Lessons in Sourdough

Trio of sourdoughs

From top down: Arketana Bread, French Country Bread and Spelt Sourdough

Passion. It’s a word bandied around without much consideration for what it really means. People claim to be passionate about everything from golf to stamps. But do they really have an intense enthusiasm for these things or are they simply trying to prove they like something more than their neighbour?

Every now and then you encounter someone who really is passionate. In my case it was when I picked up a copy of Bread Matters by Andrew Whitley. This man really cares about the state of the UK’s bread. He is on a mission to wean us off industrial bread and to persuade us to bake our own bread or at least buy our bread from a reputable artisan baker. The force of his conviction jumps out of every page in this book which explains why modern bread is bad and strolls you through different types of bread making from sourdough to more complex sweet breads and gluten free baking.

So when I saw sourdough appear on the list of top 10 most difficult recipes to make it gave me a good excuse to try the variety of sourdoughs he provides recipes for in this book to find out which of these made the tastiest bread. This included creating starters based on rye flour, spelt flour, chickpea flour and wheat flour. Plus lammas is coming up this week which is another good excuse to bake some bread.

I think most people are perturbed at the idea of having to feed a starter (never mind four of them!) and this is what puts them off making sourdough. It is rather like nurturing a child only far less problematic (it doesn’t answer you back or refuse to eat it’s dinner for a start!). And of course sourdough takes a long time to develop although frankly not much effort is required on the part of the baker in the overall scheme of things.

Margo Elfstron (one half of the SaucyCooks.com who are also undertaking this challenge) described the starter as being “a little like bringing a drunken friend home from a bar.  It needs constant babysitting and smells like someone who went on about 50 brewery tours.” For several days my airing cupboard was occupied by a beery commune and I had to be acutely aware of adding the correct flour to each starter. However, after a few days I was ready to begin baking. With the exception of the rye bread (which Whitley recommends you bake in a tin) I used a proving basket to give the bread its shape.

Spelt Sourdough

As Whitley promised this flour was probably the easiest to start a natural fermentation. He adds a raisin mush (raisins soaked in water and then pureed) to his final dough to counteract the bitterness of the flour. The gluten in spelt flour is weaker than in wheat flour and the bran content also interfers with the formation of the gas bubbles. As a result this loaf didn’t expand as much as the others and was rather flat. In terms of taste, the raisin mush lent it a flavour vaguely reminiscent of malt loaf. It wasn’t unpleasant but I felt the others would be better.

Chickpea Sourdough 

This is Whitley’s version of Cypriot arkatena bread which he promises has a “hefty crust, chewy crumb and intense flavour”. The starter was extremely lively and pungent but was tempered with the addition of wheat flour on the third day. The final bread dough only contains 5 per cent chickpea flour but it is just enough to give the bread it’s distinctive flavour which is enhanced through the addition of fennel seeds (which may be a bit off putting for anyone not a fan of their aniseed flavour). It was an interesting loaf and delivered on it’s promises but I personally prefer a less chewy bread.

Wheat starter

Wheat starter

Wheat Sourdough

French Country Bread using a wheat starter is my all time favourite sourdough. It can take a while to get going but the eventual result is a deeply coloured, firm crust and a soft centre.

Rye Sourdough

This was an easy starter to get going and Whitley says it is the quickest to regenerate and the most resilient. For the final dough I used dark rye flour although you could use white rye flour. Rye bread has a deep flavour which goes well with smoked oily fish although the bread itself can be quite dense. I enjoy it on occasion but it isn’t a bread I would choose to eat every day.

Rye Bread

Rye Bread

So which starter is the best? As much as I like wheat based sourdough in the past I have had problems reviving the starter. Whitley recommends keeping a rye sourdough going (you can store it in the fridge between bakes) and provides a recipe for a loaf using this combined with wheat flour. It has a greater depth of flavour than a regular wheat sourdough but is lighter than 100 per cent rye bread. In other words you get the best of both worlds. I think it would also make a great accompaniment to the paella the SaucyCooks made this week as part of the recipe challenge!

The following recipe and recipes for all of the starters above are taken from Bread Matters.

Rye Starter

  • 25g Wholemeal (dark) rye flour
  • 50g water at 40°C

Method

  1. Mix the flour and water into a sloppy paste, preferably in a plastic tub with a lid. Press the lid down, or cover the bowl with a polythene bag, in order to stop the mixture skinning over or drying out. Place this somewhere warm (as near as a constant 30°C as you can manage) for 24 hours.
  2. The next day mix the same quantity of rye flour and water into the original starter mix and return to the warm place for a further 24 hours. Repeat this process again on days three and four after which time your starter will have bubbled up and subsided but smell fruity. This makes 300g rye starter which is more than you need for the final loaf but you can refrigerate the rest for another day.

Andrew Whitley’s Cromarty Cob

Cromarty Cob

Cromarty Cob

The production leaven

  • 150g rye sourdough starter
  • 100g stoneground wholemeal (wheat) flour
  • 100g strong white flour
  • 100g luke warm water

Method

  1. Mix everything together into a fairly firm dough at about 27°C. Cover and leave in a warm place for 3 – 4 hours. This rye-started leaven may ferment a bit quicker than an all wheat one. It is ready when it has expanded appreciably, but try to use it before it has collapsed back on itself.

Cromarty Cob dough

  • 200g strong white flour
  • 200g plain white flour
  • 7g sea salt
  • 200-250g luke warm water*
  • 300g production leaven from above

* Whitley uses 300g water in his recipe but I found the dough too soft so have reduced the amount.

Method

  1. Make a dough with all the ingredients except the production leaven. Knead until the dough feels springy. Then add the refreshed leaven and continue kneading for a few more minutes. At the end kneading the dough should be soft and stretchy and coming away from your hands, but it should not be so firm that it doesn’t stick to the worktop if left for a few seconds.
  2. Moisten an area of worktop with water, put the dough down on it, cover it with a bowl and leave for an hour to allow the gluten to relax.
  3. With one scraper in each hand, slip them under the middle of the dough, gently prising it from the table. Lifting the dough very slightly, stretch it away from you as far as it will go without forcing it and then fold it back on itself and let it rest on the main body of the dough.
  4. Do this again, this time getting hold of the “front” part of the dough piece and pulling it back on top of the main body of the dough. Repeat the action, stretching the dough to your right and finally to your left. You should end up with a tighter, more vertical pile of dough, at the same time squeezing out as little of the gas as possible.
  5. Ensure the inside of your proving basket is coated with flour. Carefully transfer the dough to the proving basket and cover with a large polythene bag, inflated so that it cannot touch the dough. Put it in a warm place to prove for 3 – 5 hours.
  6. When it looks as if it has expanded a fair amount, test the dough with gentle finger pressure. It shouldn’t be quivering like a jelly! It is ready to be baked when an indentation made by your finger disappears fairly slowly.
  7. Line a baking tray with baking parchment or a silicone liner. Cover the proving basket with the lined baking tray and flip over quickly. If necessary gently tap the outside of the basket to encourage the dough to come out. It may be reluctant but with a little gentle persuasion and patience it will come out eventually!
  8. Bake in a preheated oven at 220°C for 10 minutes then reduce the temperature to 200°C and bake for a further 30 – 40 minutes to ensure a good, deep coloured, firm crust. Cool on a wire rack before serving with lashings of butter!

What do I do with the left over starter?

I usually leave the starter in the fridge where it will sit happily for up to two weeks (if it is going to be any longer than this between bakes I would freeze it). Just before I want to bake another sour dough I refresh it by taking 50g of the starter and mixing it with 150g wholemeal (dark) rye flour and 300g of luke warm water. I leave this at room temperature (or a warmer place if you want things to progress quicker) for between 12 – 24 hours after which time it should be ready to use in your final dough.

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4 thoughts on “Lessons in Sourdough

  1. Pingback: Chicken, Chorizo, Shrimp and Mussel Paella | Healthy & Gourmet Cooking Recipes | SaucyCooks

  2. I literally just got finished kneading my sourdough and setting it out for its first rise. I bake every other day so my husband and I have enough bread for breakfast and lunch. I just have one starter (wheat) but I often use different flours with it so I don’t have to have four starters! It’s too hot here to leave them out on the counter and I don’t have the space in the refrigerator.

    Your loaves look fantastic. I haven’t made a rye bread with sourdough yet, so it’s definitely on the to-try list. Looking forward to Lammas–I’m making blueberry sourdough waffles.

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