Recipe: Sourdough

I have gone and done it. I have joined the craze that is making sourdough. In lock-down. Cliche? Probably. But that does not make it a bad idea. Perfecting sourdough is actually quite the art and what a better time to practice than when I have oodles of time and a 10 kilogram bag of flour to be used… it was all they had left at the supermarket! I have been putting off posting this recipe because I have by no means mastered it: each time I make it is basically a new experiment, although I must admit I haven’t had an experiment go wrong in a while now – touch wood.

First and foremost is acquiring a sourdough starter. Before lock-down, I had no idea that a starter was required to make sourdough. I also had no idea that sourdough doesn’t actually use commercial yeast. This is the whole purpose of using the starter, which is basically a natural (or ‘wild’) yeast that I have been keeping in our fridge for the past few months and ‘feeding’ on a regular basis. The starter is basically like a small pet – and unlike dogs, we are actually allowed them in our apartment. It is possible to make your own sourdough starter at home but I was fortunate enough to acquire one from a restaurant nearby. Having retrospectively done some research I think it would be easy enough to make yourself, but it was also convenient to skip that  process first time around.

Looking after your starter is as simple as these three steps:

  1. Store it in the fridge between use, otherwise it needs to be fed daily. It can last for about ten days in the fridge without being fed.
  2. Feeding the starter: first bring the starter to room temperature.  To feed it, double its current weight with half water and half flour. Stir and then cover. For example, if the starter weighs 50 g, give it 25 g water and 25 g flour. To be honest I don’t actually weigh mine, ever, I just do it by feel (and it has worked fine so far).  Leave the starter to sit for a few hours and over time it should rise and bubble. If it’s not doing either of those, give it a little bit more flour or water depending on whether it is looking too dry or too watery. It is possible to test if the starter is ready by taking a teaspoon’s worth of starter and dropping it in a glass of cold water – if it floats, it is ready.
  3. After the starter has risen and become bubbly, it is time to divide the mixture. Put half the mixture back in the fridge (this makes for next week’s starter) and the other half can be used in today’s sourdough. Alternatively, if you don’t want to make sourdough in any given week, just throw out this other half of your mixture (or gift it to friends).

I am no genius on starters but I have learnt they are quite resilient little things. It won’t die easily, so if it does not seem to be rising just feed it some more and wait a little longer. So much can affect the starter’s growth (for example room temperature, flour used, mineral content in water etc.) so I don’t yet know how to troubleshoot, although I highly recommend this guide which I have turned to in the past when I thought my starter was dying.

Now onto the bread. Making sourdough takes AGES, so it requires planning in advance. I have got into the habit of starting my sourdough on a Thursday afternoon, letting it rise overnight and then baking it first thing on a Friday morning. Once I go back to the office I will probably have to alter this, but for now it works well as it gives us fresh sourdough for Friday lunchtime and any homemade brunches or meals we might have over the weekend (if it lasts that long, honestly!). This is the time line that I follow when I make bread:

The night before:

  • 8pm: make the dough and rest for 30 minutes.
  • 9.30pm: first stretch and fold.
  • 10pm: second stretch and fold. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and leave it to rise overnight on the bench (approx 10-12 hours).

The morning of:

  • 8am: check the dough. Preshape.
  • 8.30am: Shape the dough. Second rise and preheat the oven.
  • 9am: bake.

The ingredients are simple. It is a good idea to weigh the ingredients until you get a better feel for how everything should feel. I noticed a definite difference when I changed the flours I was using, so try and keep whatever you can consistent.

Collect

  • 1/4 c starter, ready for use
  • 1 1/3 c water
  • 1.5 t salt
  • 4 1/4 c all purpose flour

Create

  1. The evening prior, whisk the starter and the water together in a large bowl. Add the flour and salt and then mix into a dough. It will be rough and shaggy and potentially slightly sticky. It need only be handled to the extent that all the flour is incorporated. Cover with a damp towel and let rest for 30 minutes.
  2. Work the dough into a ball. Stretch it, knead it, squeeze it. Roll it into a ball by grabbing a portion of the dough and folding it over, pressing your fingers into the centre. Repeat, working your way around the dough until it begins to feel firm. Keep working the dough until it feels stretchy and like elastic in your hands. It should be able to be pulled and not just snap or break away upon stretching. Add a tiny bit of flour or water here if necessary. I usually add a tiny bit of water because I have learnt that a slightly stickier dough yields better bread (in my opinion).
  3. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and let it rise. About 1 hour into the bulk rise, do a set of stretch and folds and a second round about 30 minutes later. These stretch and folds are entirely optional but will increase the volume of the dough. Then leave the dough to rise overnight at room temperature. The dough should basically double in size by morning – if it hasn’t, the room temperature might be too cold.
  4. Shape the dough. Line a bowl with a cloth and then sprinkle with flour. Remove the dough onto a floured surface. Shape the dough by starting at top and gently folding the dough into the centre. Rotate the dough and repeat. Continue until a full circle has been completed. Flip the dough so that the smooth side is facing up. Cover and rest for 30 minutes.
  5. After the dough has rested, flip it over and shape the dough again. Mold the dough into a ball. Place the dough into the lined bowl, seam side up. Cover with the cloth.
  6. Second rise. Rest the dough for almost an hour. If it looks puffy it is probably ready – note that it won’t double in size.
  7. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line an oven tray with baking paper.
  8. Score the dough by sprinkling the dough with flour and massaging it softly with your hands. Then using a small serrated knife making a series of shallow cuts across the dough. Transfer the dough to the baking tray.
  9. Reduce the heat to 425°F. Bake the dough in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes, covered. I usually use an upside down loaf tin.  Remove and then continue to bake for 30-35 minutes until golden brown.
  10. Cool for 1 hour before eating (yes, ONE hour! Otherwise it is more likely to be dense and gummy).

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