Sourdough

I’ve bought two loaves of bread in the last 5 years. One was from a local bakery and was a bit off, the other from the excellent Bostock Bakery in North Berwick and was incredible. For the last 5 years, any kind of bread or bread-based product I’ve made entirely myself from scratch. Rolls, pitta, pizza, naan, foccacia, seeded loaves, brioche, bagels, big, crusty boules, all made, in one way or another, by me, at home, from nothing but ingredients (and precious few, at that).

Bread has been the foundation of human civilisation for centuries. Armies marched on it, agrarian economies sowed and reaped on it. But bread has not been a constant. From ancient naturally-leavened Egyptian baladi bread (still baked in vast quantities daily) to today’s cotton-wool supermarket loaves, bread has lost a lot of its nutritional value, slow-releasing energy and vitamin-rich grains. Bread now comes with qualifiers — “good” or “real” — to distinguish it from the dross that makes up the majority of the market, in a world where all bread was once both “real” and “good”.

And here’s the dirty little secret about bread — it’s easy. It’s so, so easy. You only need 4 ingredients (which can be reduced to 3 in time), a bit of time, and some patience. It’s cheap to make, and it’s incredibly satisfying. Your hands and arms are perfectly good bread-makers and, with a bit of practice, you can have fresh loaves of bread on the breakfast table every morning.

I’ve made more loaves of bread than I can count. Some have looked as if they’ve tumbled from the pages of a Sunday paper’s glossy magazine, others as if they’ve been possessed by some alien spawn. Some have been positively explosive, others resolutely pancake-like. I’ve frowned at unwilling dough, growled at burst seams, and made a lot of croutons, but, even when money was tight, I was always able to put bread on the table.

About two-and-a-half years ago, I started down the sourdough route. This is the process of cultivating natural yeasts into a ‘mother’ culture, which is fed and watered, and then used to leaven bread. Sourdough is very much en vogue these days, but has been a traditional way of getting bread to get up for aeons, the simplicity of only flour, water, and salt being the cornerstone of simple bread. Using a (usually lactic-fermenting) culture, coupled with a long, slow, fermentation and a gentle prove, gives loaves a chewy crumb and a lovely sour, almost creamy, flavour.

I have two sourdough cultures, one English, and one Scottish, both made with organic flour grown and milled in their respective countries. They’re both just a bit over two years old, and have quite distinctive flavours, the Scottish one producing loaves with more vanilla notes, the English with a more beery nose. They live in the fridge, and I feed them once a week with 100gr of bread flour and 100gr of water.

When it comes to making a loaf, it starts the night before. I take 200gr of whichever mother culture I’m using, and add to it 300gr of strong white bread flour, and 300gr of room-temperature water. The temperature is important. Here in Edinburgh, during the winter, cold water comes out of the tap ice-cold. Great for drinking, awful for fostering bacterial growth, so I tweak the temperature with the seasons. Mixed into a batter-type sponge, this sits overnight (mixed usually around 10pm) until 9am the next day, when I add 75gr of sieved wholemeal flour, another 125gr of strong white bread flour, and 11gr of table salt. This is mixed by hand until all the flours have combined with the sponge and the dough has come together.

This is when the patience kicks in. 30mins after mixing, I fold the dough by wetting a hand and scooping it up, over, and under itself. 30mins later, I do the same again, and once more 30mins hence. After these 3 folds, the dough ferments for around 2–3hrs (depending on the ambient temperature), or until it’s roughly doubled in size. More time = more flavour.

After the bulk fermentation, I scoop the dough out, shape it into a boule, and stick it in a proving basket lined with the sieved bran from the wholemeal flour. After an hour or so, it goes into a 200C oven for about 40mins.

So, there we have it. Over the course of a morning, a fresh loaf of naturally-leavened bread. You can tweak this schedule by mixing the sponge in the morning, the dough in the late afternoon/early evening, then shape the loaf before you go to bed and prove it in the fridge overnight. This schedule allows you to wake up, stick the oven on, bake the loaf straight from the fridge, and have fresh bread for breakfast.


Originally published at www.bagofonions.com on February 21, 2015.

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