Sourdough is one of those things that I spent a few years reading about and wanting to try, but being a bit too scared to have a go at. A bread, leavened - risen - bread, without yeast ? Just didn't seem to make sense.
And then there was the lack of clear instructions anywhere, or so it seemed. A bit of this, and a bit of that, it might go this way, or it might go that, it will change depending on where it's made....
Yet this is how I normally cook - just not the way I was used to baking. Whilst cooking was always alchemy, even magic - the phases of the Moon and the tides seeming to have as much influence on the final result as the recipe used as the inspiration (for that is what recipes are for), or the actual edible ingredients added to the dish..... Baking was supposed to be a science. Exactly this amount of a) added to exactly that amount of b), in a vessel made strictly of material c), baked at a temperature no greater than d) and no lesser than e), for strictly the amount of time specified in figure f).....
And you know what ?
It's not like that at all. That might be science the way it was taught to me at school, sadly - hence I am no scientist - but really, every magician needs a bit of a scientist about them in order to properly perform their craft. So here is the vaguely scientific know-how of baking, and specifically of baking leavened bread - you need flour, and this flour needs to be manipulated in some way in order to stretch the protein in it and make it rise - and you need a rising agent. And as this rising agent can run away with itself if left unchecked (and as bread with no salt in it just tastes nasty), a bit of salt to keep the rise in check does not go amiss.
Now, this rising agent is usually yeast, and yeast needs food - this is why you'd feed your dried yeast with a spoonful or two of sugar - but naturally occurring complex sugars in your flour will also do the job, although more slowly. You need warmth, as yeast gets sluggish in the cold (therefore, sticking your dough in the fridge will slow down the rising process), and you need a pre-heated oven, because heat over 200 C will kill the yeast and stop the rise as you are ready to bake.
But - wait a minute - sourdough does not use yeast, does it ? So how does that work ?
Well, actually, it does - only not as a separate entity, an ingredient to be added to your collection of bread-making ingredients above. When making sourdough, you are activating the naturally occurring yeasts in the flour itself, and gathering to them the yeasts from your environment - and this is a slow process. Sourdough does not need much effort, but it does need a bit of commitment.
Because a lot of yeasts need to be gathered for your loaf to rise, the best starting point is flour that is processed as little as you can possibly get away with. That means wholemeal; preferably stoneground; certainly unbleached; and the best, quickest, yeastiest flour for your starter is rye flour.
Don't panic if you can't get hold of any - I have done it with Tesco value chapatti flour, which costs 40p per kilo (as opposed to over a £1 for Balchedre Watermill stoneground rye, for instance), and it worked absolutely fine. It will just take a bit more time, a bit more patience - and a willingness to accept a different kind of flavour.
As well as your flour, you will need a large bowl to brew your sourdough in, and water. And that's it to start with.
I use a plastic homebrew pot for my sourdough, purely because this is the one receptacle that I have in my tiny kitchen that is not called upon for other uses often enough to disturb my starter - if you are more aesthetically minded, something a bit.... prettier .... will probably be a wiser choice, because this will be sitting on your counter for as long as you wish to be messing around with sourdough.
Got your pot, then ? Right. Measure out a cup of flour, then a cup of water, into your pot. Stir well (I use a balloon whisk to get rid of any lumps), then cover with a cheesecloth or similar - I use an old jelly baf - something that will keep bugs out, but let yeasts in, so nothing too thickly weaved. Stick a rubber band around the rim to secure it, and push to one side.
And that's it for day one.
The next day, add another cup of flour and the same volume of water. Stir well, cover again. Repeat daily.
Now, every day, as you come to your sourdough, you will see that it looks - and smells - and sounds !!! - a little different. As the yeasts gather and start to gossip away, there will be bubbles, and susurration, and a rather vigorous ferment (usually around day three or four, but this will depend on the temperature of your kitchen), eventually supplanted by a gentler one. On day 7, your starter should be ready, nicely fed, but ready to get its metaphorical teeth into something more substantial.
On that day, you will get out your mixing bowl, pour some flour into it, mix it with some sourdough starter, add a bit of salt to it, and.... Wait now, how much of each ?
Ah, yes. This, I'm afraid, rather depends. It depends on so many different factors - type of flour you used, how many yeasts in your kitchen air made it into your starter, how much water evaporated over the course of the week..... So you'll have to be brave now, and just have a go.
What usually works for me - but you simply have to be prepared to be flexible and follow your starter's lead - is about 350-400 =g of flour - rye, wholemeal, white, spelt - at this stage it's a question of suit yourself - the heavier, darker the flour, the heavier and darker the loaf - about a teaspoonful of sea salt, and enough starter to make dough that is dry enough to knead, yet wet enough to be elastic and allow for a decent rise. If you bake your own yeasted breads, you will know the texture you are after - if you don't, just be brave. Play with it. Add a bit of this a bit of that until you like what you see and feel..... And if you don't like it, get it into the oven anyway. Chances are, it'll still work - and the finished result will give you a bit more of an idea as to what not to do next time.
Sourdough.... Is a learning process. You can grow together with it until you have exactly what you want to have. Or you can just pay minimum attention to it and let yourself be surprised by the final result every time. I tend towards the latter. My family would probably prefer less of an element of surprise and a bit more security in their daily loaf. Either approach to sourdough is, I believe, equally valid.
Because, you see, no matter what you do, the end result will be the healthiest loaf you could conceivably eat. The lacto-fermentation of the sourdough starter almost pre-digests the flour for you, assuring you will get optimum nutrition from it. And if you make your own whey (of which more in another post), you can add some of that to your loaf, too, to add another layer of lacto-fermented probiotic goodness .
Anyway - you have your dough now. Shape your loaf, stick it on your greased baking stone/ baking tray/ loaf tin; slash the top in a diamond pattern if you like (I don't always bother), and leave it alone somewhere warm. For 24 hours at least.
And this is the bit that I like best of all - a lump of dough with no fast-acting yeasts added to it at all.... Yet watch it rise. Slowly, like the grass growing - yet rise it does.
Bake for 35min - 1hr on 200 C. Preheated oven, of course, else you'll get a cracked loaf. But you know what ? If you do, cracked is also fine. Who says they have to be pretty ?