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Baking with sourdough

06:24am, 12/08/13

Today I was making bread as I normally do about once a week for Himself. For several years now, I have used the “sourdough” method and I will tell you how I stumbled upon it.

For years, when my sons were growing, every other day I kneaded 5 lbs flour and turned it into two big loaves of bread. I had flour milled at a local windmill which I bought in big sacks, and I used mixes of white and other flours, milk, water and fresh yeast.

homemade sourdough breadYou can imagine that by the time the boys left home, I had had about enough of baking bread! Himself and I did the Atkin’s Diet for a bit, which of course forbids bread (even home baked), and then when we moved up here I could no longer obtain fresh yeast. I had little experience of baking with dried yeast and my first few attempts were pretty bad! So I gave up on baking bread for a while.

A year or so later, my interest began to grow again. I read a book called “Bread Matters” by Andrew Whitley, and Himself was buying rolls from the supermarket in Ullapool which we were both enjoying. So suddenly I found myself wanting to bake again, only by this time I had read about natural yeasts, and that seemed to be the sensible way forward given our lack of fresh yeast.

My first attempts were not good! I made a “kitchen” starter by leaving out flour and water for a few days to ferment. This always worked but I found the starters difficult to keep alive, especially rye ones. Also following recipes that I realise now contained far too much water, meant that the bread was frequently heavy and not terribly appetising, although at least relatively edible.

Then a break though! I found Ed Wood and his wonderful books “World Sourdoughs from Antiquity” and “Classic Sourdoughs” the latter being a book which contains loads of recipes not only for bread but also pancakes, muffins etc., all made with natural yeast starters. Sadly, these books are out of print now, but can still be bought second-hand. Ed Wood’s company, Sourdoughs International supplies ready prepared sourdough starters which come in powder form. His research has taken him all over the world searching out local starters, which quite honestly really do have their own particular character. For instance, I started with an Australian one, but found it too mild and not very “hearty”. I also tried the famed San Francisco sourdough, but simply didn’t like it! Eventually I settled on a Russian one which is quite mild but still flavoursome and will rise anything, and one from Bahrain which is very sour. The latter I have now turned into a gluten-free starter which I will speak more about in a future post.

People say that once these starters have come into your kitchen with your water, your flour and your air, they will change their character and become just as a “kitchen” starter – but this really isn’t true. Once they have got going and the yeasts and bacteria are established, they will defend themselves against all comers and remain as they were. Your nose will tell you the difference if nothing else does!

I start my bread in the evening a couple of days before I plan to make it, using a cupful of the starter to a cup of flour and a half cup of water. I then feed the starter with a cup of flour and a cup of water. The measurements are approximate – when making bread, the quantities are not critical. I then pop it into a warm place for a few hours, both the bread and the jar of yeast starter. As we don’t have either an airing cupboard or an Aga, I put them in a plant propagator – not my idea, I hasten to add, but something I read about in “Bread Matters”. I turn the heat off before going to bed, popping the jar of starter back in the 'fridge, and leave the dough undisturbed until the next evening when I feed again with a cup of flour and a cup of water.

Next morning, I make up the bread in the normal way, mixing four cups of whatever flour, 2 tsp salt and enough water. I find most recipes tell you to add far too much water. This means that the bread either comes out flat if baked free-form (which you might want, personally!) or soggy if baked in a tin. I don’t flour the worktop to knead and I add the salt half way through kneading the dough. I’m not sure that doing that makes much difference, but this is the time when I check the texture of the dough. If it it too dry, I will add a bit of water with the salt but if too wet, I add nothing. Here I would mention that Paul Hollywood says that salt “enhances” the activity of the yeast, but I think he has had an aberration, because it is the exact opposite – which I have found out to my cost when I have failed to put the salt it! The bread apparently rises wonderfully, but normally has a hole under the crust and is fairly tasteless.

I never bother to wash out or oil the bowl before rising the dough in it. As I am leaving the dough to rise for about 4 hours, there are no unpleasant dry bits to spoil the loaf – they all become part of the dough. I scrape it carefully out of the bowl – no “punching down” – then roll it up and pop it in a tin as Himself prefers bread done that way, allowing it to rise again for a about an hour before baking as normal.

I look for a loaf with a good crumb but none of the holes which people seem to prize in the crumb of “sourdough” bread. After all, how much nutritional value is there in a hole…?