(Content edited December 2022)
Occasionally, friends ask how I make sourdough bread. I used to have a number of recipe pages on my blog but they are now a bit out of date and so I am starting again. I have no special qualifications to tell you how to do this other than practical experience over twenty years and the finishing touches put to the process at a recent intensive course I attended. Hopefully this will be helpful …
This is how I make a batch of basic bread which I do about once a fortnight. It is simplicity itself. To try this you will need, of course, to have a good sourdough starter/plant – there are many methods available on the internet to make one from scratch or alternatively, you can purchase a “seed” starter from various internet sources (not me, however, though if you live nearby I’ll be happy to give you some).
Keeping your sourdough starter happy
There are several variations on this depending on where you seek information. All I can say is that my starter (Breadzilla) has thrived for many years so I must be doing something right.
Don’t be scared – all a sourdough is is a slurry of yeasts, bacteria and their food. Their food is flour. So it’s just basic biology really.
Breadzilla lives most of the time in the back of the fridge. It can rest there for two or three weeks without anything being done to it. Once it has used up its food it separates into a clear, dark liquid overlying white sludge – dormant bugs. Stir, feed and off it goes again.
1. Take it out of the fridge, stir and leave to come to room temperature. Ideal temperature is around 23-24 degC
2. Add flour and an equivalent volume of water (a cup or so of each is usually sufficient).
3. Give it a minimum of a two to three hours to become active – it will bubble furiously. Longer is better – I often feed and nurture for about a day.
4. When you have used what you need put the rest back in the fridge for the next time.
And that’s it. For the most part Breadzilla is fed on unbleached all-purpose white flour but occasionally it gets some wholemeal flour or spelt or rye just to add some different bugs to the mix. It’s all grist to the mill.
If you get a surplus of starter, which happens sometimes, throw a bit a way, or give some to a friend, or use it to bake muffins or cakes or pancakes. Nothing gets wasted. Plenty or recipes online.
The BREAD – a very basic recipe
First of all this is not hard, not arcane, only a slight touch of magic is involved. The photograph on the right is with 100 wholemeal flour, mix in some white and it look a lot paler and probably be more open in texture.
There are many recipes out there to make bread like this and I have no doubt they mostly work but sometimes they scare newcomers off by being too technical. A professional baker will talk about gluten content and hydration percentages and other technical matters – and they are all very important … except that if you know what things should look and feel like at each stage you can generally work this stuff out empirically as you go along … though getting the math right first does make things more reliable.
In North America many recipes use volume measures (cups). This is OK-ish but you will have more control over the final outcome if you use weights. This recipe is in metric measures.
Here I am making a very basic loaf using a method that is applicable to whichever flour you use, white, brown, wholemeal, ancient grain or whatever.
I start the process in the evening and have fresh bread for lunch the next day. You can speed it up but the flavour won’t be quite so good.
One of the advantages of a long, slow overnight fermentation is that in addition to enhancing the flavour of the bread it also breaks down the complex sugars (FODMAPS) in flour to a greater extent and makes them more acceptable to people with problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and gluten sensitivity (not celiac disease, that’s a whole different kettle of fish altogether).
The following ingredients make two good-sized loaves.
- 1000g total of wheat and/or spelt flour.
This can be just one type of flour or a mixture. I like to use half-and-half white/wholemeal. If you are baking in Canada then all-purpose flour is “strong” enough, in the US or UK you will want to source bread flour which has a higher gluten content.
- 500g of water (approximately – final amount can be adjusted as necessary)
- 2 cups of active sourdough starter
- Optional – a cup of sunflower seeds or walnuts or whatever takes your fancy as extra flavouring/texture.
AND SO –
Have your sourdough starter ready and looking nice and active – if taking from fridge allow it to come to ambient temperature and feed it as described previously.
- Start early evening. Put all the water plus the sourdough starter, in a bowl and stir it around. Then add the flour and any other ingredients you wish to use.
- Mix evenly by hand or with the dough-hook of your electric mixer. Knead as you would any bread dough and adjust the liquid content until the dough “feels right”. Too wet is better than too dry. This is where the “art” of bread making comes into play and is something you will get better at the more you do it. You are aiming to make a moderately firm and springy dough that is not too wet and not too dry.
- Scrape down the sides, cover the bowl with cling-film and a towel and go to bed. This overnight stage really wants to be done in a cool atmosphere – you could put it in the fridge but I put the covered bowl in an insulated picnic cooler with a couple of freezer packs to chill the air. This slow stage makes for a slow start to the rise and greatly improved flavour. This is where the “art” of bread making comes into play and is something you will get better at the more you do it. You are aiming to make a moderately firm and springy dough that is not too wet and not too dry
- The next morning you will find the mix you made the night before has expanded somewhat. This is as it should be – accepting the variable wetness of the dough at this stage was one of the counter-intuitive things I had to come to terms with, but it is like that for a reason. Let it come to room temperature for about an hour or so while you have breakfast. Putting the bowl in the oven with the light on maintains an ideal temperature.
Note, when handling the dough, should you find it a bit too too sticky try not to put a lot of flour on your hands (though you can use some) but moisten them with a teaspoon of cooking oil or with water under the tap – it really works, much less messy.
Prepare a clean work surface and flour it lightly. If you have a silicone pastry mat then so much the better. In fact if you don’t have one then get one. It will save you much angst and be useful for a lot of other cooking projects. You may still want some flour under the dough but only a little bit. Sprinkle a very small amount of flour onto the mat.
Tip the dough from the bowl into the surface
- Flatten the (sticky) dough a bit with your hands. Oil your hands if the dough is too sticky. Take the side furthest away from you and gently lift it so the dough slowly stretches – fold it in half towards you and lightly flatten again.
- Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat the stretch and fold. Do this twice more. Go slowly and gently – remember you are stretching the dough and not tearing it. Gently reform into a ball and put back in the bowl. Cover and leave for 30 minutes.
- You will have noticed that the dough is no longer quite as sticky as it was – this is because that stretching and folding is helping the gluten molecules link together and hold the water content. Each time you repeat the process it gets easier to handle.
- Repeat the stretch and fold process once or twice more at 30 minutes intervals. In general once more for higher gluten modern wheat flours and twice more for “ancient grains” such as spelt with naturally lower gluten content – you will know when it is ready, you want a springy, firm dough.
- After the final stretch and fold tuck the ends in and put the dough in an oiled bread tin to rise if you want to make a tin loaf for sandwiches etc. If you want to make a boule/cob form the dough into a tight ball and put into a basket lined by a well-floured cloth such as a tea-towel. The sort of cheap third-world woven baskets you can get at dollar stores etc are ideal. This volume will make two decent sized loaves or around 20 rolls.
- If your kitchen isn’t that hot, like ours in winter, put the bread for its final rise into an insulated cooler box with a jug of hot water or into the oven with only the light on – this generates just the right temperature. If you don’t have a large cooler then a cardboard box, a small cupboard etc will do.
The final rise should take about an hour to an hour and a half usually – if it needs a bit longer, that’s fine. It should approximately double in volume but not always – if you are using wheat flour that will certainly happen, if you are using a lower gluten flour like spelt it will be less evident but all will be well. Remember that once you start cooking the high heat will induce so-called “oven spring” and the loaf will rapidly rise to its final size.
Heat the oven to 400F – 25F lower if you use a fan oven. Put a shallow pan in the bottom filled with boiling water to create a nice steamy atmosphere.
If you are making boules/cobs gently invert them from the baskets onto a baking sheet with baking parchment on it. Or put into a pre-heated Dutch Oven, there’s a new note about this further down the page.
Take a VERY sharp knife or razor blade and score/slash the tops of the bread. This is quite important as it helps the loaf rise more in the oven and form a good crust.
Put bread in oven. After 20 minutes you can take the lid off the Dutch Oven if using one. The bread will rise more in the first stages of cooking – again, wheat flour will rise a lot, other flours not so much.
Remove when baked – usually between 35 and 40 minutes. Put on a wire rack to cool.
Add butter and eat.
We also bake some of the the loafves in a Dutch oven … and this seems to be the perfect combination. Recipe as above is used. A Dutch Oven is simply a cast iron casserole with a lid – think Le Creuset – lined with baking parchment, preheat in the oven for 20-30 minutes, put in the dough, slap on the lid and bake. The easiest way without burning yourself is to put the boule of dough onto the parchment and then lower that into the Dutch oven. Remove the lid after around 20 minutes to let the crust brown nicely. Using one of these pots is about as close as you can get in a domestic oven to the conditions inside a professional bread oven.
Just look at this photograph – isn’t that a crust to die for?