Loosely based on BBC Good Food.
1 kilo of wholemeal flour for two loaves, plus enough (500 grams-ish) for the starter and (cough) levain
20 grams of salt
I use flour straight from a mill — I sieve it to remove most of the bran and give the bread half a chance of rising.
Sourdough bread is made without bought yeast: it uses a starter, which is a sloppy, semi-fermented paste. It’s dead easy to make a starter: it has to be, as making bread is one of the first things we ever did. Starters are remarkably resilient — check out the US pioneers that would carry a bit of starter in a pouch, then use it to kick off their bread making when they got the opportunity. So, above all, don’t be scared of either the idea, or the process. All these pictures of beautiful bread are largely bread doing its thing, you just need to follow some standard principles and it’ll do the rest. The one thing it does take is time, which, let’s face it, we all have quite a lot of at the moment. And perhaps we always should. But anyway.
In terms of practicalities, a starter takes under a week to kick off; then sourdough bread is best considered over a four-day period.
* Day 0 is when you take the starter out of the fridge and re-activate it.
* Day 1 is when you make a levain, ready for bread making
* Day 2 is when you’ll do the bread making itself
* Day 3 is when you cook the bread
If this sounds like a palaver, only Day 2 requires repeated effort, and even that is just dipping in and out — a bit of effort in the morning then four lots of 5 minutes, every half an hour, in the afternoon. So, it’s more a case of building it into a routine than any hard effort. Ideally, a nine-to-five worker would have Day 2 on a Saturday, but that’s also when you’d be wanting to get that delicious, freshly baked bread out of the oven… so perhaps reserve a bit of time, between emails, say, on a Friday morning — which puts Day 0 as Wednesday evening. How hard can it be?
First things first: you’ll need that there starter before you can do anything. Again, given the above timescales, you should kick that off at the weekend, then you will be ready to go on the following Wednesday. Good luck!
Making the Starter
The starter makes itself, with a bit of help. Take a reasonably large vessel – a 500ml yoghurt pot with a lid, say – and put in it 50 grams of flour and 50 mls of lukewarm water. Exact proportions aren’t important but you don’t need too much of anything — stir it and you should end up with a loose paste. Put the lid on loosely, then leave it overnight on the kitchen surface. Do the same every day for 4-5 days, and you should end up with something frothing and bubbling of its own accord. Some notes:
1. If you want to be totally hipster, you can use a Kilmer jar or similar but this will make no difference to the starter.
2. You can also give it a name, but come on, be serious. Unless you have kids in which case, totally. Or you just want to.
3. But you can call it Mother. No, I don’t know why either.
4. You can use any kind of plain flour – wholemeal, white, spelt, doesn’t matter. You’re just creating something for yeast to eat as it develops.
5. If it develops a layer of water, you can pour this off if you feel so inclined. You can also throw away half the starter from time to time, as you never need that much.
6. A test, reputedly, is that a teaspoon of starter should float in warm water. I don’t think this works for wholemeal, and if it’s not floating but still frothing, don’t fret.
In any case, a good, frothy starter is clearly doing its thing. Once you have this, you’re ready to make some bread. See below and put what you don’t need in the fridge, unless you are planning on making bread every day.
Making the Levain
Levain is a French word (yeast is ‘levure’), which is of no relevance whatsoever, and nor is the levain itself: all that’s really happening at this stage is that you’re getting the proportions of starter right for a couple of loaves. Levain is the sort of word people use to make bread making sound more mysterious, and therefore less accessible, than it actually is. It’s words like levain that cause snobbery and pretentiousness, and leave normal people, who would otherwise be perfectly capable of producing a loaf, feeling inadequate and unsure of themselves. Levain is a touchstone for all that is wrong with cooking, taking away any concept of initiative or self-belief and leaving us all to be over-reliant on recipes as if we can’t think for ourselves, but have to follow someone else’s steps as though they contain some magic formula that would otherwise be unattainable to mere mortals. It is the fault of levain, yes, levain that we have celebrity chefs, whole shelves full of beautifully illustrated books, and competitive cooking series in which it isn’t enough to make something delicious and nutritious, but it has to be a feat of culinary ingenuity. It is because of levain that we have Paul Hollywood.
Anyway, stick a healthy tablespoon of starter into a bowl, add 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of lukewarm water, and leave it on the kitchen surface, loosely lidded, overnight. That’s it.
Making the bread – Day 2 Morning
The morning of Day 2, you kick things off by mixing the levain into 600 mls of lukewarm water. By now you may be wondering about all this ‘lukewarm water’ business, what’s that about? Essentially, yeast operates best at about 25 degrees Celsius — that’s when it most likes to bud, to eat sugar and turn it into carbon dioxide. As room temperature is (say) 16-20 degrees, you can give the yeast a helping hand with water that is 30 degrees or so, that way, when it makes contact with the flour, you should arrive somewhere around that magic 25. Doing this means the resulting dough is already at the right temperature, within: you don’t need to worry about airing cupboards, warm porches and the like.
You should have a thin slurry of yeasty goodness, into which you can add a kilogram of flour. Note that the proportions that count are of starter to flour: the amount of water is relevant more for how workable the resulting mix becomes. So don’t be afraid to add a bit more if the dough feels too solid: too much water and you can end up with a very sticky and unmanageable dough, but it shouldn’t affect the ability of the bread to rise. (As a digression, half a kilo of flour will make a ‘standard’ loaf. Normal bread making requires 10 grams of (proper, not low) salt and 10 of yeast per loaf, so this is no different).
Mix the flour into the dough. You can use an implement for this, but doing so misses a trick as your fingers are the best judge of how well something is missing. Top tip: as you start, use one hand to hold the bowl, and the other to mix. You can bring your second hand in once the process is underway. Second top tip: be sure to have already rolled your sleeves up before starting: if you don’t, it will already be too late, as your hands will be coated. You should end up with a rough dough: get as much of the dough off your fingers and back into the dough before you finish, them leave on the surface for between 1-4 hours, in a clear plastic bag. This holds in the moisture and stops the dough from drying out.
Note that the timing is not massively relevant: you’re wanting to let the mixture activate itself over the day, but equally, you have things to be getting on with. I suggest you get this stage done between 9-10, then you have something to work on after lunch. Equally, you could do it first thing, and time lunch around the next stages. You get the picture.
Day 2 Afternoon
Throw the 20 grams of salt over the mix, and add a splash of water, then you’re ready to knead this emerging masterpiece. You’re using your hands, again, and you want to be able to feel the material stretching through your fingers. You should know when it’s done, as it’ll feel consistently stretchy. If it feels a bit tight, add a splash more water but no more.
Leave for 20 minutes. Then take the dough out of the bowl and flip it onto its back, straight onto the kitchen surface – its underside should look a bit pocked. pull the sides over each other then flip it back and stretch the sides down and underneath, to create a skin. Then pop it back in the bowl. Put some flour on your hands to do this if it’s sticking.
Leave for 20 minutes, then do it again. And again after 20 minutes, and again. Once more, timing does not need to be super-accurate. Then leave it in the bowl, bagged, for two or three hours. It should rise, not by much — more important is that bubbles appear under the surface.
At this stage – late afternoon or evening – you should have your dough, proved and ready to go. Divide it into two (super-top tip, which took me years to work out, is that accurate results are best done with scales. Well, duh), then follow the above process of putting each piece onto its back, then folding into the centre before flipping and stretching the skin. This time, stretch tighter than previously, until you feel you have a Jack-the-Giant-killer tight tummy of a skin.
You can now put in a floured basket, if you have one. It isn’t essential. You can just use the bowl you were using — I have two thin laminated plastic salad bowls (barbecue style) that do the job. Sprinkle a bit of flour in first, but don’t worry if you forget. Do the same with the second portion of dough. (Or, if you like, divide it into four and make pizza bases. Follow the same fold and stretch process for each, leave to rest for half an hour or so, then attempt to juggle around your head before giving up and rolling with a bit of flour. This can, but doesn’t need to be, semolina flour. Make sure they’re as thin as possible whilst still supporting the hefty amount of cheese and tomato you plan to load them with.)
Back at the dough, put the bowl(s) in the fridge overnight, back in the plastic bag. I have a large transparent bag I have been using for this purpose, for years.
Cooking the bread
The next morning, haul yourself out of bed, make a cup of tea, take the bowls out of the fridge and put their oven straight on at ‘hot’ – 240 Celsius for a standard oven, bit less for a fan oven or gas mark 9. You want it hot to get that initial quick rise as the trapped air expands. Ideally, put in a casserole dish – we have an old ironware Le Creuset type thing, a Pyrex dish is probably just as good. Use a higher shelf, and leave a lower, loaf-sized shelf free.
When this is up to temperature, we get to the fiddliest bit. You want to keep the oven hot, at the same time as getting the expanded dough, cross-cut, into the dish. No easy answers for this, but my order is as follows.
1. Get the dough bowl ready and scrape the dough away from the sides using a spatula, so it is loose and ready.
2. Flour your hands a bit.
3. Remove the casserole dish from the oven and put it close to your working surface.
4. Turn the dough onto the surface, flip it upright and shape it very carefully. Slice it across the top in an X.
5. Take the lid off the casserole.
6. Pick up the dough with two cupped hands, lift it across and drop it into the casserole.
7. Swear profusely and panic as you realise you have dropped it off centre. Jiggle the casserole and sigh with relief.
8. Put the lid back on and put the casserole back in the oven, on the higher shelf.
Set the timer for 30 minutes and enjoy that cup of tea. Once time is up, check the loaf – hopefully it will have done its thing, rising and making a crown out of the cross-cut. Remove it from the casserole – hopefully a jiggle will release it, or you may need to use a spatula – and put it on a lower shelf to brown for a further 10-20 minutes. If you have gone down the two-loaf route, put the empty casserole back in the oven, while you get ready for stages 1-8 once more.
Meanwhile, back at the first loaf. To be cooked, bread should reach a temperature of 94 degrees – we have found that cooked wholemeal sourdough needs another 5 minutes or so even when it has reached this temperature, so it is not sticky in the middle. You can use a thermometer for this (okay, I do have one bit of fancy-pants gadgetry) or keep your fingers crossed — if the latter, I would err on the side of more time, all you will gain is a bit more crust.
When you see fit, remove the loaf from the oven and put on a cooling tray. It should be crusty yet still with some give. Follow the same steps with the second loaf. Leave to cool as long as you can stand before cutting a deep slice of crust and slathering it with butter. You deserve it. Oh, and don’t forget to take a picture and upload it to all the social media channels, as there is nothing people love more than seeing pictures of freshly made bread.
Also published on Medium.