Slowly eating England: In praise of sourdough

My name is Debbi and I’m a Breadaholic. Or, as I prefer, a Bread Head.

Many disapprove of people like me. Over a third of US adults now actively avoid gluten, passing on the bread basket in the belief that it’s unhealthy. The free-from diet is gaining followers this side of the pond too. Guys, unless you’re in the estimated 1% of the population thought to suffer from coeliac disease, you’re missing out.

sourdoughOf course, there’s bread and then there’s Bread. Pappy, white sliced loaves, made using the Chorleywood process, which was devised in the sixties to reduce production cost and time, falls into the first category. The Bread I’m passionate about is the kind made with care and attention, either in the comfort of your own kitchen or by one of the specialist artisan bakers springing up in a metropolis near you. Sadly, I don’t have one—either a metropolis or an artisan baker—near me, so I make my own.

There’s a loaf for every mood, mealtime and occasion. You can whip up wholesome, tasty soda bread in the time it takes to nip to the shops. Focaccia, ciabatta and fougasse are all surprisingly simple and make the perfect antipasto with dishes of good olive oil, balsamic vinegar and coarse sea salt for dipping.

But when I have the time and inclination, I turn to sourdough. The grandaddy of breads, sourdough takes a bit of practice and can’t be rushed, but boy is it worth it. The tangy, slightly chewy loaf with its characteristic golden crust is unbeatable, and (bonus) it’s better for you than a standard loaf, being both more digestible and nutritious.

The main difference between sourdough and other breads is that sourdough doesn’t use commercial yeast. Instead, the raising agent is wild yeast and bacteria from the air trapped in a paste of flour and water. This is what’s known as your starter—or pre-starter or leaven or mother. Bakers and recipe writers use different terminologies and methods.

This is perhaps why some people are put off making sourdough; it all seems a bit complicated and messy. You have to experiment a bit, find the recipe that works for you, and stick to it. Once you do, you’ll never go back.

Here’s the method I use, inspired by Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall. But hunt online for more detail and alternatives (Virtuous Bread, Sourdough Companion and The Real Bread Campaign are all worth checking out.)

Recipe: Sourdough bread

For the starter plus one loaf:
Strong bread flour – Lots. About 1,500g in a mix of white and wholegrain. Remember, this is the base for all future loaves, hence the huge quantity.
Rapeseed or olive oil
Sea salt

1 – First you need to make your starter (or see if someone will give sourdoughyou some of theirs—mine came through the post from my brother-in-law). Start with about 100g of strong bread flour (around half of which is wholemeal, spelt or rye) and mix with lukewarm water to make a thick batter. Some people add grapes or apple to kick off their starter. For me those are unnecessary adornments, but I do recommend using good organic flour. Now you need to cover the bowl (I use a shower cap for this) and leave it somewhere warm for fermentation to begin.

2 – The next step is to feed your starter. This is a little dull, but will take you all of two minutes each day. On day two, add another 100g of flour and enough water to keep the thick batter consistency. Then every 24 hours thereafter, discard half your starter and feed the remainder with another 100g of flour and more water, again keeping the same consistency. Chuck and feed every day and after around a week your starter should smell yeasty, because that’s effectively what it is now. It will start bubbling after only a couple of days, but you need to keep it on the go for a week before it’s at full strength. By the way, if you’re worried about the waste of discarding your starter, here are some ideas for what to do with it.

3 – Finally, you’re ready to bake. Well, almost. The night before you want to bake, take 150ml of your active starter and mix with 250g flour and 275ml of warm water. Cover with clingfilm and leave overnight. Some people call this the sponge.

4 – Next morning, add another 300g of flour to the sponge, together with 1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil and 10g of sea salt, and mix. This is your dough. It will be pretty sticky, but don’t add more flour unless you really need to—it should be fairly wet. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes until it feels smooth. Now put it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm or a shower cap and leave to rise. This will take a good few hours, depending how warm your room is, but you want it to more or less double in size.

5 – Once it’s risen, you now need to knock out the air by punching it down with your knuckles on a lightly floured surface. No need to knead again—just form it into a neat round shape with the smooth side on top. I recommend investing in a banneton to put your dough in at this stage as it really helps shape your loaf and give it the characteristic sourdough markings. Place the dough with the smooth side down in your basket, cover with a clean plastic bag and again leave to rise for between two and three hours.

sourdough6 – When the loaf needs around another half hour of rising, preheat the oven to its highest setting. Five minutes before lift off, heat your baking sheet in the oven. Then take it back out, dust it with flour and carefully tip the dough onto it. Place in the oven and squirt some water from a spray bottle if you have one—this helps to form the crust. After 15 minutes lower the temperature to 200°C, spray in some more water and bake for around 25 minutes more until the loaf is good and brown, and sounds hollow when you tap its base.

The good news: your starter is pretty indestructible. You can freeze it, dry it out, neglect it terribly and it won’t die. The only thing you don’t want to see on it is mould, in which case chuck it out. I keep my starter in a kilner jar in the fridge and when I want to make a loaf, take some out and go through the feed and discard routine for a couple of days until it’s good and bubbling and then follow the steps as above.


Photo credit (header): Rebecca Siegel