Friday, 2 July 2010


Hello everyone - meet Eric. Topping in at 8 weeks old he's a sour little fellow. Tends to spend most of his time chilling out but does get rather excitable if you give him enough to eat and drink. Loves to party all night with any dough going. Can really raise the roof! 

Yes as you've probably guessed I've named my new wild yeast sourdough starter Eric. My flatmate asked what I was going to call my new 'pet' and it just popped in my head. What is a wild yeast starter I hear you say? Quite simply its a natural yeast culture of flour and water that bubbles and ferments and provides the boost to leaven your bread.

Eric is my newest buddy in the kitchen and he's certainly put his stamp on my bread baking of all persuasions. A long time lover of sourdough bread from bakeries I've made it my mission this year to master the art of artisian sourdough bread.

To do this I didn't jump straight into making the sourdough starter. I felt I needed time to get my general bread baking skillz up to scratch. Some of our followers may have seen my earlier "bread quest" entries as I baked a variety of breads using dried commercial yeast including; rosemary and raisin bread, seeded baguettes, sesame seed round loaf and my so buttery it is practically brioche French style white bread.All delicious. But all lacked that tangy sour-ness that I craved.

With a few tricks up my sleeve I felt I was now ready to make my own soursough starter. Its been a great journey thus far and already I've produced some delicious loaves that surpass all previous ones I have baked.

I've read widely and voraciously many cook books and many specialist sourdough sites and recipes all over the interwebs. If you do a search you will be amazed at the vibrant community of sourdough bakers out there. It is a highly specialised subject once you get into it - complete with its own quirky lingo and acronyms which can be a little overwhelming but well worth the effort.

I wont try to re-invent the wheel with this post - there are numerous very well written articles out there. I will however reproduce one of the plain speaking ones I came across in my travels which covers the basics of sourdough better than anyone else. Its written by games designer and passionate foodie S. John Ross. Its called Sourdough baking : the basics and its well worth a read for getting you up to speed. It contains the recipe I followed for the sourdough loaf pictured. However I did use my own shaping and baking techniques to create the loaf which I have included as notes at the bottom of this post.

Whilst I've included John's descrption and recipe for creating a sourdolugh 'starter' I myself used a slightly different recipe for creating my 'starter' using Rye flour and pineapple juice recipe from the excellent bread baking community The Fresh Loaf. Something about it appealed to me and it worked first time without a hitch. So without any further adieu here is the basic's of sourdough baking:

There are only a few simple steps to becoming a sourdough baker. First, you must create a starter: This is a bubbly batter that you keep in your fridge. The starter is mixed into a dough, and it causes the bread to rise. Bake and serve. Yum!

Creating Your Starter
The novel thing about sourdough baking is that it requires that you keep something alive in your fridge. I think of my starter as a pet, kept and fed so that Sandra and I will have all the bread we need. Sourdough "starter" is a batter of flour and water, filled with living yeast and bacteria. The yeast and bacteria form a stable symbiotic relationship, and (as long as you keep the starter fed) can live for centuries, a thriving colony of microorganisms. To make sourdough bread, you blend the starter with some flour and make dough. The yeast propogates, and leavens your bread. This is how you make your starter:
  • Select a container that your "pet" will live in. A wide-mouthed glass jar is best. I use a glass jar with a rubber and wireframe seal; you can find these for $2-$4 in any antique or junk shop. A small crock with a loose lid is also great; these can be bought in cheap sets for serving soup. You can also use a rubbermaid or tupperware container. I've begun starters using the plastic containers that take-out Chinese soup comes in, and then transferred them to jars later! A wide-mouthed mayonnaise or pickle jar will also do just fine. Metallic containers are a bad idea; some of them are reactive and can ruin your starter (for the same reason, avoid using metal utensils to stir your starter).
  • Blend a cup of warm water and a cup of flour, and pour it into the jar. That's the whole recipe! I use plain, unbleached bread flour most of the time, but I've had good results with all-purpose and whole-wheat flour, too. If you want, you can add a little commercial yeast to a starter to "boost" it. If you do this, sourdough snobs will look down their nose at you - but who cares about snobs? I personally find that (at least here where I live) no yeast "boost" is necessary, and I can make "real" sourdough with no trouble. But if you are having trouble, go ahead and cheat. I won't tell. Note that starter made with commercial yeast often produces a bread with less distinctive sour flavor than the real thing.
  • Every 24 Hours, Feed the Starter. You should keep the starter in a warm place; 70-80 degrees Farenheit is perfect. This allows the yeast already present in the flour (and in the air) to grow rapidly. Temperatures hotter than 100 degrees or so will kill it. You can take comfort from the fact that almost nothing else will do so. The way you feed the starter is to (A) throw away half of it and then (B) add a half-cup of flour and a half-cup of water. Do this every 24 hours. Within three or four days (it can take longer, a week or more, and it can happen more quickly) you should start getting lots of bubbles throughought, and a pleasant sour or beery smell. The starter may start to puff up, too. This is good. Here's the gist: When your starter develops a bubbly froth, it is done. You have succeeded. If this sounds brain-dead simple, that's because it is. People who didn't believe the Earth was round did this for millenia.
  • Refrigerate the Starter. Keep the starter in your fridge, with a lid on it. Allow a little breathing space in the lid. If you're using a mayo or pickle jar, punch a hole in the lid with a nail, that kind of thing. Once the starter is chilled, it needs to be fed only once a week. Realistically, you can get away with less; it's important to remember that your starter is a colony of life-forms that are almost impossible to kill (except with extreme heat). Even starving them is difficult.
Care and Feeding: Hooch
Aside from weekly feeding, the only other thing you need to worry about is hooch. Hooch is a layer of watery liquid (often dark) that contains alchohol. It smells a bit like beer, because it is a bit like beer - but don't drink it! Hooch builds up in your starter, especially in the fridge. Just pour it off or stir it back in. It doesn't hurt anything. If your starter is looking dry, stir it back in. If your starter is plenty wet, pour it off. Just remember that hooch is nothing to worry about!
Sourdough Baking Step One: Proofing the Sponge
Several hours before you plan to make your dough (recipe below), you need to make a sponge. A "sponge" is just another word for a bowl of warm, fermented batter. This is how you make your sponge.
  • Take your starter out of the fridge. Pour it into a large glass or plastic bowl. Meanwhile, wash the jar and dry it. You may also wish to pour boiling water over it, since you don't want other things growing in there with your pet!
  • Add a cup of warm water and a cup of flour to the bowl. Stir well, and set it in a warm place for several hours. This is called "proofing," another word for fermenting. Sourdough bakers have their own language; use it to impress your friends ;)
  • Watch for Froth and and Sniff. When your sponge is bubbly and has a white froth, and it smells a little sour, it is ready. The longer you let the sponge sit, the more sour flavor you will get.
The proofing-time varies. Some starters can proof up to frothiness in an hour or two. Some take 6-8 hours, or even longer. Just experiment and see how long yours takes. If you're going to bake in the morning, set your sponge out to proof overnight.
Sourdough Baking Step Two: The Actual Recipe
Of course, there are a lot of recipes for sourdough bread. There are also recipes for sourdough rolls, sourdough pancakes, sourdough pretzels, sourdough bagels, and probably sourdough saltines for all I know. This is the basic recipe I use, though, and it's simple and makes a fine bread. You'll need the following:
  • 2 Cups of sponge (proofed starter)
  • 3 Cups of unbleached flour
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil or softened margarine
  • 4 teaspoons of sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
First, let's talk about leftover sponge. You should have some. The leftover sponge is your starter for next time: Put it into the jar, and give it a fresh feed of a half-cup each of flour and warm water. Keep it in the fridge as above; you'll have starter again next time.
Now, for the recipe: To the sponge, add the sugar, salt, and oil (the oil is optional - you can use softened butter instead, or no oil at all). Mix well, then knead in the flour a half-cup at a time. Knead in enough flour to make a good, flexible bread dough. You can do this with an electric mixer, a bread machine on "dough cycle," or a food processor. You can also do it with a big bowl and your bare hands.
Keep in mind that flour amounts are approximate; flour varies in absorbency, and your sponge can vary in wetness. Use your judgement; treat it like ordinary white or french bread dough. Trust your hands and eyes more than the recipe, always.
Let the dough rise in a warm place, in a bowl covered loosely with a towel (if you're using a bread machine's dough cycle, let it rise in the machine). Note that sourdough rises more slowly than yeast bread; my starter takes about an hour or so, but some starters take much longer. Let the dough double in bulk, just like yeast-bread dough. When a finger poked into the top of the dough creates a pit that doesn't "heal" (spring back), you've got a risen dough.
Punch the dough down and knead it a little more. Make a loaf and place it on a baking sheet (lightly greased or sprinkled with cornmeal). Slit the top if you like, and cover the loaf with a paper towel and place it in a warm place to rise again, until doubled in bulk.
Place the pan with the loaf in your oven, and then turn your oven to 350o Farenheit and bake the bread for 30-45 minutes.


So that folks is pretty much how I did it. As mentioned above I followed slightly different starter recipe than S. John suggested - opting instead to kickstart it along using the citric acid of the pineapple juice with rye flour technique. It worked first time without a hitch - took about seven days.


When it came to the second rising... effectively the rise where it gains its shape you finally eat it in I had found from earlier experience that unless you help guide it into the right oblong shape it will just rise outwards into a flat oval shape. Most serious bakers have a bread basket for this job. Unfortunately I do not. But one trick I picked up from a website out there (forgive me I have forgotten which one) when it comes to shaping a traditional loaf is to generously flour a clean tea towel and gently place the loaf shaped dough into the rectangle of tea towel then fold the lengthways seams together and twist the ends up loosely like a boiled lolly. Turn over so the loaf is sitting on top of the seam and make sure you leave enough space inside to swell. Pin down the ends with weights if you like. When you return in a few hours you will find it has swollen into its new shape nicely. Be as gentle as you can when you lift and remove it onto a baking sheet dusted with cornmeal. Gently peel the seams away from underneath one at a time. It should be covered in flour which allows you to cut three stripes across at an angle as pictured. That is the easiest and most simple way to score the loaf. If you have a super sharp knife (or better still razor or scalpel) you can cut one or two cuts slightly off centre down the length of the loaf for that artisian chic. Main thing is to do this immediately before you put in the oven.

Final point. I disagree with S. John's baking insturctions in so much as he proposes placing the loaf in a cool oven and warming up to temperature. My experience leads me to suggest you should get the oven as hot as you can with a heavy tray at the bottom, boil your jug and pour a few cups of boiling water to create steam in the oven and put your loaf in. The steam and heat allow the loaf to rise as much as possible in the oven before a hard crust forms. If you then turn down to 180 degrees or so and check the loaf after 10 minutes. If a light brown or white crust is apparent boost up to 190. If a dark crust is already forming then lower the cooking temp to 170 or so. You should still bake for between 35 - 45 minutes to allow it to cook properly.

Remove and let to cool compeltely before cutting. Revel in the sour-y crunchy goodness. You wont be disappointed.


5am Foodie said...

Hi Nick. I've got a half written post about homemade sourdough - hopefully it will be my next post. It's a cool journey - I've been at it for about 10 months now and it's evolved quite a bit. I totally agree with you about high oven temperature and steam. I think it gives the bread an extra lift, and a nice crackly crust. I cook mine in a really hot oven though - about 240 degrees for the first 25 minutes, then 200 degrees for the last 20. I've got one sitting, waiting to be cut right now...

I must come up with a new name for my starter though - "the sludge" isn't nearly as sophisticated as Eric!

Nick P said...

"The sludge" is a great name Michele! Sounds like a title for a popcorn horror flick :)

Thats good to know I'm not only one going the uber-hot oven technique. Ive read many contradictory views out there. So you go even hotter ay? I usually have it up as hot as oven goes for first 10 mins. May try it hotter next time.

Look forward to your sourdough post. Liked your Olive foccacia one a while back.


Ailbhe said...

Nice post. Really clear to follow. I've been meaning to try some sourdough bread baking but was a bit nervous. Will try soon and report back Thanks

Nick P said...

Good luck Ailbhe! Its a wild ride but definitely worth it. Look forward to seeing a post soon about your progress :)

Corinne said...

I've been looking for a recipe that actually works with my busy schedule, and if this one makes a nice loaf, it'll be my go-to recipe. I've got my dough rising for the first time right now, and I'm a little worried about how long it's taking, but I'm being patient.....

Mol said...

I am dying to make sourdough bread and I love this recipe/tutorial/how to--I find it's super easy to follow. But I do have one question--at the end when it says, "..Place the pan with the loaf in your oven, and then turn your oven to 350o Farenheit and bake the bread for 30-45 minutes."

Does this mean, place the pan and loaf in the oven before you turn the oven on to 350 and then let it cook 30-45 minutes as the temp is going up? Or place it in a pre-heated oven of 350?

Call me a noob, but I'm just unsure of what it meant by this.

Nonetheless, I love this post and am glad I found it :)

Don said...

I like this post. Most of the sourdough sites that I have found sound more like a chemistry textbook. I don't think our ancestors all had kitchen scales and sterile environments.
By the way, I named my starter Fred... Fred the bread.

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