Learning how to make Sourdough bread has been on my baking wish list for some years now. I’m two months into the process and have just baked my first “fairly” successful loaf! It has been quite a journey already and I’m amazed how much more I’ve gotten out of this process than the bread – which is delicious by the way.
To get to this first successful loaf has taken at least four or five kilos of flour, many late nights in between kneading and waiting for the dough to rise and more moments than I care to recall of frustration as incredibly sticky dough became inseparable from my hands and impossible to form into anything resembling a loaf shape. I’ve viewed what feels like five thousand you tube clips of master bakers and amateurs alike creating their sourdough starters and perfect loaves (with relative ease it seemed), read, attempted and failed numerous recipes and thankfully discovered a surprisingly large sourdough community online. Even with all this though what I realised is that the actual process, the research, the experimenting, the physical act of kneading, coming home from work and going to find my risen ball of joy ready to bake has all become such a joy – and the edible loaf an added bonus!
So as I am no expert (yet!) I will not share my own recipes or methods here but rather some of the sites that I found particularly useful and a few tricks that I’ve found invaluable in getting a sourdough starter going and using it to make delicious and wholesome bread.
First up the starter. There are so many variations on how to get your starter going. Some say it can be done in a matter of days with all ingredients straight in at the beginning whilst others suggest six weeks and a process of daily feeding. I suggest reading widely and then picking a technique and sticking to it for at least the first week. I used The Sourdough Baker – Warwick Quinton’s 7 day starter which uses pineapple juice and unbleached white flour for the first week. Pineapple juice as he explains is less likely than water to allow bacteria to breed. I had no trouble’s with this and think it’s a great guide for beginners. I started my starter two months ago and in the last two weeks (as Warwick’s blog suggests) it has really reached a proper strength and seems far more indestructible than in the early days. This is what it looks like – I keep it quite dry compared to other starters i’ve seen online as I think it keeps better and I don’t bake loaves so often (usually a maximum of one loaf per week). I may at some point switch to a dry “dough starter” but for now am keeping my options open as it seems most recipes online base quantities on wet starters and I’m not yet confident about how wet my dough should be. Here’s what “it” looks like.. still thinking up a suitable name for my new friend 😉
I put my starter into the fridge after about two weeks of daily feeding. It got very full at one point as I wasn’t ready to start baking with it so I had to tip half into the bin. It was a good decision I realised as it is really important to feed the starter at least every week or two with an amount that is close to half the total volume. (Rule of thumb is half water half flour – I put a bit less water than flour in mine.)
For a while I did semi leaven loafs using the starter and adding a small amount of instant yeast. This worked well however since baking a “true” sourdough loaf there’s no turning back 🙂
So here it is – my first decent loaf. As you can see I unfortunately had the oven up to high at the beginning. It is a challenge as I’m baking out of a very basic toaster oven! (We are currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and ovens are not a standard in the kitchen.) It does have it’s limitations but I’m finding ways to get the most out of it – the biggest problem is the oven is heated by grill elements on the top and bottom so it is challenging to get the heat up without scorching the top and bottom of the loaf.
The key I found to getting this loaf right was giving it more time. Previously I had been using the Sourdough Baker’s Basic White Sourdough recipe which calls for regular additions of flour and I was following the time allocations too strictly I think. I found it very difficult to knead. The success with this loaf was that I left it sit for far longer in between kneads and also started keeping a bowl of warm water nearby to keep moistening my hands (oil can also be useful when it’s really sticky).
The recipe I used this last time comes from The Guardians’ Hugh Fearley-Whittingstals’ recipe which allows for making the loaf over 2 days. I found the recipe right up my ally as it offers a simple solution to fitting the bread production around the working day. I had to add a bit more water which I think is due to my dry starter but also could be because of the flours used. All in all this dough was so easy to manage compared to previous attempts. It was so satisfying to see the dough become soft, malleable and elastic. (This was definitely not the case for previous attempts.)
What I have come to realise along the way was that it wasn’t just the bread that I enjoyed about the process (it is possible to purchase good quality bread in Phnom Penh) it was the satisfaction of sticking at it at, learning new tricks but also the routine and the time I get spend with my starter and dough’s. It sounds crazy perhaps, but settling into a new country and all the struggles that come with that it’s nice to have a starter to come home to 😉 (I don’t mind the added benefit of letting out a few frustrations with the slap and fold kneading method either…)
To be honest, I did almost walk away from the whole process about a week ago and I am so glad I didn’t! I can’t wait for the next loaf and the one after that and the one after that. The next challenge will be finding different types of flour and other delicious and nutritious additions in Phnom Penh markets – the adventure continues!
Here is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe:
For the sponge
About 150ml active starter (the recipe is on the link to Hugh’s recipe or you can use the link above for the 7 day starter)
250g strong flour (white, wholemeal or a mixture of the two)
For the loaf
300g strong bread flour (white, wholemeal or a mixture), plus more for dusting
1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
10g fine sea salt
The night before you want to bake your loaf, create a sponge: in a large bowl, combine 150ml of active starter with 250g flour and 275ml warm water. Mix, cover with clingfilm and leave overnight. In the morning 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 now 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 – 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 warm kitchen, and a few more in a cool larder. One good option is to knead it in the morning, then simply leave it all day – perhaps while you’re at work – 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; alternatively, knead it in the evening and leave to rise overnight.
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.
If you have a proper proving basket, dust it liberally with flour. Alternatively, rig up a proving basket by lining a wide, shallow bowl with a clean, floured cloth. Place your round of dough smooth side down in the basket or 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 (250C/500F/gas mark 10 is ideal). If possible, have ready a clean spray bottle full of water – you’ll be using this to create a steamy atmosphere in the oven, which helps the bread rise and develop a good crust. (You can achieve the same effect with a roasting tin of boiling water placed on the bottom of the oven just before you put the loaf in.)
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 basket/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, give it a few squirts from the spray bottle and leave to bake for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 200C/390F/gas mark 6, give the oven another spray, and bake for a further 25-30 minutes, until the now well-browned loaf vibrates and sounds hollow when you tap its base.
Leave to cool for at least 20 minutes – it’s OK to slice it warm, but not piping hot.