Friday 27 June 2014

A guide to sourdough

I'm always asked which bread is my favourite to bake. And I always say sourdough. There's something unique about each sourdough loaf, more so than bread made with shop bought yeast. You simply do not know what you're going to get, which is exciting for me, but off putting for many. This post will hopefully demistify the process that leads up to creating sourdough bread.
Gratuitous shot of sourdough crumb. Stick around. There'll be more.

The thing people always want from sourdough is a chewy crust, lots of air pockets in the crumb and a tangy taste! I'm going to show you how to do this. It's not difficult!

First, I thought I'd show you my first attempt, made a couple of years ago.

I was so proud of it! It had taken blood, sweat and tears to get that far. I remember emailing this photo to Bake With Maria who had given me some advice. Maria told me to use a white bread starter and to add other flour as and when needed, as separate starters. That's very important advice. Thanks Maria!

Since then, I have made quite a few sourdough loaves, but each one requires a lot of work, but not a lot of ingredients. So if you'd like to make your own sourdough, then please read on.

First, you need time. You can't rush this! I've already referred to a thing called a starter. That's not a small plate of food dished up before your main meal, but is the basis of every sourdough.

You may already have bits of kit like proving baskets, which help the loaf to form a shape. Whilst they are not essential, I will talk about them a bit later.

No yeast

That's right, sourdough doesn't use any shop bought yeast, although I have seen recipes for it that do, believe it or not. You need to make your own natural yeast, which isn't as difficult as it sounds. This is called a starter, or leaven or poolish (if you're poshish). The bread will use the starter as it's raising agent. You simply mix a bit of starter with your chosen bread flour instead of yeast.

How to make a sourdough starter.

You will need the following:
A jar or bowl with a lid (I use a plastic 2 litre pudding basin - a kilner jar is also good)
One cup of white bread flour
One cup of tepid water

Pour the ingredients into the bowl/jar and using a spoon mix them together. A good stir is needed here. When they are combined, replace the lid and leave for 24 hours (told you it takes time!) I leave mine on top of the fridge, but anywhere fairly warm is food. Don't put it in a cupboard - it likes daylight!
Here's a jam jar. Not much going on here. But a good container!

The following day, empty half of the contents out of the jar and discard. (You may have heard that people share their starter with other people, but it's too early to do that at this point).

Add another cup of white bread flour plus another cup of tepid water. Yes, you guessed it, leave for 24 minutes. I meant hours. Just testing you were still with me!

The following day, you may start to some activity. A few little bubbles may have formed at the top, plus some air bubbles may be visible when looking athe side of the container.
(Note: this is a wholemeal starter, not a white starter)

As before, halve the starter, discard and top up with another cup of white bread flour and a cup of tepid water. Leave for 24 hours.

Right, that should do it. After a day, you should be seeing signs of activity. Don't worry if you don't, just repeat the final step from above. It will happen, but you need to be patient!

Your starter should look something like this.

Lots of bubbles, lots of natural yeast just waiting to be used! In fact, those bubbles are so important as they will form the lovely air pockets (holes) throughout your loaf. Now you can see why it was worth the wait!

At this stage, you can share your starter with others. This is an age old tradition of bread making, by passing on natural yeast, you are encouraging others to make bread.

How to make sourdough bread

Preparation: 15 hours Baking time: 40 mins
You will need the following:
300g sourdough starter
400g white bread flour
160-190 ml tepid water
7g salt
Olive oil (a drizzle)

2 mixing bowls
Water jug
Wooden spoon
Cling film
Kneading board (bread board)
Tin tray
Water spray

Weigh out the bread flour into a mixing bowl. Add the starter, salt and the approximately half of the water. Using a wooden spoon, start to combine. Add more water when needed, until the flour has formed into a dough and comes away from the side of the bowl.

Remove onto a lightly floured board. Knead for 5-7 minutes. There is no right or wrong technique here, but keep it moving, make the starter work with other ingredients, push air into the dough and keep going until the dough is smooth and silky. Add a bit more flour if it gets too sticky.

After kneading, prod the dough with your fingers until almost flat.

Now stretch the dough into a ball. While holding the dough with one hand, grab the tip of the dough with your other hand and gently stretch it, try not to break it, then fold it back into the centre of the dough. Repeat this in a clockwise fashion, each time folding the dough into itself.

Flip the dough over and, using the upturned palms of your hands, shape the dough into a ball, carefully spinning the dough and sealing it underneath. You now have a bottom and a top to your loaf – the top is facing you and should be smooth and the base will look like origami!

Wipe the mixing bowl clean, sprinkle with a splash of olive oil and place the dough inside it, bottom side down. Cover the bowl in clingfilm and leave for 4-5 hours. It doesn’t have to be in a warm place, the clingfilm will create its own warmth for the dough to prove.

Yes 4-5 hours. That's right! As it is using it's own yeast, it takes a lot longer to prove, to stretch and to grow. Leave it alone, go out, do the dusting, grow a moustache but let it do its thing!

If you have a proving basket, or a banneton, then flour it during this time (we'll talk about bannetons later). If you have no idea what I'm talking about, then place a muslin inside a mixing bowl (medium sized is good) and dust it heavily with flour. The bowl will shape the loaf for you.
An oval banneton, or proving basket.

After the first prove the dough should have doubled in size. (If it hasn’t, leave for an extra hour). Remove from the bowl onto a floured work surface, flip it over and knock it back. Don’t ever punch it or anything macho. Use your fingertips as described above, prod it all over and while it is upside down shape into a ball again.

Carefully, place the dough (still bottom side up) into your lined bowl, or your banneton. Cover with a tea towel and leave to prove for 5-8 hours. 

(It does take a long time, so I tend to knead my dough at 4pm, then place into a banneton at 10pm, so it proves overnight. Then when I get up, I switch the oven on and bake it first thing in the morning).

Switch the oven on to 220C, 45 minutes before you are ready to bake. Place a heavy based baking tray on the base of your oven and boil a kettle. No, not for a coffee! For steam, to help the loaf to hydrate when it goes into your red hot oven!

When 45 mins has passed you will have to move fairly fast. Until now the dough has been kept within a container which has given it stability. Once that is removed, the shape of the loaf is determined by how quickly you can get it into the oven. Don't panic, but place the water spray and a breadknife near to the oven so you're not flying around your knichen trying to find them!

Re-boil the kettle. We want some steam very soon!

Carefully, upturn the bowl, or banneton onto a floured tin tray so it is now the right way up. Take the breadknife and make one or two small slashes across the dough. Give it a quick blast with the water spray.
A baked sourdough. The round lines are from the proving basket.

Place the tin tray (with the dough) into the oven. Pour boiling water into the very hot baking tray on the base of the oven and close the oven door as soon as you can!


Bake for 20 minutes at 220c

After this time, spray with water, rotate the loaf and bake for 10 mins.

Spray all over with water, rotate again and bake for 5 more mins.

After this time the bread should be a golden colour, remove from oven, turn it upside down and place back in oven to cook the base of the loaf. This takes 7 mins. It's cooked when it sounds hollow!

Place on a wire rack and let it cool completely before getting stuck in! Please don't slice it while it's hot, or even warm, you risk losing a lovely loaf! 

And that's it. You've made a sourdough. Your nostrils should be doing an impression of Kenneth Williams by now, as the olive oil and the sourness of the loaf combine in your house. Beautiful!

When you have made one or two, then you may want to invest in a banneton. They will give the loaf a more marked appearance, just like the ones on display in your bakers shop window. They are made from wicker and, unlike a lined bowl, allow the dough to 'breathe' while it expands. They usually have a liner, but I prefer to take that off so the wicker makes lovey marks across the top of the loaf.

You may also want to experiment with some slashing/scoring techniques for your loaf. For that reason, and, ok, to show off a bit, here's some I prepared earlier!

4 criss crosses

4 staright slashes

2 slashes

4 lattice style slashes

Zig zag!

I really hope you try it out. Sourdough is the test of any baker worth his metal but is also a really enjoyable way of making a loaf. Yeh, it takes time but the best things usually do! Bye!