I’ve been promising to write up my lockdown-inspired introduction to sourdough for quite some time and as the gardening year draws to a close and the harvesting pressure is off, this is my moment. I have to confess that my inspiration came in the first instance from my son and daughter-in-law in Boston, who pointed me in the direction of a recipe they’d found online, after which I’ve followed my nose and adapted other online recipes – I’ll attempt to credit all the original sources as I go through and provide links to those pages.
I used to buy sourdough bread from my local wholefood shop or the deli in my village every few weeks, freezing half as a whole loaf is far too much for one. They came from the renowned Lighthouse Bakery in Robertsbridge, just down the road (now sadly no more since lockdown) or Judges Bakery in Hastings – and were delicious. I’d never thought of baking my own, thinking it sounded far too much faff, and in any event, I have a breadmaker (Panasonic – probably 20 years old and counting!), and am very happy with the bread it produces, usually overnight. I also use it with great success to make dough for focaccia, individual bread rolls and Stollen.
However, come the Covid lockdown back in March/April and suddenly we were facing restrictions: not only flour, but also yeast suddenly became really hard to get hold of. I tend to use the Dove’s farm organic yeast, which lasts ages, but typically I was nearing the end of a pack when the restrictions took hold. I managed to get a couple of sachets in one online shop, but started to worry that I would run out – and having to buy supermarket bread was not the route I wanted to go down! My very kind neighbour managed to get hold of various kinds of flour for me via online millers, so that wasn’t a problem, but yeast was becoming an issue.
As I’ve mentioned before, my elder son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter ended up staying with me during lockdown. My daughter-in-law is gluten-intolerant, but can tolerate bakes made with spelt flour and sourdough seems to be fine too. Sourdough is based on natural yeasts in the air and in the flour, which multiply in the feeding process and make for a dough that’s easier to digest. Hardly surprising then that my thoughts turned to sourdough when the yeast shortage was at its height. If the pages of Instagram and Twitter were to be believed, the world and his wife seemed to be experimenting with sourdough and it was about time I joined the throng! My younger son had caught the bug (sourdough not corona, I hasten to add!) a few weeks earlier and sent me the recipe they’d used. Local friends very kindly (and in a socially distanced manner, of course) passed on some of their sourdough starter to get me going. We were off! If you haven’t got a friend you can beg some starter from, you can make your own by following these instructions: just be aware that it will take 4-5 days before you can use it in the recipe below (but well worth the wait!).
Once you’ve got your starter, you can set to making your first loaf. I use this recipe from King Arthur Flour for no-knead sourdough bread, but I’m going to write it out again here for ease of reference and because I can include the tweaks and discoveries I’ve made in the process. Enjoy!
One thing to note before you start: this isn’t a quick process and planning is crucial. To have bread for Sunday lunchtime, you’ll need to start feeding the starter on Thursday evening. By Saturday evening your starter should be bubby and doubled in size, so you can make the dough and allow to rise overnight. On Sunday morning, you shape the dough, allow to rise one last time, score and bake – phew! It sounds a lot of effort, but once you’re into it, it really isn’t.
No-knead Sourdough Bread
50g bubbly, active starter (see first step below)
350g warm water
500g strong bread flour (+ extra to feed)
1 heaped tsp salt
If you’ve been given starter rather than making your own, you’ll need to feed it before starting your bread to make sure it is sufficiently bubbly and active. I store mine in the fridge between loaf-making sessions and it needs to be brought back to room temperature and fed before you can use it.
Feed the Starter
I use a tall plastic freezer container with a lid, but you could just as easily use a glass jar. Weigh the empty container and keep a note of what it weighs, then add 50g starter, 50g flour (I often use spelt or wholemeal spelt, but good strong bread flour, preferably organic, is fine) and 50g lukewarm water. Mix together well (I find a mini spatula is best so you can move down the sides and get to the bottom) and put the lid on. Put a rubber band around the container to mark where the starter is (to help tell when it doubles).
Leave the container out on the work surface in a warm room. The next morning, it should have risen above the rubber band and be bubbly. Feed by weighing the container, taking off excess starter other than the weight of your container + 50g and adding flour and water as above. Repeat morning and night over a couple of days (usually 3-4 times in total) until it looks really bubbly and has doubled in size – hence the rubber band! Don’t, whatever you do, throw away the “discard” when you take the starter off. Keep in the fridge and use in sourdough discard recipes – sounds awful, but they are absolutely delicious: see below for some examples and links.
Then use the recipe (start it at night and have it rise overnight for the next day). To recap, to have bread for Sunday lunchtime, you’ll need to start feeding the starter on Thursday evening. See above for schedule.
If you aren’t making bread soon, put the starter the fridge, where it keeps for a surprisingly long time without feeding. Ideally, I feed it about once a fortnight if not using, but it has been as long as four weeks with no ill effects! Just stir in any brown liquid that gathers on the top; it should still smell sweetly sour, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. The same applies to the discard container: store in the fridge, stir in any liquid and use as required.
Make the dough (finally!)
- In the evening, whisk 50g starter and 350g water together in a large bowl. Add 500g good, preferably organic flour and a heaped teaspoon of salt. Combine until a stiff dough forms, then finish mixing by hand to incorporate all the flour. The dough will feel dense and shaggy, and it will stick to your fingers as you go. Scrape out as much as you can. Cover with a damp towel and let it rest for 30 minutes.
- Feed your starter with fresh flour and water, and store in the fridge as usual.
- When the dough has rested, work it into a fairly smooth ball by getting hold of a portion of the dough and folding it over, pressing your fingertips into the centre. Repeat, working your way around the dough until it begins to tighten, about 20 seconds.
- Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and let it rise overnight at room temperature. This will take about 8 to 10 hours at 20°C. The dough is ready when it no longer looks dense and has doubled in size.
- In the morning, coax the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. To shape it into a round, start at the top and fold the dough over toward the centre. Turn the dough slightly and fold over the next section of dough. Repeat until you have come full circle. Flip the dough over and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, dust a bread proving basket (banneton) with flour (alternatively, you can use a bowl lined with a tea towel or greased greaseproof paper, then floured, but I found the dough often sticks after rising. Not a huge problem as it rises again in the oven, but the basket is so much better! The flour gets into the grooves and stays there, meaning the dough doesn’t stick to it when turned out). With floured hands, gently cup the dough and pull it toward you in a circular motion to tighten its shape. Using a bench scraper, place the dough into the basket or bowl, seam side up.
- Cover the bowl and let rest for 30 minutes to 1 hour. The dough is ready when it looks puffy and has risen slightly, but has not yet doubled in size.
- Preheat your oven to 220°C. Cut a sheet of baking paper to the size of your baking pot (I use a large (25 cm diameter) Le Creuset casserole dish), leaving enough excess paper around the sides to remove the bread after baking.
- Invert the basket or bowl over your paper-lined pot to release. Sprinkle the dough with flour and gently rub the surface with your hands. Using the tip of a small, serrated knife or a razor blade, score the dough with a pattern of your choice. This is easier said than done! You have to be quite firm and use a very sharp knife. I soon invested in a bread ‘lame’, but a clean Stanley knife would work just as well. Other tips include dipping the blade in water between cuts or spraying with cooking oil – I’m still a novice, but getting there.
- Bake the dough in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes, covered. Remove the lid, and continue to bake for 30 minutes. I find this is enough, but the original recipe suggests removing the loaf from the pot at this point and finishing off directly on the oven rack for the last 10 minutes to crisp the crust. I suppose a lot depends on your oven, but my crust is perfectly crispy enough without that final 10 minutes. When finished, transfer to a wire rack and cool for 1 hour before slicing. It freezes beautifully too and I still tend to freeze half when baking for my single household.
I love sourdough fresh with cheese and cold meats, toasted with homemade soup, or sliced and served as bruschette with chopped fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic for the perfect summer lunch.
As for the inevitable discard, I almost think this is the best part of the whole process. Rather than throwing it away (what a waste!), you can use it in a whole host of recipes from pancakes and crumpets, to sourdough crackers and pizza, and of course hot cross buns and cinnamon rolls. Again, I find the recipes on the King Arthur Flour Sourdough Discard page excellent: I’ve yet to come across one that hasn’t been great. I’ll leave you to experiment, but particularly recommend the sourdough pizza dough, cinnamon raisin loaf and crumpets. I’ll post my recipe for sourdough cinnamon buns very soon.