Thursday 22 February 2018

Eating In: A slice of sourdough

Once you try baking sourdough breads, you'll never want to stop...


Valerie O'Connor

We're concentrating this week on baking sourdough breads which has become so talked about among people who love good food that it's easy to buy into the belief that there's something cult-like about it, something mysterious.

Don't be put off by all this – it's just flour and water – once you try baking sourdough breads, you'll never want to stop. You may even find yourself thinking about it in the small hours.

Valerie says: "The basics are easy, a starter is just flour and water mixed together and left for some time to ferment and grow its own yeast and 'pull in' natural yeasts from the air around it – it's magic! You can also delve into other worlds of starter-making like using potatoes and grapes, or elderflowers, or other things in nature that produce yeasts of their own.

"I can't deny the delight that comes from baking these breads, they are not time-consuming and are, in fact, quite resilient. The longer you leave your dough to 'prove', the better the flavour. I like sourdough to have a sourdough taste, some bakers like it to have a neutral flavour, but I don't see the point in that. Also, I love the taste and texture of rye flour so my best loaf is made using a strong white flour and a rye mix, 50/50; although this makes a sticky dough, if you use a mixer with a dough hook that's not a problem.

"Feel free to experiment, it's bread after all and while it may have a life of its own, I don't believe it has a mind of its own.

"I experimented at length, making starters from strong white flour, spelt and rye. Spelt and rye are both low gluten so need a boost from a strong white for the bread to develop a nice, robust crumb. As sourdough is a fermented food, it contains natural probiotics and as the flour is soaked for longer than regular bread, you will find it easier on your digestion.


Get going with a sourdough starter from a master baker

Joe Fitzmaurice of Cloughjordan Woodfired Bakery gave me the instructions for this sourdough starter method. He told me it would work, and he was right.

He should know as he bakes a thousand loaves a week at his bakery in the amazing Eco Village in Cloughjordan. His breads are lovingly shaped by hand and baked in his self-built, wood-fired oven.

Follow these instructions and you will have a loaf of good height, strength and lightness, and it's a real thrill when you do it all without added yeast. Organic, stoneground flour works best for sourdoughs as most of the bran is still in the grain and you're feeding the yeasts that are already there. Organic flour hasn't been treated with chemicals or pesticides and generally doesn't go through a bleaching process either. It's simple really; the better the flour, the better the bread.

You can make starters using all manner of things from apples to potatoes; adding a spoonful of natural yogurt or kefir will give your starter a real boost.

This method makes a traditional, dairy-free version.

This recipe will make approximately 250g/9oz, enough starter for one loaf.

Day 1

In a jar, bowl or tub with a plastic lid, mix 75g/2½ oz stoneground wholemeal flour with 75ml/ 2½ fl ozs tepid water, stir well and leave covered for two days.

Day 3

Split your starter in two and discard the extra or use it up in pancakes or other breads. The reason for doing this is that you are diluting the starter and you don't want to end up with a bucket of it. There should be some life in the starter already, bubbles and a nice yeasty smell. Repeat what you did on day one, stirring the starter well and leaving it covered for two more days.

Day 5

Repeat the process from day 3 again, noticing the life in the jar or bowl.

Day 7, 8 & 9

Add your strong white flour now – 75g/2½ oz flour and 75ml/ 2½fl ozs water each day for three days – and stir as before.

Day 10

Today's the day you can make your first sourdough loaf. You should have a nice yeasty, foamy starter to work with. You can use this starter to make a white loaf, a wholemeal or a rye. Over time you can experiment with different flours and combinations to find what you like most. Adding a tbsp probiotic yoghurt will give it a boost.

Once your starter is established, keep it in the fridge and feed it with 75g/2½ oz of flour and 75ml/ 2½fl ozs water at least once a week to keep it alive. (Feel free to give your starter a name!) When you want to make a loaf, take it out of the fridge and give it a feed for one or two days to bring it back to life. If it develops a grey-looking water on the top just pour it off and give it a god stir and a feed. Starters do die if neglected, you will know this if you sniff it and it offends you or smells like paint or a wet-dog. If this happens throw it out and start again. Otherwise, look after your starter and it will look after you with delicious loaves for years to come.

White sourdough


`Having grown your starter, it's now time to bake as your first loaf, have fun!

Makes one 2lb loaf


400g/14oz strong white flour, preferably organic

250g/9oz sourdough starter (it's best to weigh this for accuracy)

200ml/7floz water

7g salt


Set oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas 8. Make a 'poolish' by mixing the starter with the water and half the flour. Cover this with a cloth and leave to stand at room temperature for eight hours or overnight. It will be lively and bubbly. Take a tbsp of this and feed it back to your starter jar.

In a large bowl, mix the remaining flour, the poolish and the salt until you have a craggy dough. Tip this onto an oiled work surface and knead for 10-12 minutes until you have a smooth and elastic dough. Use the 'window pane' test to ensure it's fully kneaded – cut off a piece, oil your hands to make the dough pliable, and hold it up to the light to see if it will stretch thinly without breaking.

Put the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel or oiled clingfilm and leave aside in a draught-free place (somewhere warm, like an airing cupboard) to rest for 4-6 hours until doubled in size.

Line a bowl with a clean tea towel, then cover the towel liberally with flour. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently to get the gluten going again, then put it into the towel-lined bowl and leave to rise again for a minimum of three hours. Alternatively you can leave your loaf to rise in a tin or a 'bannetonne' (proving basket).

Preheat your oven for at least 30 minutes with a baking tray heating up inside. Now carefully tip your dough onto the hot baking tray and make some cuts into the dough using a sharp blade.

Pop it quickly into the oven and pour some cold water into a tray in the bottom of the oven, or spray the insides of the oven quickly with water to create steam. (If you are baking your bread in a tin, just pop the tin in the oven then proceed with the water.) Bake the loaf at this temperature for 20 minutes and then turn down the temperature to 200°C/390°F/Gas 6 and bake for a further 20 minutes until your loaf takes on an appetising brown colour – the darker the better. Tap its bottom to ensure it is baked.

Note: For the second proving you can shape your dough into its basket or tin and leave it overnight in the fridge, this will improve the flavour. In the morning heat up your oven and have the bread come back to room temperature for about one and a half hours before baking.


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