As I have mentioned before I am atrocious at baking bread. All but this sourdough recipe elude me…I have no idea why. It didn’t take too much practice to crack cakes (as I was generally a terrible baker until I got to like 22…), but bread is still tricky for me.
A sourdough loaf is very different from what mostly passes as bread these days. In fact, it is the antithesis of the industrial factory loaf – that soft, structureless, flavour-lite bread that is produced in such huge quantities and lasts for like two weeks even after you’ve opened it… Sourdough, by contrast, is bread with immense character, with presence – bread with a point. Freshly baked and smeared with cold, creamy butter, it’s exceptional. Torn up, dabbed in good olive oil, and sprinkled with a few flakes of rock salt, it’s a delight. It also has longevity without all those nasty preservative chemicals. After a few days you’ll find it makes the best toast ever, it’s brilliant for bruschetta and, as it gracefully comes to the end of its life, it produces the very finest breadcrumbs and croutons. And that’s why I think you might want to have a go at making it yourself too.
Of course, you can buy great sourdough, but if you’ve done so, you’ll know it isn’t cheap. I’m not knocking that: the price reflects the quality of the ingredients and time that goes into making the loaf, something you’ll appreciate if you make it yourself. But making sourdough at home is not expensive at all and, while it demands patience, it requires little actual effort. It might be a good 10 days from beginning your sourdough starter to the point when you can enjoy the first mouthful of a finished loaf, but there’s very little work to be done in that time.
We start with the starter, just a flour-and-water mixture in an air tight jar. Well, perhaps not “just”, because it will also contain, invisibly but crucially, the spores of wild, airborne yeasts; the ones that happen to be native to your own kitchen. These will begin to feed and multiply and, as they do so, bubbles of gas, flavoursome alcohol and the acids that give sourdough its characteristic, slightly tangy taste are produced. Within a week or so, the starter is ready to be used in a loaf. The remaining starter, provided you “feed” it regularly, can then be kept indefinitely, ready to give you a loaf whenever you like. There are starters that are hundreds of years old in bakeries, where the yeast have been carefully cultured, nurtured and looked after by generations of bakers.
If you make it, and like it, it pays to get into the rhythm of baking it regularly enough to make it your mainstay loaf. Sourdough-production – the nurturing of the starter, the mixing of the dough, the long, slow rise and the final, glorious bake – is one of those kitchen routines that’s somehow life-affirming and transformative. And why wouldn’t it be? You are, after all, growing your own bread.
The time it takes a starter to begin fermenting can be a few hours or a few days. But make it with wholegrain flour and keep it warm in your kitchen, and you should see signs of life within 24 hours.
100g strong bread flour, warm water, 250ml Kilner jar (larger if you want). You’ll need to continue feeding it everyday so always make sure you have more bread flour on hand to keep it going.
In the jar mix the flour with enough lukewarm water to make a batter the consistency of thick paint. Beat it well making sure there are no lumps of flour and there’s plenty of air incorporated, then snap on the lid and leave somewhere fairly warm. Check it every few hours, until you can see fermentation has begun. This is signaled by the appearance of bubbles and a smell of, well, fermentation (think beer). It can smell pretty awful for a few days but as you persevere it should begin to get sweeter and tangy by the end of the week.
Your starter now needs regular feeding. Begin by whisking in 100g or so of fresh flour and enough water to retain that thick batter consistency. You can switch to using cool water and to keeping the starter at normal room temperature. After another 24 hours or so later, scoop out and discard half the starter and stir in another 100g of flour and some more water. Repeat this discard-and-feed routine every day, maintaining the sloppy consistency and keeping your starter at room temperature, and after seven to ten days you should have something that smells good: sweet, fruity, yeasty. Don’t be tempted to bake a loaf until it’s been on the go for at least a week. The longer you leave it the better it will taste.
If you’re going to bake bread every day or two, maintain your starter in this way, keeping it at room temperature, feeding it daily, and taking some of it out whenever you need to. However, if you want to keep it for longer between baking, add enough flour to turn it into a stiff dough, then it won’t need another feed for four or so days. Alternatively, lull your starter into dormancy by cooling it down – it will keep for a week in the fridge without needing to be fed (say if you go on holiday or something and you don’t want to sound weird by asking a friend to pop in a feed your starter…). You’ll then need to bring it back to room temperature and probably give it a fresh feed to get it bubbling and active again. Combine these two approaches – keep your starter as a stiff dough in the fridge – and you can leave it for two weeks before it will need your attention again. If you know you won’t be baking for a while, you can even freeze the starter; it will reactivate on thawing.
For the sponge
150ml active starter, 250g strong flour (wholemeal is best), 275ml warm water
For the loaf
300g strong bread flour, plus more for dusting, 1 tbsp olive oil, 2 tsp rock salt
The day before you want to bake your loaf, create the sponge in the morning.
In a large bowl, combine active starter with flour and warm water. Mix well and cover with clingfilm, leave until the evening when it should be clearly fermenting: thick, sticky and bubbly.
To make the dough
Add the 300g of flour to the sponge, along with the oil and salt, and incorporate. You should have a fairly sticky dough. If it seems tight and firm, add a dash more warm water; if it’s unmanageably loose, add more flour, but do leave it fairly wet as you’ll get better bread that way.
Turn out the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and silky, about 10 minutes, then put in a lightly oiled bowl and turn it to coat with the oil. Cover with clingfilm and leave to rise. Sourdough rises slowly and sedately, so it’ll take a few hours in a cool, draught-free place until it has more or less doubled in size and feels springy if you push your finger gently into it. Leave it to rise overnight.
In the morning, deflate the risen dough by punching it down with your knuckles on a lightly floured surface. You now need to prove the dough (give it a second rising). First form it into a neat round, tucking the edges of the dough underneath itself so you have a smooth, round top and a rougher base. Line a wide, shallow bowl with a clean, floured cloth. Place your round of dough smooth side down in the bowl, cover with oiled clingfilm or a clean plastic bag, and leave to rise, in a warm place this time, for an hour and a half to three hours, until roughly doubled in size again.
It’s now ready to bake.
Heat the oven to its highest setting, approx 250 C. For a good crust place a roasting tin of boiling water on the bottom of the oven just before you put the loaf in to create a steamy atmosphere.
Five minutes before you want to put the loaf in, place a baking sheet in the oven to heat up. Take the hot baking sheet from the oven, dust it with flour and carefully tip the risen dough out of the bowl on to it; it will now be the right way up. If you like, slash the top of the loaf a few times with a sharp serrated knife (or snip it with a pair of scissors) to give a pattern. Put the loaf in the oven and leave to bake for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 200 C and bake for a further 25-30 minutes, until the well-browned loaf vibrates and sounds hollow when you tap its base.
Leave to cool for at least 20 minutes – it’s all right to slice it warm, but not piping hot. I know you don’t want to wait. It smells amazing. But do, its worth it.