Now is the perfect time to pick up a new skill, and what better skill to learn than one that can help feed your household. Home-baker and author Merlin Jobst tells us how to make your first sourdough from scratch.
Sourdough is the oldest form of leavened bread in the world, dating back tens of thousands of years. While it is having something of a renaissance, it is neither new nor a fad. In fact, the only relatively new thing about sourdough is how it’s now being spoken about, because once upon a time, sourdough was simply known as “bread”.
For centuries, the leavening (or rising) of dough was a by-product of an important process called fermentation. Fermentation sees natural bacterias and yeasts digesting the carbohydrates present in a batter made from flour and water, producing bubbles of carbon dioxide that makes it rise. The process also produces lactic and acetic acids, which account for the tangy, sour aroma and flavour of naturally fermented bread.
‘Natural fermentation’ is begun with a starter – a pre-fermented, highly active flour mixture cultivated and maintained by the baker. When that starter, with all its yeasts and bacteria, is incorporated into a larger quantity of flour, water and salt, it becomes an airy, tangy dough that can be baked into what we now know as sourdough bread.
There is one more essential ingredient to sourdough: practice. Baking with natural yeasts is not something that translates well to the modern recipe format of precise ingredients, timings and temperatures. It’s much more free than that; something unique to the environment and individual.
For this reason, following a recipe to the letter will rarely get you the results you want. In my own early days, the problem was that I was afraid both to move away from the recipe if I needed to, and unable to recognise when that might be.
While baking in this way may sound intimidating, it’s an incredibly rewarding and exciting skill to develop. It trains you away from recipes and towards trusting your own instincts.
Rather than a strict recipe, here’s a rough guide to how to make sourdough, with seven simple steps.
1. The starter
‘Natural fermentation’ is begun not with a packet of dried yeast but with a starter. This is a pre-fermented, highly active flour mixture cultivated and maintained by the baker. It sounds complex, but it isn’t (here’s how you make it).
When that starter, with all its yeasts and bacteria, is incorporated into a larger quantity of flour, water and salt, it becomes an airy, tangy dough that can be baked into what we now know as sourdough bread.
2. Make the dough
For a simple loaf, use 100g of active starter, 500g of strong white flour, 375-400ml of lukewarm water and 10g fine sea salt. Combine all but around 25ml of the water with the starter first, ideally using your fingers to encourage bacterial activity in the mixture. Incorporate the flour and combine thoroughly.
Leave for around 30 minutes to allow the flour to relax and become more workable. Then add the salt, the rest of the water, and work well until a smooth, elastic dough forms.
3. Leave it to ferment
Leave the dough, turning (or ‘folding’) every now and then for around four hours to develop gluten and structure (you can find examples of how to do this on YouTube). Take care not to tear the dough. This is known as the ‘bulk fermentation’ stage.
4. Shape it
Once pillowy and doubled in size, shape it. Like any skill, shaping improves with practice (YouTube has plenty of great videos on this too). When shaped, transfer to a dusted proving basket (rice flour mixed 1:1 with regular or rye flour is particularly good for this) or into a lightly oiled bread tin.
5. Prove again
Leave for another few hours until the loaf has noticeably risen, and either bake straight away or retard in the fridge for ideally no longer than 12 hours. While retarding does slow the fermentation down, if left for too long the gluten structure will collapse.
Baking good bread in even the worst of ovens is possible, with the help of a heavy-lidded (ideally cast iron) pot or Dutch oven. This keeps in steam brilliantly, which helps the bread develop a good, brittle crust. Preheat your oven with the lidded pot inside to 250°C, and then carefully transfer your loaf to the pot.
Quickly and confidently slash the top with a serrated knife or razorblade to prevent splitting, and bake with the lid on for 20-30 minutes. Then for a further 25 minutes at 230°C, until the crust is dark and golden.
If baking a loaf in a tin, you can add steam with a dish of water in the bottom of the oven. Bake this at around 230°C for 45-50 mins.
7. Leave to cool…
For at least 30 minutes and ideally 1-2 hours to allow the crumb (the body of the bread within the crust) to set. Eat and store it properly.
Made bread, but got leftovers that need using? Here are some stale bread hacks and tips.
Love sourdough, but don’t have time to bake? Get your loaves here at farmdrop.com.