How to Make Sourdough Bread

Perhaps you would like the satisfaction that comes from providing your family a superior loaf, or you are looking to save some money – in any case, making Sourdough is a simple process.  It will take time and devotion, but that’s what makes it so special.

This recipe is inspired by the Sourdough recipe in Paul Allam and David McGuiness’ book Bourke Street Bakery.  As it does take a fair amount of time, it makes sense to get a fair amount of output.  For me this is about three to four loaves.  It is good fresh for a couple of days and then toasted for quite a few more.  If you would like to get the crunch back, put the loaf, wrapped in foil, in a low oven for about 15 minutes. You can also store a loaf in the freezer as it keeps very well.

You don’t need much equipment for this venture. If you have an automated baking machine, all the better, not to cook the loaf, but to help you with the kneading.  Yoke Mardewi, author of Wild Sourdough, suggests this and it works very well. Of course, you can always use muscle power!

You will need some mature sourdough starter for this recipe.  Please see my post How to Make a Sourdough Starter for details.

Sourdough Bread

Makes 3-4 free form batons (loaves).
Timeframe – start this process 2 days before baking.

Day 1 – Strengthen the Starter

Your starter may have been sitting in the fridge for a while, so it will need to be “woken up” and fed before it can be used to produce a gorgeous loaf. The process takes about 2-3 minutes for each of three feeds, so this is a very small time commitment.

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups good quality plain flour, ideally organic
1 1/2 cups non-chlorinated water or spring water

Method
Start in the morning. Remove your sourdough container from fridge. Feed the starter with 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water.  Stir well with spoon and replace lid.  Leave at room temperature.  Repeat the feeds twice more, at around 6 hour intervals.  Leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 2 – Shape the Loaves and Prove

The starter will now be bubbly and will have risen in the container.  It should have a pleasant yeasty smell.

You will need around 3 hours for the full process, so keep close to home.  I often combine this process with other domestic tasks – or possibly making cheese, which also takes about the same amount of time.  I am assuming that you are using some kind of machine to help with kneading, if kneading by hand, just double the times.

You will need a large tray to contain the dough while it is proving and a large clean tea towel or baking paper. A scale will also be helpful for measuring the quantities.

Ingredients
600g (1lb 5oz) prepared sourdough starter
600ml (20fl oz) non-chlorinated water, or spring water
1.14kg (2lb 8oz) bakers flour
2 tablespoons non-iodised salt or fine sea salt

Method
Start this process in the morning.  Place a large bowl on the scale and measure out the sourdough starter.  Do not use all the starter.  Ensure that you have at least 3 tablespoons left in the container.  This will be used for making your next batch of sourdough.  Add two heaped tablespoons of good flour and 3 tablespoons of water and mix well in the container.  Leave at room temperature for about 1/2 hour and then place the container in the fridge.

Add water and flour to the starter in the large bowl.  Mix with a large wooden spoon, until mixed together.  It will be a rough dough at this stage.  Scrape the dough into the bowl of the baking machine or electric mixer.  If your bowl is too small for the amount of mixture, you may need to divide the mixture in half and process each half separately.

The next step is to knead the dough.  Set the baking machine on the mix only (usually pasta) setting or use the slow mix setting with dough hook on the electric mixer. Mix the dough until well combined and then increase the speed to form a smooth dough.  In total the time is about 7 minutes.  Cover the bowl loosely with cling wrap and rest the dough for 20 minutes.

Add the salt to the dough and mix the dough for about 7 minutes.  Test the dough to see if it has sufficient elasticity.  Take a small ball of dough and roll in your palm.  Stretch out the dough between your two hands. If it stretches well and quite thinly and does not break, it is ready.  If it is too delicate, continue to mix for a few more minutes and then test again.

Lightly grease a large bowl with oil spray. Remove dough from mixing bowl and place into the large greased bowl.  Cover with cling wrap and a tea towel.  Place in a warm spot to rest for 1 hour.

Scrape out the dough from the bowl onto a large bench.  Press down and stretch the dough to form a large rectangle. Fold the dough into three, by lifting and folding one end of the dough to the centre and then pull the other end on top. Repeat in the opposite direction.  It should look like a folded parcel.  Place the dough back into the large bowl and cover with cling wrap and tea towel.  Place in a warm spot for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, prepare the proving tray.  Cover a large tea towel well with flour. Place in the base of a large tray.  Pleat the tea towel to form furrows. Alternatively, you can use baking paper instead and pleat the paper as for the towel, however, do not add flour.

You are now ready to shape the dough. Here is my suggestion for a free form loaf shape. Using a dough scraper, divide the dough into 3 or 4 equal pieces.  The scales may be helpful here.

To shape the dough, firstly roll the dough into a ball, then shape into a long baton shape.  If using a tea towel, place the dough in a furrow, seam side up (upside down).  For the baking paper, place the dough seam side down.  Repeat with each loaf.

Enclose the tray with a large bag or two as needed.  The plastic bag will encourage a humid environment to develop which allows the dough to rise well.  Place the tray in the fridge and leave until the next morning. Keeping the dough at a low temperature will slow down the development of the yeast.  This allows the flavour and texture to fully develop in the dough.

Day 3: Baking the Bread

The end is now in sight, you can almost smell the bread…
You will need two baking sheets and a spray bottle with water.

Ingredients
Prepared Dough
Fine Semolina or Polenta

Method
The next morning remove dough from fridge and allow 2-3 hours for the dough to come back to room temperature and finish rising.

When you are ready to cook the bread, preheat the oven to 220°C (430°F).  Place the trays to heat in the oven.  If you have a warming oven, this is a great place to put the dough, still covered, while you are waiting for the main oven to heat up.

Remove dough from the warming oven (if using) and uncover.  Sprinkle a generous amount of semolina on the top of the dough.  If using the tea towel method, gently flip over a loaf from the tea towel onto a paddle or board.  Then slide from the paddle onto the heated baking tray.  Repeat quickly with other loaves.  If you have been using the baking paper, just lift the bread with the paper and place directly on the heated trays.  Leave at least 3cm between each loaf for spreading.

With a sharp knife, slash each loaf in 2-3 places to about 2 cm deep.  This will prevent the dough cracking and enhance the look of the loaf.

Quickly spray inside the oven with water, not directly on the dough, but around the sides and roof and base of the oven.  This will create steam and allow the dough to rise quickly in the heat.  Close the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Rotate the loaves, so that they cook evenly and then continue to cook for 10-15 minutes until the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the base.

Remove the loaves to a cooling rack and allow to cool for at least 1 hour. The loaf will continue to cook inside during this time.

Enjoy!

Photos: Sophia Poulos.  All rights reserved.

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How to make a Sourdough starter

Starters are really a magical thing, almost like discovering that simple detergent and water is used to make wonderful bubbles. You are harnessing the wild yeasts in the air, and if that sounds slightly dangerous, don’t worry.  This has been done for hundreds of years and likely by your own ancestors. In Greece, the starter dough is called “prozimi”.  The holy water obtained from the Epiphany service was used to start the batch of dough each year.  However, holy water is not essential, room temperature non-chlorinated water will work well.

The starter is used to inoculate the bread dough with a healthy pre-prepared colony of micro organisms which will give your bread a wonderful flavour, crust and aroma.

Yeasts are present in a dormant state in flour.  The water that is added gives life to the yeasts to start multiplying.  The yeasts feed on the starches present in the flour and grow.  They release a gas which is indicated by the bubbles.  It is these bubbles that give the airy texture of bread. How fabulous!

Wholemeal flour has a greater proportion of wild yeasts since it is not as refined as white flour.  Organic flour is very good also, but tends to be a lot more expensive.  I tend to compromise on using a mixture of wholemeal flour and good quality white or organic white flour for feeding the starter.  I use unbleached bakers (high gluten) flour for the actual bread dough.  This results in bread that is mainly white, with a touch of wholemeal.

The chlorine present in most tap water will negatively impact your starter.  It is best to remove it from the water, by boiling the water or standing the water for at least 1/2 day (or overnight) so that the chlorine evaporates.  Spring water may be used too.  I do not recommend using distilled water or soda water, as the idea is to use water in as close to natural state as possible.

The process involves feeding and discarding the starter.  This may seem somewhat wasteful, but it is only required for the startup phase.  What you are doing is concentrating the colony of micro organisms while reducing the chance of the mix being overly acidic.

This method is low tech – all you need are some basic items to start.  Exact quantities are not so important, I usually measure by sight alone.

There is just one more ingredient needed and it is not found in the pantry, but in you, and that is “patience”.  Without this, there is less chance of success.

Sourdough Starter Recipe

You will need a lunch box sized plastic container with lid.

Ingredients

Wholemeal flour (good quality, but not necessarily organic)

Water (non-chlorinated), ideally spring water, at room temperature

Method

Day 1

Sterilise the plastic container and lid, by either boiling it or wash it using the hot cycle in your dishwasher.  Allow to air dry (do not wipe).

Add 1 cup flour and 1 cup water.  Stir until well mixed.  Keep starter at a comfortable room temperature (around  15-25 deg C).

Day 2

Remove half the mixture and use it to make Sourdough Pancakes or add to compost.  The excess starter can be accumulated for a few days (keep separate to your starter container).

Add 1 cup flour and 1 cup water to the starter.

Days 3-5

Repeat Day 2 process.

Day 6

The starter should be healthy and bubbly.  If it is not quite bubbly, you can continue for up to four more days.

You can now use the starter for making bread.

Or, if you are not ready for breadmaking, you will need to store the mixture in the fridge.  The cold environment will slow down the fermentation process so that the starter will need less feeding.

Storing the Starter

Remove all the mixture except about 1/2 cup. Once a healthy starter has been developed only a small amount is needed to be used for future batches.

Add 1 cup flour and 1 cup water to the starter, close the container with lid. Leave at room temperature for about an hour so that the starter can get a start on the new food. Store the container in the fridge. It may be stored in the fridge for a least a week or two.

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Troubleshooting

No bubbles after 10 days.  This isn’t good. Please check your ingredients are good quality.  Try another brand of flour.  If it is especially cold, you may need to move the starter to a warmer place.

Too many bubbles, container is overflowing.  You may need a larger container! Also check the temperature of the room is not too warm.

Tending the Starter

Some time ago I set myself a target – to make good sourdough.  Seems reasonable enough, I love cooking and experimenting with different cooking techniques.  But what happened was unexpected.  It opened a whole new world for me, the world of fermentation.  This lead me on a journey towards cheesemaking too (I’ll save that for another post).  But back to sourdough.

I tried a recipe from the Internet from a well known personality, but did not have much success.  I picked up the Bourke Street Bakery book by McGuinness and Allam, and with a bit of patience I was off and running.

I don’t have any pets, but this starter became my real pet.  And a baby pet at that.  I tended it according to the instructions, used organic flour and spring water.  I worried about the conditions in the room, too hot… too cold?  It took a while, but I started to see some evidence of life.  A gardener tends his garden, I had my starter.  And it really is a living thing.  Once it got going, I found it was more tolerant to my sometimes neglect.

When I prepare the starter for making bread, I take a whole day and feed it three times, the first feed is wholemeal flour.  I use a 50:50 ratio of flour to water.  For the second and third feed I use a good quality flour, like Lauke single origin white flour.   Many recipes recommend organic flour, but I found this unnecessary.  The next morning, I start making the dough itself.  The starter will have become fluffier and somewhat bubbly.  At this stage it is hungry.

I take most of the starter for making the dough, but save at least one cup and stir in the same amount of flour and water.  It is stretchy and sticky at this stage.  I leave it to sit for an hour or so at room temperature, and then pop it in the fridge.  It will stay there, happily, until I make the next batch.

I try to make sourdough bread twice a week, it keeps well and makes good toast.  As Nigella Lawson says in her Women’s Weekly November article “..I’m always on the lookout for avocado toast, whatever the time of day..” .  The only thing I would add is to make that Sourdough toast – it just tastes better and dare I say, feels better.