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..