The breeding of micro-organisms is very fashionable at the moment. Everyone is fermenting. I know numerous people who are making their own sauerkraut, others who are fermenting kimchi. My wife has just taken delivery of a jar of water-kefir, and yesterday we went round to a friend’s who showed us his kombucha-farm. Last time I went to a restaurant (the outstanding Silo in Brighton – I can’t recommend it enough) I had a fermented brown rice risotto. Bacteria is/are ‘in’.
And I’ve been making sourdough.
About five years ago I first made sourdough and it was incredible. Almost every day for about six months across a spring/summer/autumn I made a loaf and they were, I dare say, perfect. The crumb had huge air holes like a Tom and Jerry cheese, the texture waxy and chewy. It had a crust that retained it’s crunch and once the loaf was a couple of days old (if it lasted that long without being scoffed) it made the BEST toast. I was on a (bread) roll.
Then, suddenly, it started going a bit weird. The loaves began to change. The crumb got strangely ‘close’. The colour became greyer and where once I’d open the oven door and be greeted by a high domed loaf that had sprung up in the heat and steam, I now more often found a giant pancake with a disappointing porridgey surface. I still don’t know what happened, but something had and after a few too many failures the starter was washed away and I went back to shop-bought yeast.
Every year since then I’ve tried again and every time it’s failed. I’ve never managed to capture it like I did back in, 2009, or 2008, or whenever it was. My summer of sourdough. Until now. Perhaps I’m speaking too soon. Perhaps I’m tempting fate by writing about it with such wanton confidence. But I’m about four weeks in now and it’s still working. In fact it’s getting better.
I know nothing, or at least very little, of the science behind it. All I know is what little I’ve read, and that is that there’s yeast all over the place – in the flour, in the air, and that you somehow capture and nurture that yeast until it’s doing what you want, which is multiplying in your dough and creating carbon dioxide, giving it lift and those lovely big air holes. Are there different yeasts in the air and if so is it the luck of the draw? Back then when my bread was coming up so perfectly, had I simply been lucky and captured the ideal yeast? And in those intervening years had I snared a bad one?
All I know is it’s working now, and here’s how I did it. And I urge you to try it yourselves, because when it works there’s nothing that beats the satisfaction of cutting into a loaf that you’d drool over if you saw it in the window of an artisan bakery but which the ingredients list are nothing more than: flour, salt and water.
Strong white flour
First you need to grow/develop a ‘starter’. So mix together about 100g of rye flour with enough water to make a thickish batter. Lightly cover it with a tea towel and leave it.
24 hours later add about the same amount of flour and more water and leave it again for another full day.
By now you should be seeing some action in the batter, something developing. A lightly bubbly surface here and there. Discard about half the mixture and add another 100g flour and water again to bring it up to the consistency you’ve been getting before. Cover (with clingfilm now) and leave for another day.
Carry on doing this for a further full week and if it’s all ok you should now have a starter that gets lively and frothy a few hours after it’s been fed. Don’t neglect it though. Keep doing the same thing only from now on instead of throwing away that 100g you’ll be using it to kick-start your actual bread.
Keep the starter out if you’re using it daily, and if you’re not then keep it in the fridge, but you will still need to continue to feed it every few days. The cold will slow everything down but it won’t halt it completely so if you ignore it, it will die. Personally, I’ve found that it’s when it starts going in the fridge that things have started to go wrong, so if you can keep it out and do something every day – preferably bread-making and failing that just discarding and feeding, I think you’ll have more success.
Now, here’s how I turn that starter into a loaf… First of all you need to make a ‘sponge’. First thing in the morning take 100g of the starter and put it into a big bowl (mine goes straight into the Kenwood Chef bowl) with 250g strong white flour and 275g water. Beat it all together with a whisk. Feed your starter (as you’ve been doing before) and then cover both the two containers with clingfilm. Leave until the evening by which time the sponge should be frothy and bubbly. Now it’s time to make the dough, so add a further 300g strong white flour and a scant dessertspoon of salt and then mix and knead into a nice elastic dough. I use the dough hook on the mixer and as such can afford to make the dough a fair bit wetter with the addition of a bit more water. It does make the dough very sticky which is difficult on the hands if being kneaded manually, but you’ll end up with a nicer bread. Sourdough works really slowly, so the smooth elastic dough should then be lightly oiled, clingfilm back over the top and the whole thing left until morning when it should have doubled in size.
In the morning I barely knock it back at all – nothing rough. I just fold the edges into the middle a few times to push a bit of the air out and shape it either into a ball and then into a generously floured proving basket, or into an oval and onto a proving cloth. Then it’s covered loosely in floured clingfilm and left again for two to three hours to double again. While it’s doing this for the last hour or so you’ll need to get the oven hot – as hot as it will go.
I’ve got a Welsh cast iron, super-thick, super-heavy circular griddle-plate which I keep in the oven and use like a baking stone, but if you don’t have that just put a heavy baking tray in. I’ve also got a peel, which both helps you get the bread in and onto the stone, hot-plate or tray, as well as making you feel like you’re a real baker (which if you’ve got this far, you are!). When it’s time to bake, dust the peel with flour, get the bread onto it (either turning it out of the proving basket or carefully and quickly lifting it onto the peel). Slash it somehow with a razor blade, a sharp knife, or if you’ve got one, a lame (I have), before getting it into the oven. Quickly pour a cup of water into a tray at the bottom of the oven to create steam (and encourage a final ‘jump’ in the rising) and leave it for 12 minutes before rotating it 180 degrees (for even baking) and dropping the temperature to about 200 degrees for further 20 minutes it needs.
Oh, and if anyone reading this knows more about the science of it all, I’d love to know more.