Cooking and baking is often a process of trial and error, experimentation and interpretation. My sourdough have adventures have been all of the above. But I think I may have finally cracked it! Best of all, its nearly no-knead – about 90 seconds of kneading and 90 seconds of folding is all (and a lot of waiting … but its worth it)
Thanks to fellow bakers more experienced and knowledgeable than me for sharing their recipes, tips and techniques online. Using these as a starting point I finally have manged to produce a sourdough loaf of which I can be proud. I share with you here the fruits of my trails and research.
Start at the Starter
There are indeed dozens (maybe hundreds?) of tips, techniques and recipes online for starting your own sourdough starter. Here’s what’s worked for me. And I do recommend you give this a go. There is something quite magical about starting your own yeast farm. And that’s essentially what a sourdough starter is.
It may take a few attempts to get it going (or you might be lucky first time) but stick with it. It can take up to two weeks to get a usable starter going but once you get it going it will keep with minimal intervention… think of it as a very low maintenance pet!
- A large, clean jug or other container… this will be your starter’s home. You want to be able to access it easily to feed and stir the starter. And you want it big enough to contain the starter as it grows (which it will!)
- 2 tablespoons of flour, preferably organic and wholemeal. I’ve started my starter with organic strong wholemeal flour.
- 2 tablespoons of still water, room temperature. If, like me, your water supply is chlorinated you should use bottled water because the chlorine inhibits microbial growth. Which is what its supposed to do, but that’s just what you don’t want when you’re trying to encourage growth in your starter.
- Mix the flour and water into a paste about the texture of wallpaper paste (slightly runny but definitely a thick paste) in the jug.
- Cover with something that stops debris falling into the starter but still allows air to circulate. Keep at room temperature (or somewhere slightly warmer if you can – the warmer the starter, the quicker the starter develops… up to a point – too hot and you kill the yeast).
- Every 12 hours feed your starter. Feeding your starter means adding another two tablespoons of flour and two tablespoons of water and stirring, incorporating as much air as possible.
- After a couple of days you should notice that there is some bubbling in the top of your starter… it’s alive! (Keep going, only ditch and start again if you see any evidence of mould on the starter)
- Keep feeding the starter. As it gets larger you’ll need to feed it more. Once you’ve got your starter established you can experiment with feeding it different types of flour. I’ve fed mine rye flour, white flour and wholemeal and it seems to like them all.
- If you’re ending up with a ridiculous quantity of starter you’ll need to dump some (or share it with a friend) so your jug doesn’t overflow.
- After feeding for 10 days – 2 weeks your starter should be well established and ready to use. At this stage you can reduce to feeding once a day.
- Storing your starter: if you’re not going to use your starter immediately you can store it in the fridge (again covered with a breathable over). The cold slows down the starter. Think of it as putting the starter into hibernation. You’ll only need to feed it once a week or so in this state. To use it again, take it out of the fridge, feed it, stir it and sit it at room temperature for 24 hours before use. This is waking the starter up from hibernation and getting it ready for action! You’ll know its ready when you see plenty of bubbles on the surface again.
- Let’s bake some bread…
Sourdough Bread Ingredients
- 200 g (about 1 cup) your sourdough starter
- 500 g (about 4 cups) strong white flour (once you’ve got this recipe right you can experiment with other flours)
- 1 tablespoon of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- about 300 ml still mineral water (see above re water) at room temperature or a little warmer (not hot!)
- 1 tablespoon semolina (for dusting)
- Equipment: Large bowl, sieve, weighing scales, cling film and cast iron pot with lid (I use a small casserole from IKEA. Alternatively you can use a pizza stone and place a bowl over the loaf)
- Ok, sourdough starter is not fast food. It is the opposite of fast food. Hence you will see times measured in hours and hours here but don’t panic, very little of it is hands-on. It just requires a bit of planning ahead and patience.
- Measure your starter into a big bowl. Sprinkle on the sugar. Sift the flour into the bowl.
- Add just enough water to form a dough. The less water the better! This was one of the problems I had with my early sourdough attempts – too much water resulting in a sticky bread. I did some research and learnt that European flours, like the ones I use here in Ireland, ‘drink’ less water than American flours. As I’d been using American recipes, I was using too much water for my flour. There’s a bit of trial and error and judging by eye required here. Use the least possible water you can to bind the ingredients together. Bear in mind that the dough will get stickier as it proves so don’t worry too much if the dough is barely holding together at first mixing. (For the same reason I try to keep my starter as thick as possible … a runny starter only adds more moisture)
- Leave this dough to sit for 30 mins.
- Add the salt to the dough and knead the dough for 30 seconds, stretching and pulling it as much as possible to activate the gluten.
- Leave to sit for about 20 minutes and then knead again for 30 seconds. Repeat this so that you do a third and final 30-second knead. This technique is adapted from Phil Daoust’s 2010 article on sourdough in The Guardian
- Once you’ve done three 30-second kneads leave the dough to sit in a bowl lightly covered with cling film (to stop the dough drying out but still allowing air in). Leave to stand in a warm room until the dough has increased in size by 50%. How long it will take to do this depends on lots of variables: how active your starter is, your flour, the temperature… I do the above steps before bed and let the dough rise overnight. That’s how long it takes my dough to rise and the longer fermentation time enhances the flavour of the bread.
- Once the dough has risen stretch it into a square about 30 cm / 12 inches and fold in three to form a rectangle and then in three again in the perpendicular direction to form a square. The aim of this exercise is to trap as much air as possible.
- Leave to sit for about 20 minutes then repeat the folding-in-three exercise.
- Leave to sit for another 20 minutes and repeat the folding-in-three one last time.
- Now get the oven on. Put the cast iron pot with lid into the oven and set the oven as high as it will go. Leave it to preheat as long as possible, ideally at least an hour. This tip comes from Artistta’s excellent blog, this was the first sourdough recipe I tried. In the meantime the dough is getting the chance for a final rise.
- Once the oven and pot is thoroughly heated take it out, sprinkle the semolina in the pot and plop in the dough. You may want to slash the top of the dough with a sharp knife at this stage. Put the lid back on and back into the hot oven. Set timer for 15 minutes.
- After 15 minutes remove the lid and turn the oven down to 170 C/ 340 F and set the timer for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes remove from the oven, tip out of the bread and cool on a wire rack.
- Enjoy! (And if you don’t eat it all on the day its baked it makes terrific toast over the next few days)