Sourdough, and the benefits of patience

Patience is a conquering virtue.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

This is food at its most basic. Flour, water, salt, and time. The flour and water are mixed and then natural air-borne yeasts and good bacteria develop a culture, or starter, over several days. When combined with more flour and made into dough, this culture acts as a leaven and raises the dough, and when baked, gives it a distinctive ‘sourness’. For most of human history, bread production has relied on the use of sourdough as leavening; the use of baker’s yeast dates back less than 150 years. Sourdough is still a traditional way of making bread in many parts of the world, and has risen in popularity in the urbanised west in recent  times. It takes about a week to make the starter, the essence of all sourdough, and from then on about 24 hours to make each loaf of bread. It’s a slow process, and it requires lots of patience and gentle, respectful treatment of these simple ingredients as the wonderful natural yeasts and bacteria work to transform them into bread. Why bother? Because the taste and texture of the bread is chewy, rounded, and ripe; far removed from the bland uniformity of most commercially available sliced bread. It’s beautiful made into a sandwich, or toasted, or as croutons, or in a panzanella salad. I love it lightly toasted, with avocado, soft feta and some fresh herbs and black pepper, or nestled beneath two perfectly poached eggs for my Saturday breakfast.

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Most of the recipes for sourdough I looked at are either too thin on instructions, or absurdly complicated and scientific. I have looked at many and found this one to be the recipe for me. It follows the method set out in Jamie Oliver’s Happy days with the Naked Chef with some slight adaptions and additional notes, which I hope will provide useful tips. I do hope you try this some time when you have a free weekend for baking (meaning you start on Monday morning making the starter). It will be worth it.

Day 1:
In a medium sized bowl mix together 250g organic rye flour, 250g organic plain flour and enough water to make a mixture just a little thicker than pancake batter. Place outside in the fresh air for about an hour, then cover with cling film and set aside in a warm place.

Day 2:
Do nothing. The mixture will start to bubble as the natural yeasts begin to ferment.

Day 3:
Feed the starter by mixing in 250g rye flour and 250ml tepid water, adding a little extra water if necessary to return the starter to its original consistency. Cover again and set aside.

Day 4:
Do nothing. The mixture should be bubbling and smelly and have a greyish tinge.

Day 5:
In the late afternoon, take the starter, which should be bubbly and now smell pleasantly sour, and combine it with 500g plain flour or spelt flour, and enough water to make a soft and pliable dough. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. Take 500 g of the dough and put into a clean bowl – this will become the starter for your next loaf. Add a teaspoon of salt to the remaining dough and continue to knead for another 3 – 4 minutes, adding a little extra flour if the dough starts to feel sticky. Shape into a round or a longish loaf shape, depending on what shape loaf you want to end up with. Line a medium sized glass bowl or a rectangular loaf tin with a tea towel and place the dough inside. Cover with cling film and put somewhere warm for 12 – 14 hours.

Add some tepid water to the left-over dough to make the starter mixture look like it did before you added the flour to make the bread. This is really messy – I use my hands and squish it together until the mixture is able to be combined with a wooden spoon. Scrape down the side of the bowl, cover with cling film and place in a warm place. It will be ready to make into another loaf in 24 hours.

Day 6:
In the morning, preheat oven to 190C. Gently turn the dough out onto a lightly floured baking tray and carefully take off the tea towel. Cut a few deep slashes into the top of the dough and bake for about 1 hour until brown, and the bread sounds hollow if tapped on the bottom. There’s lots of scope for creativity with the slashes on the top – straight lines, curves, decorative patterns all work beautifully and shape the character of the final loaf.

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And so the rhythm begins. Make the bread dough and prepare the starter for the next loaf in the late afternoon of one day. Bake the bread first thing the next morning. And over and over, each loaf unique, chewy, full of character and delicious. If you want to miss a day, put the starter mixture in the fridge and bring it to room temperature a few hours before you want to make another batch of dough. Experiment with different proportions and types of flour to give different flavours and textures to your loaves. Enjoy this simple, humble and glorious food that nourishes the body and the soul.

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