Saturday, 25 April 2020

The sourdough debacle.

A damn fine looking loaf. But is it worth the effort?
I've never sworn so much in the kitchen. How can that be? Sourdough has just three ingredients: flour, water and salt. Just like the perfect martini it's all in the mixing. You have to understand your ingredients. What follows isn't so much a recipe as a campaign diary: the bread wars. This is a love letter sent from the farinaceous front. 

My aim was to create a method of producing a useful family loaf that was simple, predictable and not too onerous. I finally have one. You've heard the joke? "How come you weren't at your daughter's wedding? Couldn't go. I was baking my sourdough." But it's not funny because it is true. I have witnessed recipes for loaves that take seventy two hours and have myriad stages at hourly intervals. FOR A LOAF OF BLOODY BREAD! That's not something I will ever make. Three days for a sandwich. Nah.

That said... here we go... mine takes at least a day and could take longer, but that's only to work around your schedule. This is not exhaustive. I am not claiming my method is better or in any way definitive. Some of what I do will make the orthodox curse. However, my principles are sound. All I will say is it works for me and produces, consistently, the loaf below.

This is how this blog's going to work: first a description of sourdough and a naming of parts. Next some of my key observations for the newcomer. Also, some piece of kit you will need. Lastly the actual method. Hopefully a few laughs along the way. I will illustrate each key moment, all from the same loaf. I didn't cheat.

What is sourdough. Basically it's a form of middle-class one-upmanship... OK, it's not. (It is.) It's also the oldest form of bread, risen not with commercial yeasts but with naturally occurring yeasts (in the flour). With the yeasts there are also naturally occurring bacteria called lactobacilli that ferment the dough and create lactic acid which flavours the bread and strengthens the structure. These bacteria are also used to produce cheese, yoghurt and kimchee. Sourdough is different and distinct in texture and flavour and in creation. Typically you have a dark brittle crust and a well aerated interior, often called the crumb, that is soft but chewy and almost translucent.



Terminology. Sourdough has a lore of its own. Much of it seems to be there just to make life difficult. Why prove the dough in a basket and not a smooth bowl? There are many terms thrown around, often in French and Latin for some reason. The two key words though are starter and hydration.

- The starter. Much nonsense talked about this. I suspect this is the one block to many people's sourdough ambitions.The starter is a mix of bread flour and tepid water, usually 50/50, that has been allowed to start to ferment. To make a starter you mix 100g of water and flour in a jar and allow to stand for a day covered with a cloth or loose fitting lid. Next day throw away 150g of the mix and add 75g each of new flour and water. Mix well. You will soon see the mix bubble and froth. Repeat this each day for about a week. Ta dah: your starter. From here on, the starter (like all living things) has to be fed and watered.
My flour. All 16kg of it.

I keep my starter in the fridge and replace what I remove with equal weights of flour and water. I am not having my social life held to ransom by a jar of paste.

Masses of videos on YouTube if you need more info. Most overcomplicate things.

- Hydration. The amount of water added to the flour. Sourdough is typically much wetter than a yeast based dough. This is often expressed as a 'baker's ratio'. A loaf made with a kilo of flour and 700g of water is 70% hydration. The wetness of the dough can make it difficult to manage - hence my swearing. My method with this flour (left) is 60% hydration. I used to worry this meant I wasn't a committed baker, but I'm over that now. I'm writing this while the UK is still in Covid lockdown which means I can't experiment with different flours even if I wanted to.



As promised, some key observations.

Flour. It's all about the flour. My big hint is stick to one type of flour, one brand, for the first few loaves. Buy good flour. Look for a high protein content; a 'strong' flour that will develop lots of gluten. Doubtless a master baker could make decent bread out of rubbish flour. We can't. Go quality and stay there.

Different flours absorb different amounts of water. The higher the protein content, the more water is absorbed. Different grains react differently. Bakers often mix wheat with rye. Wholemeal is another world. This is why I recommend you buy a big bag and stick with it. Master the techniques before moving on.

You will make mistakes. You may throw bits of dough in anger. Your kitchen will end up splattered with floury water. Try not to get too depressed. If you do weep, don't do it over your dough. That only makes matters worse.

Sourdough is far more forgiving than yeast dough. It can take more abuse. So long as you can form it into some kind of ball and bake it, the results will be edible. Usually. Even dense blocks will toast into reason. The birds will love you anyway.

How you shape and handle the dough is really important. You will need to tension the dough before you bake it. This means stretching it over and under itself to form a ball that holds its shape. If you don't, the dough will simply flow and the rise will be limited when you finally bake it. It'll also be difficult to handle during the making.

If it isn't working for you, don't be scared to reduce the amount of water. I did by 10%. It was night and day. Remember different recipes use flours that you're probably not. They may be more absorbent. Add more water as you grow in experience and learn to handle a higher hydration dough.

Environmental temperatures matter. Sourdough reacts to its environment. In a warm room, things will happen more quickly than in a cool.



Kit. I wouldn't attempt to make this bread without these things. They're all cheap and readily available.





    • Water spray - Keeping your dough moist and for creating steam in the oven.
    • Bannaton - The name given to the proving basket. You could just use a large bowl. Many people do.
    • Cloth - To cover the bowl and to line the bannaton.
    • Deep bowl - For the mix and fermentation stages.
    • Dough scraper - To, er, scrape dough.
    • Bench scraper - To scrape dough off your work surface. And to lift unbaked loaves. If you try and lift from the top you will just stretch the dough into a sticky mess. Also good for scraping up excess flour. Larger better.








    My method.

    I recommend you watch this video to see how to handle the dough and how to lift and fold properly. Jack Sturgess has great hands. Here he takes you through a loaf from start to finish. He's a bit too damn perky for me but clearly knows exactly what he's doing. His method is different to mine.

    There are several stages common to almost all sourdoughs. These are:
    Autolyse - Mixing flour and water and allowing the water to be absorbed.
    Stretch and fold - Not kneading but similar.
    Bulk Fermentation - Creating organic acids and carbon dioxide in the dough
    Shaping - Adding tension to the dough so it maintains its shape and doesn't just flow. 
    Rise - Allowing the dough to increase in size before final baking
    Bake - Stick it in the oven. Ah, but even this isn't simple.

    This makes a large round loaf of around a kilo.
    You'll need 600g of flour. 360g of tepid water. 60g of 50/50 starter. 12g of salt.
    This is a 24hr process that requires about an hour of labour in total. The rest of the time is just dough in a bowl.

    I take my starter straight out of the fridge. I know it breaks the code and I don't care. 

    1. AutolyseIn a large bowl, mix your starter (straight from the fridge) and tepid water first (around 20°C) then add the flour and salt and combine thoroughly. This comes together as a shaggy mass. That is the technical term yes. It may feel dry but don't be tempted to add lots more water.

    Cover with a cloth and leave for 40 minutes.


    Really? This? REALLY. I know yeah. But yes. This is stage one.
    2. Stretch and fold. I use a large bowl partly to minimise mess. One does tire of having to clean one's kitchen four times in one hour. 

    When you lift the cover of your dough it should look very different. The water has now been absorbed and the dough will feel sticky and shiny. Wet your hands with warm water and in the bowl lift up one side and pull it over to the other. Turn the bowl and repeat seven times. The dough will change as you do this. You're developing the gluten structure. If your hands get sticky, scrape off the dough, wash and re-wet them. Dry hands make for very difficult stretching.




    Cover with a cloth and leave for 20 minutes.

    Repeat this three more times. Each time you come back to the dough you should find it more elastic and so able to be stretched further.




    At the end of the third stretch and fold, tuck the dough's edges underneath itself and place folds down in the bowl. A little spritz of water and cover with the cloth. Leave this for around 12 hours in a cool room.

    3. Bulk Fermentation. This is giving the lovely yeast and bacteria lots of time to do their thing: adding acids for flavour and structure and carbon dioxide bubbles to leaven the bread. Temperature affects the process so a very warm day will take less than 12 hours. Poke your finger into the dough and watch. It's ready when it slowly plumps back into shape. It should look and feel like a plump pillow.




    4. Shaping. First flour your cloth. Put it on the work surface and rub all over with flour. Then place in your bannaton or bowl. 

    When the dough is ready, scrape it out onto a lightly floured surface. Lightly dust your fingers and the dough with flour. Do a few more stretches and folds. What? I know. This can look like an instruction to 'make a model of the Taj Mahal in porridge'. Experience does count here. Sorry. 

    Be gentle and tender. It shouldn't be too sticky. If it is, persevere but don't add masses of flour. You want to avoid folding in raw flour as it isn't pleasant to eat and stops the loaf bonding. That said, I've made all these mistakes but still baked and ate the bloody thing.


    Tensioned dough. You wouldn't believe how much I'm enjoying this photo.
    Lift the dough up, dust lightly with flour and place folds side up in your floured and lined bannaton or bowl.

    Place the bannaton in a plastic bag to prevent drying. Some people use shower caps stretched over the basket.




    5. Rise. Leave in a cool place for another eight to twelve hours. You're not looking for the dough to double in size, just to take on some volume. It will feel light and plump.

    You can take longer if you put the dough in the fridge. Anything up to 24 hours. Bakers call this retarding. Basically the chill slows down the bacterial processes.

    6. Bake. Preheat your oven to 260°C or as hot as it will allow. I arrange my oven like this: with a shallow tray for water to create steam and an inverted cast iron pan to go underneath the baking tray. Why? Steam prevents the bread from crusting over too soon so allows for a larger oven rise. The cast iron pan is instead of a baking stone; it gives a big punch of heat to the bottom of the bread making the gases rise and crisping up the bottom crust.




    Now you have to transfer your lovely plump pillow to the baking tray. This is where it can all go horribly wrong.

    Dust a baking tray lightly with flour. Place the baking tray on the top of your bowl or bannaton and tip upside down. Remove the bannaton, leaving your dough sat on the baking tray covered with the floury lining cloth. Gently lift off the cloth. If it sticks, ease it away with a floured scraper. If disaster happens and it completely sticks, fold the dough back into a shape and re-tension. Honestly, this works.

    Even if it doesn't stick it will 'flow' and flatten a little. Don't worry.


    Hooray. Didn't stick.
    Slash the top of the loaf. Either a long shallow cut or a series of smaller incisions. Or try this! This allows for expansion and prevents the bread splitting at the sides. I use a scissors but bakers use razor blades, called a lame (pronounced lamĂ©). My slashes invariably 'heal'. I don't know why.

    Pour a cup of water into the now very hot shallow tray to create steam. Careful! put the baking tray on the inverted pan or stone if using. Shut the door and reduce the temperature to 240°C for ten minutes. Now turn the bread in the oven and bake for another ten minutes. After this. Turn again and reduce the temperature to 220°C and bake for 20 minutes more. You want a deep brown colour.

    The bread should have a gorgeous, glossy crust and the bottom should tap like a drum. The loaf should crackle like a bonfire when you handle it. Careful, I've actually cut my lip on a shard of sough dough crust.

    Leave the bread for half an hour before cutting. If you do so earlier, you'll see steam billowing out. That's lost moisture. Better to allow the bread to reabsorb this.





    Let's set this all out again with clearer timings.

    Mix ingredients in bowl into a shaggy mass and allow to autolyse.
    Leave for 40 minutes.

    Lift and fold dough in bowl with wet hands.
    Leave for 20 minutes.

    Lift and fold dough in bowl with wet hands.
    Leave for 20 minutes.

    Lift and fold dough in bowl with wet hands.
    Leave for 20 minutes.

    Lift and fold dough in bowl with wet hands.
    Leave for 12 hours.

    Pour dough on floured surface and shape with floured hands.
    Place in lined bannaton or shallow bowl.
    Leave for about 8 hours.

    Preheat oven to 260°C
    Turn out onto floured baking tray.
    slash loaf.
    Pour water into shallow tray to create steam.
    Reduce temperature to 240°C.
    Bake loaf for 10 minutes.
    Turn.
    Bake loaf for 10 minutes.
    Turn and reduce temperature to 220°C
    Bake for 20 minutes.

    Allow to cool for 30 minutes on a wire rack - this keeps the bottom crisp.

    If we include five minutes for each lift and fold, the shaping and the pre-bake, that's about 23 hours and 20 minutes. Was it worth it? I hope so. The toast is epic.







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