Sunday the 9th of November, 2014, was the day I finally got around to finding out how to make sourdough bread, having wondered about it for a few years. I wondered and wondered but didn’t do anything and the question of ‘How do you do that?’ kept popping up. I like knowing how to do things myself, it is immensely pleasing to me.
It seemed to me that if people have been making bread this way for thousands of years, then it can’t be that complicated or they wouldn’t have started doing it in the first place and I couldn’t understand why nearly all the recipes and videos I found made it out to be so complex.
The videos were the worst – film clips of people with huge smiles, waving their arms about and talking endlessly about their passion for bread, but not getting to the point. How difficult can this be? Just give me the instructions!
Good humour returned when I found the site of a Danish man called Max, who has a page about sourdough bread and a video on growing the starter, or levain, which is used to raise the bread. His video was short and to the point and precisely what I’d been looking for – bascially, you put flour and water together and mix it, wait 12 hours, add more flour and water and mix it. Repeat until the starter is lively and bubbling, which can take anything from a few days to three to four weeks, and then you can start using it. End of story. Max didn’t waffle or gush, his voice was quiet and not at all excited or ‘passionate’ and you only see him for about two seconds, the rest is just about flour and water.
He missed out the step of discarding half the starter each time you feed it, or you end up with litres of it, but that was pretty obvious and there are sites out there with plenty of suggestions of ways to use the extra starter. Sourdough home is a good place to look.
Max used a combination of white and rye flour but I didn’t have rye flour, so started our mix with 50-50 white and wholemeal, half a cup of each. To start with I added one cup of water to this mix, but after a week of it looking a bit runny, changed to half a cup of water and that seemed to do the trick because it then became much more lively. By the 12th day it had doubled in size a couple of hours after feeding, which is what you want, and the first loaf was ready to be made.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been making non-sourdough bread using Mark Bittmans’s no-knead method – this was the easiest and best bread I’ve ever made; if you are a lazy baker or find kneading difficult, then I highly recommend it. After stirring the ingredients together, you cover the bowl and leave it for up to 20 hours and the yeast and gluten does its own thing, just very slowly, and because the dough has fermented for a while, it is more digestible.
It seemed like the next step was to try sourdough bread and I’m glad I did. It’s almost as simple as Bittman’s method. Again, I used the no-knead method and used two cups of white, one cup of brown, a teaspoon of salt, half a cup of starter and around 250ml of tepid water with a teaspoon of honey stirred into it. Sometimes I add a bit more water depending on the absorbency of the flour. After experimenting, I’ve found that 14 hours is good for the first rise. I then flatten the dough on a lightly floured worktop, fold it into four and put it in a basket lined with a cloth to rise for another two to three hours, depending on the temperature in the house.
Once the second rise is looking good and the dough has more or less doubled in size, a lidded cast iron pot is put to heat in the oven at 220C. When it’s hot, the dough is tipped into the pot, the lid goes on and I cook it for 45 minutes and then wrap it in a tea towel and allow it to cool for a few hours. For the first few minutes after coming out of the oven, the crust settles and makes a quiet crackling sound which is oddly exciting to hear.
I was pleased with the bread I’d been making previously, but the sourdough bread is wonderful. It has the flavour of bread from a French patisserie, the taste of the grain is still very much evident and there is the merest hint of honey. It smells divine too. What’s interesting is that each time I make another loaf, it’s better than the last one and they are also rising more than they did to start with. This is definitely one I shall keep making.
Update: that image above of the starter in the jar – note that the lid is not sealed. A lively starter builds up a lot of gasses and sealed jars have been known to explode!