Thursday, 18 February 2010

Sourdough for Dummies

There is an air of mystique surrounding the making of sourdough bread.

Any fool can knock together a simple loaf using bought yeast cultures but it takes a special type of fool to attempt catching and nurturing these teeny organisms then harnessing their unique power to create a loaf of bread.

Sourdough appeals due to its infinite variety: the special combination of flavours, textures and smells that results from the singular terroir of an area. As pretentious as that sounds its true – the airborne yeast cultures, the flour and the water are all unique. Sourdough bread made in Paris will be noticeably different to one made in San Francisco.

Previous efforts have invariably resulted in failure. Flat, puddle like breads that spread out over trays like an overly ripe cheese. Bitter tasting efforts with dense centres more suitable for constructing buildings than contributing to breakfast.

But, by Jove, I think I’ve cracked it.

After two days relentless study and nearly a month of stirring, waiting, mixing, kneading, waiting and baking here is a completely foolproof, day-by-day guide to making that most magical of breads.

Sourdough Bread

This is undoubtedly slow food. But it’s certainly worth the effort.

Sourdough is made in three stages: first you create a starter dough. The starter dough is then used to make a sponge and the sponge used to make a loaf with a little held back as the next starter.

Beautifully and simply cyclical.

All you need to do is remember the following ratios:

That is to say, the starter should be half flour and half water. The sponge 60% flour and 40% water and the final loaf around 70% flour to 30% water.

Other than that the only ingredient is salt.

Salt performs two functions. Firstly it adds flavour to the bread but more importantly it inhibits the growth of bacteria which can quickly spoil a starter dough.

You’ll also need a largish jar with a lid.

Day One – mix together equal parts of white bread flour and water. Stir and pour into the jar. Leave the lid off for a few hours then loosely close it. Let it stand overnight in a warm place – between 16 and 18°C

Day Two – Pour off half the mixture and discard. Stir in equal parts flour and water, a little salt, close the lid and leave in the fridge. Why? Bacteria struggle to multiply at lower temperatures whereas yeasts flourish.

Day Three – repeat as day two but add some rye flour to the mix. Rye flour is high in natural yeast cultures. The mix should be bubbling away now and giving off a slightly acidic smell. This is good. If you fancy speeding up the process, leave the jar out of the fridge for a few hours to accelerate the fermentation.

Days Four, Five and Six – Repeat as above.

Day Seven – After a week your starter dough should be nicely fermented with a healthy ‘sour’ niff. It might even smell faintly boozy. Give it a stir then tip into a mixing bowl to make the sponge. Add flour and water to a ratio of 60:40 (go for about 180g flour – a mixture of white, wheat and rye if you wish – and 120g water) and a sprinkle of salt. Stir well and cover with plastic wrap. Leave in a warm place for 12-24 hours.

Day Eight – Pour half the sponge back into your (now clean) starter jar, stir in a 50:50 mix of flour and water and pop it back into the fridge. This only needs refreshing once every few days now.

Add flour and water in a ratio of roughly 70:30 (for a large loaf or two small ones you will probably need 420g flour and 180g water) and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine and then turn out onto a floured surface. The dough should be quite wet. Knead and add more flour as necessary to create a dough that doesn’t stick to the surface but retains its lax and slouchy feel. Knead well for 15 minutes or so then return to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave to double in size. This could take anything up to three or four hours.

After the volume has doubled, turn the dough back out onto the floured surface, swiftly knock the air out of it and shape your loaf or loaves onto a baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops liberally with flour and cover with a slightly damp tea towel. Leave to rise for another hour.

Preheat the oven to full whack and put a bowl of water on the bottom shelf. Slash the top of the loaf to allow the bread to rise properly in the oven (a phenomenon known as ‘oven spring’ as the gas bubbles inside the loaf quickly expand due to heat) and cook for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 120°C and give it another 15-20 minutes. It’s ready when it sounds hollow when tapped on the base

For more 'loafing' around, why not potter over to Twitter?


scandilicious said...

A gem of a post on bread. I couldn't agree with you more - there is something magical about making a sourdough starter and then baking big, robust loaves out of a small number of ingredients. Love the photos, makes me want to go bake bread right now!

Jonathan said...

I've been awaiting your starter instructions since I began following this blog. I'm so excited! On day one now. Wish me luck!

Just Cook It said...

Scandilicious - thanks indeedy. I know bred posts are ten-a-penny so tried to give this one a sparkle of originality.

Jonathan - If I'd known I would have done it soooner! Cannot wait to hear how you get on.

matt said...

you are certifiable. But holy crap, what a fantastic looking loaf of bread.

And may I just say - outstanding food photography, easily some of my favorite shots online.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant stuff in every way.

Erika from The Pastry Chef At Home said...

You're so right about terroir. The simplest thing like water has such a huge effect on the flavor and texture of bread! This post reminded me of the unique saltless bread they adore in Tuscany. Your photos are so crisp and clean - beautiful!

Hopie said...

Those pictures are seriously seductive. I can't usually get into the effort it takes to make bread because all I have to do is go downstairs to the boulangerie to get some pretty yummy stuff, but now I'm craving that sourdough loaf! Oh dear.

Unknown said...

A few extras for ya...

Make sure you have clean water. Use either bottled spring water, filtered water or water that has been previously boiled. Adjuncts like chlorine are made to kill things, such as yeast.

I don't believe you need to refrigerate the starter at all. In fact most bacterias flourish at lower temperatures where yeast go more dormant. Instead, I would suggest after the first 2 days, start feeding it morning and night at room temperature. As long as the yeast count is fairly high, they will fight off any bacteria that comes in contact with them.

lisaiscooking said...

It is indeed slow food! But, the sourdough starter just keeps getting better the longer you keep it. Your bread looks lovely.

Anonymous said...

Hope directed me over here - I wrote about sourdough this week, too! Small world. Anyway, your bread looks fantastic!

Anonymous said...

Surely you turn the oven down to 220C rather than 120C? There could be some rather disappointed first-timers with the oven that low. ;o)

Fantastic looking loaf.

Jonathan said...

Okay, ashamedly I gave up midway... I was afraid my starter wasn't looking "right" and I was pretty unsure of a couple things along the way. I decided to come back and ask a few questions before giving it another go:

I started with 1/4 cup flour (about 40 grams) and 1/4 cup water, and would add that much of each every day. Is that a good amount to go by, or does the amount truly not matter as long as you keep the right ratios? I was worried that if I made too much or too little, the amount of starter wouldn't match up with the amounts of flour/water you call for in the final loaf.

For each of days 2-6, I should discard half of the starter before mixing in the flour and water, correct?

After several days, my starter would separate with a slightly brownish liquid pooling at the top. Is this expected?

How much salt should I be adding along with the flour and water each day? I would just stir in a tiny pinch as I was afraid too much would impede the bacteria growth, but was never sure of myself in the amount I was adding.

With that I should feel sure enough to try again :) Thank you again for the great post!

Just Cook It said...

Matt - you're too kind! Thanks indeed. And coming from someone such as yourself who is as handy with the lens as the chef's knife that means a lot.

Thank you, Rachel.

Erika - yes, the saltless bread is a relic from times past when salt was simply too expensive to add to bread. The tradition seems to have stuck.

Hopie - if you're living in Paris I can imagine the incentive to cook one's own loaves is diminished somewhat! Have to admit I would do exactly the same.

Thanks Mintee, great tips there.

lisaiscooking - slow food is often the best isn't it? Thanks indeed.

croque-camille - well, they do say that great minds think alike. Good to know that the sourdough bug is spreading far and wide.

Lester (if that is indeed your real name) - The initial high heat means there is enough residual heat in the oven even when it is turned right down. I've had no trouble with the 120 degree setting but will double check. Thanks for the input.

Jonathan - Thanks for your questions. 40g of each to start is probably a little short. I'd go for something like half a cup instead. You ar right - discard half each day and then stir in some fresh, probably 1/4 cup to keep the volume the same.

The liquid you are seeing is perectly normal - it is the fermentation taking place and can either be poured off or stirred into the mix if you want a slightly acidic taste to your bread. A little pinch of salt, about half a teaspoon, in the initial mix should be enough. Add the same when you make the sponge then another little pinch when you make the final loaf. Feel free to email me if you need any more advice - might be easier that way!

marv woodhouse said...

Sourdough bread is a classic examople of 'slow food' that is worth waiting for. I use the recipe from the yellow river cafe cookbook ... works well for me!

Mette said...

Oh, please do post your questions here, Jonathan. I was having the same questions, as I read through the text, and the answers to your comment made me sure what to do. Now I will print the whole page and take it to my kitchen :)