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A Sourdough Journey - part one

The world of food and cooking is very deep and very wide. For the keen there's unquenchable scope for learning and discovery.

I wrote the recipe for spelt sourdough for my book a while ago now, but one of the excellent things about a blog is how it allows the chance to update ideas. Making sourdough every week since I first made my starter has given me new knowledge I'm keen to share. I've tried different quantities and slightly tweaked my methods. I've come to love the process: peering into the pot as the leaven reaches its bubbly, vibrant best; delicately shaping the flexible, soft dough; peeking into the oven as the crust is forming and, most of all, sawing through the crunchy crust and buttering a warm slice of fresh bread. Sourdough bread has become the heart of my kitchen and the meals I make each week.

This version of the recipe incorporates new thoughts and discoveries in my efforts to make the best bread I can.

When you start on this journey with sourdough, I believe the same will be true for you. You'll learn to love your starter like one of your children (well perhaps not quite as much), and to savour the warm fug that bread-making creates in your kitchen. The bread you make can form the heart of your week's meals. The bread becomes toast for breakfast, can be sliced into generous sandwiches for lunch, hefted alongside warm soups and stews for supper. You can use the starter to make many types of bread - all of them with the wonderful keeping properties and health-giving nourishment of sourdough.

This is the beginning of a series of posts to help you on your way. I'll even post some ideas for how to use waste bread and waste starter.

Sourdough baking is an ancient tradition, but full credit must be given to Chad Robertson of Tartine in San Francisco, for bringing the process to wider popularity. His efforts have mushroomed into a world of sourdough enthusiasm that spans the globe. These methods owe everything to the work he did developing his process and which he selflessly shares with the world.

Three sourdough starters: rye, white and spelt

About sourdough starters & sourdough bread

Making bread using a sourdough starter is a subtle, complicated, unpredictable process but it’s really worth persisting because the reward of your first sourdough loaf easily makes up for the angst of getting there in the first place. The first batch of starter I made failed to float in the approved manner, but the joy when the second batch floated beautifully. I was so excited!

The picture above shows three types of starter. A rye starter (on the left); a wholemeal and white flour starter (up top - looking a little queasy after its trip to London); and a white flour starter (below right).

This recipe explains how to make the wholemeal and white flour starter needed for the spelt loaf recipe below.

The process is a three part one:

- first make the starter culture

- then use a small quantity of this starter culture to make a leaven

- before proceeding to make the sourdough bread proper

In between bread-making batches the culture will keep well in the fridge for a couple of weeks in between feeds. You will need to learn the conditions in your home and where the sourdough culture is likely to be happiest (this was a big problem for me with a cold house), to feed it regularly and learn how it likes to be treated. How your starter behaves will depend on the flour and water you use, the temperature at which you keep it and the frequency at which you feed it. With experience you will learn which conditions are optimum for yours, to create the flavour and texture you want in your bread. Importantly, you need to develop an environment rich with the cultures required for sourdough – the necessary yeasts and bacteria are in the air, in the flour and on the skin, but not in any great quantity, until you help them along with your love and tender care. This is important to remember when you have limited success at first, if you try again it will get better and better.

This recipe is for making and keeping the simple wheat starter needed for the recipe for spelt sourdough below. If you are new to sourdough making, start with this one and experiment with other flours later. Each different type of flour will behave slightly differently and I'll cover these behaviours in a future blog post.

How to make a sourdough starter

It will take about a week to make the starter. During this period it will need feeding with flour and water every day. Many recipes call for fruit (such as raisins or rhubarb) to get the starter going, but they are not necessary. All you need is good flour and water. There are a few strictures – the better the ingredients, the greater chance you have of succeeding first time.

The bacteria and yeasts required for a sour dough culture do not thrive in competition with chemicals. For success, only use filtered or still spring water and organic flour (stone-ground if possible), which will have all original nutrients and bacteria intact.

An ambient temperature of 18-20 deg C is important for the yeasts to flourish and develop. If your rooms are colder than this, find a warmer place to keep the culture whilst it is growing. Airing cupboards, over a radiator or on the fridge where warm air emerges are all possible places – to be sure use a thermometer.

For accuracy, weigh the water, rather than using a measuring jug. Sourdough lore also suggests the stirring implement should be wood or plastic rather than metal, which may inhibit the culture.

You’ll need a good container big enough to hold around a litre of liquid with a lid. Plastic is best to avoid breakage and subsequent loss of beautiful culture. Leave the lid free to avoid build up of carbon dioxide and a subsequent explosion.

Day 1

75g cool (not freezing) water

50g wholewheat bread flour

Measure water and flour into the tub and mix well with a small rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Cover loosely with the lid and leave out in your warm place.

Days 2 - 6

Each day, add 50ml cool (not freezing) water and 50g wholewheat flour to the pot and stir well. Cover loosely with the lid and leave out at room temperature.

When making a starter for the first time sometimes the culture stalls after a day or two of initial activity and a slick of brown liquid may develop on the surface. This means the culture is hungry and has run out of nutrients. If this happens, pour off the water and then all the mixture except one tablespoon (don’t skimp here, the culture will grow from this one tablespoon and the high proportion of new nutrient to culture is vital to get the starter going again). Then start the feeding regime from day 1 until it is healthy and active. Stirring it well and leaving the culture open to the air or in warm sunshine for an hour or two (to catch any passing yeasts) can also help it develop well. You can use this method at any time if the starter looks hungry and needs feeding up.

By day 6 or 7 your starter should be very active - full of bubbles, smelling pleasantly sour and rising to nearly three times its volume. If so, it is ready to use for making the first sour dough bread. If you want to make bread immediately go straight to making a leaven. Alternatively, feed the starter and keep it in the fridge until you have enough time to make the sourdough.

If the starter never develops bubbles this means something is inhibiting the fermentation, such as chemicals in the water, overly refined flour or too cold a room. In that case its best to try again with a new batch. It’s worth persisting, you're likely to succeed on the second time around.

Keeping a starter

Keep your sourdough starter in the fridge between bread making sessions. This way it will only need feeding every week or two. The feeding routine is the same as for creating the leaven.

100g cool (not freezing) water

50g strong white bread flour

50g wholewheat bread flour

Scrape out all except a heaped tablespoon of the starter and discard. Mix in the flours with the water, scraping thoroughly around the pot to incorporate all the original culture, then return to the fridge with the lid loosely on the pot.

If you leave the starter in the fridge for more than 2 weeks it may stop bubbling and develop that slick of water on the top. Pour off the water and feed as above.

To make a leaven

To use your starter to raise a loaf of bread in place of commercial yeast, it needs to be really active. You can't use your starter straight from the fridge or when it is desperate for its next feed. It needs to be at the peak of its activity and bubbling up to at least twice its volume. In this state it is called a leaven.

200g cool (not freezing) water

100g strong white bread flour

100g wholewheat bread flour

Scrape out all except a heaped tablespoon of the starter (around 50g). The discarded starter could be given to a friend so they can start their own or used to make sourdough pancakes, but it won’t be active enough to raise a loaf of bread so you may end up simply throwing it away.

I'll be publishing some recipes on this blog soon to use up waste starter (re-use, re-claim, re-cycle!).

Place the tub on scales and measure in the water. Give it a good stir to dissolve the starter and clean down the sides of the tub. Now measure in the flours and stir them in really well so no dry patches remain. Scrape down the sides of the pot and close loosely with the lid. Leave the tub out at room temperature (18-20 deg C) until it is really bubbly, risen to at least twice its volume and smelling pleasantly sour. How long this takes will depend on your starter and your room temperature. It will probably take 7-9 hours – all day when you are at work and, hopefully, ready to make the dough when you return in the evening.

To test it is ready to use, very carefully lift out a dollop of starter and gently place it in a bowl of water. If it floats the leaven is ready to use in your bread recipe. If it sinks, the leaven may need more time, or it may have been left too long, in which case you should start the refreshing process again.

The sourdough starter may take a few batches before developing the maturity to raise bread brilliantly every time, so keep trying if the first attempt is less than your hope. Time and patience pay off.

If you want to continue your starter afterwards don't use it all up in the bread recipe. Save the last tablespoon in the pot, feed it (see above on keeping a starter) and store it as usual.

Tips for making sourdough and how to fit it around a busy life

This is my routine that works well. As you become accustomed to the rhythm of this type of bread-making you'll be able to use other timetables, but let's keep it simple for the moment.

First thing in the morning: feed the starter and leave it out to rise.

Early evening: make the dough.

Last thing before bed: shape the dough and leave to prove in the fridge overnight.

The next morning, anytime: bake.

The dough is very quick to assemble if you have electronic scales. Weigh everything into the bowl one-by-one, tare the scales to 0g each time.

Shaping is the part that takes a little practice because the dough can be quite soft.

To make it easier follow these tips.

- Shape with clean, dry hands (wet fingertips can help avoid sticking).

- Use as little flour as possible, if you incorporate too much the bread will become dense, and the folds won't stick and hold in place.

- Be reasonably gentle with the dough, but act quickly and confidently. If your hands are on the dough for more than a couple of seconds they will stick to it. Deft and light is better.

- Use a dough scraper to help move the dough, and to clean the table afterwards.

- I found it useful to shape the dough on a lightly floured, clean tea towel, you can turn the towel between each fold to shape.

As you get serious about sourdough you may be moved to invest in a basket for proving the dough. These are traditionally wicker or bamboo. But any basket lined with a good cloth would work. I have a special linen cloth in my proving basket that never gets washed, the better for generating good culture.

If your house is cold then find a good warm place to start off the first rise or warm the flour first.

And finally cooking sourdough loaves in a cast iron pot (such as le Creuset) vastly improves the crumb, providing a contained, steamy atmosphere that further develops the dough and crust after putting it in the oven. Buy a cheap one online because all the baking you're going to do will make your shiny one look war torn.

Spelt sourdough with pumpkin seeds

Spelt sourdough with pumpkin seeds

A delicious sourdough recipe with spelt, pumpkin seeds and enriched with nutty rapeseed oil to try with your newly active starter.

625g + 50g warm water

200g sourdough starter, well fed, bubbly and raring to go

2 tablespoons good quality cold-pressed rapeseed oil

300g wholegrain spelt flour

700g white bread flour (ie high protein 'strong' wheat flour)

40g pumpkin seeds

40g sunflower seeds

25g fine sea salt

extra flour for dusting

Makes two loaves

Weigh 625g of warm water into a large bowl. Carefully add the starter - if it is really active it should float. Stir briefly to combine then add the oil and flours. Give it a really good mix until no dry patches remain then cover with a plastic bag or damp cloth and leave for 20-40 minutes to hydrate. This hydration starts the breakdown of starches into sugars and allows the dough to develop with minimal kneading.

Feed the remaining starter and place back in the fridge to store.

Then measure in 50g water, the seeds and sprinkle over the salt. Use your hand, to thoroughly scrunch and mix the dough until everything is evenly distributed. If the seeds are well distributed then the salt should be too.

Cover the bowl again and let the dough rise in a warm place for around 4 hours until around 50% bigger in volume. Every half an hour turn and fold it like this - reach down, lift up one side and then stretch it up and over the top of the ball of dough to reach the other side, where you can press the end down gently so it stays put. Repeat all the way around the dough, imagining it has four sides. As time progresses the dough should become puffier, lighter, smoother, stronger and easier to handle. Try not to squidge out all the air.

After the dough has risen sufficiently, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface (or tea towel), divide in two and shape it into two boules by making a series of folds (same method as before and using as little flour as possible) to create a smooth taut surface on the underside. Heavily flour a large round proving basket (or large colander, or bowl lined with a tea towel). Transfer it to the basket, seam-side up. If the seams are gaping pinch them closed. The dough should fill half the basket.

Cover again and let prove in the fridge for 12-16 hours. It could rise to more or less fill the basket. If it hasn’t quite done that, don’t worry – it will rise further in the oven. Bring the dough out of the fridge. Put your lidded casserole in the oven and heat the oven to 250°C (or as hot as it will go). Wait for half an hour for the pot to get really hot. Then carry the smokingly hot pot to somewhere safe. Give the dough a generous sprinkling of flour on top and then carefully tip it into the hot pot with its round smooth side on top. Confidently slash the top a few times using a sharp knife (don’t burn yourself). Immediately replace the lid and return the pot to the oven.

Reduce the temperature to 240°C and bake for 25 minutes. Then remove the lid, turn the heat down to 230°C and continue baking for a further 20 minutes or so until the crust is a rich brown. Cook one loaf after the other in the same pot. Cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.

They will easily last a week and freeze perfectly.

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