A few months ago I met a wonderful woman who, in an instant, I felt I’d known a lifetime.
There were many memorable things about her but most notably it was the fact that she was carrying her sourdough starter with her in her handbag (…it’s a long story).
She immediately inspired me to start my own.
Now, I’m a sourdough fan – the crispy exterior coupled with the strangely wonderful sour interior is simply delicious – from a bakery it’s generally spot on, but all too often sourdough sold in supermarkets is bland and soft.
I knew my adventures into the world of sourdough would be hard work, but I didn’t anticipate it to be quite as tricky as it turned out to be.
I quickly learnt that being in charge of a sourdough starter is a big responsibility – you’ve got to be dedicated to the cause. It’s terribly temperamental.
Generally, the starter needs to be lovingly fed and nurtured on a daily basis.
I decided I was up to it so, with enthusiasm I made my starter – flour, water and finely chopped grapes – I called her Prudence (yes, names for sourdough starters is a thing!).
After a few days she began bubbling away and I religiously kept her well fed – discarding half the mixture before topping her up with flour and water.
She lives in a Kilner jar and every time I open it the pungent smell of home-brewed goodness hits home – it’s just wonderful.
I’d followed a Paul Hollywood recipe for the starter and stuck with him for my first bake – starter mixed with strong white bread flour, salt and water.
It all gets complex pretty quickly, you need patience and time – a lot of it.
You knead the mixture for 15 minutes, leave it to rise for five hours at 22-24C – don’t let it get lower than 15C or higher than 25C.
Knead it again, shape into a ball and store for a second proving in a banneton – a cane proving basket – for 4-8 hours, then it’s into a very hot oven.
I didn’t have a banneton to prove the loaf in so used a glass bowl – the mixture stuck even though it had been thoroughly dusted with polenta.
As I scraped it out it of the bowl it deflated dramatically – I was nervous as it entered the oven.
After 45 minutes I opened the oven, it hadn’t particularly risen but I hoped it might have sourdough’s characteristic pockets of air in the crumb – it didn’t.
All was not lost though – it tasted great. A good level of sourness and a good chew.
Around about the same time as I made my starter, a woman who I follow on Instagram added me to a group – the Sourdough Sisters. I immediately felt part of a baking community and was thoroughly inspired and supported in my impending adventures. If I had a question there were lots of enthusiastic members willing to impart their advice.
I persevered and attempted loaf two.
The outcome was the same, if slightly worse.
Not only was the loaf deflated, so was I – so I bought a banneton for attempt number three.
This wasn’t enough to inspire me to keep going however and I took a sourdough break and kept Pru in the fridge to slow down her activity and lessen her feeding times.
I noticed that a friend was posting pics of her very impressive sourdough loaves on Instagram so asked what recipe she used – I didn’t have much faith in Paul’s anymore.
The link to the recipe was life changing – it laid out the theory of sourdough baking in a way I hadn’t seen before – it was wonderfully clear and factual.
I decided to change my approach.
My friend gave me a raft of top tips and I learnt them off by heart.
I started loaf three on Friday.
Firstly I created a levain – a mix of starter, flour and water – that would mix and bubble overnight to create a really strong base for the dough mixture.
By Saturday morning the levain was frothy and going strong.
At the start of the process the dough is soggy and lumpy – it’s a mix of the levain, water, strong white bread flour, spelt flour and salt.
Key to mixing success is apparently all down to using your hands, not an implement.
I left the dough to rest for an hour – sourdough doesn’t need kneading, its gluten structure forms in the resting process.
Next up it’s bulk fermentation – stretching the dough every 45 minutes for 4 hours – during this process it gets unbelievably smooth and light.
Then it’s time for a bench rest – when you persuade the dough into a regular shape to create even more strength.
Rest it again and then pop into the banneton overnight in the fridge to prove.
By now it was Sunday morning – I was hoping my dedication would pay off this time. I turned the dough out and folded and chilled it again for another hour.
Now for the magic.
Heat the oven to its highest setting and put a cast iron pot in the oven, lid on. Apparently cooking the bread inside the pot helps to create naturally produced steam to create a crispy shell.
I have one cast iron pot – a Le Creuset found in a charity shop for £5 – I wasn’t sure it would be big enough but it worked like a dream.
For the next stage you need to be quick.
Tip the loaf out of the banneton onto a board covered in polenta, score the top (making sure you don’t score yourself) and slide into the pot.
At this point my oven cut out – it was too hot.
After resetting it (not a five minute task) the oven was turned down to 240C fan, bread in the pot, lid on.
After 20 minutes I was to take the lid off – the loaf looked wonderful and has risen beautifully.
Another 20 minutes later it looked liked a professional sourdough loaf – I couldn’t believe it, my mouth was agape!
I felt myself looking around to make sure it wasn’t a hoax.
I can’t begin to tell you how satisfying it is to stick with something and for it to begin to work out – perseverance is key!
It plopped out of the pan with ease and I set it to cool.
My joy escalated when I cut into it and it was full of air pockets – a key characteristic of sourdough.
It tasted gorgeous, a proper crisp shell and soft, sour interior.
Baking is bloody wonderful when it goes well!
Here’s to many more loaves – the journey has only just begun…