Lockdown sourdough bread

Sourdough was first invented in about 1500 BC by the Egyptians for extended periods of social distancing or other periods when you had time on your side. It was rediscovered in the UK in 2020 AD.

Word of the new British appetite for all things doughy has gone global. Even The New York Times had a feature on it. They wrote of flour makers in the UK, more used to selling 16kg bags to the trade, working around the clock, having retooled to produce consumer-friendly 1kg bags of flour.

For years, I have made my own bread. I love it. I used to eat half-a-loaf a day. Originally, I made it in a bread maker. But now the aged bread maker can just about knead the dough. The proving and baking I have to leave to my oven.

Like probably a lot of people, I’ve always wanted to make sourdough bread. It was for me the pinnacle of bread making. It also had the merit of not having to buy yeast, which is currently in short supply. With more time on my hands, there was no excuse to procrastinate any longer.

A friend, Keith, has been making sourdough bread for years. He’s an expert. He could talk about bread for hours. We did. He told me about different techniques. The one he favours is the Tartine method. There’s even a book dedicated to it: Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. The method itself is described in intricate detail over 40 pages! If you’re interested someone has condensed the recipe.

The key to the Tartine method is that you don’t need to knead the dough. Kneading dough was what put me off making bread completely by hand. That is why I bought a bread maker. I choose a variation of this no-knead method. Keith pointed me to the Foodgeek website.

If you’ve never made sourdough bread, the process is simpler than you’d imagine. The first step is to create a sourdough starter, which is just wild yeast. You can create it simply by mixing flour and water and leaving it for about a week, remembering to remove some every day and replace it with new flour and water to feed it. It’s a magical process!

Once you have the starter, you can make sourdough bread. All you need is levain, flour, water and salt. The levain is just a fresh batch of the starter (made to measure for your loaf). You don’t want to use up all the starter because you’ll want some for your next batch. Mixing the levain, flour, water and salt (I use half white, half wholemeal flour) gives you your dough. Instead of kneading this, use the Tartine method. This requires you to stretch the dough and fold it. You do this four times, rotating the dough mixing bowl by a quarter to cover all sides. Every 30 minutes you repeat the “lift and fold”. After 2-3 hours (4-6 lifts and folds), the dough is ready. You leave it for a further 2-3 hours to prove (so that it rises). After which, you shape the dough into a ball (twice), put it into a bowl and leave in the fridge overnight. In the morning, you bake it.

This all sounds convoluted but doesn’t take more than about 30 minutes of your time. It does require you to be at home but that has been forced on (most of) us during lockdown. It also means that you have to stand up regularly, which is good if you’re largely sedentary during the day. Of course, you can always knead the dough the conventional way instead of doing the lift and fold over 2-3 hours. I find the lift and fold therapeutic although my favourite part is the shaping!

In my case, I didn’t create the sourdough starter from scratch. Keith had some, which he’d been using for about three years!

When trying to make sourdough bread for the first time, I was overwhelmed with all the jargon. The instructions weren’t always clear either. So, I wrote a summary to keep track of what I was supposed to do. If you want to have a go, here’s a summary of the stages in the Foodgeek’s method, which is similar to the Tartine method. For quantities and specific techniques, see the Foodgeek’s website. He also has a calculator for different size loaves.

Note you won’t be able to make sourdough bread using the summary: it’s just a memory aide for me. I created it to avoid reading pages of instructions. Use it to orient yourself (if you need to) before looking at specific instructions.

  1. Night before: feed sourdough starter.
  2. Morning: mix levain; put aside in warm area until it doubles.
  3. Mix all ingredients (autolyse): when levain doubles, mix flour, water, salt, and levain. You may want to dissolve the salt in some of the water first. Leave in warm area for 30 mins.
  4. Bulk fermentation: lift and fold dough every 30 mins for 2-3 hours until window effect is achieved in dough. Leave dough in warm area between folds.
  5. Prove: after last fold, leave the dough in warm area to grow 20-50%. This wil take about 2-3 hours.
  6. Pre-shape 1: fold dough using lift and fold method. Shape it. Rest on worktop for 20 mins under wet dish cloth.
  7. Prepare banneton/bowl: dust the bowl you’re going to leave the dough in with rice flour. Rice flour is gluten free and doesn’t stick to the dough.
  8. Pre-shape 2 (final): shape dough again as pre-shape 1.
  9. Leave overnight: put dough into bowl; sprinkle rice flour on top of dough; put bowl in plastic bag or cover with foil/clingfilm; put in fridge overnight.
  10. Following day: do dough spring test to check the dough is ready; put casserole dish in oven and heat oven to 260c for about 30 mins.
  11. Put baking paper and lid on bowl and turn upside down. Lift bowl off dough.
  12. Take casserole dish out of oven. Dust with corn flour to stop anything sticking to it.
  13. Lower dough (which is on baking paper) into the very hot casserole dish and put on lid. Watch your arms!
  14. Bake: put in oven for 20 mins.
  15. After 20 mins, remove lid and lower temp to 230c.
  16. Bake for a further 20-25 mins.
  17. Remove yummy bread from oven and leave to cool for at least an hour before eating.

In summary:

  • To see how to make sourdough starter, see here.
  • To make the sourdough bread itself, see here.

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