I've been eating sourdough bread for years, being lucky enough to live within walking distance of seven bakeries or outlets selling really good quality artisan, often organic, sourdough bread. But I've always been intrigued with the process and wanted to try making it myself. Last year I started by doing a workshop at the Convent Bakery and decided it was time to jump in and have a go at the whole process.
Sourdough uses a wild yeast "starter" rather than the dry instant yeast used in conventional bread baking, and takes much longer to prove, as the carbohydrates break down slowly. It is made using only water and flour and perhaps a little salt. The starter is a living thing, produced when the wild yeasts and bacteria (good ones!) in the atmosphere activate. Fed regularly and looked after, starter can last for many, many years, and the flavour intensifies as it ages, changing the taste of the bread produced.
I have gleaned information from many sources to learn the techniques for sourdough baking, including The Convent Bakery bread making class; Matthew Evans' The Real Food Companion; Wild Sourdough by Yoke Mardewi; and an edition of River Cottage featuring bread. The final outputs all seem similar, but different tips and techniques along the way make reading widely quite useful.
The starter takes seven days to make. It's not actually that arduous, just a few minutes work each day.
- Essentially you start with a little bit of flour and water, add the same again the next day, then double it the following day, double again the next, and so on, for seven days*. You start with a small amount of each (Matthew Evans' recipe uses 40g flour and 2-3 Tbsp water). Apparently adding some fruit at the start helps get the yeasts going. I've read about a grape, piece of apple or rhubarb, so I added a grape because I had some handy. Not sure if it actually did anything or not...
- It's important that the flour is as pure as possible, preferably organic, and rye flour seems to be recommended a lot, although I used organic plain flour. The water must also be pure. If you don't have access to clean rainwater, Matthew Evans' suggestion was to boil the kettle the night before and then use that water the next morning. You don't want any chemicals to kill off the yeasts and bacteria.
- After the first day cover it with cling wrap so that it doesn't dry out and get a crust on it. After three days there should be a few bubbles. After seven days it should be quite frothy and therefore ready to use.
- After you've made the starter, the idea is to use a bit each day (or every few days if you're keeping it in the fridge) and each time you take some out you top it up with the same amount of flour and water.
*Now this is all fine in theory, however a bit of thinking ahead will tell you that these quantities are going to turn it into a complete monster! The last day uses over a whole bag of flour! So there are a couple of options. You either create masses in a very large bucket and give away a whole lot to friends; or you reduce the amount you put in there along the way; or you throw out some of it along the way, which seems like a waste. I opted for the second option and just reduced the quantity. So I followed the quantities until Day 4, then for Days 5-7 I added 320g flour and 320ml water each day. I still ended up with a full mixing bowl of it, so took Matthew Evans' advice and froze half, and then put the rest in the fridge to slow down the fermentation. This reduced amount seemed to work OK.
There are many different versions of recipes available, all using slightly different techniques and ingredients. The basic themes remain the same however: flour, water, salt and starter in varying quantities. The bread works best if it is allowed to prove for a significant amount of time. Therefore the best way seems to be to make it the night before you want to eat it (only about 15 minutes work all up) and then leave it overnight to prove. In the morning (depending on the specific recipe) you turn it out, knock the air out of it and shape it into a loaf. Then it needs to sit for another 45 minutes or so to rise further before it can be baked. I've been baking the loaves on a pizza stone which helps distribute the heat and create a crusty bottom.
Hot Cross Buns:
Being Easter, I searched for Sourdough Hot Cross Bun recipes and found many that were really confusing and complex, but finally came across this one which was simple and really delicious! Given that they are a once-a-year treat, I'm going to try the recipe next with apple and cinnamon, rolled up into scrolls to make a year-round treat.