I have a little piece of England living in my kitchen. Bacteria type of living. Good bacteria, that is. It comes from a bakery in the southwest of the country. Its story is a little vagabond like. This little piece of England escaped its life in Europe by finding its way on a plane and venturing to the north west corner of Florida, with its former adopted owner, Meredith. It bounced through familiar type oven filled environments to finally make its final resting place on my kitchen counter top, right here in Jacksonville. Since its arrival, I have become addicted to feeding it and it has been feeding me. Tea and toast. Lots of tea and toast. I have found myself desperate and very committed to keeping it alive. It has become my pet. It has been lovingly named Frankel.
You may have already read about the very fine Sunday a couple of months ago, where I found myself taking part in a sourdough workshop at Community Loaves Bakery. We were taught the lessons of sourdough and learnt how to make the perfect loaf. We were introduced to all sorts of techniques and tricks and most importantly, we were introduced to our starter. The special ingredient that makes sourdough, sourdough. This is where I first met Frankel. You see, Frankel is my starter. It turns out that Frankel used to be a part of the starter used in the bakery where Meredith (one half of the lovely ladies at Community Loaves), used to work in England. I have no idea if smuggling age old starter from country to country is legal, but I do know that I am going to (attempt) to do the same when I go back to Australia. Frankel is going to be one well traveled little guy.
Going into the workshop, I had very little knowledge about how to make sourdough. It had always felt so secretive. Somewhat covert and cultish that only a select few of underground, cloaked folk understood and kept tight and hidden within their baking books. I knew it was a pretty special process and I knew that I would love it. When I was sent home with a small jar of starter with the words 'feed me' written on paper attached to the top, along with a notepad full of instructions and lessons learnt from the day, I felt special. The secret was with me. This little jar of goodness was one more positive step into the wondrous baking world. Now, I spend every other day feeding this goodness, my Frankel, making sure he has enough to eat, so that on days when it is raining or days when I feel like getting my hands dirty in the kitchen, I can use him to make a loaf of Sourdough, or two. I am utterly, slightly obsessively hooked.
I have been practicing. Over the last week, all of the little cracks and corners of my kitchen have been coated with flour. My freezer is now well stocked with a hearty supply of bread*, and now I feel confident to go ahead and share the secrets of sourdough, with you.
It's going to be a long post - so if you're not so much into making bread, I'll forgive you if you just look at the pretty pictures and then leave. But if you are staying - please know that I am going to do my best to articulate the crazy complicated instructions that are to follow... every little ounce and secret I am grateful to have learnt from the bread wunderkinds, Sarah + Meredith.
Here we go!
*some that I'm proud of, some that I'm not so proud of
Sourdough Basics Once upon a time, sourdough was the only way to make bread. It is an age old method of using fermented grains to produce bread - it isn't just a flavour. Sourdough has only four ingredients. Water, flour, starter and salt.
The starter is the yeast used to make sourdough bread. It is made by fermenting grains that feed off the natural yeast and lactobacteria found in the air. Starter is a living, breathing thing, therefore it needs to be kept alive to remain active and useful (see below for how to take care of your starter). Starters also take on micro-bacterial environmental qualities, making them unique to the area that they are produced (hence why Frankel is so worldly and multicultural). To make your own starter, take a look at this recipe from Eyal Schwartz, the head baker of the famous E5 bakery in London. Otherwise, if you live in Jacksonville and know where I am, come and get some from me. Frankel is a generous chap.
Ingredients for Sourdough Bread
To make an 800g loaf of bread you will need:
240g whole wheat flour
160g all purpose flour (organic is best for both flours, if possible)
In addition, you will also need:
Bread basket or loaf pan
Rice flour and corn meal for dusting
Additional whole wheat and all purpose flour for feeding your starter
A peel or small cutting board with a handle
Baking stone (pizza stone, saltillo stone, cast iron or dutch oven will also work)
A razor or sharp serrated knife for slashing
Before you start, know that it will take at least 6 1/2 hours to make a loaf of sourdough, including proofing and baking time. Or, if you want to break it up into a two day process, you will need at least 3 1/2 hours on the first day to get your loaf started. However, you don't need to be with the bread the entire time, so it is possible to multi task while baking. It's a great idea to make a couple of loaves at once - the loaves happily freeze if placed in a zip lock or airtight bag. Here are the total times of all of the steps needed to make sourdough (each step will be explained in the next section):
Knead + Add Salt: 3 mins
1st and 2nd Stretch: 2 hours 15 minutes
Scale and 1st Shaping: 20 minutes
Final Shaping + Proofing: 2 hours if leaving at room temperature on the bench, or 30 minutes on the bench then 12 hours in the fridge (this is great to do overnight so that you bake the bread fresh first thing in the morning)
Baking: 45-55 minutes
1st step - Autolize: In a large bowl, combine your starter, both types of flour and water. Using your hands is the best way to make sure the ingredients are evenly combined. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour.
2nd step - Salt + Knead: Add the salt to the dough and knead in the bowl for three minutes - folding, pushing, twisting and punching all work great. A handy tip is to keep a bowl of water close by to dip your hands into to prevent them sticking to the dough. Be careful though not to add too much excess water to the mixture - you don't want to unbalance the bread math ratio!
3rd step - Stretching: Cover the dough and allow to sit on the bench at room temperature for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes has passed, it's time to stretch the dough. Using your hands (dipped in water to prevent sticking), grab an edge of the dough and lift it up, allowing it to stretch. Fold it over itself so that it lays flat ontop of the dough. Turn the bowl a quarter turn and repeat. Do this two more times - four times in total. The stretching helps to encourage the formation of gluten that was initially formed from kneading the dough. Cover the bowl again and leave to rest for another 45 minutes.
After the 45 minutes rest, repeat the stretching step again. Cover and let rest for a further 45 minutes.
4th step - Shaping: For the initial shape, lightly flour a section of your workbench/counter top. Turn the dough out onto the bench so that the smoothest side is facing down. Take one end of the dough and stretch and fold over itself. Take the opposite end and do the same. This is creating tension on the opposite side of the dough which will become the top of the loaf of bread. Turn the dough over so that the top, smooth side is facing up. Here comes the tricky part to explain. You are now going to push the dough to create firm, smooth tension across the top. You may need to move the dough to an area of the bench that isn't as heavily floured so that it can grab the bench as you push it. The aim is to get a smooth tight surface on the top of the dough. Keep tucking the edges under to help with the tension, and keep sliding the dough carefully along the bench to create a round, smooth surface. Be careful not to go too far with the tension, you don't want any areas of the dough to tear. If you do get tears, try to tuck that area of the dough under, and push/slide the dough to reform a smooth surface. Your dough should end up in a rounded but flattish ball. Remember to use water on your hands to prevent them from sticking to the dough! Once you have a nice smooth and tight surface on the dough, allow it to sit on a floured area of the bench to rest for 20 minutes.
Once the dough has rested for 20 minutes, it's time for the final shaping. Turn the smooth side down onto the bench again. Repeat the same steps as above, starting with the stretching/folding, and ending with the pushing. This time however, you want to shape the dough into the same shape as you intend your final loaf to be depending on the bread basket or loaf pan that you have. The traditional shapes of Sourdough tend to be either oblong, round or baguette. I have an oblong bread basket, but I also like to use a round bowl to change the shape of my loaves up a bit.
If you have a bread basket, generously dust/coat it with rice flour. If you have a loaf pan or bowl, first spray/brush with oil, then generously coat with rice flour. Once your basket or bowl has been coated, gently place your dough, smooth side down, into the basket or bowl. Cover with a tea towel.
5th step - Proofing: You have two choices with proofing. You can allow the bread to proof for 2 hours at room temperature on the bench top if you would like to bake it the same day OR you can place the bread at room temperature on the bench for 3o minutes, then place in the fridge for 12 hours, so that it is ready to bake the next day.
6th step - Baking: Traditionally, sourdough is baked at a very high temperature in a hearth oven that is made or lined with stone to retain the heat. To replicate this at home, you will need a baking stone (I've been using a pizza stone but I've been told that using a saltillo stone bought from home depot/bunnings can also do the trick). The baking stone is important to retain the high heat of the oven which will allow even, consistent baking of the bread. It also helps to pull moisture from the dough to create a lovely, crackly crust - the type that is found on beautiful sourdough loaves.
Preheat your oven and stone to 500 °F / 260 °C for at least half an hour.
Dust your peel/breadboard with handle with cornflour or corn meal. I also like to throw on a bit of rice flour for good measure - beautiful bread dough sticking to your peel as you go to put it in the oven makes it not so beautiful. Using your fingers, delicately go around the loaf to be sure that it hasn't stuck to the basket or bowl. Turn it out onto your floured peel.
It's time now to slash. This part can be tricky - I'm still yet to master. The idea of slashing or scoring your bread is to control the area of bread that you would most like it to expand during baking. This will create those lovely patterns that you see on top of artisan bread loaves. To slash, you will need either a very sharp finely serrated knife, or a razor blade. The slashing needs to be swift, confident and delicate as not to press down on and deflate the dough. It's a good idea to begin with a simple slash - one straight slash down the middle is a good start. Of course, you can get as creative as you like, the more confident you get.
Here are some tips and instructions that I found from another helpful site - weekendbakery.com (take a peek to see what it's all about):
- Make swift and confident slashes, but at the same time be gentle (iron hand in velvet glove).
- Let the knife do the work. Don’t press down on the dough.
- Wet the blade in water between slices (especially when working with sticky dough).
- If you want to create an “ear,” the knife blade should be held at a shallow angle (about 30 degrees) with the surface of the loaf, about 0.6 cm/ ¼ inch deep.
- Practise, practise, practise, bake, bake , bake, score, score score!
What I was told at the workshop : slide the bread onto your baking stone and bake in the oven at 500 °F / 260 °C for the first 10-15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 420 °F / 215°C for a further 30-35 minutes (45 minutes in total)
What I found using my oven: bake in the oven at 550 °F / 287 °C for 10 minutes, then turn oven down to 420 °F / 215°C for 40 minutes. A little variation from the above method, but I found that my bread wasn't cooking through, so I decided to try baking the bread at a hotter temp and for a longer total time and it worked great! Every oven is different. You will find the best timings for your oven through trial and error.
You should be able to tell if the bread is done by turning it over and hearing a hollow sound when you tap it. Bread not cooked? Put it back in for longer!
Taking Care of your Starter / New Found Pet
As mentioned above, your starter is alive. It is constantly feeding from the live yeast and good bacteria found in the air. So, to keep it living, you need to properly take care of it and feed it.
First of all, store your starter in a glass jar. Never put your starter in a metal container, nor should you ever use metal spoons to stir it up. Wooden spoons are preferable.
Feeding your starter:
Your starter is fed using water, all purpose and whole wheat flour. Stone ground, organic flour is always best.
To feed, you need to first tip out the majority of your starter. You can use this excess starter for other recipes such as pizza or pancakes, give it to friends, or throw it away. You can adjust the amount of starter you keep depending on how much you are going to use. Here is the basic ratio (can be increased to suit):
1 tbs of starter.
2tbs all purpose flour
2tbs whole wheat flour
Stir all ingredients to combine. Make sure there is room left at the top of your jar - your starter will grow!
There are two ways to store your starter, on your bench top, or in the fridge.
Storing on the bench top (best, most traditional way):
Keep your starter on your bench top and cover it with some cheesecloth and a rubber band. Don't seal it, it needs oxygen to grow.
If storing your starter on the bench top, you will need to feed it every second day.
Before using, you will need to refresh your starter 12 hours before by feeding it twice. Eg. Feed at 7am. Feed at 3pm. Use at 7pm. This is approximate and can be played with a little.
Storing in the fridge (a little more practical for at home bakers):
It is possible to store your starter in the fridge. Do seal it, you don't want it to soak up all of the nasty flavours of the fridge, plus, it will go into hibernation mode so it won't need as much oxygen to stay alive.
If storing in the fridge, you will need to feed it once a week. Before using your starter, you will have to feed it three times at least 16 hours before you use it, to make sure that it is fully active. Eg. Take it out of the fridge and feed at 7am. Leave on the bench top overnight. Feed again at 7am. Again at 3pm and it will be ready to use at 7pm. Again, this is approximate and can be played with a little.
When left in between feeding, you starter may develop a layer of liquid on top. This is called hooch and is just alcohol from the fermenting yeast. You can either stir it in or tip it out. I tip it out. As long as your starter isn't green or any other colour (bad bacteria), you are good to go!
Going out of town? Increase the amount of flour when you feed your starter to make the mixture more doughy. This will give you starter more to munch on while you are away.
So. There are the secrets. You now have in front of you everything I have been taught and everything that I know about making Sourdough. You're welcome. It's long. It's complicated. It is just as much art as it is science. I'm not an expert. Just a little passionate and in love with sharing. I still have a lot of time left in the kitchen perfecting all that is above - but so far, I love every flour covered, stone cracking, strange looking loaf moment. It does become addictive. Strangely addictive. And so, so, very rewarding. You will now often find me Sunday night soup dipping and Monday night bruschetta eating. Any excuse to eat this flavourful, robust, healthy and hand made bread. And then there is Frankel. Feeding Frankel is still an exciting part of my day. I'm going to do everything in my power not to kill him. I couldn't possibly. I am now spoiled with home made Sourdough - and I'm not sure that I can ever go back. Tea and toast has never tasted so good.