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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Microwave ‘Roast’ Garlic – and a gorgeous roast garlic and rosemary bread

I was looking for a garlic flatbread recipe yesterday (as you do!) and came across a very intriguing suggestion… that it was possible to ‘roast’ garlic in the microwave, in just a few minutes. Could it be true? If it was, it would save quite significantly on the time and energy involved in roasting in the oven – typically 45 minutes to an hour, fine if you’re organised and remember to put your little tinfoil parcels in with something else, but irritating and inefficient if you find yourself wanting some right now!

The instructions I’d found were only a tantalising hint, unfortunately – vague on both the technique and on power and timings. So I had a little google, and discovered that apparently lots of people were doing very similar things. Convinced now that I was reinventing the wheel, and that everyone else already knew about this trick and just hadn’t bothered to tell me, I tweeted to this effect. What was said in response surprised me – apparently, no one else had heard about it, either. So, I promised to investigate and then blog my findings. True to my word then, here goes!

Obviously, you’re not really roasting the garlic, since this requires the application of direct heat. Consequently you won’t get the caramelisation which true oven-roasted garlic gains (well, you can, but more of this later!). The process is closer to steaming, but produces a soft, sweet, cooked garlic very suitable for using as a substitute for true roasted garlic if you’re short on time and organisation – and there are ways to cheat the last mile and get that caramelisation, too.

For your microwave ‘roast’ garlic, you require –

  • Ready to 'roast'One or more garlic bulbs (I suggest you start with one, until you’re happy with the process),
  • A splash of water and olive oil,
  • A microwave proof dish with suitable loose-fitting lid (or some cling film), and
  • A microwave, obviously.

Slice the top off your bulb of garlic, at a level where you’re just ‘scalping’ all of the cloves of garlic inside.

Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water to the bottom of your bowl (enough to cover the bottom about 5mm deep), add your clove of garlic cut side up, and drizzle over some olive oil. Cover loosely – don’t seal, and if you’re using cling film, leave a small opening on one side. Pop the whole lot in your microwave.

Now – all of these directions are for *my* microwave, which is a very standard UK-type category E (800W) device. Your microwave may be slightly (or very!) different – even if it claims to be the same – so a little experimentation is going to be required!

Softened and changed colourStart by heating the garlic for 1 minute on full power. Then take it out of the microwave, remove the cover (carefully, as there will be a lot of steam!) and give the cut surface of the garlic a speculative prod with the point of your knife. It should give very slightly, and have changed colour subtly from white to a slightly translucent creamy shade.

It probably isn’t convincingly soft yet, though, so pop it back in the microwave and this time give it 30 seconds on full. Take it back out and repeat the poking process. Depending on the size of the cloves in your garlic, it may well be ready by now. If the surface of the garlic seems reasonably soft (it won’t be pulpy), and the cloves are coming away from their inner skin, then it’s worth popping a clove out to test.

If you can crush the clove easily with the handle of a spoon, then it’s done. If not then give it a little longer. My bulb had a couple of quite big juicy cloves, so I put it back in, but only for a final 15s. So total time in the microwave, for me, of 1 minute and 45 seconds.

Crush a clove to test

After letting it cool for a few minutes, I popped out one of the bigger cloves, and it squashed really easily. Job done.

Taste a little piece – it has become quite unlike raw garlic, instead mild, sweet and aromatic, just like roast garlic. Yes, it lacks a little note of caramelisation – but we’ll get to that!

Here’s the really important thing. ONCE THE GARLIC IS SOFT, STOP!

Burnt garlic bulbBecause, these photos aren’t from my first attempt. The first attempt I made turned out like this. I gave it two initial 1 minute blasts in the microwave, and so pleased was I with the progress it got another 30 seconds. A nice toasted smell started to develop, and a golden colour on the edge of the garlic. I was delighted. Right up until I gave it a poke and it was rock hard. So let my mistake stand for all of you, and we won’t have to sacrifice too many perfectly innocent garlic bulbs!

What do you do with it now? Well, if you want something closer to ‘real’ roasted garlic, heat up your oven, wrap up your garlic in a little tinfoil parcel with an extra drizzle of olive oil, and bake it for 10 – 15 minutes at 180C until it takes a little colour. Much quicker! An even ‘cheatier’ approach might be to heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and just brown off the cut surface gently until golden. No one will ever know!

But most of the time, roast garlic is going into something else, anyway. As I said, all of this came about because I wanted to make some garlic bread to go with pasta for dinner. The one I chose to make is based on this recipe from BBC food.

To make one roast garlic and rosemary bread (serves four generously as a side dish) –

  • Dough ingredients250g strong white bread flour
  • 150ml warm water
  • 1 (7g) sachet of dried yeast
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 bulb of garlic, ‘roasted’ as above
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • A generous pinch each of salt and freshly ground pepper

Kneaded dough before rising

Weigh your flour into a bowl, and make a well in the centre. In a measuring jug, combine the water, oil, sugar and yeast, and stir in gently. Now pour the liquid, a little at a time, into the flour, and combine into a dough.

Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it becomes silky and elastic, and set aside to rise at room temperature in an oiled bowl until well risen about tripled in size is ideal). This will take an hour or so, more if your room temperature is low!

Crush your garlicIn the meantime, you can prepare your microwave ‘roast’ garlic as described earlier, and allow it to cool. Once you can handle the garlic comfortably, pop all the cloves out of the bulb and crush them with the flat blade of a knife, leaving a little texture (you’re not making garlic puree).

Chop rosemaryFinely chop your rosemary (stalks removed), and mix this, the garlic, salt & pepper into your softened butter. My butter lives at room temperature, but if yours is coming out of the fridge, a 10s blast in the microwave (with foil wrapper removed!) will soften it up and make it easier to work with. You’re pretty much all set, so go and do something else while the bread dough rises.

Well risen dough and herb butterOnce your dough is well risen, find a baking sheet or shallow-sided baking tray and line it with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto a well oiled work-surface, and knock it back gently, shaping it to the size and shape of your baking sheet. It will be quite a thin layer, probably about 1cm thick. It doesn’t need to be perfect and I certainly wouldn’t use a rolling pin, you should be able to stretch and shape it with your hands just fine. Transfer carefully to the baking sheet – it doesn’t matter if it gets a bit ‘crumpled’ looking!

Shaped dough with butterNow spread your flavoured butter over the surface. Again, use your fingers, blobs and knobs are fine, you’re not aiming for an effect like icing a cake, but try and share the butter around reasonably evenly. Finally, stab the bread all over with a fork, and leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so until the dough is looking a little puffed up again.

When you’re happy, heat your oven to 230C and once it’s up to temperature, slide in the baking sheet. You’ll want to watch this bread reasonably carefully, because it’s quite thin and will bake reasonably quickly, and there’s a risk of the garlic burning and taking on a bitter flavour if your oven has nasty hot-spots (mine does, sadly!). Turn the bread if you notice it starting to brown unevenly. Don’t hesitate to turn the oven down to ~190C if the surface seems to be browning too fast. It should take about 15 minutes to be lovely and golden brown all over.

Bread fresh from the oven

This was a glorious accompaniment to a pasta supper. The garlic acquires all of that sweet caramelised flavour during the baking of the bread, so there’s no loss at all from the microwave roasting process compared to a more traditional approach. After baking, the garlic is sweet and aromatic with none of the raw hot flavour you get have from raw garlic in garlic bread. I will definitely be making this one again.

And serve!There are some obvious variations, which I think would work very well with this bread. Adding some finely chopped, caramelised red onions to the butter would work very well, I think. You could also throw a handful of grated parmesan into the butter mix, which would melt beautifully into the surface. You’re really in pizza-bread territory here, and the world is your oyster! Experiment!

The microwave garlic roasting technique is the real star of this show, for me, though. One of those accidental discoveries which really will change the way I cook. I recommend you give it a try!

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Don’t be Sour – a dalliance with yeasted ‘quick’ bread

Regular readers of the blog (and those familiar with the intermittent Sourdough Saga series of posts) will know that I *love* my sourdough starter. It’s fair to say I love it like another pet, like a member of the family.  I feed it and care for it (and, admittedly, stash it in the fridge for a fortnight at the time – please note that this is not generally advisable treatment of household pets!) and in return it rewards me and feeds me with some of the very best bread I’ve ever eaten, anywhere in the world.  It seems a more than fair exchange for my time and effort!

Sourdough loaf selection

The beauty of a sourdough loaf, its rich deep flavours and developed texture, are the result of the long, slow, patient process of fermenting, kneading and raising, followed by a blistering hot (and preferably steamy!) baking oven.  My ‘big batch’ of sourdough bread makes two large loaves, or two smaller loaves plus some rolls or a pizza, uses 1.25kg of flour, and lasts us about 10 – 14 days, freezing the second loaf.  But making it takes about 24 hours, starting the night before baking with the creation of the sponge, followed by a whole day during which the dough has to be kneaded and shaped periodically, finally baking around dinner time.  It’s not a chore – to me at least! – but it does require a whole day at home, and of course I don’t always have that pleasure!  The trouble with getting used to really fabulous home-baked bread is that nothing that you can get in the shops comes anywhere close.

So, obviously, I needed a solution for good, home-baked, ’emergency bread’.  The sort that, if I needed to, I could start in the evening after I get home from work, and have baked and out of the oven before I go to bed – about a 3 hour window.  Yes, you could use a bread machine in that time frame (and we have done, in the past), but I find the bread too sugared and salty when made according to the instructions, and highly ‘unpredictable’ in its behaviour if you start deviating from the recommended formulae!

Sourdough loaves keep basically forever (she says, without a scrap of exaggeration!), in that they don’t go off the same way as yeasted loaves (they’re protected from mould growth, it turns out, by one of the fermentation products of linoleic acid – you can read the paper, in the Journal of Environmental Microbiology, here).  Sure, they go stale and dry with time and exposure to air, but they don’t go furry – and once they’re too dry to eat, you can turn them into breadcrumbs, so there’s no waste, either!  My emergency loaf needs to be a yeasted loaf, and obviously needs a smaller batch size, so that we’ll get a chance to finish eating it while it’s still at its best!

I asked around on Twitter (what did we do before Twitter, folks?) and the lovely Lisa (@Cookwitch) offered me her version of a recipe for Pain D’Epi, which looked like it might well fit the bill.  I was pretty pleased with my first attempt at it a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t think to take photos at the time (bad food blogger, no biscuit!).  We’re out of bread again, I was working this morning, and I fancied something nice to go with breakfast tomorrow, so I’m making it again right now.

As I make it, you want the following –

  • 275g of strong bread flour (white flour is traditional, and it won’t be a ‘Pain D’Epi’ otherwise, obviously, but use whatever you like – or a mix, if you have ‘rag-tag’ ends hanging around like I usually do)
  • 175ml of warm water
  • 7g sachet of fast-action bread yeast (the sort that comes in the little double-sachets of small yeast pellets, that you can buy everywhere)
  • A scant half-teaspoon of sea salt
  • A good ‘glug’ of olive oil

Start by combining all the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix together – you could use a whisk, but I’d use my fingers!  Now add the 175ml of warm water, and combine to form a dough.  Add a little bit more flour or water if you need to get the consistency right, just not ‘sticky’ but not too dry as a dry dough will make too dense a loaf.

Kneading your doughNow give your dough a really good knead on a floured work surface.  Set aside 10 minutes to do this, and really give it the time and effort.  This is a single-levened bread, so this is the one and only chance that you get to develop the gluten in the flour and consequently the texture in your final loaf.  Once the dough is starting to develop a silky, elastic texture, rather than just feeling like play-dough, add a generous glug of olive oil and continue to work this in.

Shaped loaf in tinOnce you’re happy with the texture, shape your loaf, and either put it in an oiled and floured 1lb loaf tin, or shape it as required and place it on a sheet of oiled baking parchment on a good thin metal baking sheet.

I would guess that this batch could also make about 8 reasonable-sized dinner rolls, though I haven’t tried this myself.  The traditional form of the Pain D’Epi, as you might infer from the name if you’re francophone, is in the shape of an ear of corn – you can see the finished effect, and how you achieve it (surprisingly straightforwardly, using scissors!) here.  It’s a great tear-and-share shape and I really must try it some day!

Covered with oiled cling filmBut back to my loaf, which is sitting in its much more traditional British loaf tin.  Cover the tin loosely with oiled cling-film (PVC-free, please, especially if you’re using it with oily food), and put it somewhere warm.  Mine is going by the fire this evening – because yes, we have the fire going in what, really, is mid-March. Isn’t that depressing?

Allow it to rise for an hour or two, depending on temperature, until it has at least doubled in size (and filled the tin nicely, if you’re using one).  The initial preparation and kneading takes about 15 minutes, which means that I can usually squeeze it in while dinner’s cooking.

Risen loafOnce the loaf is nicely raised, score the surface with a sharp knife in a pretty pattern of your preference (or construct ears of corn, if you’re feeling flash!) and put it into a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees centigrade for about half an hour – it will rise some more in the oven, if you’re lucky (though not anywhere like so much as I’m used to with the well-developed sourdough) and is done when it’s a lovely golden colour all over and the base sounds hollow when you tap it.  I tend to take tin loaves out of their tins and return them to the oven for a final few minutes to get a nice crispy crust all over.  Free-formed loaves may benefit from being taken off their baking sheets and placed straight on the oven rack, in the same way, to make sure they’re not at all soggy-bottomed!

Baked loaf, coolingOnce your loaf is baked, take it out of the oven and allow to cool on a wire cake-cooling type rack if you have one – I only bought mine very recently, and always used to use a cold oven rack I’d taken out before starting to bake the bread, which unsurprisingly works just fine!  Revel in the lovely smell of fresh bread that now permeates your house, and look forwards to the morning!

Overall, this is a really quick, useful, ’emergency bread’ recipe, that seems to work very nicely with all sorts of flours (today’s loaf was made with some malted granary bread flour I had sitting around at the back of the baking ingredients shelf).  It’s streets ahead of anything you can buy from the supermarket or corner shop, though it doesn’t quite stack up in terms of flavour and texture against slower-fermented yeasted loaves that you might make at home, or buy from a good artisan bakery.  Texture wise it does tend to be a bit ‘cakey’ and edges towards being a little on the heavy side, which I ascribe to the single kneading and rising cycle and lack of opportunity for gluten development.  Still, these are knit-picky complaints when you consider how quick and convenient it is to make, and how much nicer it is than any of the commercial alternatives!

Finished loaf

I wrote, back in June of last year, after my first successful sourdough loaf, that “the bar for ‘good bread’ has just shot skywards in our household, and I suspect things may never be quite the same again.”  I was right.  I’m such a bread-snob now!  But this is good, quick, simple bread, and definitely earns a place at our table.

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

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Living in Glass Houses – DIY greenhouse build

I have to admit to having wanted a decent greenhouse for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my grandmother’s neighbours had a beautiful greenhouse and vegetable garden, which I used to admire from over the fence, and I suspect my life-long enthusiasm for the glass-house springs in part from this!

Dave, showing off his new greenhouse!

Apologies, incidentally, for the quality of the photography in this post – I made the mistake of thinking I had enough on my hands and that photos from my mobile phone would be ‘good enough’ rather than worrying about the SLR as well as everything else.  The photos took ages to tidy up and even now aren’t really up to my usual standard!

A little while after Christmas, while we were watching telly, I asked hubby whether we were really going to get on and build a greenhouse this year.  Yes, he agreed, we definitely were. So I did a bit of digging around, and had more or less decided that for what we required, a baby polytunnel was probably going to be more cost effective and sensible.  Then, deploying his superior (well, so he says) google skills, he turned up a 6ft x 10ft aluminium and polycarbonate greenhouse for about the sort of price I was finding for tunnels.  It seemed like a no brainer, so we got on and ordered it. It arrived a week or so later.

It’s been sat in the garden in two boxes since then, of course, because the weather we’ve had this winter can only be described as ‘not compatible with construction projects’.  As it happens, I’ve given up complaining about the weather for Lent (yes, it’s been that bad!), so I’ll spare you the details.  It finally started to dry out a little a couple of weeks ago, so we finally had a window to get going with the ground works.

The intended site for the greenhouse is on our ‘paddock’, which is a scrappy bit of ridge and furrow pasture land, most of which we planted for an orchard three years ago.  The grass is very established and the land isn’t level (the clue is in the ‘ridge and furrow’!). The only way we were ever going to get a level frame for the greenhouse was to dig a ‘slot’ for it out of the pasture grass to level it, and set a frame of breeze-blocks on which to rest the building.

You’ll need a good spade, a turf cutting tool and ideally, a mattock. We measured out the 6ft by 10ft rectangle and got to work.  Once we’d cleared the space, it occurred to us to consider in more detail the ‘6 x 10ft (aprox)’ size given on the greenhouse packaging.  It turned out the greenhouse was sized in something that could only be described as ‘metric feet’ by its German manufacturers.  Armed with the metric measurements, we enlarged the slot by a reasonably generous margin, and turned in for the evening, pleased with ourselves for having completely cleared the required space, and confident we could crack right on with building the greenhouse the following day.

The next day dawned cold.  Really cold – barely above freezing, in fact, despite being late February.  Undaunted, we put on our ski jackets and thick woollen socks, and headed back out to the greenhouse site. We’d gathered together enough lightweight breeze blocks to do the job – the sort that are made from a sort of concrete ‘froth’, a bit like an aero bar, and would float, if you let them.  Our sophisticated building and levelling tools were the spade and mattock from the previous day, a spirit level, and some string.  The blocks themselves were to act as ‘squaring’ guides, in due course.  And, as we hadn’t yet managed to pick up a bag of sharp sand, we had only the soil itself to use to pack the blocks straight and level.

Assembling the brake blocksThe first course of blocks assembled itself quite straightforwardly.  The mattock is a great help in cutting a clean trench, and then the blocks just go in one after another, with a check on level and height adjustment on each.  After setting the corner as square as we could using one of the blocks for reference, a couple of pegs and a length of string set the alignment for the next course.  Things were going well!

Two courses more or less complete, we wanted to make sure we had the right dimensions for the greenhouse, so we decided to get out the base from the kit and get that assembled for reference.  This done – and it was nice and straightforward (though it revealed that the assembly instructions were a ~50 page pictographic document, in the IKEA tradition) – we offered the frame to the greenhouse site, and discovered our slot was too narrow, given the width of the blocks.  In a stroke of good luck, we also discovered the base build could be bodged to use only whole blocks, which was a huge bonus.

Three courses placedCarrying on with the cut, measure, level, we had three courses installed.  We laid out, crudely, the blocks for the fourth course.  Inevitably, this is when you discover that, rather than a neat rectangle, and despite your most careful efforts, you’ve built some sort of trapezoid only theoretically known to mathematics. A bit of head-scratching and adjustments to the squaring, requiring a bit of extra turf cutting, and we put down the fourth course.

Greenhouse base, complete

It had been trying to snow all afternoon, and we’d been outside for five continuous hours laying the foundation blocks. It seemed apparent that one of the corners (the back one, in this photo) was lower than it should have been, but we were running out of energy, and light.  We tidied up and came back indoors, and gave up for the weekend.

Pro-tip: you know you’re really, properly, cold to the core when you *start* shivering several minutes after you get into a nice warm bath…

Skip ahead, then, through a working week to this weekend.  Finishing the greenhouse was our main order of business.  The weather, at least, is improving – no snow this weekend and even moments of sunshine!

Fixing the base down onto the blocksFirst up on Saturday, completing the levelling of the base.  Easy enough with the base frame sitting on top to confirm our suspicion that the back corner was ‘down’.  We’d got hold of a bag of sharp sand, so correcting this by lifting the two sides progressively was pretty straight forward.

Then, after placing the base as square as we could on top of the blocks, we marked the fixing holes, drilled these out with a hand drill, and then after placing rawlplugs, screwed the greenhouse frame down into place.  (Hint – mark carefully, and then *check* – it’s annoying when the holes aren’t quite in the right place!)  Skip any holes which are really close to an edge, as the block will just crumble away. Note that we’ve used no mortar at all in constructing this base.  You could, of course, if you wanted a more permanent foundation.

Out of the ground at lastThe sun was thinking about coming out, and we were ready, finally, to get the greenhouse build out of the ground.  The construction guide is purely pictorial, and weighing in at 51 pictographic pages, is something out of a flat-pack-furniture-phobe’s screaming nightmare. In the end, it’s just a question of following the instructions, as carefully as you can.

Our greenhouse was manufactured by ‘Palram’ and is a ‘crystal clear’ (read vaccuum-formed, single-ply) polycarbonate glazed aluminium framed greenhouse.  We bought it via B&Q but their greenhouses are stocked by lots of different retailers.  We’d built a tiny (6ft x 4ft) polycarbonate and aluminium greenhouse in our previous townhouse garden, and I was expecting the same, two-ply corrugated polycarbonate glazing that we’d had before, and which we were very pleased with.  I can only surmise that the insulation properties of this single-ply material won’t be as impressive as the other option.  And handling the glazing panels, which seemed alarmingly lightweight, was a bit hairy in places.  That said, once complete, the finished greenhouse does seem reassuringly ‘solid’. So, time will tell!

Side panels installedBut, back to the build.  Proceed carefully according to your pictograms.  Those on the cover informed me two people would be required, and that was certainly the case – at various times this build would have been completely impossible to perform single-handed. I was expecting to assemble the four walls individually and then combine them, but this wasn’t the case – the whole thing came vertically out of the base, acquiring glazing as it went, and then the build continued up into the gables and finally onto the roof.

We made one mistake (repeated at all four corners), which gave us some trouble until we noticed what we’d done wrong – fortunately our efforts at mitigation only involved some very slight trimming of some edges of the polycarbonate panels, nothing with any lasting consequences. Hint – if there’s more than one possible hole you could screw in, check, and check again before committing (and stop that giggling at the back!).

I gave a few small blood sacrifices on the sharp metal edges of the frame while threading the glazing panels.  The instructions tell you to wear gloves, of course, but it’s impossible to do this while fiddling with the 120 pairs of small metal nuts and bolts that hold this monstrous Meccano set together, and in the end I gave up, and suffered the consequences.  Overall we felt that, at least where it came to the glazing panels, the manufacturing tolerances were probably wider than the assembly ones, which made things a bit tricky from time to time.

Greenhouse roof installedGetting the roof apex installed did require a ladder (at least for us – though we’re both a little on the short side!), which isn’t on the list of required equipment.  It would have been a bit of a nuisance if we hadn’t had one conveniently available!  With the sun setting, and the roof on – missing only the final fitting of the window vent, and the door – and after seven hours solid work, we gave up and went to the pub for a well-earned steak dinner and a couple of pints of rather nice Ringwood bitter.

This morning, after a more sedate Sunday breakfast, we got on with the finishing-up tasks. The window went in quite straightforwardly.  The door was a bit fiddlier but posed no major challenges (and is very thoughtfully designed, in fact). By lunchtime, we had a completed greenhouse frame and glazing.

Hubby had work to do this afternoon, so after a whistle-stop trip to Wickes, he got on with that while I cracked on with the inside of the greenhouse.  I was hoping, rather ambitiously, to finish this evening with the hard-standing for the staging installed, as well as a paving slab path, the staging fitted, and the borders initially dug-over with a ceremonial planting – perhaps a row of early carrots, or something – completed.

Laying the slabsLevelling the ground and installing the slabs was probably, in fairness, a good worked example of why you shouldn’t let amateurs do hard-landscaping!  The soil at the back of the greenhouse, where the staging was going, produced a rich vein of solid clay, the kind that would probably have made a victorian brick-maker’s month.  Again, we wanted to avoid concrete or mortar, so the paving slabs are to be laid directly onto a layer of landscape fabric on top of the soil, using some ‘pads’ of sharp sand to help level them.

Hard standing installedThere are gaps between my slabs, which I’ll fill with some gravel once I’ve remembered to buy a bag.  Eight blocks across the back of the greenhouse provide a space for some shelving, and then a five-block path runs between the two greenhouse borders from the door.  I’m hoping that the slabs will also provide some useful heat-sink effect to hold warmth into the evenings as the temperature drops.

It’s around this stage in the process, when you’re raking the soil under the pathway to a fine tilth, while treading your precious borders harder and harder, that you remember that gardening is about pretty flowers in the same way that house-building is about paint colours for the hall.  In the end, it’s mostly hard labour!

Greenhouse staging 'installed'Just as I was ready to give myself a big pat on the back and congratulate myself on a job well done, I realised I had a small problem with my (great, cheap!) greenhouse staging.  The pack, describing itself as 2ft 11in (x2) greenhouse shelving (and I’d measured the gap!!) turned out to have the ‘aprox’ behaviour in the, compulsory, unhelpful direction.  They don’t fit!  Until I decide whether I want to take a hacksaw to eight lengths of steel tubing, they’re installed at a rather ‘jaunty’ angle…

No ceremonial carrots, but three big pots of compost with my newly-arrived hop rhizomes in them, pending the preparation of their final planting site.  There’ll also be a water butt to collect the run-off from the roof and reduce the distance I have to walk to fill the watering can.

Completed greenhouse

I think we’re both, it’s fair to say, seriously pleased with our efforts, even though it’s been physically very demanding and taken about twice as long as we had imagined it would.

To finish, and following Ross’s example in his excellent barn door guest blog post, some summaries:

Costings –

  • Greenhouse kit, including base & glazing – ~£350
  • Breezeblocks – £32
  • Paving slabs – £32
  • Sharp sand – £1.81
  • Landscape fabric – can’t remember, it was in the back of the shed

Time invested –

  • Ground clearance ~1 day, two people (or a bit longer for one)
  • Installing breeze-blocks ~1 day, two people
  • Greenhouse build ~ 1 day, two people (if you get up sharpish or have more hours of light than we did!) allowing extra if you want to do silly things with paving slabs inside.

Lessons learnt –

  • Measure, then measure again. Then have someone else measure too.  Don’t trust the measurements on packets, especially when they may be ‘metric’ feet-and-inches!
  • Wear gloves, unless you want to discover quite how sharp the sliced edges of extruded aluminium components can be.
  • Consider the weather forecast.  It can be really *really* cold in February! And finally,
  • If there is more than one possible hole… insert your own joke here.

I can’t wait to really get growing!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Sourdough Saga: Episode 7 – six months on, life with my sourdough starter

Back in May of this year, I started my experiment with creating – and baking with – a sourdough starter.  Now that November is nearly with us, almost six months on, what is the starter like to live with, and what effect has its appearance in my home had on my life?

In July, when I gave a ‘clone’ of my starter to my sister as a gift, I wrote her a guide to looking after her starter.   My starter is less cosseted these days – it drinks tap water, and has survived several rounds of being abandoned in the fridge for a couple of weeks or longer between feedings.  After long periods of abandonment, the starter has a sharp vinegary smell, and either a layer of greyish water on the surface, or an even more unattractive and worrying-looking layer of ‘fuzz’.  But every time, after pouring or scraping this away, and feeding the starter, it has sprung back to life.

Sourdough loaf selection

My starter has successfully baked white, wholemeal, malted mutligrain and spelt loaves (and a variety of combinations of these flours) – in fact, the flour used for sourdough loaves seems to make very little difference, probably because of the longer proving and working time compared to a quick-yeasted loaf.  The loaves are continuing to get better, too – with a nice even crumb and springy texture these days.  Last week, on holiday in a rented cottage in Cornwall, I even managed to bake a batch of sourdough in the borrowed kitchen and unknown oven! (Why, yes, I did take my starter on holiday with me, why do you ask..?)

I use less salt in my batch than I did to start with, but otherwise my method remains the same as for my very first loaf.  I often bake a double quantity, and freeze one loaf.  I’ve added cheese, herbs, and sun dried tomatoes to loaves, with great success.  More recently, I haven’t used the stand mixer for some batches, but worked the dough entirely by hand instead.  A plastic dough scraper, which I bought from eBay for 99p, is a great help and not exactly an investment that broke the bank!  As you can see from the photo, I’ve baked rolls, free-formed loaves, and even a loaf in a tin.  The sourdough pizza was *amazing*, too.  It all works brilliantly, so the limit should only be your imagination!

Several ‘clones’ of my starter are now in new homes with family and friends, and they report baking very successfully with their starters too.  So you see, if my Dad can do it, so can you!  There are even rumours of my starter making it into small-scale commercial production, so watch this space!

As an aside – when I was growing up, I sometimes wondered about the Lord’s Prayer – specifically, the fixation with ‘daily bread’.  After all, what was so exciting about bread? Well, it’s a bit like the first time you’re outdoors, on a crisp clear night somewhere really, really dark, and look up and see the infinite billions of stars and the Milky Way spread above you, and the phrase ‘majesty of the heavens’ suddenly makes sense as something other than a weak metaphor – in an earlier time, before we filled the skies with artificial light (and our larders with artificial food), these things were seriously impressive!  Good bread may genuinely change your world – your food world, at least!

The downside?  Well, all other bread is a disappointment, frankly! I did get a couple of really nice non-sourdough white loaves from a bakers’ shop while we were on holiday, which made a pleasant change.  But, basically, you’re never going to want to buy bread from the supermarket again – even the stuff from the phoney-bakers-shops they have in store these days is a total let-down, and as for the plastic-wrap ‘chorleywood’ sliced white, well…

All of which means that regular baking days have become a feature of our already rather busy lives.  Now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  And, yes, you’ve guessed it, today is a baking day!

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

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Sinfully Simple Cider – yes, you really can brew this at home!

Home-brew has a bit of a mixed reputation, it’s fair to say!  This is my method for making great, simple, real cider (hard cider, for those of you West of the Atlantic!) with almost no investment in special equipment.  Sounds too good to be true? Follow these instructions, and in just a few weeks time you can be drinking great cider (at least as good as most commercial bottled ciders you can buy!) that you’ve made yourself, and all for only a few pence more than the cost of cheap retail apple juice.  I just wish I’d known how to do this when I was a student – it would have saved me a fortune and quite possibly made me rather popular, too!

Chilled and ready to drink!

Last autumn, I made real ‘Real Cider’ from fresh apples.  I promised then I’d post quicker and simpler instructions for a short-cut brew.  Well, rather belatedly, here they are!

First a brief note on the law – I have no idea if home brewing is legal in your country or jurisdiction, or what restrictions might apply.  If you’re restricted (by age, local religious observance, or otherwise!) from buying, possessing or consuming alcohol, it’s very likely local law enforcement may take an interest in you brewing it yourself, so please take appropriate advice!  In the UK, I believe home brewing is legal for personal consumption, however sale and distilling are tightly restricted.  

The minimum set of ingredients and equipment you require are –

  • The necessary parts5 litres of ‘pure apple juice’ (the clear, cheap, from concentrate variety from your local discount supermarket is fine, but it should contain no additives or preservatives)
  • Half a mug of very strong tea (use two tea bags – plain ones unless you fancy an unusual experimental flavour sensation!)
  • Wine yeast (this is widely available online or from your local friendly home-brew shop, and is cheapest in small pots rather than individual sachets – you could use bakers yeast as an emergency substitute, but it’s prone to producing strange flavours!)
  • A glass demijohn, or an empty 5l mineral water bottle
  • Home-brew steriliser (you could use Milton fluid as an alternative)

In another couple of weeks, you’ll also need to have gathered together –

  • A length of syphon tubing (between 1m and 1.5m or 4ft to 6ft in length)
  • Bottles, sufficient to contain your cider.  These must be able to take pressure.  Empty plastic screw-top fizzy drinks bottles are great for a first effort, and free.  The plastic will be somewhat gas permeable, so the cider won’t keep terribly well in them, but I doubt you’ll be laying down your first brew long-term!  Beer or champagne bottles are fine, but require special capping tools and equipment.  Please note that SCREW TOP GLASS WINE BOTTLES ARE COMPLETELY UNSUITABLE and are very likely to result in dangerously explosive bottles.
  • A few teaspoons each of sugar, and of a non-fermentable sweetener such as ‘Splenda’.

You might also like to add the following, which are not essential but will make the process simpler or more reliable –

  • A drilled rubber bung (or grommet) & bubbler airlock, to fit your bottle or demijohn.  If you don’t have these, you’ll need enough cotton wool to firmly plug the neck of your fermenter. [How to set up and use a bubbler airlock]
  • Yeast nutrient (This contains all the trace elements and minerals required for healthy yeast growth.  Apple juice is already pretty good for these, however, so it shouldn’t be necessary.)
  • A kitchen funnel
  • Bottle brush
  • Hydrometer [How to use a hydrometer]
  • Racking cane and tap or bottler attachment for your syphon tubing.
  • Capping device and / or appropriate caps, gaskets, stoppers and closures, if you prefer to use recycled beer or champagne bottles.

If you’re lucky enough still to have a local home-brew shop, now is the time to go and make friends!  You’ll get tons of helpful advice and guidance, and while the item costs are likely to be higher than from web retailers, you save on postage which can be a big consideration with small purchases.  There are also lots of home-brew suppliers on the Internet, of course.  I tend to use http://www.the-home-brew-shop.co.uk/ for most of my home-brew purchases, Amazon and eBay are also full of useful retailers for odd bits and bobs.  Freecycle is the best source I can find for old-fashioned glass demijohns, and people are often giving away bottles, buckets, and other unwanted brewing items, it’s well worth posting a ‘wanted’ notice, these have served me very well for supplies in the past.

A quick totting up suggests you can get all you need for less than a tenner, and nearly everything except the apple juice is re-usable over and over (or at least, in the case of yeast and steriliser, for a good few batches!).

The process is really very straightforward, and divides neatly into four –

  1. Fermentation
  2. Bottling
  3. Secondary fermentation, and
  4. Drinking!

Stage 1 – Fermentation

First, wash out your demijohn very carefully, and sterilise it following the instructions on your steriliser solution.  Second hand glass demijohns have often been abandonned in a slightly grubby state and will need a little TLC to get back into a usable state (a cranked bottle brush will be helpful if so).  Pay close attention to the instructions that come with your steriliser solution, particularly where it comes to strength, contact time, and rinsing, since lack of attention to sterilisation and rinsing are responsible for most home-brew failures.  While you’re at it, sterilise anything else you’re going to be using – including the bung, bubbler airlock, and a funnel if you think you’ll need it.  Don’t neglect cleanliness, it’s critical to the success of any home-brewing enterprise.  Sometimes I think home-brewing is really just washing up with benefits!

Now I just need my finite improbability generator!Pour four litres of the apple juice carefully into your demijohn.  There will be some bubbly froth on top, this is fine (the juice will be nicely oxygenated).   The demijohn will not be full – this is intentional!  Add your half mug of very strong luke-warm tea, which provides some tannin for the cider, as apple juice intended for drinking will generally be quite poor in tannin.

Apple juice in the demijohn

Add a teaspoon of yeast, and one of yeast nutrient if you have it to hand, and fit the bung and airlock or stopper the bottle with your cotton wool, tightly enough to stop bugs getting in.

Can you see the family resemblance?Now put your demijohn somewhere safe at room temperature (18 – 21 degrees is ideal, warmer temperatures such you’d have in an airing cupboard will certainly speed the process up, but are likely to be too warm and can produce ‘off’ flavours) and wait for the magic.  If you’re lucky, this should start within as little as six hours or so, though this depends on how active your yeasty beasties are, and the prevailing temperature.  While you could put it in a dark cupboard, I think you’ll want to keep it out somewhere where you can see it!

Yeast added and bung & airlock fittedThe first thing you’re likely to notice is the pellets of yeast starting to float around in the juice. Within 24 hours, there will probably be bubbles coming through the airlock.  You can see the meniscus of the airlock water is pushed around in the photo on the left.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel compelled to stand around and watch it go ‘glug’.  The apple juice will become more and more cloudy, ending up rather a murky muddy brown colour, and will form a thick layer of frothy foam on top, which may also include some visible yeasty ‘crud’ – this is why we’ve under-filled the demijohn for now, you don’t want the froth trying to force its way out of the airlock!

Froth and yeast crud on the surface of fermenting ciderIf you’re using an airlock, timing the bubbles as they escape is a great way of gauging how fast your cider is fermenting.  The rate of fermentation will speed up as the yeast population multiplies, and then will start to fall again as the sugars in the mix get used up.  At peak activity, you can expect a bubble every two seconds or possibly even slightly faster.  For me this usually happens about a week after fermentation starts, though it depends on temperature, the sugar content of your apple juice, and how viable your yeast was in the first place.  You will notice a layer of yeast forming on the bottom of the demijohn, too, which is quite normal.

If you’re not using an airlock then you’ll have to rely more on appearances to judge when peak fermentation has passed.  As things start to slow down a little, you’ll notice the frothy crud on the surface reducing and being replaced by a layer of much ‘cleaner’ looking bubbles, and the contents of the demijohn will appear to be ‘fizzing’.

'Cleaner' bubbles on the surface, after topping-upOnce this has happened (and the rate of bubbles through your airlock has reduced to one every four or five seconds) carefully remove the stopper, without contaminating it, and top up with the rest of your apple juice, to half an inch or so below where the shoulder of the demijohn meets the neck, before re-stoppering.  You’re adding a nice dollop of extra sugar, so expect the fermentation to speed up again for a bit, but hopefully it shouldn’t foam the way it did to start with.

Apart from providing a useful gauge of fermentation rate, the airlock serves another important purpose – it allows the waste gas from fermentation out, so that the demijohn doesn’t pressurise (which would be extremely hazardous!), but prevents exchange with the oxygen in the atmosphere.  This keeps the cider bathed in carbon dioxide, which prevents oxidation of your cider – oxidation leads to spoilage, and even allows the accidental creation of cider vinegar if appropriate microorganisms are present.

Why, then, have I suggested you could go ahead without one?  Carbon dioxide, conveniently, is heavier than air, so while the cider is actively fermenting, it will form a protective blanket over the cider and should prevent oxidation.  The key detail here is ‘actively fermenting’.  With an airlock fitted, there’s no rush to do anything once fermentation finishes, as the blanket of carbon dioxide is retained in the demijohn.  This gives the option of a longer period ‘resting’ in the demijohn, either for convenience or maturation, once fermentation is finished.   The cotton wool plug will keep bugs out (at least it will if it’s fitted properly!), but won’t stop the progressive exchange of gasses from the atmosphere once there’s no active CO2 production forcing the air out, so accurate identification of the end of fermentation and rapid bottling at this stage is particularly important.

Fermented outNow you just need to wait for it to finish fermenting.  The rate of bubbles (and fizzing in the cider) should slow down progressively, and eventually stop.  When it does, there should be no visible bubbles rising in the demijohn, no layer of bubbles on the surface, and no activity in the airlock.  The cider will start to ‘drop clear’, that’s to say the yeast in suspension will settle to the bottom and the liquid will be clear again – and look surprisingly like it did in the very beginning. From topping up to dropping clear, in a 4.5 to 5 litre volume, tends to take about a fortnight to three weeks. Be patient here and don’t rush it, but also don’t leave things too long if you’re using a cotton wool plug (if you’re ‘under lock’, you can ignore it for as long as you like – I’ve left cider at this stage for several months before bottling with no ill-effect).  If the end of fermentation coincides with a particularly chilly day, maybe give it a day or two to see if it re-starts when things warm up a little again.

The only cast-iron way of knowing whether your cider has finished fermenting fully (or is ‘fermented out’ in the jargon of brewing, that’s to say, fermented until there are no fermentable sugars left) is with a hydrometer.  In any case hydrometers are really cool-looking, delicate pieces of laboratory glassware and it’s almost worth buying one just because they’re so neat!  Rarely, fermentation can stop before this point, a situation known as a ‘stuck fermentation’ leaving sugars behind that could let fermentation re-start in an unpredictable way in the bottle.  The risk here is that you could accidentally create ‘bottle bombs’ which pressurise excessively during storage and risk exploding (please don’t dismiss the potential hazard of flying shards of glass shrapnel!).  For this same reason, do not under any circumstances be tempted to bottle early in an attempt to achieve a sweeter cider – the only safe approach is to ferment out to get a completely dry cider, and then correct this ‘issue’ (if, that is, a bone-dry cider isn’t to your taste!) later on in the process.

Your finishing gravity, if using a hydrometer, should be near enough 1.000, and be stable for at least 24 hours.  It goes without saying that the hydrometer and jar, like everything you allow into contact with your cider, must be carefully sterilised and rinsed before every use!  For extra brewing-geek credit, if you also take the starting gravity of the apple juice before you start fermenting it, you can work out the alcohol content of your final brew.  There are calculators on various websites to help you with the maths!  To be quite honest, I tend not to bother with the  hydrometer when I’m making this cider – so it’s a bit of ‘do as I say and not as I do’!

When you’re confident your cider has fermented out fully, and it’s dropped clear in the demijohn, it’s time to bottle.

Stage 2 – Bottling

Sterilise all your bottles and caps following the directions with your steriliser, and rinse very carefully.  Also sterilise and rinse your syphon tube and any associated nick-nacks (racking cane, tap / bottling stick etc).  Place your demijohn on the table or kitchen work top, and your bottles on the floor below them.

Into each of the bottles, you want to have added a small amount of sugar, this is to allow secondary fermentation in the bottle – but just a small controlled amount.  This process is known as ‘priming’.  This will produce a little carbon dioxide – in a pressurised container this time – and make your cider sparkling, which is how most people like it!  You can also add some non-fermentable sweetener if you want your cider slightly sweeter.  I favour ‘Splenda’, which seems to lack the bitter back-taste you get with some artificial sweeteners.   If you’re going to use something else check carefully that it really *is* non-ferementable.

I add one teaspoon of sugar per litre of cider (half a teaspoon in a pint bottle, about 3/4rs of a teaspoon in a 750ml).  These should be safe quantities and shouldn’t create any bottle bombs, while providing a nice sparkle.  Do not be tempted to exceed them!  I enjoy quite a dry cider, so I add a matching amount of Splenda – you can adjust this to your taste, though, so experiment.  Put the sugar and sweetener, if using, into your bottles before you start to syphon, since adding it afterwards tends to make everything fizz over (it’s somewhat reminiscent of the Mentos-in-cola trick, but a bit less dramatic!).  If you’d rather avoid artificial sweeteners but don’t enjoy a dry cider, you can top up your cider with a splash of apple juice in the glass at serving time.

Ready for bottlingIf you can secure the use of a glamorous assistant, they will come in very handy for bottling, since you can leave them in control of the top bit of the syphon tube.  [How to syphon your home-brew.]  If you have a racking cane, siphoning can be a one-handed job, as the ‘u-bend’ attachment should stop the yeast sediment being drawn into the syphon.  Without one you’ll need some way of keeping the tube out of the bottom of the demijohn.  In the absence of an assistant, you can rig something up with string and tie the syphon tube to the neck of the demijohn at an appropriate depth.  A spare pair of hands is more reliable, though!

Racking cane in the demijohnYou may well be wondering why the faff with a syphon tube when you could just pour the cider into the bottles with a funnel.  There are two reasons, really – the first is to reduce the amount of yeast sediment disturbed, which in turn will reduce the amount of sediment in your bottles, and in your finished drink.  The second is our old friend oxidation – correctly performed, siphoning minimises the contact between the air and your precious cider.

Filling bottles using a bottling stickSo, carefully syphon your cider into your bottles, leaving about a 1″ space at the top.  A ‘bottling stick’ or a tap in your syphon tube makes controlling the flow a lot easier.  You want to fill the bottles with the end of your syphon tube right at the bottom of your bottle, so that it stays under the fluid level and minimises exposure of the cider to the air.  There’s a bit of a knack to syphon-filling bottles, but you’ll get there eventually.  Do put newspaper or something absorbent down on the floor if it’s not easy to clean!  Try to avoid drawing yeast sediment or crud into your bottles from the demijohn as much as you can, but don’t worry too much about it, it’s not a disaster!  Any extra cider that isn’t a full bottle’s worth?  Drink it – it’s your first taste of your brew, and while it’s not ‘finished’ yet, it’s definitely cider, in a flat, old-fashionned-scrumpy kind of way!

Sanitised bottlesAbout my bottles, incidentally – they’re old lucozade-type inner-threaded fizzy drink bottles with rubber-gasket stoppers, which I was given by a lovely chap on Freecycle.  They’re more or less the perfect home-brew bottles as they’ll take some pressure but don’t require capping equipment, and aren’t gas-porous like plastic, so if you’re offered any, snap them up, even if they need a bit of TLC, new stoppers and gaskets remain available from home-brew suppliers.  Obviously, discard any chipped or cracked bottles, since these are at high risk of explosion!

Stage 3 – Secondary fermentation

Filled bottles ready for conditioningNow seal your bottles tightly, up-end them a few times to dissolve the sugars, and then stash them somewhere, upright, for a couple of weeks for the secondary fermentation to complete.  If they’re clear bottles, you can monitor this – the contents will go slightly cloudy, before clearing again, ‘throwing’ a thin layer of yeast on the bottom of the bottle. Once they’re clear, they’re ready to drink (though they will keep for at least a year – I bet you won’t wait that long though!).

Stage 4 – Drinking!

Chill in the fridge door (keeping the bottle upright will minimise disturbance of the yeast sediment) and then open on a suitable occasion to share with good friends – let’s face it, they’ll *have* to be good friends to be willing to be guinea-pigs for sampling your first home-brew experiment!  The bottle should open with a gentle ‘pssssst!’.  Pour your cider gently, but all in one go, leaving as much of the sediment behind as you can.  Don’t worry if you get some yeast in the glass, though, it looks quite traditional and won’t spoil the flavour – and contains lots of lovely B vitamins!

Share and enjoy!

Sit back and enjoy – your care and patience has hopefully been richly rewarded with a perfect crisp cold glass of home-brewed cider.  Get going now, and you’ll be all set when summer finally arrives!

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 6 – awesome home-made sourdough pizza

I’d heard good things about sourdough pizza bases.  Let me say, I was certainly not disappointed!  The Rowdy Chowgirl’s post on the subject was part of what inspired me to get my own sourdough project underway in the first place, and I followed her lead and went to The Traveller’s Lunchbox ‘The Pizza Project’ for inspiration and guidance.

Sourdough pizza - done!

It all starts with an overnight sponge, as usual.  I made a full two-loaf batch of dough.  I reduced the salt again, now down to 8g in the full batch (so just shy of half what I started out with for my first loaf), and had to use about 100g of wholemeal flour due to running out of white, but otherwise made up my usual dough, dividing it into two uneven halves straight after the balance of the flour and salt were incorporated.  To the smaller half, destined for the pizza crusts, I added a teaspoon of sugar.  I then treated the two balls of dough just the same – stretching and kneeding them every couple of hours between periods of resting –  until I added cheese and sundried tomatoes to the larger half and set it on it’s way to being another gorgeous loaf.

Shaped dough, resting.The pizza dough was divided into two balls for its final proving.  The dough remained very soft and just-handlable, which seemed ideal.  After proving (and after the loaf of cheese and tomato bread had already made its passage through the oven), I gently rolled the dough and then shaped it out by hand into two rough rectangles (I have a rectangular baking tray, and am not averse to funny-shaped pizza!) on baking parchment sheets.  This is a great idea – for which I can’t take the credit! – as the dough is soft and thin and would be nigh-on impossible to handle, I think, even with a peel.  You’ll want quite a lot of flour on the underside of your dough to stop it sticking to the parchment while you’re shaping it.

The tomato sauce for the pizzas is simplicity itself – one finely chopped onion, sweated down with some minced garlic in olive oil until soft, then add a tin of plum tomatoes, a good shake of mixed italian herbs, big pinch of pepper and a sprinkle of dried chilli flakes, a small spoon of vegetable bouillon powder (you could substitute half a stock cube) and a glug of balsamic vinegar.  Squish with a potato masher to get the required consistency, and bubble on the hob for about half an hour before allowing it to cool.  You could blend it, if you prefer a completely smooth sauce, but I like mine with a bit of texture.  Give it a taste, since you might find you want to add a small amount of sugar, depending on how sweet your tomatoes were to start with.

Pizza toppings, ready to go.Be sparing with your toppings – don’t overload the pizza and don’t over-complicate things, you want the great simple flavours to shine through.  I used some finely sliced cherry tomatoes, small pieces of my dry-cured maple bacon, a sliced mozarella ball and some crumbled goat’s cheese. Smear the sauce lightly over both pizza bases and then arrange your toppings over the top.  The quantity was about perfect for two largeish rectangular pizzas.  You’re not trying to plaster the pizza in cheese, since this will stop the moisture escaping from the dough and tomato sauce and turn what should be a glorious crispy crust into a disappointing soggy one.

Pizza, all ready to go into the ovenThe key to baking this pizza is a very very hot oven.  I pre-heated my little non-fan top oven to its highest temperature – allegedly 270 centigrade (I’ve not checked this with an oven thermometer, but it’s certainly reasonably blistering!) with the baking sheet inside.  The thicker and heavier your metal baking sheet, the better.  Getting the pizzas from kitchen counter to oven safely and quickly is really a two-man job, so get your glamorous assistant – wearing the best oven gloves you have at your disposal – to snatch the baking sheet out of the oven, closing the door behind them.

Before they burn their fingers through the gloves, use the baking parchment to slide your pizza off the side and onto the baking sheet.  Return it to the oven as quickly as possible, and watch the magic happen.  Seriously, I was sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor staring into the oven for this bit!  The edges of the pizza will start to rise and brown, and all the while the cheese first melts and then starts to go bubbly and golden.  To encourage it along a little, I put the grill on, too.

The pizza cooked in less than five minutes.  I didn’t remove the baking parchment half way through baking like others have suggested.  The paper did start to scorch a little but didn’t burst into flames.  It did come out of the oven slightly stuck to the underside of the pizza, tearing as I tried to remove it – not a disaster and easy enough to peel off – but I’d used quite lightweight baking parchment and I suspect better quality paper would solve this particular minor difficulty!

This is great pizza, and you should definitely make some.  The sourdough certainly adds a distinctive quality, producing a wonderful crispy crust with holes in, but also a pleasing ‘solidity’ which avoid straying into stodginess.  It’s nothing short of *amazing* fresh from the oven (we ate it standing up in the kitchen!) and is very nearly as good cold for lunch the next day.  The partly wholemeal flour in the dough adds a nice extra texture to the pizza, too.  There’s remarkably little ‘naughty’ here, either – certainly compared to commercial pizza offerings.  Something made out of such great, simple ingredients can’t possibly be bad for you!

So, home-made sourdough pizza crust – Just Do It!  I promise you will not be disappointed!

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

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Maple Bacon – and a bonus summer salad

Every so often I ask my lovely husband for ideas – most recently last time I was making streaky bacon.  ‘What cure shall I use?’ I called out from the kitchen.  ‘Maple!’ he replied.  Right oh, maple bacon.  It’s a new one for us.  I ferreted around in the cupboard and dug out a bottle of pure maple syrup.  This was sounding plausible, after all!

[This bacon was made using a variation on the bacon-in-a-bag technique I wrote about the other week, so you should probably go and read that first if you’re not familiar with it.]

For my bacon, I used –

  • 480g piece of pork belly from our local farm butchers’ shop
  • 30g of supracure
  • 26g of pure maple syrup (really, buy the good stuff, not the blended rubbish)
  • A plastic bag big enough to contain the pork, and a sealed container for the cure.

I was aiming for an 8% total cure weight to the meat (lower than the 10% I normally use), with a 1/3rd to 2/3rd ratio of sugar to salt. This was in deference to the rather aggressive salt flavour I got from the outside pieces of my last bacon-in-a-bag effort.  I got the ratio right but slightly overcooked the total quantity, in this event.  You’re thinking now that my arithmetic doesn’t add up, and that 56g is clearly well over 10% of 480g.  You have to consider that maple syrup is about 40% water to 60% sugar (check the nutritional analysis on the back of the bottle for your particular sugar) so my 26g of syrup is in effect 15g of maple sugar, for a total dry-equivalent cure weight of 45g or ~9%.

Bacon-in-a-bag with maple cureThe mix of salt and syrup is not so much a dry cure, more of a ‘gloop’.  Put the pork in the plastic bag and rub all over with half the cure, massaging in well.  Seal the bag, excluding as much air as possible, and place it in the refrigerator.  Store the rest of the cure in an airtight container.  At least once a day (but in practice I tend to do this whenever I’m going to the fridge and remember) give the meat a bit of a massage, and return to the fridge the other way up.

Maple bacon after curingAfter two days, I poured off the pickle, and applied the rest of the cure.  After three more days (a total cure time of 5 days), remove the bacon from the fridge, rinse it under cold running water, dry carefully with kitchen paper and then wrap loosely in baking parchment and return it to the fridge for at least 24 hours (and preferably a few days) to rest.

Maple bacon, slicedYou’ll notice that compared to our previous bacon, this one is a lot paler in colour, and retains a much whiter rind.  Most of the change in the meat before and after curing is in the texture, with a slight pink flush to the meat.  This is because we’ve not added colour by using a dark sugar in this cure.  It slices very nicely!

Bacon pieces fryingAt this time of year, with the warmer weather, perhaps you don’t fancy a bacon roll so much as in winter?  For lunch on a hot day, I love a spinach and bacon salad.  It’s the quickest and simplest of light summer lunches.  First slice your bacon into lardons, and fry it off until slighty crispy.  This bacon cooks beautifully, caramelising very rapidly and rendering off lovely clean clear bacon fat.

Spinach and bacon salad with balsamic dressing

Then, toss your crispy bacon pieces, while still warm, into a big bowl of baby leaf spinach, dressing with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

The empty bowl

Doesn’t it look appetising??  It didn’t last long here!

We had a few more rashers for breakfast this morning.  We will certainly be making this one over and over again in the future.  In summary – this is great bacon, subtly flavoured, gently salted, with a gorgeous traditional bacon flavour.  Make it!

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Smoked Trout – so simple, so tasty, and all home-made

Smoked trout – like its close cousin smoked salmon – is one of the great ‘luxury’ foods.  I find I prefer it – the finished product, while it looks very similar to salmon, has a more delicate flavour with less of the aggressively-fishy oiliness which can characterise smoked salmon.  It’s much less readily available, too – and can certainly be expensive, a quick google suggests prices from £40 – £80 a kilo direct from a number of British producers.  Expect further mark-up in a smart London delicatessen!

Sliced home-smoked trout

Of course, if I were just writing this in praise of smoked trout and telling you to go and buy some from a smokehouse on the internet, it wouldn’t be the country skills blog!  Making smoked trout at home is straightforward, and produces a first-class product which is the match of anything you’ll buy from even the most up-market smokehouse or deli counter.  Better still, it costs a fraction of the commercial product.  The two fillets of rainbow trout I cured and smoked for this post cost the princely sum of £1.53, with a combined final weight of a little over 200g – including other ingredients and consumables, that’s a total cost of well below £10/kg.  A little luxury, then, that we can all afford to enjoy a bit more often!

You’re going to be eating this fish raw, effectively, so freshness is of the essence.  Choose a lovely fresh whole trout – with bright clear eyes, red gills and no ‘fishy’ smell – and have it descaled and filleted for you by the fishmonger (or do it yourself – it’s not that tricky really!).  Good quality farmed trout is readily available, even on supermarket fish counters, and if you can get hold of a lovely fresh wild fish, even better!  Avoid pre-packed fillets, whose freshness it is more difficult to be certain of.  Wash the fillets off carefully under the tap, to remove all the mucus coating from the skin.  Make sure you’ve removed all the rib bones and pin-bones (the small pointy bones that run along the middle of the fillet) – a pair of tweezers is very useful here.  This will take a few minutes, but is worth the effort to do properly.  Then rinse the fillets and dry them carefully with kitchen towel.   Weigh the fillets and make a note of this weight.

Trout fillets with cure appliedThe cure I use for trout and salmon is very simple – made up of 1/3rd sugar (golden caster sugar is my favourite here) and 2/3rd table salt.   I favour a short curing time – just overnight – with an excess of dry-cure so that the cure stays saturated throughout.  Be generous – you can afford to be, since the ingredient cost is very low – in the scale of pence for a couple of fillets.

Weighed down for curingYou want a thin layer of cure in your non-metallic dish below the fish, and a good coating over the top.  The photo gives a good idea of the sort of coating you’re aiming for.

You then want to weigh down the fillets to help draw water out – you’ll need to improvise something – I found a couple of plastic ‘take-away’ containers fitted very nicely in my dish, and then weighed them down with tin cans.  Don’t use anything metallic in direct contact with the curing fish.  Put the salted fillets in the fridge.

Cured fillets, next morningI would tend to get the cure going when I get home from work, having collected my fresh fish on the way home – so just before bed I turn the fillets over in the cure, and replace the weights before putting them back in the refrigerator.  The next morning, there will be quite a lot of liquid in the dish and most of the cure will have dissolved. Take the fillets out of the dish, noting the change in texture – the skin will have taken on a harder, almost cardboard character, and the flesh will be firmer and more translucent.  Rinse and dry the fillets, and weigh them again, and note down the reduction in weight.  My fillets had dropped from a starting weight of 256g to 220g at this stage – a 14% water loss.  You’re aiming for a final loss of ~18% by the end of the process, so that’s well on target. Now place the fillets on an open plate, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 24 hours before cold smoking.

You may have read this far, and are now thinking ‘well, that’s no use to me – who has a cold smoker at home?!’.  At it’s simplest, cold smoking requires two things – a source of cold smoke (from smouldering sawdust, for instance), and a space in which to contain it.  Last year, I built a wooden tower smoker, but there’s no need to start with a construction project.  A cardboard box, or a (clean!) upturned bin or barrel, rigged up creatively with a rack or two, will do just as well for the occasional smoking job!

ProQ cold smoke generator, litYou will need a smoke source, and I can heartily recommend the ProQ Cold Smoke Generator, which is a nifty little gadget which entirely takes any stress or complication out of the process.  It’s a little pricey (around £35 at this time), but will pay for itself incredibly quickly once you get the smoking bug!  It reliably provides 10 – 12 hours of cold smoke (depending on the temperature, humidity, and your sawdust choice) with very little heat production.  Have a look at the Supplier’s List for suggested sources of smoking and curing supplies.

Trout fillets, loaded in the smokerChoose a day without too much wind or rain (the occasional shower isn’t important), and where the temperature is roughly between 5 degrees and 15 degrees centigrade.  I’ve successfully smoked between 0 and 5 degrees but smoke penetration is less effective.  Colder, and your fish will freeze rather than taking smoke.  Warmer and the risk of spoilage increases considerably – though cold smoking temperatures up to about 20 degrees are cited in some places.  Get the smoker going first thing in the morning, and leave it for the day – though I would keep it under much closer supervision if using a cardboard box!.

I used a mix of alder and maple sawdust for this smoker burn (about 10% maple) – this produced a gorgeous neutral smoke-flavour with very little bitterness and with a noticeable ‘sweet’ note, presumably from the maple.  It’s definitely a mix I’ll use again in the future.

Trout, fresh from the smokerOnce the smoke generator has burned all the way through, unload your smoker, and take a final weight on your fillets. They should have lost another 4 – 5 %.  They will have a lovely orange-pink colour with a noticeable translucency and a glossy surface.  Then wrap them tightly in cling film, and freeze them.  Smoking fish in this way isn’t really a preserving mechanism, and storage time in the fridge is about 3 – 4 days.  Even if I’m going to eat them very soon, though, I tend to freeze them at this stage – a day or two in the freezer should ensure any parasites which may be present in the fish have been killed off.  You can keep them frozen for a couple of weeks without too much loss of quality, but after a month or so you’ll start to notice the deterioration.

Sliced smoked trout fillet

Once thawed, I slice the smoked trout thinly with a sharp knife, starting at the ‘head’ end of the fillet, at about a 45 degree angle.  There’s a bit of a knack to this, but you’ll get good at it really quickly – and who cares if the slices are thicker, or a bit uneven?  This produces small, almost translucent slices which are great for nibbles.  I love to serve these with water biscuits or oatcakes (or your preferred sort of cracker), cream cheese – or a soft goat’s cheese is also very nice, freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.  But the limit is really your imagination.  Smoked trout with scrambled eggs on a toasted muffin is a beautifully indulgent breakfast!

I really do hope you chose to give home-smoked trout a try, and that however you prepare and enjoy it, it brings you as much foodie pleasure as it brings me!

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