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A little cheese and a little whine

Sourdough

Over the last eighteen months I’ve been trying to bake sourdough bread. I think I’ve finally cracked it. The approach I use is inspired by a talk by Aiden Chapman at the Cake and Bake Show, but I’m not sure he’d approve of where I’ve ended up.

Every sourdough needs a starter, and I have a 2 litre container of starter in the fridge. This was built up over time from a starter I bought from another Cake and Bake Show exhibitor. There’s no shortage of places you can get a starter, or you can make your own; I don’t know if there’s anything to choose between these options.

Having a large volume of starter means that the acids which give sourdough its characteristic flavour get a chance to build up between bakes. With a new starter, it takes a few weeks to get the flavours going.

I bake a loaf most weeks, but if I don’t, I feed the starter on Tuesday evening, replacing 240ml of the mix with 120ml of water and 120ml of flour. Starters naturally decrease in volume over time so occasionally I will add an extra spoon of flour if the volume looks low; this probably amounts to 30ml of flour every six weeks.

If I’m baking a loaf then on Tuesday evening I add 120ml of water and 120ml of flour to the starter and leave it in the kitchen overnight. On Wednesday morning I make a sponge using 240ml of the starter (which then goes back in the fridge), topped up to 440ml with lukewarm water. I add 60ml of flour to this, and let it sit in a whichever room of the flat is warmest until it’s frothy. This usually takes about four to six hours. If in doubt I use a longer time rather than a shorter one.

I then make a dough using 500g strong white flour, the sponge, 30ml of olive oil, 1.5tsp salt and 1tsp ascorbic acid. I use white flour because I prefer the resulting flavour and texture, but I’ve tried various mixtures of plain, strong and stoneground and they all work pretty well. The ascorbic acid aids gluten development and helps the bread develop an open crumb. You can get ascorbic acid on eBay.

I make the dough in a bread machine using the dough cycle, but take it out as soon as it’s finished kneading. I’m pretty much convinced that kneading bread is the sort of thing machines were invented for, but hand kneading would probably work just as well.

The dough then sits in the fridge from Wednesday afternoon until Friday morning. I usually put it in a plastic food back and then in a bowl to support it. On Friday morning, I tip it into a banneton and cover it in cling film. This is a fairly dry dough so it has a tendency to develop a bit of a crust if it’s allowed to dry out. I leave the banneton in the warmest room until the dough doubles in volume; this is usually about six hours.

I sometimes laminate the dough, but I’m not sure how much this helps. To do this, when I take it out of the fridge, instead of tipping it into the banneton, I tip it out onto a silicone baking sheet and cover it with the banneton, and then leave it for about half an hour. During this time, the stiff ball of dough from the fridge will relax a little and spread out over the surface of the baking sheet. I then fold the dough in half and cover it again. After half an hour, I do another fold and then tip it into the banneton and continue as before. The result is that the dough has air trapped within it, which gives it a more open texture. Using the baking sheet means that I don’t need to add any flour during this process (which controls the hydration of the dough) and letting it spread out means that I can fold it very gently, without knocking out any of the CO2.

I bake the dough in a fan oven, but TBH I don’t think it’s a very good one and most things I cook in it I use the instructions for a standard oven rather than a fan one. I preheat the oven to 250C, with a baking tray inside. Once the oven has reached temperature, I dust a silicone baking sheet with flour and tip the dough onto it. I then slash the dough and dust it with flour. Then, I take the baking tray out of the oven and slide the baking sheet (with the dough) onto it. I cover the dough with an old metal casserole dish which acts as a cloche.

I bake the dough for 15 minutes at 250C, then reduce the temperature to 200C and bake for a further 25 minutes. Then, I remove the cloche and bake for 10 more minutes at 220. This three-phase procedure is one I developed to give the best balance of crust development, browning and moisture.

This gives a very tasty sourdough with a good crumb and a good crust. I usually leave it for about two hours to cool, then cut it in half and put half in the freezer and leave half in a plastic food bag for use over the next couple of days. It is a little dryer than some other sourdoughs, so goes stale more quickly, but I personally prefer this over the alternative. A shorter time on the second baking phase yields a moister loaf.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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