Sourdough

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Sourdough is an area of baking in which very few home home bakers try, the name itself doesn’t sell it much either. Even looking past the name explaining the process of how this tantalizing bread comes about doesn’t help much. Sourdough is the oldest method for making bread we are aware of. Our ancestors used this technique to make bread well before the availability of commercial yeast in the late 1800’s. Evidence has been found of 4,000 year old bakeries and breweries using it, so commercial yeast is relatively new phenomenon yet it has become the norm.  If you read on I will simplify and explain the process so you know just how easy it is to make. Before you know it you will have completely changed your view on bread across the board!

Bread basics

breadingredients

4 ingredients will form the base of almost every type of leavened bread (soda bread would be an exception)-flour,water, yeast and salt. From this base bakers have an infinite number of options as to what they add, how they flavour, shape, score, bake and eat their bread. Likewise there is a simple process which is followed:

1. Ingredients are mixed to form a dough;
2. The dough is kneaded to form gluten and strength;
3. The dough is left proof (rise) to allow the yeast to start their work and get used to their new environment;
4. Risen dough is shaped and left to rise again;
5. Dough is baked.

Again, this is bread at the basic level and each stage is step in the process is open to different approaches or even skipped completely. For example you can skip the kneading altogether if you give the bread a longer rising time as gluten will develop naturally over time. With some Pita breads the whole second rising step does not take place.

Sourdough basics

Here’s the theory behind it. Skip to the next section if you would rather get started!

Yeast which leavens (rises) the dough is created through a natural process of fermenting flour and water over a period of time. Yeast is a natural microorganism found in the soil, water, on your skin, in plants etc. which obtain food from organic matter around them. To survive yeast needs moisture, time, warmth and food. When the conditions are right the yeasts eat the simple sugars in the organic matter and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, which is why yeast is used to brew beer and rise bread as the carbon dioxide creates air pockets. I think of it as yeast eats the sugars and craps out air!

Just like with bread sourdough has a base recipe, which is open to all the variations mentioned above, but only 3 ingredients; flour, water and salt. You will notice yeast isn’t used, sourdough uses the natural yeasts we mentioned earlier. This natural yeast is ‘captured’ in what is called a starter and it is this key element of sourdough which sets it apart from other breads. A starter is a simple mixture of flour and water which is left to ferment over time in order to harvest the natural yeasts present in it’s surrounding environment. Within this mix their exists a stable mix of natural yeast and Lactic acid Bacteria (LAB). The is what produces the Lactic acid and provides the sour flavour distinct to sourdough. Just like with any other living organism it needs food and so sourdough feeds off the natural sugars in the flour and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. When yeast comes into contact with moisture enzymes break down the starches into maltose which is then converted into the simple sugar glucose. This is what the yeast feed off. Once the all of the sugars have been eaten the food supply needs replenished otherwise the yeasts will starve and die. Regular feeding of the starter is required due to this. Yes-this is starting to sound an awful like a keeping a pet.

A starter can be kept alive indefinitely as long as it gets a regular supply of food and the conditions are kept right. In fact there exist starters around the world hundreds of years old. A particularly famous one is the Boudin Bakery in San Francisco who started theirs back in 1849 and is still in use today! My own personal starter has been on the go since April 2012. The feeding section below talks you through the different ways in which you can keep your starter alive through regular feedings.

So sourdough is still a 3 ingredient bread just managed differently. A portion of the starter (which is flour and water) is added to the other ingredients-flour, water and salt. The simple process for making bread is followed as outlined above, the difference is that it will take longer. Natural yeasts aren’t as active as the commercially available ones who can double the size of dough within an hour. They take their time eating their food and crapping their air. Think of natural yeasts as having a low metabolism and commercial yeasts having a high metabolism. During this longer rising time the LAB produces Lactic acid contributing to flavour and the yeast produces the  carbon dioxide contributing to the rise.

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Some sourdough recipes will take a day and some can take several. The slower yeast activity means the dough may not be ready to bake for a while and with the use of fridges the timing can be customised to produce the exact flavour you want withing a time schedule that suits you. The feeding section below covers more of this. However you should be aware that the longer the rise the more the food supply is depleted and more Lactic acid will be produced and the thicker the crust will become. Too much acid will break down the gluten and cause a dense bread.

The benefits and beauty of sourdough are bountiful. Every starter will have a different taste so you will always experience new flavours with different starters. Eating sourdough is highly beneficial to you for a number of reasons.This article outlines them but in summary the acids present in the dough help your body to absorb nutrients and ease digestion. Due to the natural fermentation and acids it has a much longer shelf life than commercially available or yeast risen breads. A sourdough loaf will keep good for 3-5 days without the need to freeze or the addition of preservatives which take away from the flavour. One final benefit I like to mention is that the whole process is highly personal to each and every person. Not only will your starter be unique but you can completely customise the process, from how you mix it to how long you leave it to rise, so that it suits your lifestyle.

Start your Starter

You will need:

A large jar or bowl sterilized in boiling water
150g strong white flour
150g wholewheat flour*
300g water
Optional: grated apple or 2/3 chunks of rhubarb

How to do it:

1. It’s so simple. Mix the flours, add the water and mix**. Close the jar or cover the bowl with clingfilm or a damp tea towel. Leave it for 2-3 days mixing it at least once a day to help redistribute the yeast.

*Wholewheat flour has more of the original grain in it which contains more nutrients the yeast can use. You can use 100% wholewheat flour to begin with and when it becomes active switch to white flour. Or you can have a wholewheat starter-it’s entirely up to you.

**If using the grated apple/rhubarb add this in along with the water (the apple/rhubarb helps to capture some of the natural airborne yeasts a little easier as well as providing some sugar for the yeast to feed off. So perhaps if you’re in the city or worried your kitchen isn’t the best environment for this then use the apple/rhubarb).

2. After 2-3 days there should be a bit of a smell-like cider-coming off it and small irregular bubbles will have appeared over the surface (picture below). It also may have grown slightly. If so congratulations your starter is alive! If you used the apple/rhubarb pass the starter through a sieve to remove them now-you no longer need them.

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If this is not the case after a few days you have 2 options:

– Give it a few more days
– Try again. Consider the flour you are using; check it is in date or, if it has been opened for a while it can start to go a bit stale likewise if it is approaching it’s use-by date the same will apply. Maybe try a different type altogether to get your starter up and running. The fresher-the better. If you didn’t use the apple/rhubarb maybe consider doing so this time. If your tap water has a high chlorine content it can affect the production of the yeast, so consider using mineral water to get it up and running after which you can slowly switch to tap water.

Feeding

Now that your starter is alive you need to feed it regularly. If you think you will be making sourdough a few times a week then daily feeds are best about 24 hours. I use a 12 hour feeding cycle if I will be making several loaves as this keeps the yeast in a highly active state. For a less regular feeding schedule see below. To feed discard roughly about half of the starter and replace it with equal quantities of flour and water, then mix. In the above case you will have 600g of starter, discard 300g and replace with 150g flour and 150g water. Once you have a feel for the consistency you can start to do it by eye and forget the scales. If anything I find this easier as it means you’re not having to get the scales out and measure everything each time; you want to keep this simple.

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If you get a chance mark the level of the starter before you feed it and check back about 8-12 hours later-you’ll be surprised. Above is what looks like in the afternoon after it’s been fed and fermenting. It’s hard to see (dirty jar) but there’s a lot of small bubbles throughout. This indicates high activity.

If you do forget to feed your starter don’t worry it should be ok for 2 days but 3 days is starting to lean towards the danger zone! If left for this long a dark acrid liquid will form on the top and the mix will become stiff. This is the over-production of lactic acid and alcohol from the yeast. This is how starters die, it is possible to save them from this state but try and not get to this point!

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If you think that you may forget to feed it regularly or that you you won’t use it enough to warrant daily feeds there is another option (which I have used with mine before). You can keep a starter in a fridge to slow down it’s activity for a few days. This way you can leave 4-6 days between feedings.

To do it:

1. The day of refrigerating feed your starter as normal but about an hour or 2 after feeding place into the fridge. The temperature of the fridge will slow down the yeasts activity. This is called retarding the yeast.

2. After 3 days check it again. If it looks ok leave it a few days longer but if the dreaded dark liquid is appearing take it out of the fridge and tip out the dark liquid then follow step 3 as normal.

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3. When ready to feed again take the starter out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Tip out half as usual but put back in about 50g extra of both flour and water. It is also a good idea to use tepid/blood warm water when feeding for the first time since the fridge. This just helps get the yeasts active a little quicker. After 12-24 hours feed again and it should be ready to use as normal.

When to use?

Your starter should be used when it is at the height of it’s activity. This is when it has risen up to it’s maximum point and is full of air bubbles indicating that the yeast is in full swing. Normally anything from 6-12 hours after feeding it will be ready to use, so around 8-9 hours is a good mark to aim for. To test the best method is to use the ‘float test’ where you drop a spoonful of the starter into a glass of water. If it floats on the surface it is ready. If it sinks of half floats then wait a little longer.

Knead or no-knead?

Kneading is the process of physically working the dough in order to give it strength in the form of the protein gluten. When liquid comes into contact with flour the gluten molecules are activated. Kneading stretches out and entangles the gluten strands which holds the dough together. Think of dough as an arrangement of thousands of elastic bands that during kneading get stretched out and crossed over each other. Gluten will  form naturally over time which suits the nature of sourdough as it takes longer to rise. A series of stretch and folds at intermittent periods will strengthen the dough without ever having to knead it. Again it is entirely up to you and your recipe whether you knead or not.

Hydration?

You will often see recipes expressing bread as a X% hydration dough. This is a baker’s percentage and is referring to  how much liquid there is in the dough in comparison to the total flour. All ingredients are expressed in these terms. For example:

Ingredient

Weight

Percentage

Whole wheat flour

50g

10%

Strong white flour

450g

90%

Water

350g

70%

Starter

150g

30%

Salt

12g

2%

The total weight of the flour is 50g whole wheat plus 450g stong white flour giving a total weight of 500g (10%+90%=100%). The water is 350g which is 70% of 500g making this a 70% hydration dough. Our starter is considered to be 100% hydration so it will contribute equal amounts of flour and water to the dough therefore not affecting the ratios.

Baking

Try to bake sourdough loaves at a higher temperature than other loaves. Again down to personal taste but I quite like my sourdough to have a dark blistering crust that crackles when you press it. Steam is key to creation of this as the moisture will convert the sugars on the surface of the bread into sugars which caramelise during the baking. During the first 20 minutes of baking you should try to have a very moist environment. Professional bakeries have steam injected ovens so the best way to do this at home is to place a tray with water soaked towels in the bottom of the oven or using a dutch oven. After 20 minutes the towels should be dry, either way remove them or the lid of the dutch oven and bake for a further 20 minutes. I recommend baking a basic sourdough loaf for 260°C/240°C fan with steam then lowered to 220°C/200°C fan for the final 20 minutes. 

Basic recipe

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So after all that information which you may or may not have been interested in here is a basic recipe for a country loaf. Remember to use your starter when it has passed the float test (see above).

You will need:

450g strong white flour
50g wholewheat flour
350g water, cool
150 starter
12g salt

How to do it:

1. Place the water into the bowl and add the starter. Mix to distribute it throughout the liquid. Add in the flours and mix to form a dough. We are going to ‘autolyse it for 20-40 minutes which allows the flour to swell and absorb all the water.  At this point you can either knead the dough for 5-8 minutes or until smooth and holding it’s shape or you can leave it alone as the long rise will develop the gluten. I would suggest you knead it if you are wanting to bake in the same day and leave it if you intend a longer rise.

2. After the autolyse add 1 tbsp water and the salt and mix in. If you kneaded the dough leave it to rise for 3-4 room temperature (20-23°C). A lower temperature will mean a longer rising time so watch carefully. You can of course leave it in the fridge at this point for 8-12 hours if it suits you better. If not you need to perform a series of stretch and folds roughly every 30 mins or so over the 3-4 hours. To do this simply stretch out the dough from each corner and fold it back to the center.

3. After the dough has risen turn it onto a clean worktop and dust with a little flour. Use a scraper to turn it onto the floured side and so it’s on the bottom. Fold the edges in so the outside of the dough is now all floured, turn over so the smooth side is on top and give it a few turns between cupped hands to develop tension. Leave for 20 minutes-the bench rest.

4. Shape your loaf by turning it over again so the smooth side is on the bottom. Stretch out the side furthest from you and fold to the middle 1/3 like a business letter. Do the same with the left and right of the dough then take the side closest to you and fold it over to conceal all the folds. Between cupped hands pull the dough towards you and rotate a few times to create a tense surface.

5. Place seam side up into a well floured proving basket and leave for a further 3-4 hours or 8-12 hours in the fridge. The colder rise will develop more flavour and a stronger sour flavour approaching the 12 hour mark.

6. Follow the baking section as above to bake your loaf, scoring it on the surface before hand.

I hope that this updated sourdough section provides better information on the subject and has encouraged some of you to get on the bandwagon! I would love to hear any feedback on the information provided or if you have tried out any of the methods above as I am always trying to improve. Please feel free to visit my website http://www.stephenbakes.com for contact information where you can tweet, facebook or email me!

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Stephen

4 thoughts on “Sourdough

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  4. I gave this a try and found your instructions very easy to follow. So I am now waiting on my starter. 🙂 I have bought sourdough bread that was very moist with very small air bubbles, and another kind that was firmer with more taste and larger bubbles. So I am wondering which parameters should vary in order to get one or the other (“young” sourdough vs “old” sourdough?). It seems that your recipes go more towards the more fermented kind (which is good ;-)). I also found recipes where basically the starter and levain are considered the same thing, left aside for only half a day, and then people get on with making their bread. That kind seems moister. I need to make a few tries to see what I end up with at different stages of that sourdough lifecycle.

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