Sourdough as a subject matter is emotive. It is personal, as you will understand if you’ve ever been on the journey. It is also likely to spark excitable and sometimes heated debate amongst people from all walks of life – as Sourdough is also accessible to all, and especially during these times of ‘excessive home living’ AKA ‘lockdown’ many a novice baker has turned their hand to the art of Sourdough. In fact I bet at any socially-distanced gathering of late, if you’d casually dropped into conversation “Oh, I decided to have a go at making sourdough bread” at least one other person in the room will have gleefully shouted “Me too, me too!” At this point you will have embarked on an over-zealous account of how your starter is and which flours you have used, despite the pained glances from everyone else- who aren’t initiated into the Sourdough secret society.
‘Real’ bakers are possibly appalled at the amount of middle-weight homemakers (such as myself) who now consider themselves ‘Sourdough Experts’ having baked a total of a dozen or so imperfectly perfect loaves. For sure, Instagram is rife with arty photos of the stuff as it is experiences a resurgence of popularity among the masses. And why not? Sourdough is GOOD for you. It can be classed as a ‘low gluten’ option, a fermented food that is good for the gut microbiome (good bacteria) and packs a nutritional punch too.
I make no apologies – the information you are about to receive is my personal account, my own findings along the journey of Sourdough. And if you haven’t read my post about how to make your own Sourdough starter then you should start here with my blog post; ‘How to Make a Sourdough Starter – for People Who Can’t Bake.’
THE INSTRUCTIONAL BIT
If you now have a beautiful Starter that is more bubbly than Barbara Windsor then what you need to do next is have a go at making some actual bread.
I normally work using ‘bakers’ percentages.’ This is the formula:
800g water – 80% (of flour)
150g starter – 15% (of flour)
20g salt – 2 % (of flour)
In a nutshell, whatever amount of flour you begin with, if you stick to the percentages for the rest of the ingredients you are pretty much onto a winner. This formula gives you 80% hydration which in ‘sourdough speak,’ is decent. Your dough will be wet and sticky and hard to shape so if you want an easier option to start with feel free to take the water down to about 70% and see how you get on.
Make your dough by adding the flour and water to a bowl. Hold off on the starter and salt for now, you want to let this mixture sit for about an hour. The technical jargon for this part of the process is ‘Autolyse.’ You probably won’t witness much occur during the Autolyse phase so don’t sit and stare at it. Calmly go about your business for now.
When an hour has passed now is the prime time to add your Sourdough Starter along with the salt. Once it’s all in the bowl you can gently fold it in using your hands. Stretch and fold the dough in the bowl until it’s all together and then cover and leave for 30 minutes.
Stretch and fold – this is a technique you will benefit from looking up on YouTube. This video will help. You should do this every half an hour (in the bowl) for the next 2 or 3 hours. Time to go and watch a Netflix series with episodes approximately 30 minutes or length.
Before you know it, it will be time for the first proofing. Exciting!
Once you have done your final stretch and fold, just let it sit in the bowl (covered with cling film or towel) – somewhere warm is nice but don’t put it in the oven whatever you do, no matter how tempting it is to speed up the process.
The first prove could take a few hours. Depending on variables such as the temperature of the room, how active your starter is and so on, this part could take anywhere between 2-4 hours. You’re looking for dough that has doubled in size.
Next you want to shape the loaf. Yes, you almost have a loaf! But this is where the skilled bit comes in. If you’re like me what will happen is this; you will turn the dough out onto your lightly floured surface and it will spread out like Jabba the Hutt. You’ll try and lift one side to fold it over and the whole mass will collapse drunkenly back again. Again with the YouTube video for this bit please! There’s this tidy little plaiting motion they all do that I never achieve even with all of the tools. ‘Shape’ the blasted thing as best you can and then leave it there. Discard it like a bad date and walk out (another 30 minute episode of your new favourite Netflix show will help here.)
This phase is called ‘bench rest.’ You are letting the gluten do it’s thing – even if you do have to keep checking to see if it’s flopped off the edge of the worktop. Note: professionals don’t have to watch it, only me.
It is time for the second proving. Shape your gelatinous lump once more and transfer it to a sourdough proving basket. I purchased one but don’t use it, I prefer to stick it back in the bowl… but if the basket works for you, by all means go for it. If your dough is of a nice consistency it will help with the shape.
Let it sit AGAIN. I make no bones about this, creating sourdough takes time. Lots of time. The amount of time you spend actually doing anything to your doughy friend (that sounds wrong somehow) is very little. But there is a lot of waiting, more than at the average wedding. In order to make sourdough you really want to be home or close to home for the best part of a day. Don’t make sourdough on School Sports Day or any other occasion when you’re likely to have to be somewhere. A large-item Amazon delivery day, is perfect for making Sourdough.
Right, so now your sourdough is sitting (proving) for a couple more hours at least. If it’s now evening, feel free to stick that sucker in the fridge overnight. It will be OK. The cool temperature of the fridge will slow things down a bit but the extra time it will spend in there will make up for that. Hopefully you will wake up to a sizeable, springy ball of dough that is ready to play.
If you’re not putting it in the fridge overnight but are still awake at this point then every hour or so you want to perform the ‘poke test.’ To do this, simply gently poke a finger into the dough and as you release it you should see the dent rise back (but not fully), leaving a shallow dent. At this point you know the dough is optimal for baking.
We are nearly there! It’s almost time to bake.
The next important stage is preparing the oven. Sourdough is best baked in a dutch oven. This can be a large earthenware pot or a casserole with a lid – it just needs to have a lid to let the steam circulate and help the bread rise and create a beautiful, crispy crust. This needs to go in the oven (empty with the lid on) for about 45 minutes at a high temperature. My oven only goes to about 240C/464F so I whack the knob round as far as it will go. I think the general preferred temperature is around 260C/500F so if you have a good oven then by all means try it. Testing different baking conditions is all part of the journey.
When your oven and pot are red hot, you want to remove your dough from it’s final proving basket/bowl onto a sheet of greaseproof/non stick baking paper. Carefully drop it into your dutch oven and score the top with a sharp knife. All manner of beautiful designs can be achieved once you know you are doing. Sourdough loaves can literally become works of art! Check out some beautiful examples here.
If you have a cheap oven that leaks heat like mine and you’re baking at around 240C then do so for approx 40 mins with the lid on and then remove the lid for a further 2-30 minutes or until you have a dark crust. If you can be patient enough to wait until it looks really dark, almost burnt looking, that is even better. When you saw into your finished loaf little bits of shrapnel will fly off so watch your eyes – I am speaking from experience. Sourdough in the eye is never good, although IS sign of a great crust.
If you have a ‘good’ oven and are baking at a higher temperature I would recommend going with 2o minutes lid on, and 20 minutes lid off, and see how you get on.
The very final step is possibly the hardest of all because it requires a great deal of restraint. Once your loaf is baked and out of the oven, transfer it to a cooling rack. If you tap the bottom it should sound hollow. But (and here’s the rub) you can’t eat it yet. Oh no you really can’t no matter how tempting it is to slice through and see those wonderful air holes and spongy texture! It will call to you. The scent will drive you to madness. But. Just. Wait! If you cut into your loaf too soon you risk spoiling the internal structure. When you can’t resist any longer, do eat it warm though, with plenty of butter or olive oil. Oh, and watch out for the flying shrapnel.
Look at you! You just made Sourdough bread!
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