The basic sourdough loaf
The method here is as simple as simple can be and will prove to you that sourdough breads are not some arcane mystery, but something anyone can produce with minimal effort and time.
To make a couple of good sized loaves, or rather more small rolls, start with the making of the overnight starter `slurry`described on the Bread basics page (link to the right) and let it work overnight. To repeat the method …
The night before you intend to make your bread, put three cups of flour, three cups of water and one cup of your sourdough starter into a bowl. Mix well into a slurry and cover with film. Leave it in the kitchen, pour yourself a drink and go to bed.
The next morning as the tea brews, add three or four more cups of flour (approximately) to the overnight slurry, which will have grown and be emitting bubbles of gas, and mix up your dough. Knead it well – despite what purists tell you, a stout kitchen mixer with a dough hook does as good a job as doing this by hand and is faster too. The actual amount of flour you add at this stage depends on the flour and its ability to absorb water. Remember, if in doubt a wet dough makes better bread than a dry one.
A very nice bread uses white flour for the overnight slurry and adds wholemeal in the morning for stage two – the more white the higher it will rise and the lighter it will be, the more wholemeal you use then the more tasty and solid your loaves will emerge.
Allow the final dough to rise to about double its original volume (you will find it rises at a rate dependant upon the temperature in your kitchen, the starter has been well primed and is bursting with energy) and then knead it again gently and divide into two. You can put the dough into bread pans for a conventional shaped loaf or else make cobs on a sheet (see note below). Cover and allow to rise for an hour, more or less, until they are about right then bake in an oven at 400degF (375degF if fan assisted) for 30-35 minutes, cool on a rack and eat. There will be additional rising in the oven. This is about as basic as bread can be.
Notes on baking cobs
A cob is a loaf that is not shaped or constrained in a mould – if you are using a yeast dough then simply shaping the ball and putting it on a sheet is all you need to do but the nature of a sourdough means that the as the dough matures it tends to soften and spread with the result that given a couple of hours to rise it is as likely to spread sideways as upwards. The old bakers had a very simple answer to this – use a wicker basket.
Take one of those small and very cheap Chinese (etc) wicker baskets you can pick up anywhere for a dollar, the sort you might use to bring rolls to the table in. Line it with an old tea-towel and dust it lightly with flour then place your bread dough inside. Cut a couple of slashes in the top of the dough with a sharp knife and cover it while it rises. When ready to bake your bread lift the towel and dough together, place them in the palm of one hand and gently roll the cloth from under the dough as you place it on the baking sheet; the cloth will not stick to the dough and this transfer process is easy to do – just be gentle. This way the loaf will have retained a good cob-shape and can be baked without height rather than breadth s its main feature.