Lessons from a Sourdough Bread Novice.
These days, it seems, everyone is making sourdough bread. Want to join in the fun? It’s addictive, but you need time and patience if you are starting from scratch. That said, once you have got the hang of things, it’s a cheap and easy way to provide your daily bread and more. If you want to take a break, it’s easy…and if you want to make something a little bit different, your sourdough starter will work for a whole range of healthy bakes. So why not have a go at making your own sourdough bread from scratch? I’m based in the UK so the measurements for this recipe are metric, though you should find the option to convert to imperial measures on the recipe card itself if you prefer.
My first recommendation is that if, when you start making your sourdough bread from scratch you are not working with a sourdough starter that you’ve been given, but are planning on making your very own frothy beast, ignore all the stories about 5 days to make a starter. Maybe you’ll be luckier than me, but my own attempt at making a starter took 10 days to get to the stage where it made a decent loaf – although I did use the discard very successfully for sourdough pizza before I managed to produce one of those pretty boules. You also really don’t need anything into the mixture.
Secondly, don’t worry too much about the exact quantities you feed your starter. I agonised for a few days trying to use American cups to measure out the discard and then to top up the gloop with flour and water – and then trying weighing and removing half the discard by weight rather than volume which worked a lot better for me. You put your starter onto an electronic scale – remove at least 100g, then add back in 50g of flour and 50g of water. Stir well, and you are ready to go – leave the starter at room temperature and it should froth up and double in size after a couple of hours. As I got a little bit more confident, I simply removed two spoonfuls and added one of flour and one of water. It didn’t seem to matter too much. I’m sure more experienced sourdough bakers will tell me I am really not doing things properly. And I am sure at some point I’ll make a mess of things. But, right now I’m happy and relaxed spooning flour and tepid water into my starter, making sure it froths up nicely and then baking. Once I worked out what the starter should look like before I started trying to make the dough, things seemed to work out a lot better.
Thirdly, it’s important to feed your starter a couple of hours before you are ready to bake and wait till you have a lovely frothy mixture that is double the size it was when you added the feed. And, to add water to the starter before you add the flour and salt. Those two things really seem to help me.
Finally, you need to name your starter. I don’t know why, but everyone does – mine is FifiMcFrothFest. The sillier the name, the better the bread.
I suspect the reason you never find a perfect recipe for a starter is that the world of sourdough bakers falls into three camps.
- Those who have been doing it for ages and actually genuinely don’t remember how they made their starter
- Those who were given a starter
- Those who made their starter from scratch but had one or two false starts.
If I had occasion to start my starter again, I’d follow this variation of the classic methodology
- 100g flour to 100ml water in a nice tub, with a loose covering. Stir well, leave overnight.
- Remove 100g or 3 tablespoons of gloop and replace with 50 g or 2 large spoons of flour and 50g or 2 spoons of warm water. Stir well, and leave
- Repeat every 12 hours for at least 5 days.
- What you are looking for is something that REALLY does double in size a couple of hours after it has been fed and that is frothy with lots of little bubbles all the way through. Anything less isn’t there yet.
I’d also suggest using a tall plastic tub with a lid. I started using my measuring jug (which meant I had no measuring jug for a while), progressed to a fancy Kilner jar and eventually realised that a plastic tub was much the best thing to hold FifiMcFrothFest – I have a couple the same size so when I’ve baked and the starter is at its smallest, I transfer it to a clean tub and put the other in the dishwasher.
Most recipes for a sourdough starter from scratch say ‘5 days’. My experience was that after 5 days, there wasn’t a starter that worked for me. I had bubbles, but not froth. And my starter certainly didn’t double in size when I fed it. I didn’t think it ever would. But it did – after about 10 days. Who knows why it took so long. What is worth knowing though is that you can keep the discard gloop – put it in another plastic tub and keep it in the fridge. It’s fabulous for sourdough pizza or for focaccia – and I’ve even made a lemon drizzle cake with mine.
Now, as you may have realised, I am an amateur in a world of sourdough experts. What I have found though, is a raft of conflicting advice. I suspect that’s partly because what you are doing when you make sourdough is very dependent on your own environment. The temperature and humidity of your kitchen will affect the way the yeast cultures develop and will also affect the way the dough rises. So, where that leaves any aspiring sourdough bread baker is trusting their instinct and building on their experience to make the perfect bread.
It’s also fair to say that the perfect bread isn’t necessarily the same for everyone. I like a softer crust and finer crumb that a true sourdough traditionalist will aim for. I’ve now tried adding a teaspoon of olive oil and a teaspoon of sugar to the dough, which produces something that isn’t quite sourdough. And, although I know what my own ‘pure’ sourdough looks like isn’t quite the perfect ‘crumb’ I’ve never quite worked out why you’d want big holes in your bread. The picture above is of the bread made with oil and sugar while the first two pictures are of a classic dough of just flour, water and salt. For those curious, these are loaves 2, 3 and 4 of my sourdough bread from scratch. Loaf one was ok to eat, but not a pretty sight! By the time I reached loaf four, the result was quite impressive I think.
I’ve ended up adapting the recipe I used over on London-Unattached, an easy, no-knead artisan bread that works really well though it doesn’t have the ‘tang’ of sourdough. Adding olive oil and sugar was something that I tried for the first time after making focaccia with the sourdough discard. It was utterly delicious though not something that I’d try making too often as the recipe asked for 3 tablespoons of olive oil! My own sourdough loaf variation used two teaspoons of olive oil and half a teaspoon of sugar. The result was a denser crumb and something in between focaccia and sourdough, with a much softer crust.
But, the basic sourdough – flour, water, salt and starter (which is just flour and water), is one of those things that just seems like a miracle. And, perhaps that’s what fascinates so many of us. It takes me back to my childhood when we made a dough from flour, salt and water to use for modelling. That weird miracle – something which starts as gloop and ends up as something quite different is back again in a totally functional and adult variation. No wonder everyone wants to play!
Here’s the recipe I’m currently using.
Easy Sourdough Loaf
- Dutch Oven or heavy cast iron pan with lid
- 100 g Sourdough starter I use a starter based on 50% flour 50% water. If you use a heavier or lighter starter, you may need to modify the ingredients. Your starter needs to have been fed about 2-3 hours before you start to make the dough
- 200 ml water tepid
- 340 g strong white bread flour You can use plain flour if you cannot get bread flour, but the crumb may not be as good.
- 1 tsp salt
- Put the starter into a large mixing bowl and pour the tepid water over it.
- Add the flour and salt
- Use your hands or a large fork to pull the mixture together into a rough dough
- You should have a sticky mixture. Cover it with clingfilm or a tea towel and leave for 8-10 hours to prove
- Flour a board or worktop
- Scrape the mixture out onto the flour and knock back (see notes) adding more flour as necessary. You want to end up with something that you can shape into a ball.
- If you have a banneton, put the dough in there. If not, coat a tea towel or muslin with flour and put the dough ball into the cloth, then put the cloth into a rounded mixing bowl. Cover. One of the best ways to cover is with a (clean) shower cap - or clingfilm if not. If you want to bake within 3-4 hours, keep the dough at room temperature. If you need to wait for longer put the dough into the fridge where it will happily keep for a further 10-12 hours
- If your dough has been in the fridge, let it come to room temperature while you pre-heat the oven to 225C. Put a large dutch oven into the oven to preheat at the same time
- put a sheet of baking paper on a pizza slide and turn the dough out from the bowl onto the slide. Slash it a couple of times on the top to help to allow the bread to rise.
- take the dutch oven out of the oven and carefully slide the dough into it.
- Bake with the lid on for 25 minutes and then for a further 15 to 20 minutes with the lid removed.
- Turn the bread out onto a wire rack and allow it to cool for at least an hour
Oh…and, once you’ve got your ‘hungry starter’ it really will keep in the fridge. Just take it out the night before you want to bake, feed it, keep it out of the fridge and do the same in the morning and wait a couple of hours so that you have a frothing mass to bake with.
If you want to make one of those really pretty loaves with concentric circles, you’ll need a wicker banneton. I don’t have one – and right now while I find my feet I’m favouring the rustic look.
And, if you want to produce pretty loaves with decorative ‘slashes’ you need a dough knife or lamé – essentially a razor blade set in a handle of some sort. Again I don’t have one – it’s something to add to the Christmas list for next year I think. For now, I’ll just make my rustic style loaf – it looks pretty good to me and tastes even better.