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An adventure with sourdough

I have been on the most epic adventure over the last few weeks. Well I say few weeks, in truth this adventure started last year but it didn’t pan out, so I’ve chosen to completely gloss over it and pretend it didn’t happen. So last few weeks it is, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar 🙂  Not really.

With all the bread making experiments I have done, sourdough really does seem like a very natural thing for me to try out, especially given how fashionable “artisanal bread” is at the moment.  However, there was always one small detail holding me back and stopping me from really going for it, the sour bit of sourdough. Don’t get me wrong, by sour, I don’t mean the flavour idea was putting me off. In fact, I love the taste of sourdough bread. It was the sour as in the actual yeast that was putting me off.

You see, the type of yeast that makes your sourdough bread are the very same yeast that I work so hard to get rid of in my house so that they don’t spoil my beer.  Yup, wild, natural yeast are the very thing you want in sour beers, but they spoil standard beer, plus I don’t like sour beers. So as you can imagine, when I had a go at growing a sourdough starter last year, I wasn’t really wholeheartedly in it and I think if I’m honest, I gave up a bit soon citing that the time and effort required wasn’t worth the outcome. You are about to see that I lied about that too, cause, in reality, it isn’t really much effort and the time difference isn’t all that a big deal.

The starter

Sourdough bread is made with natural yeast that are present in the air around us, instead of the shop bought stuff that has been “bred” to be fast acting and give certain flavours. The benefits of using the natural yeast are a completely different, slightly sour flavour and apparently, it is better for us physically. Let me explain.

The downside of sourdough is that it takes much longer to make, and much longer for the yeast to do its thing and cause the bread to rise. It’s this slow process that apparently makes the bread better for us, as apparently, this lets nature do its thing and begin the process of breaking down the proteins etc in the bread meaning when we digest it, it is much easier for our systems to cope with. I don’t know how true this is, but that’s the sales pitch you’ll hear.

So, if you don’t buy yeast to make your bread, what do you do?

This is where the starter comes in, you basically grow the yeast. Over the course of about 5 days, you gradually build up your stock of yeast so that you have enough to make your bread rise. This is the bit of the adventure I started on last year. I have to be honest though, I binned the starter I made last year because I decided then I wasn’t going to bother keeping this sourdough thing going. So for my adventure this year, I bought a little bit of ready-made starter online and grew it. But for those of you who fancy trying this out,  this is how I made the starter last year and how I have been keeping this new one alive.

To make a starter…

Grab a large, clean jar or deep dish and add equal amounts of flour and water and give it a really good stir. You don’t need much, about 200g of each will do perfectly. Also, the ideal flour to use is organic rye flour as this has a higher concentration of natural yeast.

Cover it with something porus like a clean tea towel and leave it to sit at room temperature, not hot, just warm so don’t put it near a radiator or fire. Give it a good stir every day and watch as after a few days you should start to see evidence of some bubbles. 2 things to NOT worry about, you might get a beery liquid on top, just stir it back in, that’s natural and you might think it’s not worked. Just be patient. It could take 4 or 5 days for you to see any evidence of yeast taking hold (bubbles are a sure sign as is,  if the mixture starts to swell). If you haven’t seen any signs after a week, just ditch this lot and try again.

Once it has really puffed up and you see lots of bubbles, its time to feed it. This is the bit of the process that scares people the most but not to worry, just think of it like this. You are keeping pet yeast, they need attention and feeding, like a grown-up Tamagotchi.

How to feed

Very simply, you want to give the yeast a wee feed every day, I just give it 50g of flour and 50ml of water and a good stir every day and that works a treat. If you do this, you’ll have a brilliant starter to bake with, in another week’s time.

But what if I don’t want to feed it every day or bake bread every day?

This is the part that puts people off making sourdough bread, and to be honest, this put me off last year so I eventually just ditched my starter and went back to shop bought bread, but then recently I started thinking about the fact that this is just yeast… I’ve learned loads about yeast over the past few years through brewing, so one thing I refused to accept was that I had to feed this starter every day. Why couldn’t I just throw it in the fridge so it would go to sleep, then it wouldn’t need to be fed so often? That’s what I did with yeast for beer. This was my wee experiment… and it works.

So here is the method I have worked out

I only bake at weekends, so I have worked out this cunning plan.

Once my starter was going and looking strong. I binned half of it. I know this sounds shocking but you don’t need more than a couple of hundred grams of starter at a time so there is no point building up huge amounts of this stuff if you aren’t going to use it. So once it’s looking healthy, grit your teeth and chuck out about half. Then add 50g of flour and water, mix it well and put it in the fridge.

This is the bit that most people are shocked by, but yeast slows down in the cold, eats less sugar, a bit like it goes into hibernation. You can revive it again by warming it up. Now the important thing to remember here is that you can’t just put it in the fridge and ignore it for months. You will still have to feed it, but just much less regularly.

So this is how I do things, I only bake at the weekend, so I get my starter out of the fridge on Tuesday night and leave it on the worktop to let it come up to room temperature.

On Wednesday and Thursday morning, I feed it with 50g of flour and 50ml of water and give it a good stir.

On Friday morning I make what is called a sponge, this is essentially a super-powered starter to get your bread off to a good start. I add 150ml of the bubbling starter to my big mixing bowl and then mix in 250g flour and 275ml warm water. Give this a really good stir. It makes a slightly thicker mix, I cover it with clingfilm and leave it on the kitchen worktop and go off to work.

On Friday evening, I turn this sponge into my bread dough by adding 300g more flour, 30ml of oil and 10g of salt and giving it a good mix and then a good knead for about 10 minutes.

This is now your bread dough, just like any dough you have made for baking bread before, except it will just be much slower to do its thing. So I leave it for another two to three hours to begin to rise and then before bed, I punch it down, give it another shorter knead and then shape it.

Now to help it keep its shape on the second rise, it’s much easier if you have a baking basket or a shallow bowl. basically, line this with a clean tea towel liberally dusted with flour and drop your shaped ball of dough into this to rise. Put the seam (messy side) up so that when you turn the dough out, this is on the bottom.

I then cover this with a tea towel and go to bed, the yeast will do its thing overnight, giving you a lovely loaf of bread to cook in the morning.

220C (fan) for 40 mins.

It’s not just for your daily loaf

Although most often you’ll hear  sourdough spoken about in terms of a loaf of bread,  it works great for pizza,  flat breads,  rolls etc too. I’ve even seen a Swedish bakery selling sourdough scones.

Give it a try. Everyone needs a little bit me adventure sometimes. 

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