We all love to cut into a fresh loaf of bread. But how much do you know about how sourdough is made? Steph Wetherell heads off to meet the people who make your bread at The Assembly Bakery in Bristol.
Early to rise
I can smell the enticing, comforting smell of freshly baked bread from halfway down the street. It’s still dark outside when I arrive at the rather respectable hour of 6.00am, passing headlights gleaming through the windows of the Assembly Bakery, but the bakers inside have been here since 4.30am; “It used to be 4.00am, but we realised we could have an extra half hour in bed!” head baker and manager Dave Fung jokes, as he offers me a much-needed cup of coffee.
It’s a two person show in the bakery at this time of day; Dave is working on mixing the white sourdough for tomorrow, while Courtney mans the ovens and bakes today’s loaves. I join Dave as he weighs the ingredients for tomorrow’s white sourdough into the massive mixer, hefting 25kg sacks of flour with remarkable ease. “It’s a very physical job,” he jokes. “Sometimes you get home and everything hurts – your muscles, your hands…”
A starter about starters
Into the mixer goes water, flour and the levain – a pre-ferment, made the previous day from sourdough starter, water and flour. I ask about sourdough starter; “Basically it’s wild yeast, flour and water,” Dave tells me. “To make a starter, you mix flour and water and let it sit. Once you see bubbles, you feed it, which means throwing away some of the starter and feed it with more flour and water.”
As Dave sets off the mixer, he talks me through some of the benefits of sourdough bread; “With sourdough, the gluten is broken down so there is less gluten in the final product, and the phytates that become phytic acid (which inhibits nutrient absorption) are reduced by a long fermentation period – so if you rush the fermentation process, you can’t absorb all those nutrients.”
The dough sits for a while before he adds the salt and mixes again; “That’s called the autolyse – basically you’re letting the dough sit with no salt in it for at least 20 minutes, and that lets the enzymes start to work on it, which makes the stretching and folding more efficient.”
He cuts huge pieces of the already incredibly stretchy dough and places it into oiled plastic tubs, stacking one tub on top of another until the mixer is empty. This is the start of the bulk fermentation stage, something that takes around four hours.
The art of the crust
I head over to the ovens; four large metal fronted beasts, covered with a light dusting of flour. On the neighbouring racks, baskets of bread ready for baking sit alongside still proving buns and loaves fresh from the oven, the bread audibly crackling as it cools. Courtney slashes the loaves to create a weak point for rising before sliding them en masse into the oven. He regularly sprays water into the ovens, the steam helping prevent the crust forming too early and allowing the loaves to reach their maximum potential.
Bang on 7.00am, their pastry baker arrives to start working on the croissants and tarts for the day. It’s a constant dance in the small space, the staff moving around each other with practiced ease, the sound of the bakery constantly punctuated by beepers and timers.
Back breaking baking
Dave works tirelessly on the cycle of weighing, mixing and turning the dough for tomorrow’s bread. “I was an amateur baker for a long time, and then I was a chef and did bits of baking there,” he tells me. “After training at the e5 bakehouse in London, some friends asked me to manage a social enterprise bakery they’d started in Kenya called the Ujima Bakehouse.” He’s now been head baker and manager at the bakery for 18 months.
10.00am comes around and the cake baker arrives, coinciding with the start of the pre-shaping of the bread. Dave and Courtney cut and weigh the pieces of dough, shaping them and placing them on trays; “This lets you get the bits of dough from the portioning nice and tidy and allows you to put more tension in the dough, but it’s also a good point to assess where the dough is at – is it ready? Does it need longer to ferment?”
The dough is then rested for at least 20 minutes (known as the bench rest). “If you try and work the gluten again quickly you’re just going to snap it – you need to let it relax,” he points out.
A nice sour ending
The skilled hands of the bakers make swift work of the final shaping, a gentle rolling and turning motion that gives the loaves tension, before coating them in rye flour to give a finish to the loaf and stop them sticking, and placing them into the proving baskets.
Finally they’re off to the fridge, ready to be baked tomorrow. “This stage is known as retarding,” Dave explains. “Some fermentation does happen in the fridge but it’s very slow. So it allows us to bake the bread the next morning so we don’t have to be up all night. But it also adds complexity to the flavour, which is partly what makes it sour.” The final job of the day is to mix the levain so it can be left out overnight for the dough mixing tomorrow, the first stage in the two-day baking process.
The rise of sourdough
As they clear up at the end of their 10-hour shift, we talk about how sourdough has risen in popularity again over the last decade. “Sourdough was the only way of making bread for a long time,” Dave points out. “People are taking more and more interest in where their food comes from and how it’s made, and that means people are turning back to more traditional ways of doing things. A small bakery can tell you precisely what’s in our bread and how it’s made.” He pauses, watching the stream of customers passing through the bakery. “But people do complain because everything falls through the holes in their sandwiches,” he says, laughing.
As I head home, I admire the beautiful loaves, lined up on the shelves ready for their customers. White sourdough, wholemeal sourdough, baguettes, white tins, white rolls and seven seed all sit alongside a wide assortment of tempting cakes and pastries. Well, while I’m here…
Do you live in Bristol? Get The Assembly Bakery sourdough delivered straight to your door.
Want to get stuck into baking? Check out our guide on how to make sourdough bread.
Want to know why supermarket sourdough is a con? Here’s why.