Thursday 21 July 2016

The big sourdough blog

It had to happen. I've been shying away from it for too long, and I make a poor coquette, especially where delicious, crispy carbs are concerned. The last push was when good friend, fellow supper-clubber and multi-talented Bee published some pictures of her new bread and offered to send me a jar of 'Homer' her own 'starter'. So this, finally, is the New River sourdough loaf. I've finally arrived at a bake and a recipe I want to reproduce.

The Etien seal of approval: morning toast.
I say it's morning, this is definitely his
breakfast but he's just finished his GCSEs
so this could have been any time of day.
Look, this has been quite a journey and I see no reason why I shouldn't take you all the way back with me. We'll need stout boots and some tissues. It's a long trek with much frustration, a good deal of education, some sadness and an injury. I'm very sure also that this blog will be one long hostage to fortune. Sure I'll read this in a year and wonder how I was capable of such idiocy.

As one of the most ancient of breads, sourdough has a widespread diaspora of starter superstition and baking lore, much of it, I suspect, is suspect. So what is sourdough? It's a light bread with a distinctive flavour, a well aerated but chewy texture and a very crisp crust. It makes the best toast. Etien, a fan of such, has given my produce his seal of approval (after much initial eye rolling and adolescent scepticism).

First that name. Why sour? Sourdough doesn't use brewers yeast like the vast majority of bread produced in the West. Instead it uses something called a 'starter' as a leavening agent. This is a mix of flour and water that's been left to collect the natural (but much weaker) yeasts that are present everywhere. However, a happy bacteria called lactobacillus also naturally occurs and it's this that gives the bread its distinctive flavour. Lactobacillus is also essential to the production of yogurt, cheese, pickles, cider and chocolate. This bacteria also means sourdough keeps for longer. I've had some for well over a week without a hint of mould.

Sourdough is disliked by large commercial bakers because it demands time and care. It is much, much slower to produce than a loaf of Mother's Pride and its Chorelywood kin. Consequently it tends to attract the description and price tag of 'artisan'. However, at home, it is the cheapest bread to make.

To begin and the beginning is to start with the starter. Presumably discovered by some lucky chap/ess who left some unleavened bread mix out and a week later saw the bubbles and baked it. Mind, not as lucky as the chap/ess who discovered the more watery version... and drank the world's first beer.

Anyone can make a starter but you need to begin the process at least a week before your first loaf. Mix together about 75g each of flour and water and leave to sit open, in a glass or plastic container. Every couple of days add more  equal weights of flour and water. You'll notice bubbles start to develop along with that distinctive, yeasty/beery smell. At the end of the week, the starter will no longer look liquid but will have a structure. if you fail to feed your starter, it will die.

I took a short cut. Bee sent me some of hers, named Homer (Doh!). So mine is called Bart. 

An active starter. This is Bart.
Of course you don't have to suffer this faff for every loaf. You only use a little of the starter, replacing the rest with a feed of flour and water. I keep mine in the fridge, feeding it every few days. You need to remove it to warm up a day before you plan to bake.

To knead or to stretch or to fold? Maybe all three? Who the hell knows? Some even claim to do nothing. Whereas normal bread can be easily kneaded by hand in ten minutes, sourdough is so wet that it takes much longer, scooping and scraping until the gluten starts to form and (finally!) brings some much needed body. Apparently there's baker in San Franscico (have I been reading too much about sourdough? Possibly) who kneads his bread and then stretches it on the hour for twelve hours. But think about how impractical that is. Bugger that. I'm afraid (I'm not) that if that was the required routine I would produce precisely zero loaves of sourdough. No, I used my KitchenAid and a dough hook. But even mechanically, this still takes 15 minutes until I get a smooth, silky, elastic dough.

Like a good martini, like a cup of tea, like a cheese sandwich, a sourdough only has three ingredients and yet, so many combinations. Some can be delicious, others disastrous. Ratios of starter to flour to water vary hugely. Some like a stiff dough, some soft. Salt is also key, not enough and you have a bland bread, too much will inhibit the yeast... and taste awful.

Traditionally sourdough is proved in a basket called a bannaton. This sounds like something Highlanders should play with hoops in the two weeks that counts as summer in Scotland. It's this ringed thing that gives sourdough the distinctive round grooves in the crust. Use of baskets predates the use of tins. Now, the dough is a wet sticky one and there are many tales told of frustrated bakers shouting at tenacious baskets, especially when new and unseasoned. Some use a floured cloth as a liner, as did I. For me, the real problem proving in a banneton is the perilous transfer at the end to the baking tray. It's a soft dough and it's almost impossible (so far) to avoid knocking some air out. Puh-loof! And hours of work are sat wasted in a puddle of dough. There seems to be no practical reason to stick with baskets and so I'm not. I'm going to prove mine in a tin!

Proving takes a long time. Some recipes call for a two hour rest and then a twelve hour prove. Again, this just isn't practical. Maybe it works in a 24 hour bakery but not in my home. Also, my own loaves seem fine after a mere seven hours.

So many variations on the bake. Often we're told to throw in a cup of water (a la baguette baking) into the oven to keep the crust soft to allow for better expansion. I haven't made enough loaves to see the difference but many bakers swear by it.

So that's the concept. Onto the trials. And, sorry, this is vague and rambling; many bakes across a couple of weeks that were punctuated by us having friends to stay, having the back room redecorated (yay!) and me going back and forth to Cardiff as I'm writing Casualty again (also yay).

#1 was just a proof of concept. Did the starter work? My banneton hadn't arrived so I proofed in a cake tin to produce this rather bizarre looking loaf. The structure was good but the interior seemed oddly coloured. No idea why.

#2 was made after my proving banneton had arrived. I also tried using a leaven: a starter that's been well fed and then left overnight. I also tried a longer bake in a casserole dish as many recipes claim this gives superior results. 

Good looking dough sitting in a well floured tea towel in my basket.

About six hours later. It looks like this.

Baked in my largest and best lidded casserole dish. Great finish but it was stuck fast!

So this was the result. Gah! I won't be using a casserole dish again. I know, I know. I should have made a smaller loaf but I didn't noticed any improvement in the texture or the crust.  In fact the crust was very thick. So much for steam. Family complained that the flavour was odd. Too sour.

#3 For some reason the interior was lighter in colour. No idea why. This version used less starter, so maybe that's why. Everyone liked the flavour of this. But these large loaves were taking ages to prove and seemed to collapse under their own weight. I decided to make a smaller loaf.

#3 outside

#3 inside

Not bad but you see at the bottom how it's denser? We can do better.

#4 and I'm very happy with this. Banneton proved for seven hours, simple mix without a leaven. I think I won't bother with a leaven. Just seems like more faff to no great result. I didn't bake it for long enough so the crust isn't dark. This was mainly because I put it in the oven at 3am and was desperate to go to bed. Another ten minutes would have been better. Great texture and flavour though. The ratio of starter to flour and water is key. My mate Bee uses a very simple and useful 1:2:3 mix - one of starter, two of water, three of flour. So do I now.

#4 and I'm wondering if there's too much hole and not enough bread?
#5,  #6 were tales of woe. #5 was, ahem, neglected and proved for about 18 hours. If nothing else, it did demonstrate that you could overprove sourdough. #6 was over kneaded because I turned on my KitchenAid and then unexpectedly watched a very funny episode of Man Down (the one with the fox in the skip) on 4od. If nothing else, it did demonstrate...

Actually it demonstrated that it is possible to gash your thumb on a sourdough crust. No joke. One injury.

#7 made in my new square tin but forgot to add salt. Binned.

At this point I'm beginning to realise that half the battle with sourdough is the antisocial hours. Half an hour to mix and knead, two hours to rest, a move to the baking tin and then a seven to eight hour prove. Half an hour to bake. That's most of a waking day. If, like me, you tend to wake when others are thinking about lunch, the bake happens very late at night, so I can't be out, or drunk. You have to plan your social life around sourdough. I want something simple. The sourdough loaf that requires me to do something every thirty minutes for six hours is the sourdough loaf that doesn't get made.

#8. Cut when still hot.
#8 and an end of sorts. I'm (currently) happy with this. Many traditionalist would not be. I don't care. It's a repeatable recipe. It uses a mechanical knead and it's an all metal prove. The final bread is square not round. It lacks the cute basket grooves. I don't care. It's light, delicious, not too sour and with a wonderful crisp, dark crust. It makes brilliant toast. I also like a shallow square loaf because it means I can cut many identical slices: useful for supper club recipes, less useful for sandwiches. But if you want to show off to bakers or hippies, this other recipe is probably your bag (and also a damn good explanation of the sourdough principles)

The New River square sourdough
Makes 1 approx  750g loaf

This takes no less than eleven hours.

Add 140g of starter to 420g bread flour. Dissolve 10g of salt in 280ml of tepid water. Mix. If using a mechanical device, 'knead' with a hook for around 15 minutes. If manual, good luck! I'll see you at the other end. We'll have a drink and tell tales of dough.

The dough should be smooth and elastic with a bit of a shine. It shouldn't stick to the back of your dry hand. If it does, beat in a little more flour. Cover the mixing bowl with clingy and leave to rest for an hour or two. This 'resting' is also called the autolyse where the flour absorbs the water and becomes fully hydrated. This is good apparently.

At this stage you can put the covered dough into the fridge and leave until the morning.

Once rested, transfer the dough to a floured surface to stretch and knead a little. Shape the dough into a ball, tucking the ends underneath itself. Sit the dough in a shallow, 9" baking tin. You could of course use a bannaton.

Prove for up to eight hours in a warm place. I don't cover mine. The dough should be filling the tin and doming over the top, like a beige pillow. Make a slash across the top (or not). Perhaps put a reminder on your fridge or your phone. It's easy to forget an eight hour prove.

Bake at 230°C in a fan oven for 25 minutes, turning once  after about 15 minutes. The bread should shrink away from the sides and sound very hollow. The crust should be firm and dark.


1 comment :

  1. I use a similar recipe but don't knead at all - I mix the bread in the evening - not too wet - just enough water to combine all the flour. Leave in a covered bowl overnight - becomes a v gloopy mess - tip into a pre heated cass dish lined with baking parchment & baked with lid on for half an hour then finish with lid off. Diff flours make diff starters - rye seems to make the best if quite sour. & I agree it makes the best toast ever!!