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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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.

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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!

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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!

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 5 – how to look after your starter

Imagine, if you will, someone arriving at your house for a party, and bringing with them as a gift a rather odd looking jar with a label on it which says ‘Feeeeeed meee!’… Congratulations on being the new owner of a bouncing baby sourdough starter.  It’s rather a rude hostess present, I suppose, a bit like giving someone a puppy without asking them first (ok, maybe not *quite* that bad!).  But now you have this living thing someone’s entrusted you with, and you’re stuck having to look after it.

What sort of person would do such a thing, you might ask? Guess what I took to my little sister and her husband yesterday…

Feeeeed mee!

Isn’t it pretty?  I had to promise her a full set of care instructions, so here they are!

I keep my starter in the fridge between uses.  So far I’ve been feeding & baking once a week, so I haven’t tried to extend the gap between feedings more than this, though I believe it may be possible to go two or three weeks.  My starter is a wholemeal starter, but you could convert it to white flour, progressively, if you prefer.

Assuming you’re planning to bake on a Sunday, this would be my schedule –

  • On Friday morning, take your starter out of the fridge, stir in a couple of teaspoons of wholemeal flour, and leave it on the countertop (I like to think the beasties would appreciate a small breakfast snack as they come up to an active temperature).
  • Friday evening, once you’re home from work, it’s time to feed your starter.  In a bowl on your kitchen scales, weigh out equal weights of wholemeal flour and warm water (about blood heat) and combine to form a loose paste.  The starter has been started and fed on cheap bottled water so far, filtered water would be absolutely fine, if you have it, and converting my starters to tap water has also been successful (but might be a bit of a gamble if your water is particularly high in chlorine / chloramine).  I use locally stoneground wholemeal flour – avoid anything bleached or treated.
  • The total weight of the feed should be about equal to the starter that’s in your jar.  I’ve written the weight of the empty jar on the lid for you to simplify working this out!
  • Combine the feed with the starter (you could do this in the jar but I prefer to tip it all out into the bowl to give it a really good energetic mix) and put it back in the jar.  Leave the jar on the countertop for the next 24 hours.
  • Watch in wonder as the whole thing fills with bubbles and doubles in size over about the first 12 – 18 hours, before it settles back down a little.
  • On Saturday evening, take a good ladle-full or two of your starter (about half the total volume) and use it to start your overnight sponge.  Return the rest of the starter to its spot in the fridge.
  • On Sunday morning, let the baking begin!

If you’re not baking this week, do all of this but then discard the ladle-full of active fed starter (or better still, use it to start a new jar of starter to give to a friend?).

When you get your starter out of the fridge next week, you may find a layer of greyish liquid has formed on top, and the smell isn’t quite what you expect.  This doesn’t seem to be a problem, I’ve just been pouring the liquid off the top before going ahead and feeding the starter in the normal way.  I imagine this would be more marked if you went longer between feedings.

I hope you sourdough starter gives you as much baking pleasure as I’ve already had from mine!

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 4 – cheese and sun dried tomato bread

After the gratifying – if unexpected! – success of my first sourdough loaf, I couldn’t wait to do it all again as soon as possible.  The first loaf didn’t last very long, either, and certainly didn’t get a chance to go stale!  So the next free day I had was dedicated to another baking day.  I used broadly the same technique as for my first loaf (see ‘Sourdough Saga: Episode 3‘ for details) but with double quantities, and a downward adjustment to the salt content (10g in total in a two loaf batch).

Second sourdough bake

There were a couple of new things – first, the loaf shape.  I wanted longer, narrower loaves, instead of the round I baked the first time.  I’d love a full set of lovely baker’s bannetons, but they’re expensive and I’ve got nowhere to store them, so I improvised with a couple of long thin serving dishes I was given for Christmas last year by a friend, lined once again with a clean tea towel dusted generously with rye flour.

Dish used for provingIt’s not quite the right shape, as you can see, and tilts up at the tips rather, but it allowed the final proving to produce a loaf of approximately the size and shape I was after.  The ridge on the inside of the dish does leave an imprint on the loaf, but it’s all character!

I had a generous handful of grated cheddar cheese and some sun-dried tomatoes left over from the previous day, so decided to make one of my loaves a cheese and tomato bread.  I incorporated the extra ingredients during the final kneading, sprinkled across the surface when it was flattened out, and then folded into the dough during the shaping of the loaf.

Sliced cheese and tomato sourdough loaf

I think the cheese and tomato make a great addition to this sourdough. Something about the cheese flavour mutes the lactic sour note quite noticeably, making this a sourdough loaf that might go down better with people who aren’t that keen on the distinctive ‘sourdough’ flavour. The chopped sun dried tomatoes add a lovely sweet herby note (they were stored in herb oil).

Texture-wise this loaf seemed to prove slightly less well than it’s unmodified brother, with a slightly denser texture and smaller holes.  I’m not sure if this is the result of the extra oil / fats incorporated with the additions, or whether it has more to do with the difficulty I had keeping my oven up to temperature when baking two loaves together.  On the salt question – I don’t notice a difference from the further reduction, and it’s likely I’ll reduce the salt again next time I bake a loaf.  All in all, this is a great loaf and one I’ll definitely make again in the future!

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 3 – good things come to those who wait!

A week ago, and with a certain amount of frustration, I stashed a very promising looking sourdough starter in the refrigerator, knowing I didn’t have a plausible baking day for another seven days.  Despite having lots going on, those seven days have been torture, in their way.  I’ve not looked forward to a day off quite so much for a very long time!

Sourdough - success at last!

On Tuesday morning, in preparation for today’s much longed-for baking day, I ‘rescued’ my jar of starter from the fridge.  It had ‘fallen’ back from it’s bubbly heights and seemed more like a pot of goo than a bubbly ferment.  But I’d been expecting this.  I gave it a couple of teaspoons of fresh flour just for a small snack, something to munch on while it warmed back up to room temperature, and went to work.  Some promising bubbles greeted me on my return, so Tuesday night it got a proper feeding.  This had the expected – but gratifying! – result of a decent doubling in size by Wednesday evening.  Pleased that the starter seemed nice and active, I constructed my ‘overnight sponge’ on Wednesday night.

The recipe for my first sourdough loaf is a slightly modified version of one of the sourdoughs in ‘River Cottage Handbook No.3 – Bread’ by Daniel Stevens (ISBN 978-0-7475-9533-5) which has been staring at me accusingly from between it’s very beautiful covers since it first moved onto my kitchen book-shelf a couple of years ago.

My sponge consisted of the following parts –

  • A ladle-full of my (wholemeal) starter
  • 325ml of warm water (a mix of cold tap water and some hot from the kettle)
  • 250g of locally stoneground strong white bread flour

Overnight sponge, in the morningThese are mixed by hand in the bowl, covered loosely with cling film, and left to ferment overnight.  This morning, after I couldn’t bear to stay in bed any longer out of curiosity for how my bread was going, I was met with this – a lovely bubbly bowl of promising things!

I put the coffee machine on for my essential morning brew.  So distracted was I by my marvellous bubbly sponge, the jug was half-way full of pale brown water before I realised I’d forgotten to add any ground coffee!

The sponge, when I stirred it and then poured it off into a second bowl, was an amazing ‘stringy’ consistency, more like melted cheese than anything I’ve encountered in bread-making before – I assume in some way from the alchemy of the microorganisms within it.

To the sponge, then, I added –

  • A further 300g of strong white bread flour
  • 7g of salt [Edit, 15/7/2012 – I now use about half this amount of salt, with no ill effect]
  • A ‘glug’ of olive oil

Dough in the mixerAfter mixing the sponge, flour and salt roughly by hand, I put the lot into my (rather lightweight!) stand mixer, dough hooks fitted, and started it going.  It certainly gave the dough (and itself!) a heck of a work-out.  After a couple of minutes I added a good glug of olive oil and left it to work for about ten minutes.  I was told to expect quite a wet dough and certainly this was tricky to handle, sticky and rather ill-manered!  I don’t have a dough scraper so I was rather grateful for the mechanical assistance – though I’m not sure how many batches of sourdough my stand mixer has in it, it seemed to find it quite an effort!

Dough, before first riseAfter kneading, I formed it into a rough round and oiled the bowl before setting the dough in it to rest for the first time.  Before this first resting period it looks like this, and after a couple of hours, to be honest, it looked just the same, if possibly *slightly* bigger in the bowl.

Formed into a roundFlour your surface, and then turn out the bowl of dough – squash it out into a rough rectangle with your fingers, and then ‘knead’ it gently back into a tight round before returning it to the oiled bowl for another hour or so. Put the bowl somewhere warm, but not hot – on a cool day, the oven with the light (but no heat!) on makes a good resting environment.  You’re going to repeat this process of resting, flattening and re-forming your ball a couple of times during the day.

Dough, flattened with fingertips for final timeA couple of hours before my planned baking time, I turned the dough out for the last time.  It’s springier, silkier and lighter, with some noticeable bubbles now when you handle it. Form it into a round again but this time, rather than returning it to an oiled bowl, it would rather be in a proving basket.

In the ad-hoc 'proving basket'I don’t have one of those, so I used a mixing bowl lined with a clean tea-towel which I’d dusted generously with rye flour.  I had very little faith that this was going to result in anything other than a disappointing sticky mess when the dough adhered to the cloth, but I’m a good girl and do as I’m told. Covered loosely with a piece of cling film, I left this patiently for another three hours.

I’d read all sorts of advice about the critical baking process – involving dutch ovens (I don’t own one), squirty-bottles of water (likewise!) for steam creation, and even things that look a bit like chicken bricks to approximate a traditional wood-fired oven.  I went with what I actually had – a round black stoneware baking dish for the bread, and a stainless steel roaster to hold some water in the bottom of the oven.  I heated it up to it’s maximum temperature (230C on the dial – 20 below what was recommended) and pre-heated the stoneware dish.  Once it was all up to temperature, and after adding a kettle-full of boiling water to the roaster in the bottom of the oven, I tried to gently turn out the floured dough onto the baking dish.  It seemed like a bit of a disaster, to be honest – ending up rather crumpled and misshapen.  I cut a cross-hatched pattern crudely into the top, and reassuring myself it was all about the flavour, bundled it back into the blasting hot oven.

I couldn’t tear myself away from it, and ended up sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor peering through the oven door as a miracle started to happen.  First the crumpled side seemed to stretch itself back into shape, and then, I’ll be damned if it didn’t start to rise!  Ten minutes into baking and I turned the oven down to 190.  The amazing rising act continued – first, it stretched its way languorously into the slashes, stretching them nicely across the surface.  And then, it started to climb vertically upwards, lifting its edges off the baking tray.  I’ve never seen a loaf perform an act like it – I can only assume it’s the result of the clever changes to the gluten that result from the extended rising and proving time.  It was like something out of the Incredible Hulk.

Out of the oven - at last!After 40 minutes the crust was a lovely warm mid-brown colour, but the bottom was still a bit soggy.  I took it off the baking dish and returned it to the oven upside down for another 10 minutes.  Hubby came home to find me stood expectantly in the kitchen.  After that, I couldn’t wait any longer, and pulled it out of the oven.  The smell of baking bread that filled the kitchen – and the house – was quite amazing.

An hour later, we slice and sample it.  I genuinely wasn’t expecting anything this good from my first effort.  There are some lovely big holes in the dough, the crust is amazingly crisp but very thin – and retains a remarkable elasticity.

Sliced sourdough loaf

The texture of the bread is springy and extremely satisfying.  There is a definite, recognisable, but not overwhelming ‘sourdough’ flavour.  I *adore* it.  The whole process – from starting the sponge to eating the loaf – took about 24 hours, and I don’t regret one of them.  The actual ‘working’ time today was about an hour and a half, and left plenty of time for popping to the shops, taking the dog for a walk, and so on.

The bar for ‘good bread’ has just shot skywards in our household, and I suspect things may never be quite the same again.

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 2 – keep calm and carry on?

So sourdough-1 went in the bin, and after a thorough clean out, sourdough-2 began…

Split starterI started initially with rye flour again, but used bottled water this time.  My initial batter was far too thin (I started with equal volumes of flour and water rather than equal weights – not quite sure what I was thinking really!), on day 2 when I got the initial bacterial bubble-up the whole thing split like curdled milk.  Thanks to some more supportive advice from twitter, I didn’t panic.  Keep calm and carry on, so they say.  Too much water, not enough flour, feed and perhaps move somewhere slightly cooler.  Done.

Do all starters get talked to this much?  Never has an inanimate object of mine been so cajoled & pleaded with.  I speak to it softly, encourage its efforts, and wish it goodnight and good morning.  My husband wonders if I’m losing my marbles… if only just a little bit!

I got my hands on some locally stoneground wholemeal flour, so I switched to this for feedings. As the batter was still on the thin side, I didn’t pause for doubling at day 3, but carried on with daily feeding.  Because the material on the sides of the jar was the first to grow mould last time, I made a habit of swilling out the jar to clean the sides at each feeding. The smell was good (quite yeasty and sourdoughy!) but only a few scant bubbles were rising to the surface.

More great advice came flooding in after I published Episode 1 of the Sourdough Saga – including the recommendation not to cover the starter.   Perhaps this was where I was going wrong, even with the lid lightly resting on the top of the jar, was I  suffocating my starter by depriving it of air?  A week after starting and not much was happening, so this seemed a theory worth pursuing.  Discarding the lid from the jar, I strapped a little kitchen-towel bonnet over the starter jar with a rubber band.  Things did start to look a bit more active on the surface of the starter at around that time.  Had I got something right at last?

The next morning dawned to apparent disaster.  Literally overnight, the whole top of my starter had bloomed with creamy-coloured velvety mould!  I was so upset I didn’t even think to photograph it.  More desperate scratching through the deeper sourdough-focused recesses of the internets ensued.  Someone promised that even really neglected starters, all moulded over, could be resuscitated – but since mine had never yet really come to life, could it work for me?  Had I perhaps caused this mouldy horror by leaving my starter uncovered for the surface to dry out?

Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, and muttering something about ‘not giving up now’ under my breath, I scratched the furry stuff from the surface of my starter as well as I could.  What was left, I mixed with more flour and water (gently warmed, this time) and tipped back into the jar.  The starter had developed a ‘winey’ smell I wasn’t at all sure I liked.  I got rid of its bonnet, reverting to the loose glass lid, turned my back on it, and leaving it without even my usual gentle words of encouragement, went out for the day, expecting to find more mould & disaster on my return.

Bubbled up and at least doubled in size

Six hours later, you might have knocked me down with a feather.  The damned thing had bubbled up to very nearly twice the size I’d left it, and was a sponge of small even holes visible through the sides of the jar.  I nearly wept.  Instead, I swore, colourfully.  Not a trace of fuzzy mould was visible.  In fact, a better impression of all the ‘happy, thriving starters’ whose photos I’d been coveting on other, more successful blogs, I couldn’t imagine.

I tried to share with my lovely husband quite what an exciting turn of events this was.  He seemed pleased for me, also somewhat (indulgently) nonplussed.

I left it overnight, and fed it again in the morning.  Coming home from work tonight, I found it doubled again.  I can’t quite believe it.  It looks so good, but I can’t convince myself there isn’t still something wrong with it now?  I’ve fed it again this evening, getting the volume up so there’s enough to harvest for a loaf or two.  Can I just use it, soon?  What, if anything, should I be worrying about now??  It looks great, and smells great, it grows like a weed, does that mean it *is* great?  Is there any way of telling?

This whole process has been the most insane and unexpected emotional roller-coaster ride.  Is this just all sent to make me *really grateful* for my new daily bread??  More importantly, my wise blog friends, can I make a mostly-white loaf from a wholemeal starter, or should I stick to matching flour for now?  So many questions – so much to discover!

What have I learnt, that might help others trying to navigate the gloomy labyrinth of sourdough starter art and science?  Not much, to be honest!  Only that there doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits all set of instructions.  In the end, what seemed to work for me – despite the odd speed-bump on the road! –  was nice fresh stoneground wholemeal flour, slightly warmed bottled water, and a willingness to just keep discarding and feeding day after day until things eventually came together.  My starter hadn’t read the timetable, and probably neither has anyone else’s!

Finally, I’d like to offer a huge vote of thanks to everyone – both on wordpress and on twitter –  who’s offered me guidance and support on my sourdough journey so far – I would never have guessed there were so many great sourdough bakers out there, so generous with their time, knowledge, and advice!

Next – Sourdough Saga: Episode 3 – good things come to those who wait!

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 1 – failure to launch

I’ve wanted a sourdough starter for ever so long – for as long as I’ve known and understood the sourdough process, I think.  Traditionally baked sourdough is *the* great bread, by definition, in my opinion.  With its wonderful texture and complex richness of flavour, it leaves the industrial ‘Chorleywood Process’ sliced white loaf so far behind that they’re hardly recognisable as the same animal.

So when I saw that one of my favourite food bloggers, The Rowdy Chowgirl, had brewed herself up a starter recently, it made my mind up.  I was going to do it, and I was going to do it NOW.  Well, just as soon as I tracked down a bag of rye flour, anyway.  And a couple of weekends ago, after following several different lines of reading and research, I got down to business.  ‘What’s that?’ asked Hubby, as he wandered into the kitchen to see me stirring a bowl of what could only be described as goo.  ‘A sourdough starter,’ I replied.  He thought about it for a moment.  ‘You realise you’re going to have to take that thing on holiday with you, don’t you?’  I tried to reassure him that I’d read about stashing it in the refrigerator for a period of time if necessary.  He seemed unconvinced.

Initial mix with rye flour

I broadly used the directions from The Fresh Loaf, except that I don’t have US-type measuring cups, and there’s nothing called AP flour on the shelves in the UK.  So I guessed a bit at quantities and used stoneground bread flour for the day 2 and subsequent additions.  I also used my tap water rather than the mineral or filtered water suggested – mostly on the basis that it’s nice tasting water without an obvious chlorine hit, and I brew with it regularly without adulterating it in any way, so I went ahead and assumed there wasn’t anything in it greatly damaging to yeasty beasties.

My starter was a thick batter-like consistency.  Thicker the first day when it was rye flour, and then it thinned down a bit with subsequent additions.  I used a 1l kilner jar I had lying around, with the gasket removed so that it wasn’t a sealed container, which I thought was a reasonable match for ‘cover loosely’.  I put it to rest the first day in the boiler cupboard, which is a coupe of degrees warmer than the rest of the kitchen.

After 24 hours, nothing much had happened, much as I expected.  I made the first additions with plain flour, and stashed it back in the cupboard.   It smelt… well, not exactly unpleasant, but definitely an ‘off’ smell, if you know what I mean.  But, forewarned by lots of other sourdough devotees, I plugged gamely on.

After 48 hours     Gordon's Alive!

24 hours after that, it had gone mental, doubled in size, and all bubbly and awesome.  I was convinced I’d cracked it.  I even named it, Gordon.  Because, you know, ‘Gordon’s Alive!?’  Anyway, as we all know, pride comes before a fall.

Feeding timeI discarded half the mix and added more flour and water as instructed (well, kinda).  Made my mark on the side of the container as instructed, and left it a few degrees colder in the kitchen this time.

Growing, but only a littleAfter another day had passed, the mix had risen a little in the jar, but only about 1/3rd and nothing like the doubling that the instructions called on me to wait for.  So, I was patient.  Another 24 hours on and no further progress, I mixed in a few teaspoons of rye flour to help things along.  Still nothing more than a few scanty bubbles breaking surface.

Very scanty bubbles48 hours after adding the rye flour ‘booster’, I opened the jar and got a distinctly ‘musty’ damp sort of smell.  On closer inspection the batter on the sides of the jar had started growing what was unmistakably black mould.  Downhearted, I chucked the whole lot in the bin, disassembled the kilner jar and stuck that in the dishwasher.  What I’d hoped was going to be a weekend of experimental baking lost, sadly, though given the hot spell of weather that was probably no bad thing!

Some really kind feedback from @mannafromdevon, a baker on twitter, suggested that it might have been worth  trying to rescue the ‘good stuff’ from underneath, and carrying on with feeding, but it was too late for sourdough-1, condemned to the rubbish.  But their other advice, ‘Don’t Give Up’, stuck, and I’ve already started sourdough-2, which seems, so far, to be continuing in the tradition of acting as if it’s also read the sourdough primers, and wants no truck with them.

The thing that struck me most reading around the subject is that there seemed to be as many specific processes for getting a sourdough starter going as there are people who have written on the subject.  There were even (remarkably concise!) directions on the back of my bag of rye flour!  In my day job, when there are as many different ‘expert’ opinions on a subject as you can find ‘experts’ to ask, it’s usually a sign that there’s no one really good answer, just a lot of different approaches, many of which work most of the time…   Wish me luck, I’m not giving up until I get there!  This may take some time…

NextSourdough Saga: Episode 2 – keep calm and carry on?

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