The perfect sourdough recipe

It took me a long time to find the perfect sourdough recipe… I searched all over the internet, bought books, spent a small fortune on kit but I finally think I got there.


If you have not already done so, please read these two other articles on sourdough baking before going on

Things you need to make sourdough
How to make sourdough starter


My first foray into breadmaking came in a roundabout way. One of our daughters was suspected gluten intolerant and my wife Laura didn’t get on well with it either. Although we don’t – or should that be didn’t – eat a whole lot of bread, the gluten-free stuff  was like chewing on cardboard.

Laura decided we should get a breadmaker after some friends of ours recommended it. But when we tried a loaf or two, I found it to be not dissimilar to the stuff you get from the ‘fresh’ bread counter at the supermarket.

It was then, I chatted to a pal of mine who’d been baking his own bread for a couple of years after going on a course. He told me about sourdough and recommended the very excellent The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard that is somewhat a bible on the subject. 

The more I read about artisan baking, the more interested I became. Some people speculate that part of the reason for the increase in gluten intolerance (I’m not talking the autoimmune condition coeliac disease here but those who don’t handle bread well) was more down to the commercialised manufactured yeasts and bleached mass produced flours you get in regular bread.

Sourdough – which uses natural yeasts in the air and lactobacillus bacteria to create a leaven – and often uses artisan, single-grain, stone-ground, unbleached flours and a long, natural preparation process they speculate, may not have the same effect. It’s anecdotal evidence but we’ve had no problems at all since we started making our own bread this way – and I hear similar from people who have  issues with commercial super-market bought spaghetti. They go to Italy and try handmade pasta in a tiny, local restaurant and have no problems at all. 

If nothing else, creating sourdough is fun. Sure it takes a bit of time to do a loaf (but you can always do two and freeze one), but the process is an excellent example of the calming effect of slow cooking. Letting things happen at their own pace in contrast to our modern, past-paced world – something more and more people have discovered thanks to the 2020 Covid-19 crisis.

What flour?

While you can make sourdough with wholemeal, rye and malt, I found it easier to start with a god artisan, white, unbleached flour. When you master this technique, you can experiment and try other techniques, but get the basics right first – and then move on.

Timings

Once you have a starter on the go, much of the process of sourdough baking is a case of sitting round and letting nature take its course. In the early days, you want to start early in the morning allow yourself a day where you will be around the house so you can give it attention as and when needed.

As you get more experienced, you will come to realise you can slow things down a bit by using your fridge – so if you’re in a proofing phase and it’s late at night, whack your dough in the fridge to slow proofing down, then take it out the next morning, let the proofing finish and finish the bake.

The recipe

  • 200g of sourdough starter at or near the top of its rise (see here for the technique to make your own starter)
  • 280g of water at approx 20C (room temperature)
  • 2 tsps sea salt
  • 500g strong white bread flour – search for something from a local mill that may be single grain, heritage seed, organic and unbleached. It will be more expensive than in the supermarket but your bread will taste better for it
  • drizzle or two of olive oil

The technique

Get a large bowl and add your starter, water and salt and whisk together trying to get any starter clumps dissolved

Add the flour and mix using your hands into a rough dough. Scrape as much from the sides as you can and scrape any on your hands into the bowl. Cover with either a damp tea towel or an elasticated cloth cap and leave for ten minutes.

Original lightly mixed dough

You can now take one or two options: a knead or a minimal knead technique. The first is a little quicker overall and means you don’t have to keep coming back to your dough, the second (which involves some folding as well as kneading) tends to give those nice big air holes we associate with sourdough). The flavour of the bread will be about the same.

To illustrate either way, I am going to separate the techniques for a few steps, then bring them back together… but first let’s talk about our starter.

What to do with your starter now

What you do with your starter next depends on when you want to bake again. If it’s likely to be in the next day or so, leave it out at room temperature and feed it by bringing it back to a total of 500g by adding flour and water 50:50 24 hours before you bake. EG, if you used 200g in the recipe, add 100g water and 100g flour and stir back to paste.

If it may be a week or so before you bake again, put the starter in the fridge.

48 hours before you want to bake, bring the starter back to 500g by feeding it a 50:50 water:flour ratio as above. Leave it at room temperature.

24 hours before you want to bake, discard 200g of it and bring the starter back to 500g by feeding it a 50:50 water:flour ratio as above.

Wait for it to raise by about 75 per cent and use to bake again.

Knead technique

If you are only kneading once, be more aggressive, pushing the dough out and pulling back

Oil a surface and place your dough from the bowl onto it. Push the dough out in all directions and pull bits back into the center. Now knead your dough using whatever technique feels natural – push, prod, knuckle – keep stretching it out to develop the gluten strands.

From a power perspective, imagine someone has annoyed you at work and you are taking it out on the dough! From a time perspective, it’s hard to say but around 10 minutes should suffice. The dough will become silky and when you stretch it out, you will be able to go further without creating holes in the dough.

Oil down your bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave for around 2-3 hours (perhaps more) until it almost doubles in size (don’t rush this phase – let nature take its course.

Now jump to the Back together section

Minimal knead technique

A low-knead technique is less aggressive with less stretching, just pull the dough back gently back into itself while rotating for 15-20 seconds

Oil a surface and place your dough from the bowl onto it. Push the dough out in all directions and pull bits back into the center. Keep turning the dough as you stretch and pull back and do this several times quite aggressively over a period of 10-15 seconds. Leave the dough on the surface for 10 minutes. Do some tidying, washing and putting away to pass the time.

Repeat the above two more times leaving a gap of 10 minutes between each mini knead (which should last no more than 20 seconds).

Leave the dough for 30 minutes

Folding: stretch the dough out, fold top and bottom in, then left and right in

Take the dough out of the bowl and stretch it on your lightly oiled work surface. Fold four corners back into the middle to form a fat squarish shape. Place the dough back into the bowl.

Repeat the above two more times leaving an hour between each fold.

Bringing the techniques back together

Lightly flour a banneton (proofing basket) over the surface you use to work your bread.

Flatten the dough and continue to pull the corners in to form a ball

Take your dough out of the bowl, and flatten it out on the surface. Pull all the edges back into the middle as tight as you can to create a central ‘seam’. Turn the dough over (it should look a little like a ball).

1. Drag. 2. Rest. 3. Place in basket seam side up

Cup your hands around the edge of the ball at the end furthest away from you and drag the dough ball back towards you for a couple of inches. (1 above). Keep turning the dough a quarter turn and repeating the above drag until your dough resembles a tight ball (this should take only a minute or two). Lightly flour the top, leave for 10 minutes (2 above) then put seam-side up in the proofing basket (3 above). Cover with a damp cloth and leave for a second rise (about two hours) until it is once again almost doubled in size.

The bake

Whack the temperature of your oven right up to around 250C (if you do not have a bread cloche, place a baking tray on the very bottom of the oven). Turn your dough out onto either the bottom of your bread cloche, a baking stone or a baking tray.

Take a sharp knife or razor blade and scour the top of the bread. I make a deep hashtag sign on mine. This helps the bread explode through on the rise giving it that nice artisan look.

If you are not using a cloche, throw some ice cubes into the bottom tray in your oven – this is to create steam which will help improve the look of the dough. If you are using a cloche, place the lid on it.

Put your bread in the oven and bake. Check it after 40 minutes – if it needs 5-10 mins more that is not a problem. It will be done when it sounds hollow if you tap the bottom.

Take the bread out and allow to cool on a wire rack. I turn my oven off, put the rack in the oven and sprag the door open so it cools off but allows the bread to come naturally to room temperature. I find this the crust crusty.

Enjoy!

 

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