Sourdough: The Experiment

Yes, looks like a football. Tastes better.

Sour dough bread has a bit of a reputation for being difficult to make. However, sour dough is the bread that every single person has baked since bread moved on from basic flatbread some thousands of years ago until brewers in the nineteenth century found a market for one of their waste products, yeast, and marketed it for 'quick rising' bread. Very few of these historical bread bakers had access to digital scales and bread managed to be baked anyhow..

Paul and I have been baking sour dough over the last few weeks and I followed the long and complicated recipes, and Paul just made it up as he went along, and his was better, so here is the result of his experiments.

First, the starter. We got ours from my friend Peter. If you know someone who makes sour dough they will almost certainly be able to supply you with some. It is easy enough to start your own, you just have to add a week or so to the time you get your first loaf. Also, starter does get more potent over time, hence the celebrated hundred-year-old sour dough from various places, however, week-old starter works just fine. The starter is simply a mixture of flour and water which ferments away and attracts wild yeasts from the air to form a natural, living yeast to eventually make our bread rise.

I made sour dough starter once before which worked quite well. Take one cup of organic rye flour (why organic rye? Rye is an old, relatively unhybridised flour, and being organic and whole grain it still has plenty of life in it) and one cup of unchlorinated water (I have been importing water from Paul's mountain creek, but leaving water out in the sun for a day in a bowl will unchlorinate it. Makes you wonder though, what all that town water is killing in our insides, if it is going to kill off the wild yeasts..). Mix this together in a large jar, put a cloth over the top to keep other bugs out, and leave on your kitchen bench, or somewhere that is ideally around 20C/70F. Now, the more often you feed your starter the quicker it will grow. You can feed it every 12 hours, but it needs to be done at least every 24 hours. Recipes will tell you to discard half the mixture before you feed it again. This is the kind of advice that makes me despair of a society that seems to actively dedicate itself to wanton waste. And this in pursuit of making authentic, simple peasant food. Huh. No self-respecting peasant is ever going to waste expensive organic rye flour. This is why I use a large jar, and keep on adding the flour and water mixture. To feed, you only need around half a cup of flour and the same of water. After several days of regular feeding the mixture will start to bubble up enough that you will run out of jar. At this point you can start using the extra starter in your cooking. The simplest thing to do is to add it to pancake mixture for sour pancakes. Yummo.

Now, after a week or so, if you are Paul, your starter will be bubbling up and doubling in size over eight hours. If you are me you will have a bubbly mixture that rises some but never doubles. Don't worry. It still seems to make perfectly acceptable bread either way. The person with the exceptionally bubbly mixture may feel some moral superiority over the person whose mixture is kind of sulky. This is the sort of behaviour it is best to ignore.

Now, the Bread.

Feed your starter in the morning. Let it rise all day, then sometime in the evening, make the dough.

Take four cups of flour of your choice. Wholemeal, spelt, white. It needs some gluten in it to rise well, so if you want rye bread, add half white the first time and work up to the rye portion you like balanced with how much you want the bread to rise.

Add two teaspoons of salt and mix into the flour.

Add up to two cups of starter. This is way more than generally advised. It seems to rise better the more you put in. If you don't have that much, use less. Always leave about a cup in the bottom of your starter jar to keep the starter going. Add one to one and a half cups of warm water. By warm I mean blood temperature. To test this, stick your finger in. If you can hardly feel the water it is the same temperature as you, which is perfect. If you are a bread baker, you will know how much water to add to get a moist, shaggy dough. If you aren't, experiment. Bread is always generally edible, whatever you do to it. Stir the mixture up with a spoon until it all sticks together in a ball.

At this point Paul turns his dough ball over a few times with two wooden spoons. That is the extent of his kneading. I put it on a floured bench and turn the dough into the middle of the ball, quarter turn, do it again, over and over for a few minutes. Doesn't seem to matter much which method you choose.

Then I clean out the bowl, brush it with olive oil, put the dough ball in, turn it to coat it with oil, put a tea towel over the top and leave it to rise overnight somewhere warmish. Well, not that warm after the fire goes out, but it seems to survive ok. So far all of this preparation has taken about ten minutes in total.

Sometime next morning (it is not really critical when) pull the dough out of the bowl, turn it into the centre again a few times, then let it sit on the bench for ten minutes while you wash out the bowl (no-one wants to do the dishes when there is a giant bread bowl on the sink), then brush your tray with olive oil, then sprinkle it with semolina or corn meal to stop the dough sticking. If your dough is very moist still, and you can't imagine it holding together on a tray, pop it in a loaf pan instead.

Sometimes the dough rises a lot, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you just have to run with what you've got..

The second rising is much shorter, about an hour. You should see that the dough has risen some, but it doesn't need to double. Pre-heat the oven to 200C/400F. If you want a bubbly, shiny crust, put a tray of hot water in the bottom of the oven. This will create a lovely steam bath for the bread, but is completely optional.

Just before you put the bread in the oven, slash it twice quite deeply with a serrated knife. This allows the dough to rise up quickly when it is popped in a hot oven. Cook for 20 minutes or so at 200C then turn it down to moderate, 180C/375F so that the centre cooks steadily. Take the steam tray out. I usually bake at 200C until the crust is almost at the point of burnt, then turn it down. To tell if bread is cooked, tip it upside down and knock on the bottom with your knuckles. It should sound hollow like a drum, and the bottom crust should be golden brown. It will probably take 40 minutes to an hour. It is not an exact science..

Bread, whether sour dough or 'quick rising' is something that takes much experimentation. Try it again and again until you start to get the feel of how dough feels when it is 'just right' - how a loaf feels out of the oven when it is perfectly cooked. Sometimes you won't trust yourself, but trust the clock, and it will be under cooked, as happened to me just the other day. Eventually, as with every craft, the bread will talk to you, and tell you what it wants. Then you will be the bread whisperer..

I know many readers will have made sourdough, or indeed, be bread whisperers. Tell me about your sourdough adventures, and ask questions, and hopefully someone here will be able to answer..

Updated to add: Forgot to mention, you can keep your starter in the fridge between loaves, in which case you only need to feed it every five or six days. Then take it out, warm it to room temperature, and start again from the beginning of the bread recipe.

Also I have made bread for years but I am only relatively new to sourdough. I am having successes and failures, but as with every failure in life, you learn something every time. This is the simplest way I have found to make sourdough, but still, I imagine it will take at least six months of making it every week to feel like I really know what I am doing. I will keep updating as I find new things that work or don't work. So far I will say - I think a sloppier mixture has a better texture, but then it needs to go in a breadpan..


Beznarf27 said…
What an awesome tutorial and introduction to sourdough Jo. Thank you SO much for sharing this (and some starter). I am going to have some fun attempting to bake something other than vinegar bricks :)
simplelife said…
I have a disastrous track record with bread of any sort. I've made more than one starter, been given some starter but every time it's the baking part that fails. I don't know if it's my oven or something I'm doing wrong. My bread is always either burnt on the crust and raw in the middle or its a brick. I have almost given up. I've tried hot oven, medium oven, pan of water, no water, on a tray or in a bread pan always the same. The only time I've had any success is when I cooked it in a pot with the lid for the first half of cooking. Perhaps I should try that again,although I'm not sure I can be bothered growing another starter.
This is a great tutorial, thanks.
Cheers Kate
Hazel said…
Fab tutorial, thank you. I've had a go at sourdough in the past, but do need to make a concerted effort to do it again, especially as the (absolutely delicious) local sourdough is £5 a loaf here!
Jo said…
Fran, good luck with your starter! I hope it all works for you. Bold failure is also a success! I don't know why. I just made that up, but I am sure I can think of a reason, just give me a little while..

Kate, oh, yes, bread is a trickster. It is alive. It took so much practise to work out how to make good bread and now sourdough is different again. Lots of failure really is a necessary precursor to success. Maybe I should rethink the title of this post. After a while you just know whether the dough is the right consistency, and how much cooking is enough and when it should be turned down.. the annoying thing is that if I was in your kitchen I could probably tell you exactly what the problem is, but it is difficult to diagnose via blog post. Still, if you make bread every week for six months, I guarantee you will nail it.
Having said that, sometimes I still second guess myself. I knew that bread wasn't quite cooked to perfection when I took it out of the oven, but it had been in there the regulation time and I am not used to sourdough so i took it out.. I think now about a quarter hour too early. It is just on the doughy side of acceptable. Anyway, I will make it again this week and do better and trust what i know about bread this time..
I feel a bit silly doing a sourdough tutorial at all after making it only a few times, but I gave some starter to Fran and promised her a recipe:)
Hazel, that is exactly what prompts me to make sourdough! Also, the magic of wild yeast!
Hazel said…
I forgot to say, I like your comments about peasants- I think we (society) do have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be and you reminded me of a comment in a cookbook years ago about making your own pasta; if your average Italian peasant girl can master this, we probably all can! Why do we need celebrity chefs to argue over flour and ratios and make it so long winded we just don't bother?
Of course, the cynical might say believing that making our own anything is too difficult/dangerous/ineffective/time-consuming obviously encourages us to buy things from big business...

And wild yeast- you say Paul's starter doubles easily. Does he ferment other things? Vegetables, like kimchi or sauerkraut? Because in a book by Alys Fowler I have (gardener, cook, preserver, forager- another hero of mine!) she says she's been fermenting so long her kitchen is full of wild yeasts and her jars ferment very quickly now.
Jo said…
Hazel, yes, but - the Italian peasant girl does have the advantage of generations of Nonnas to teach her, while I have only my ability to read a book, which is not always that helpful. But yes, I agree, that doing stuff is the primary way of learning to do stuff.
Paul has recently acquired a kombucha, but his starter was bubbling enthusiastically before that. Maybe it's the healthy country air? Maybe pollution kills off wild yeasts? Maybe he is a yeast whisperer..
Jo said…
Also, that comment assumes that all his readers are more intelligent than an Italian peasant girl.. really??
Hazel said…
Must be a yeast whisperer then!

And I'm not sure more intelligent, maybe just as capable as mixing flour and water and making something edible out of it. That's how I read it anyway, but you're absolutely right about the Nonna's advice, and maybe that's what we're missing. Most of us really are starting from scratch and so are without the confidence to try (or Nonna there to troubleshoot for us). Fifteen, twenty years ago I didn't know anybody else who made jam, kept chickens or bees to ask advice from. Reading about it made it all seem very scary (I was almost certain to kill someone somehow!) and it took a while for me to take the plunge.
That's what I love about the internet- the world is suddenly full of people who can hand on that advice without having to live in the same village. I didn't mean to sound condescending, rather that we can do 'it' (sourdough, pasta, whatever) if we try, it just needs demystifying and I thought you did that brilliantly.
GretchenJoanna said…
I got so excited reading this that I went back to read my own several posts about my last sourdough efforts which were already five years ago, oh my. Then I rummaged through about two dozen bags and packages of flour and meal and etc. in the fridge for some rye flour, which is exactly the one sort of flour I do not have -- probably because I used it up making Manuel's Rye Starter back then.

So, I have been put off -- but not for long! Thank you for fanning the flame.
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Awesome. Thanks for the great instructions and story! I too have baked bread for years but have never tried sour dough. I have often played around with the idea of using the stuff at the bottom of the wine making (and sake making - so easy) to try out on bread just to see what happens. And yes, preservatives of all stripes are a real problem for peoples guts. A friend of my lady who was on a diet once showed us a pre-packaged cut tomato and sliced egg. It must have been stored in nitrogen or something, but it was very weird. Be afraid, be very afraid!!! Hehe!

Miss Maudy said…
I've had two goes at making a sour dough starter - I killed the first one by giving it some self-raising flour and it wasn't impressed, curled up and died a death of epic stinkiness. The second one, I forgot. I might have been able to resurrect it, because it wasn't dead and slimy and stinky like the first effort, but I sighed and chucked it.

You've got me all inspired to have another crack, though. Maybe it's third time lucky! The whole chucking half seemed a little waste-y to me, too. Maybe I'm less likely to forget the poor thing if I just need to give it a feed and a stir rather than jigging around measuring crap?

I've been making a quasi sour doughish bread for a while, though. It's from a book called "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" which is a bit of a misnomer, although I'm probably hands on for less than half an hour in making two loaves of bread.
Glad to hear about the sourdough capers. I agree that you just have to jump in, try a few different techniques and see what works for you, your schedule and your starter. My starter is currently performing like yours, which I think is due to the cold. Over summer it was much bubblier and happier. I recently had a breakthrough where i figured out that the reason my loaves occasionally turn out hard and brick-esque is that I don't let it proof for long enough - I never really could pin point why before but a bread making episode a month or so ago enlightened me. I've recently been using a long and slow bulk fermentation that only uses a small amount of starter - this is working well and the extra time is allowing me to make higher hydration loaves as they are easier to handle due to the long time and I get to enjoy the coveted sourdough holes. Always learning! Look forward to reading how things progress.

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