Sourdough loaf

Sourdough loaf

By
From
River Cottage Every Day
Photographer
Simon Wheeler

Bread is, of course, a staple, something most of us eat every day, so it’s a crying shame that much of it is so poor – pappy, tasteless and limp, laced with additives and completely lacking in character. Baking your own gives you the opportunity to eat really great bread every day – and to have access to wonderful toast and breadcrumbs too. Even stale home-made bread is a benefit, with myriad satisfying uses. In short, I urge you to become the baker of your own daily bread. It does require a certain amount of time and commitment, but I promise you, the rewards are phenomenal.

I could offer you a standard simple white bread recipe – the kind you’ll find on the back of your bag of bread flour – but I want to go one better. Since I’ve been baking bread at home, I’ve discovered that you get a vastly superior flavour and texture in a hand-made loaf if it’s leavened with wild yeasts, and if those yeasts have been allowed time to develop their personalities. I don’t want to get too technical but, in a nutshell, the more time yeast spends feeding on flour, the more its secretions of alcohol and various acids build up and develop flavour. The truth is, slow-risen bread tastes better.

The bread we make at home now is almost invariably sourdough. It all began, as sourdoughs do, with what is aptly known as a ‘starter’ – a gently fermenting batter of flour and water in which natural airborne yeasts have settled and got to work. We acquired ours from Dan Stevens, my River Cottage baking chef, and you may be able to get hold of one too (from a friendly baker, or a friend who bakes). We’re eternally grateful to Dan, who showed us the way with sourdough and helped make it, literally, our daily bread.

But you can also ‘grow your own’ starter from scratch. It may take several days – even a week or two – to get going, but once established, all it needs is regular feeds of flour to keep it frothing happily away. When we want to bake a loaf (which we do, on average, every other day), we take a portion of the starter and combine it with fresh flour and water to make a ‘sponge’. This we leave overnight to ferment and develop flavour. The next morning we combine the sponge with more flour and some salt to make our dough proper, which we knead, rise, shape, prove and bake.

That may sound like a long-winded process but I promise you that, while it does take time, it does not take a great deal of effort. Your interventions are relatively brief – the yeasts do their work over several hours – but the baker doesn’t do any more hands-on work than the baker of a conventional loaf. If you’re still sceptical, all I can do is ask you to take a leap of faith. Try this method and you will produce bread with more flavour and texture than any loaf you’ve baked at home before. We love it!

Making the starter

Ingredients

Quantity Ingredient

For the starter:

Quantity Ingredient
100g strong bread flour, plus up to 1kg bread flour to ‘feed’ the starter

Method

  1. In a large bowl, mix the flour for the starter with enough warm water to make a batter roughly the consistency of thick paint. Beat it well to incorporate some air, then cover with a lid or cling film and leave somewhere fairly warm. A warm kitchen is fine, or a coolish airing cupboard. Check it every few hours until you can see that fermentation has begun – signalled by the appearance of bubbles on the surface and a smell of… well, of fermentation (it can actually smell quite unpleasant and acrid at this stage but don’t worry, it will mellow as it matures). The time it takes for your starter to begin fermenting can vary hugely – it could be a few hours or a few days. But make your starter with wholegrain flour (which offers more for the yeast to get its teeth into), keep it warm and draught free and you should be rewarded with the first signs of life within 24 hours.
  2. Your starter now needs regular feeding. Begin by whisking in another 100g or so of fresh flour and enough water to retain that thick batter consistency. You can switch to using cool water and to keeping the starter at normal room temperature – though nowhere too cold or draughty. Leave it again, then, 24 hours or so later, scoop out and discard half the starter and stir in another 100g flour and some more water. Repeat this discard-and-feed routine every day, maintaining the sloppy consistency and keeping your starter at room temperature, and after 7–10 days you should have something that smells good – sweet, fruity, yeasty, almost boozy – having lost any harsh, acrid edge. By this stage, it should be actively enticing you into baking with it. But don’t be tempted to bake a loaf until it’s been on the go for at least a week.
  3. If you’re going to bake bread every day or two, maintain your starter in this way, keeping it at room temperature, feeding it daily, and taking some of it out whenever you want to create a sponge (see right). However, if you want to keep it for longer between bakings, you can simply add enough flour (but no water) to turn it from a batter into a stiff dough, then it won’t need another feed for 4 days or so. You’ll just need to add more water when you come to make the sponge. Alternatively, you can lull your starter into dormancy by cooling it down – it will keep for a week in the fridge without needing to be fed. You’ll then need to bring it back to room temperature and probably give it a fresh feed to get it bubbling and active again. Combine these two approaches – keep your starter as a stiff dough in the fridge – and you can leave it for 2 weeks before it will need your attention again. If you know you won’t be baking for a while, you can even freeze the starter; it will reactivate on thawing.

Making the loaf

Ingredients

Quantity Ingredient

For the sponge:

Quantity Ingredient
100ml active starter
250g strong flour

For each loaf:

Quantity Ingredient
300g strong bread flour
1 tablespoon rapeseed or olive oil, (optional)
10g fine sea salt

Method

  1. The night before you want to bake your loaf, create the sponge: take about 100ml of the active starter and combine it with 250g flour and 275ml warm water in a large bowl. Mix well with your hands, then cover with cling film and leave overnight. In the morning it should be clearly fermenting – thick, sticky and bubbly.
  2. To make the dough, add the 300g flour to the sponge, along with the oil, if you’re using it (it will make the bread a touch softer and silkier, but is not essential), and the salt (which is essential). Squish it all together with your hands. You should have a fairly sticky dough. If it seems tight and firm, add a dash more warm water. If it’s unmanageably loose, add more flour, but do leave it fairly wet – you’ll get better bread that way.
  3. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and silky. This takes about 10 minutes, but it can vary according to your own style and level of confidence. To knead, place the fingertips of one hand in the middle of the ball of dough, then use the heel of your other hand to push the dough away from you in a long stretch. Fold the dough back on itself, then repeat the manoeuvre. Keep going, stretching and folding, giving the dough a quarter turn every few stretches, until it is silky and smooth. Alternatively, use the dough hook on your mixer!
  4. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and turn it to coat with the oil. Cover with lightly oiled cling film, or put the bowl into a large plastic bag, and leave to rise. Don’t expect it to whoosh up to twice its original size in an hour, as a conventional loaf does. Sourdough rises slowly and sedately. The best thing is to knead it in the morning, then simply leave it all day – perhaps while you’re out at work – in a fairly cool, draught-free place until it has more or less doubled in size and feels springy if you push your finger gently into it; alternatively, you could knead it in the evening and then leave it to rise overnight.
  5. Knock back (deflate) the risen dough by punching it down with your knuckles on a lightly floured surface. You now need to prove the dough (i.e. give it a second rising). You are also going to be forming it into the shape it will be for baking. If you have a proper baker’s proving basket, use this, first dusting it generously with flour. Alternatively, rig up your own proving basket by lining a medium sized, fairly shallow-sided bowl with a clean tea towel, then dusting it with flour. Place your round of dough inside, cover again with oiled cling film or a clean plastic bag and leave to rise, in a warm place this time, for 1½–3 hours, or until roughly doubled in size. Then the dough is ready to bake.
  6. Preheat the oven to 250°C (or at least to 230°C, if that’s your top limit). If possible, have ready a clean gardener’s spray bottle full of water – you’ll be using this to create a steamy atmosphere in the oven, which helps the bread to rise and develop a good crust. (You can achieve the same effect with a roasting tin of boiling water placed on the bottom of the oven just before you put the loaf in, but the spray bottle is easier – and much more fun.)
  7. About 5 minutes before you want to put the loaf in the oven, place a baking sheet in it to heat up. Then take the hot baking sheet from the oven, dust it with flour and carefully tip the risen dough out of the proving basket/bowl, upside down, on to the baking sheet; it will now be the right way up. If you like you can slash the top of the loaf a few times with a very sharp serrated knife, or snip it with a pair of scissors, to give a pattern to the crust.
  8. Put the loaf into the hot oven and give it a few squirts from the spray bottle over and around it. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 200°C, give the oven another spray, and bake for a further 25–30 minutes, until the well-browned loaf vibrates and sounds hollow when you tap its base. Leave to cool for at least 20 minutes before you plunge in with the bread knife – it’s okay to slice it warm, but not piping hot.
  9. An alternative and very satisfying way to bake your sourdough loaf is by placing the dough directly on the floor of the oven – but you can only do this in a cast-iron range cooker. Tip the proved dough carefully on to a well-floured, lip-less baking sheet or, better still, a pizza shovel, and slide it on to the floor of the oven. We do this every time, and it gives a lovely toasty, chewy, nearly-but-not-quite-burned base to the loaf.

Variation

  • Cheaty yeasty sponge loaf

    If you don’t have a starter on the go, you can still take advantage of the overnight sponge method to produce bread with better than average flavour and texture. Combine 250g strong flour with 5g fastaction yeast, then beat in 325ml warm water to form a thick batter (alternatively, dissolve 10g fresh yeast or 5g ordinary dried yeast in the water, then beat it into the flour). Cover with cling film and leave overnight to ferment. The next morning, add another 250g flour and 10g fine sea salt, then knead as above. Leave to rise for an hour or two in a warm place, until doubled in size, then knock back, shape, rise again and bake as above.
Tags:
River Cottage
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
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