Sourdough Saga: Episode 8 – semi-sourdough baguettes

It’s difficult to believe that it’s over three years since sourdough baking became a regular part of our life and our diet, back in May 2012. I predicted at the time that life would never be quite the same again and, in a variety of small ways, that’s definitely true. A lot has changed in our lives since then, but home baking has remained a constant despite upheavals and long working hours. We make a mix of sourdough and traditionally-yeasted breads at home, and they’re all wonderful in their own ways; the bar is set very high for bought breads and when time precludes home-baking, we’re inevitably disappointed by what we can buy in the shops.

Fresh from the oven

Bread can seem like such a small, inconsequential thing, a cheap commodity which requires very little consideration. But good bread – really good bread – is a thing of great joy, not an afterthought but the crowning glory of a meal, or even a meal in itself. Still warm from the oven, with wonderful cornish unsalted butter melting into the crumb, I wonder if there is any more satisfying food in the world?

My wholemeal sourdough starter, ‘Seymore’, continues to thrive, and in some sense procreated last year when I started the process of converting a batch of starter to white flour. Each white flour feed progressively shifted the proportions and the starter is now 100% white. I find the white starter raises white loaves quite a bit more effectively than the wholemeal one did (presumably because the balance of microbes within it is already adapted to using white flour as a food source), so now like raises like – Seymore has an outing when I’m baking wholemeal or spelt, and the new white starter makes a quite wonderful, airy and chewy 100% white sourdough loaf.

A year or more ago, I had a hankering for home-made baguette. Initial experiments and trials with recipes in my cookbook library were all rather disappointing – they produced baguette-shaped loaves, but lacked not just the flavour, but also the crumb and the chewy, toothsome, slightly elastic crust of a genuine French loaf. French cookbooks, of course, were no use whatsoever – no French housewife in her right mind bakes her own bread, when there’s still a traditional ‘boulangerie’ in almost every village and on almost every street corner.

So I kept reading, and asking questions, and stumbled upon Paul Hollywood’s recipe from his pre-TV ‘100 Great Breads’ book, which begins with an overnight sponge, much like my everyday sourdough loaf. A bake through of his recipe produced one of the worst-behaved doughs I have ever worked with, but also gave me the best results to date. But it was still most definitely lacking ‘something’ in the flavour and texture departments. The sponge step, though, gave me an idea – what if I incorporated some of my white sourdough starter into the mix? Might that add, not just the complex savoury flavour that was lacking, but also the chewy elasticity to the crust? I had to experiment.

A year of trials later, I have a process that, while it’s not a ‘novice bake’, works very well and reliably for me, and as a bonus, can even be baked the same day you start if you forget to start the sponge the night before baking. It’s a ‘hybrid’ bread, making use of both the sourdough starter and of bakers’ yeast (much as many commercial loaves labelled as ‘sourdough’ do!). And while the results can sometimes look a little ‘wobbly’ and rustic, they have every bit of the flavour and characteristics of the loaves I enjoyed for my breakfast on a visit to Paris back in March. Torn in half, with unsalted butter and jam and a big mug of coffee, I challenge you to find a better everyday breakfast.

Of course, you can bake these loaves without the sourdough starter – you’ll be baking something like Paul Hollywood’s original recipe, and it’s not bad, but it’s just not the same!

To make these semi-sourdough baguettes, you will require –

  • Ingredients200g of 100% hydration white sourdough starter (that is, made up of 100g of flour and 100g of water), which has been ‘fed’ within the last 24hours. You’ll need to adjust the quantities of ingredients if your starter is balanced differently.
  • 400g of French bread flour (you can use British-style strong white bread flour, but the texture and flavour aren’t quite right; you’re going to a fair bit of trouble for these loaves, so it’s worth tracking down the good stuff!)
  • 200ml of water at room temperature (or gently lukewarm on a cold day or when short of time)
  • 1tsp or a 7g sachet of dried instant yeast
  • 1tsp salt (this is my personal preference – recipes often double this quantity)
  • 50g of softened unsalted butter
  • Oil for kneading, and
  • Semolina for dusting the baking sheet

Make up the overnight spongeIdeally the night before, combine the 200g of starter with 100g of flour and 200ml of water, add the spoonful of instant yeast, and combine to create a thin batter. A whisk can be helpful. Cover with cling-film and set aside overnight, or, if you’re not that organised, for at least an hour and more if possible.

The overnight sponge after mixingThe loaves will work fine with the shorter resting period but you’re inevitably sacrificing some flavour from the longer, slower fermentation. After resting, there should be some bubbles rising to the surface of your batter (more if you’ve left it overnight).

Roughly mix the dough and allow to restNow add the remaining 300g of flour, the salt and the softened (melted is fine) butter, and combine to make what will be a very soft, wet dough. Before kneading, just let it sit in the bowl for about half an hour to allow the flour grains to absorb as much as possible of the moisture and help the gluten start to set up.

Dough during kneadingTip the dough onto a well oiled worktop, scraping out any that sticks to the bowl, and knead it for at least 10 minutes. It will be very sticky to start with, but this will improve to some extent with working. Try to resist adding extra flour unless absolutely essential, and if you do, add a very little at a time. This is never going to be an easy dough to work, you’re aiming to get it just on the right side of ‘impossible’. Working it with plenty of oil will reduce its tendency to stick to things other than itself, and avoids changing the hydration with flour from surfaces being incorporated into the dough.

Form a ball and allow to riseOnce the dough is well kneaded, form a ball and set aside in a well oiled bowl, loosely covered with plastic or a tea towel to retain moisture, until it has at least doubled in size.

Divide risen dough into threeNow, turn the dough out onto a well-oiled worktop and divide it into three as evenly as you can, but without faffing about (no grabbing a bit from here and sticking it onto there). You’ll see recipes instructing you to ‘roll the dough out into a baguette shape’, but don’t, ok? What you’ll get it you do that is a stodgy, even-textured dough shaped like a baguette (much as you get from most UK supermarkets, sadly). If you want the stretched curst and almost concentric-structured crumb of a genuine baguette, you need to form the shape properly. I got the clue I needed, oddly, from a TV travel show about Paris, where they popped into a boulangerie, and there in the background, when I paused and re-wound the programme, was a guy making baguettes. This way is rather fiddly, but it works!

First, find your widest, shallowest-sided baking sheet, and dust it generously with semolina. This will stop the dough sticking, and provides the characteristic ‘crunch’ to the base.

Shaped loaves on baking sheetTake each piece of dough, and fold two edges towards the centre. Without turning the dough, do this again and again in the same direction until you have quite a tight ‘cylinder’ with a centre seam on top, which will be about a third or half the length it needs to be. Now stretch out the cylinder lengthwise, gently, trying to keep the diameter even all the way along. Turn the baguette over so that it’s seam-side down, and tidy in the ends by tucking under into the traditional point if you can, though don’t worry if the ends are a bit dumpy. Tuck the sides under along the length of the loaf using a dough scraper, if you have one, and then, quickly so that it doesn’t sag, transfer the loaf to the baking sheet.

This takes some practice and your first baguettes will probably be rather funny shapes. But don’t worry – it’s not at all important! The process is a bit tricky to describe (I wonder if I should try and get a video of me shaping a loaf?) but hopefully should make sense once you’re doing it.

You could just as easily quarter your dough and make four shorter baguettes; arrange them across the baking sheet rather than along, if you prefer littler loaves. The smaller loaves are obviously easier to handle, so it may make sense to start that way.

Cook-shops will sell you shaped baking sheets with rounded bottoms for baking baguettes on, and that will give you the characteristic rounded base – baking on a flat sheet will obviously give you a flat bottom, though as the dough springs up in the oven it’s often less obvious than you might expect. I’ve tried quite hard to avoid acquiring clutter and kitchen gadgets during my home baking experiments, and actually I find most of the time you can do perfectly well without them!

Cover and allow to riseCover your shaped loaves (I have a large sheet of polythene that I use to form a tent over them) and leave to rise for at least an hour or until at least doubled in size. Now set your oven to pre-heat at its highest temperature.

Slash the risen loaves along their lengthOnce the oven is up to temperature, uncover your loaves, and very quickly using your sharpest knife, slash diagonally along the length. I find two slashes per loaf works best, overlapping over the centre third to half of the loaf. If you hesitate at this stage, your loaves will deflate a lot, so be quick and decisive, and get the loaves straight into the oven.

Turn the baking sheet at least once to help the loaves bake evenly. You may find they need as little as 20 minutes in all – they’re done once the crust is a lovely deep golden to mid brown colour and the loaves feel crispy and sound hollow underneath. Remove them from the oven then and set to cool on a wire rack.

Tear & enjoy

Once they’re (almost!) cool, rip into one. I love to tear rather than slicing my baguette, it makes the most of the wonderful texture of the crust and crumb. Enjoy as the Parisiens do, with unsalted butter and jam for breakfast, or as the ultimate versatile sandwich loaf. Who wants one of those nasty stodgy ‘subs’?

Enjoy with unsalted butter

I would really love to know how you get on with this recipe, so please please come and tell me how it works out for you, by leaving a comment here or tweeting me @CountrySkills!

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No Weigh! – the bake-anywhere, traveller’s loaf

On holiday in self catering accommodation, staying in hostels, on a campsite, or even visiting family or friends, have you ever felt the urge to bake a lovely fresh loaf of bread only to discover that a key piece of equipment – usually a set of scales, or a measuring jug – is missing? I may be a bit odd, but I’ve even been known to go out and buy the missing piece of kit just to get my loaf baked! Since then, I’ve given the question some thought, done a few experiments, and so today I’m going to share with you my ‘no weigh’, measurement free, (nearly!) foolproof loaf recipe that you can bake very nearly anywhere, with almost no kitchen equipment.

Sliced, warm from the oven.

To make this loaf, the bare minimum equipment you require is –

  • A flat work surface or large chopping board
  • A teaspoon
  • Some sort of a liquid container (a pint glass or mug is ideal)
  • Something to bake your loaf on or in (a roasting tray, a pie tin, or whatever)
  • An oven (if you’re camping, you can even bake bread in a dutch oven, though you’ll need to adapt the process a little)

If you can also lay your hands on any of the following, it will make things a little easier –

  • A mixing bowl
  • Spatula or dough scraper
  • A plastic bag or tea towel
  • A sharp knife

And now the ingredients –

  • IngredientsStrong white bread flour
  • Dried instant yeast (a sachet, or from a pot)
  • Table salt
  • Water
  • Cooking oil (a light-flavoured olive oil is ideal, but whatever comes to hand)

Just a quick note first on difficulty – because this recipe depends, essentially, on judging the ‘feel’ of the dough to get the proportions right, complete novice bakers may struggle with this approach; but you don’t need to be an expert baker – if you’ve made a few loaves before, and have a sense of what a good dough should feel like, this technique will hopefully work well for you!

So, time to begin.

Make a well in the flourCheck how much flour is in your packet (standard packs of UK flour are usually 1.5kg but can be 1kg or even 3kg) and tip your best guess at 500g into your bowl or on to the work surface. Make a well in the centre, and add a heaped teaspoon of instant yeast (or a whole 7g sachet) and a teaspoon of salt. I tend to add the yeast to the well and the salt to the side.

It’s useful if you have an approximate idea of the volume of your liquid container. (You’re likely to need about half a pint of water, or a little over.) Fill your glass or mug with lukewarm water and add it a little at a time to the well in your flour, mixing as you go. If you’re using a work surface rather than a bowl you are, I’m afraid, likely to make rather a mess, so do use a mixing bowl if you have access to one. Salad bowls or other serving bowls can make a good substitute.

Form a sticky doughKeep adding water until all the flour is incorporated into your dough and the texture is a bit stickier than you really think it ought to be. The dough at this stage ought to be a bit tricky to work with and glue itself to everything. The reason for getting it to this stage is to make sure that the dough isn’t under-hydrated, as this is is the main cause of stodgy, disappointing loaves which don’t rise properly.

Dough after kneadingPour a generous glug of oil over your dough and work surface and start to knead the dough in the oil. Add more oil every if the dough gets sticky again. The process of kneading will mix the moisture evenly through your dough and you may well find the dough stops being excessively sticky just through the kneading process. But if you’ve been kneading for ten minutes or so and the dough is still too sticky, add an extra sprinkle of flour. Go gently with the flour, though, as I find it always needs less than it seems to get the texture of the dough nice and silky.

Cover with whatever you have to handOnce you’re happy with your dough, and it’s well kneaded, form it into a ball, oil it well, and set it aside in an oiled bowl if you have one (or leave it on the worktop). Cover the dough loosely – a supermarket plastic bag is ideal, or use cling film if you have it, or a tea towel, or anything else that comes to hand! Set aside to rise until the dough at least doubles in size.

Doubled doughOnce the dough has doubled (which may take as little as an hour, but could take quite a bit longer in cold conditions – be patient and don’t rush this bit!) turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.

Turn dough outNow, very gently, form it into a bloomer shape. I’m going to stress the ‘gently’ bit again, because it’s very tempting to get stuck in and almost re-knead the dough at this stage, and that’s not what you want to do at all. You’ll hear a lot of talk of ‘knocking back’ dough, but you’ll lose a lot of the air in the dough just in the shaping process.

Formed bloomerTo form a bloomer (the shape you want for a bread tin is very similar), I fold both long ends towards the middle, then rotate the dough 90 degrees and do the same from the side. Then I turn the dough seam-side down and tuck the sides and ends under neatly. That’s it. No kneading, no bashing, just some gentle folding. You can form a round cob loaf by bringing the edges into the centre until you form make a general round, before turning the loaf over seam-down and tucking the bottom under neatly.

Dust your baking sheet well with flour and place the bloomer in the centre of it. If you’re using a tin (or tin-substitute) I would oil or butter it first before dusting well with flour. Dust the top of your loaf with flour too, and put it back under loose cover somewhere warm for another hour or so.

Well-risen bloomerWhen the loaf is well risen, pre-heat your oven as hot as it will go. Take the cover off your loaf, and cut a straight slash down the centre with a sharp knife if you have one (or a more creative pattern, if you fancy!) and pop it straight into the centre of the oven.

The loaf will probably take around 30 minutes to bake, but this will depend on the quirks of the oven, which you probably aren’t familiar with, so take a first look around 20 minutes and then keep your eye on things pretty closely. If you happen to have access to a wood fired pizza oven, you can even use this – just remember that these tend to run very hot so baking times will be quite a lot shorter! Turn the loaf once or twice to avoid any hot spots in the oven baking the loaf unevenly, or even burning it.

The loaf is ready when the top is dark golden and crispy, and the base sounds hollow when tapped. If in doubt, put it back for 5 minutes – over-baking a loaf a a little is never a disaster – it just increases the thickness and crispiness of the crust – whereas an under-cooked stodgy middle is decidedly disappointing. If you have an oven rack to hand, set it to cool on this.

Fresh from the oven

There you go – a no-weigh, no-measure, home made, very tasty rustic white loaf, that you really can make almost anywhere you can get your hands on a few very basic ingredients & equipment. No excuse for rubbish bread this summer, then. Enjoy!

What did I do with mine?

Cucumber sandwich time!

Well, it was late lunch when it came out of the oven, so I sliced it, still warm (I know, but it’s irresistible, right?) and made an old-fashionned but wonderful cucumber sandwich with one of our home-grown cucumbers, harvested yesterday evening from the polytunnel. A little taste of summer heaven!

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