Wednesday 21 March 2018

Rise to the challenge and bake your own bread

Be willing to spend the extra cents on quality organic ingredients, for your tastebuds and your gut will thank you for it, says our expert

Sourdough bread
Sourdough bread
Valerie O'Connor

Valerie O'Connor

As someone who cooks a lot and writes about food all the time, I naturally have a lot of conversations about food. Usually they go well and I am enthusiastically pontificating about the delicious, nutritious food I ate somewhere, or a cake recipe I saw that I can’t stop thinking about.

As an avid bread baker, baking sourdough is something I do every week. I bake two loaves and they last the three of us most of the week, until the bread runs out and I get the sourdough starter out of the fridge and prepare two more.

Our household is a realistic place where packet white bread still gets in the door. I know — how can I even think to confess such a thing?

I wish that white bread was called something else, like ‘gluey edible food substance’. My boys say they need it for their sandwiches for school so, rather than keep on fighting them on this, I accept it and am glad the rest of the bread they eat is better stuff.

If you bake sourdough, then your starter is your raising agent.

Sourdough breads are also fermented foods and the great thing is that you don’t need to go and procure an obscure starter culture to get baking.

You can easily make your own starter by mixing some water with some good, organic wheat, rye or spelt in a jar and feeding it for a number of days.

If, like me, you had many sourdough starters on the go at once, made from different grains, you can give them names like my kids did with mine.

At one stage they were called Mace Windu, Gandalf and Voldemort - welcome to the world of teenage boys.

Now I just keep one starter going; it’s all I need.

It lives in the fridge until I take it out and wake it up once a week with a nice feed of flour and water.

When sourdough starter is fermenting, the lactobacilli bacteria in the jar are busy digesting the carbohydrate in the grain.

As the dough that you make is left for quite a long time before it is baked, the carbohydrate is being nibbled away furiously so that by the time your loaf is baked, you have drastically reduced the gluten content of your bread.

Let’s be honest, everybody loves bread, and everybody wants to eat bread.

The French word for friend ‘copain’ comes from the two words for ‘together’ and ‘bread’.

It’s been a sad few years for bread, but happily, with a troop of new real bread bakers, and the advent of Real Bread Ireland, new standards are being set and customers are willing to seek out loaves worth eating that are good for your tastebuds and your gut.

A lot of the problems associated with bread eating are caused by the chemical treatment of the wheat while it is being grown and harvested.

Non-organic wheat is sprayed up to 10 times in the course of its life., including with sprays like Roundup, which is currently being banned by most countries due to its association with Alzheimer’s, colitis and many cancers. Roundup and other sprays also wreak havoc on your gut, so

If you decide to bake your own sourdough, pay the extra cents for flour milled from organically grown grains.

If you eat bread made from organic grains, you benefit from important B vitamins that are present in whole grains, not to mention important fibre too.

The benefits of baking your own sourdough bread are many: not only is it delicious, but it costs a fraction of what an equivalent loaf will cost from a baker of real bread.

You can bake four loaves for the price of one from an artisan baker, when you bake at home.

The first sourdough loaf I baked was all of one-inch tall, but I was still thrilled.

When I was researching my book Bread on the Table, I went to some of the best bakers in the country to learn how to bake in a way that I could easily replicate at home.

Joe Fitzmaurice of RiotRye in the Eco Village in Cloughjordan is my go-to man for the finest sourdough loaves, all made by his own two hands and baked in his wood-fired oven.

Joe passionately believes in our responsibility to feed ourselves well and is equally generous in sharing his baking methods.

Bread baking is a skill that anyone can have, it’s tremendously satisfying and few things will bring you more joy in cooking.

Standing around freshly baked loaves with my sons, waiting for one to be cool enough to slice and then slathering it with real butter, is a food experience that can’t be matched.

So many times when I talk about sourdough, or cooking in general I am met with the response of “but doesn’t it take a lot of time?”

Yes, sourdough takes time, but little effort. If you are someone who cares about your health and spend time looking after your health by being in the gym or out running, then there is time to bake.

These are the instructions, as I learned them from Joe Fitzmaurice. I have adapted Joe’s recipe to suit myself, but it still sticks to his guidelines. I have taught this method in many baking classes and get great feedback plus photos from baking students.

For instructional videos see

Sourdough bread recipe

For best results make your starter with organic rye flour. You can use spelt for the starter but it isn't really advisable for the loaf as it doesn't contain enough gluten to hold the loaf up, you really need wheat with the rye until you have practiced enough to play with different combinations. If you can get organic, unbleached strong white flour, this is the best for bread baking. Get some sea salt too.

To make your starter:

Although mason jars are pretty, they can explode when gasses build up so a plastic container is a safer bet. You will sometimes read about dividing your starter and discarding some of it. This is just for the practical reason of not ending up with too much. I have left out that stage here. Invest in a tiny bit of kitchen kit called a dough scraper, this helps you to scoop and divide dough and costs about a euro from kitchen supply shops. When baking bread, weigh your water like you weigh your flour, this ensures accuracy.

Day 1

Mix 25g rye flour with 25g water, use a plastic container with a lid and keep it overnight at room temperature or a hot press in winter.

Day 3

Add 25g rye flour and 25g water, mix well, cover and leave.

Day 5

Add 25g rye flour and 25g water, mix well, cover and leave.

Day 7

Add 25g rye flour and 25g water, mix well, cover and leave.

Day 8/9 and10

Add 25g rye flour and 25g water, mix and leave as above.

For the loaf:

12 hours before you use it refresh your starter. Do this by taking 100g of your starter and mixing it with 100g rye flour and 100g water, mix well and leave this overnight or for at least 12 hours.

This recipe makes two small loaves. I usually bake them in two cast-iron pots with lids. The volume of the pot should be about 3 litres, if one pot is bigger than the other, simply divide the dough unevenly.

For the loaf:

720g organic unbleached white flour

300g organic wholemeal rye starter

720g organic white strong flour

480g water

15g sea salt


1. In a mixing bowl bring together the sourdough starter, flour and water until all ingredients are wet and there are no large lumps. Cover bowl with a tea towel and leave for 30 mins.

2. After 30 mins: add salt to the mix and mix well to combine using your hand or dough scraper. Return the dough to a clean lightly oiled mixing bowl with the smooth side up.

3. After 30 mins: stretch dough out into a large rectangular shape, like a letter, and fold it over a few ties onto itself, to develop the gluten. Return the dough to a clean lightly oiled mixing bowl with the smooth side up.

4. After 30 mins: repeat stage 3

5. After 30 mins: repeat stage 3

6. After 30 mins: repeat stage 3 - this isn't a typo!

7. After 30 mins: divide the dough into 2 pieces, form into balls, place to one side to rest as you flour a cloth-lined pyrex dish, proofing basket or a cast iron casserole pot. Place the dough smooth side down in the pot and cover. Pre-heat the oven to 250C.

8. Repeat for your second ball of dough. You can also keep your second ball of dough in the fridge for up to 24 hours before baking.

9. After 90-120 mins: the dough should be ready to bake. Preheat your oven to 250C or as hot as it will go, for at least 30 minutes. Turn over pyrex dish so that it falls into the lid, remove cloth, slash dough with a sharp blade to allow it to expand in the oven. Replace pyrex bowl back over dough. Place in your hot oven. Or, take the lids off the casserole pots slash the dough with a blade and dust lightly with flour, pop the lids back on and put them in the oven.

10. After 30 mins: check if there is a good colour on the crust, remove pyrex bowl (on top), or the lid of the pot, and continue to bake for 10 more mins until good hard crust all round.

11. When your loaf is baked, remove from the dish and let cool on a rack. Enjoy every crumb!

Keep your starter in the fridge and the day before you want to bake, take it out and refresh it as above. Happy baking!

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