrific learning curve and wonderful therapy. I’m still way, way off expert status, even mere competence. But I’m making progress and learning loads – partly from my mistakes and mis-hits but most of all from Teresa Greenway of Northwest Sourdough, a sourdough expert who gives brilliant online courses via Udemy and is the brains and hands behind the FB group Perfect Sourdough. If you’re on the brink of your own sourdough journey, take a look at Teresa’s website. And if you do FB, join her group NOW! Don’t be put off by the title Perfect Sourdough, BTW: most of us who contribute are far from perfect (at least, our loaves are) and people post pictures of their wonderfully wonky breads as well as the great ones and tell of their disasters or near-disasters and how they rescued them (or not).
I’ve been making regular yeasted bread for ages. When I first launched into this sourdough adventure, I hadn’t quite the courage to wean myself off baker’s yeast, so my early attempts always included a little in the mix (here’s an earlier post with a recipe using a smidgen of yeast). I’ve now got braver and leave it out. I can even boast to being the proud owner of two kinds of starter, one from white (unbleached, French Type 55) and one from rye flour, both of them home-made (it’s super-easy, see below). I use the first for making white bread and the second for wholewheat/rye bread:
HOME-MADE STARTER (“100% hydration”, i.e. same weight – not volume – of flour as water)
200g flour (rye or white – depends what you want to use it for)
Place a large (500ml/2 cups is good) wide-necked glass jar on your electronic scale and set it to zero. Add the flour and water and mix madly till smooth. Cover jar with a damp cloth and slip an elastic band around the neck of the jar to secure the cloth. Don’t use the lid – the jar shouldn’t be airtight, as you want it to take up all kinds of interesting airborne yeasts and other visitors from your particular environment to help it ferment.
Leave your embryonic starter out on your counter for a few days at room temperature or until it shows signs of life (bubbles, movement, EXCITEMENT!!) and smells and tastes distinctly sour – have a taste. With my flour, ambient yeasts and temperature (in winter) this takes about 4 days. Your raw materials, situation and climate may produce a different result. Sourdough lesson #1: Be patient (patience is not just a virtue with sourdough, it’s a must).Keep re-wetting the cloth so it doesn’t dry out.
Once you see distinct signs of life, tip away half the starter and replace it with 100g flour and 100g water. Stir up again as before, put the damp cloth back on again and leave the starter on the counter. Keep on doing this for several days till it shows distinct, unflagging, bubbling energy.
If you place a rubber band around the jar or make a mark with a felt-tip pen at just the level of your newly refreshed starter (a tip from the Perfect Sourdough group folks), you can see it climb up above the elastic band or pen mark in all its bubbly glory. Then you’ll know for sure it’s on the move.
At this point you can make bread with it (remove what you need and refresh the rest). Alternatively, if you’re not ready to bake, cover it and leave it in the fridge till you feel the urge coming on. Then you need to refresh it again before baking. Remove it from the fridge, tip away half, replace with 100g flour and 100g water, stir it up well and leave on the counter till bubbly and risen again.
Time to bake some bread!
WHITE SOURDOUGH BREAD (my attempt at Teresa Greenway’s Alaskan Sourdough)
Makes 1 x 850g loaf
130g bubbly starter made with white flour (above)
275g water (or 230g water + 45g evaporated milk, or boiled, cooled milk)
500g flour (I use French Type 55)
Sourdough takes time! Start at around 3 p.m. to allow time for the initial fermentation and shaping before placing into a banneton or floured basket for its overnight rise in the fridge. (Bedtime around 10 p.m.) Bread will be baked in the morning.
In a large, lidded bowl mix together the starter, water (or water and milk), salt and flour. Sourdough lesson #2 – no need to knead, just mix it to a rough, messy dough. Put on the lid and leave it on the counter at room temperature to ferment for about 2 hours.
After about 2 hours remove the lid. It won’t have moved much! Don’t expect dramatic rises, like you get with a yeasted bread.
Grab the dough, lift and stretch it, then fold it over on itself. Do this 2 or 3 times, rotating the dough each time. It will be a little sticky but holding its own and should not mess up your hands unduly but clean itself off them. Put the lid back on again and let the dough ferment for another 2 hours. Repeat the process and let ferment again for 2 hours – 6 hours total.
When fermentation is complete, lift out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, flatten it, press the outer edges up into the centre and invert it. Roll it round and round to make a plump ball. Leave it on the counter again for about 20 minutes to recover itself.
For the final rise, which will take place in the fridge, you need a banneton or baker’s proofing basket. I’ve improvised with a cloth-lined basket, or you can use any old basket draped with a napkin or cloth. Flour it lavishly and then tap any excess back into your flour pot.
Invert the dough ball into it so the plump side is downwards. Gather the centre up into a topknot and pinch it together, flour the top lightly, cover with a plastic bag and put in the fridge overnight. This long, slow rising will give it extra flavour and firmness.
In the morning, heat your oven to 50C for 15 minutes and put a tray of water in the bottom. Remove plastic bag from the banneton/basket, switch off the oven and place the dough in the residual warmth of the oven for a couple of hours. Dough is ready to be baked when it has roughly doubled in bulk and you poke a finger gently into the edge and the dent slowly fills – “look for a good bounce”, says Teresa!
Turn the risen dough out of its banneton/basket onto a lightly floured board and flatten it – you need to squeeze out some of the biggest bubbles, otherwise your loaf will be shot through with holes, but don’t overdo this: holes are one of the crowning glories of sourdough, needed to take up that gently melting butter (think crumpets).
Then bring the sides up into the centre, press them firmly into the middle, turn the dough over, roll it around under cupped hands and tuck the sides under so as to form a nice plump ball. (Mine stuck to the basket so it’s got a bit of a funny extra fold. Never mind – that’s what qualifies it for artisan status :-)
Last step before baking: slashing. For this you need a razor or very sharp, thin-bladed knife. Bakers use something called a lame , French for blade. Make your own (another Teresa tip) by fixing a safety razor onto a wooden kebab stick. Be careful as you fix it to the stick (use gloves): they’re, erm, razor-sharp.
Turn out the dough onto a floured board or baker’s peel. It should hold its shape, though it will flatten slightly. Stick a thumb down firmly into the centre of the dough, right to the bottom. Then slash four times at 12 o’clock, quarter past, half past and a quarter to, using a razor or sharp knife.
Heat the oven to 250C and place a baking stone or heavy black baking sheet in it to heat. Heat also a battered old pan or large lid big enough to cover the loaf as it bakes. (Alternatively heat a cast-iron casserole and use that to bake the loaf.)
When the oven is good and hot, slide the raised and shaped dough onto the baking stone or tray (or into the casserole), spray with water and invert the pan or lid over it (or place the lid on the casserole).
Bake for 15 minutes at 250C, then remove the pan or lid, reduce the temperature to 220C and bake for a further 15-20 minutes or until golden brown and crusty.
Turn out onto a rack and let cool.
Stop press: it turned out seriously holey and a bit (too?) dense but flavour was great.
The quest for the holy sourdough grail continues. Time to go back to the Perfect Sourdough FB page to find out where I went wrong…