A Sourdough Method (Sourdough-Fu)

Sourdough is something of an enigma to me.  I’ve read dozens of recipes.  They’re all the same and they’re all different.   First, of course you have to make your starter, and that too seems to have lots of variations to it.  What I’ve done is to do my best to keep as many variables constant, so I’d use my starter exactly 2 hours after a new feed, and then use exactly the same amount of ingredient. I’ve called this a “method” rather than a recipe because it’s more of a basic roadmap than a specific set of steps.

The method I’ve ended up using is based on that presented in the River Cottage Bread book, but not exactly the same.  I like to use a bit less salt for one, and it’s also been tweaked a bit here and there to make up for the fact that my starter is perhaps one of the laziest strains of yeast I’ve ever encountered.

The overnight sponge

Ingredients

500g strong white flour
300ml of starter
450ml of tepid water

Mix it all together.  Stick a shower cap over the bowl to keep the moisture in, but you can put it in a clean bin bag if you like.  This gets left in my kitchen which isn’t all that warm.  I don’t stick it in the airing cupboard to try to speed it up.  The overnight sponge makes the dough a lot easier to work, as the yeast will have (1) an almighty feed, and (2) have time to break the flour down so the next day kneading isn’t quite so much of an effort.

If you don’t have time to do the sponge, just take all the ingredients here and add it to the bread ingredients below and start from there.

The bread

Ingredients

100g strong white flour in a small bowl for dusting
500g strong white flour to go in with the sponge
20g salt

Mix the 500g of strong white flour with the sponge, and when you start kneading, use the 100g you held back for dusting.  If you use the whole 600g in the loaf, and then add additional flour for dusting, you then change the flour composition of the bread, and you’ll never know by how much.  This way you know exactly how much flour you’ve put in.  I get through the whole 100g of flour as the dough is very wet and just on the edge of kneadability.

When you can stretch it really thin (Must get a piccie of this), shape it into a round, stick back in mixing bowl, cover with shower cap and leave for 8 hours. Every hour or so take it out, knock it back gently and then shape it into a round, not too tightly.  The dough starts to get fluffy and light at about knockback three.

8 Hours are up (actual time may vary)

Once those 8 hours are up, knock it back once again and then divide into two loaves.  Prove them on a baking sheet or in a proving basket.  This is then left to rise again for another 4 hours or so, until it’s roughly doubled in size, but what to look for are any bubbles that are forming on the dough.  Those usually tell me that the air holes on the inside should be getting larger.

The oven goes on at 240C, and in goes a roasting tin.  When it’s up to temperature boil 1l of water.  Just before you put the loaves in the oven, slash them with a sharp knife.  The dough is wet, and a serrated knife will catch and pull the dough all out of shape, so instead I use the sharpest knife in my set.  Stick them in the oven, pour the boiling water into the roasting tin, and leave to bake for 10-15 minutes.

Here’s where it starts to get a bit complicated (for my fragile little mind anyway).  Sometimes, and I can never figure out why, by 15 minutes the loaves are colouring nicely and are getting quite brown.  In this case I cover them with tin foil to stop them from burning and the temperature goes down to about 180C for another 20 minutes.  If they’re still quite pale the temperature goes down to 200C for another 20 minutes.

The tapping check is done at the end of this time, if the loaf doesn’t sound hollow when you tap its base, I stick it back into the oven for 10 minutes, do the tap test again, and if it’s still not cooked, repeat.

Things I’ve found

If you don’t make the overnight sponge, you’ll get a tangy slightly sour taste to the loaf, but the texture and crumb is not quite as nice.  The dough is tighter so those big air holes are not easy to get.

If you do make the overnight sponge, you get a very good crumb with lovely air holes, but there is only a hint of the sour taste.  Somethings’ obviously been chomping on whatever makes it sour.What I’ll do next time round is to add more starter in the morning just before the kneading to see if that trademark sourness can be preserved.

Other people can do it in a totally different way and get a great result.  Azelia’s Kitchen   did an amaretto semolina loaf that looked fantastic, and the Skint foodie’s sourdough was also somewhat impressive.  Both approaches are somewhat different to what I did.

It’s an art, a feel thing.  So much of this process is down to your experience as a baker, the conditions under which you’re baking.

Sourdough is also a matter of taste.  No two sourdough loaves I’ve baked have tasted exactly the same.  I put that down to n00bness and the fact that I’m not totally skilled at this yet.  Sourdoughs that I’ve tasted from artisan bakers and the various restaurants I’ve been to have also all been very different.  I haven’t liked all of them, and this just brings it home to me that baking sourdough is such an individual thing, you’ll make it your own simply by following your taste buds.

To get those lovely big air holes, you have to make the dough wetter than you would for a bog standard white loaf.  Thing is, wet doughs can’t support their own weight and will “flow” out and flatten.  If you check this video out that I shamelessly stole from the Skint Foodie this is what happens at about 3:30 in the video.  The dough falls out of the proving basket and immediately starts spreading out and flattening. To avoid this, you have to experiment to strike a balance between wetness and tightness so that your dough flows out very slowly, so that when you take it out of the proving basket, it doesn’t flatten as quickly as it does in that video.  If you’re very quick you can slash the loaf and get it into the oven before it flattens out.  The baking of the crust and the oven rise will give you a loaf that’s not flat and with nice air holes in it.

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