Friday 22 August 2014

Sourdough Virginity

I’ve been boring the noble people of Instagram for the last two months with highly sexed up pictures of bread that I’ve reared from hand, fresh out of the oven. The early ones were erratic and rustic, with the occasional scorched bottom and dense crumb. Some have been a funny green colour from courgette juice. And others an alarming shade of maroon from beetroot juice. Slowly but surely these sourdough loaves have improved. The crumb lighter. The crust crisper and chewier. And the most recent loaves have even got smart concentric circles on them from the bannetone which I’ve been misusing for the last month! But they have all been delicious. And even the burnt ones have been tastier than anything you’d normally buy from a shop.

It’s safe to say that I’ve become hooked on baking sourdough bread. It might well be sign of a quarter life crisis. But actually it’s been a very therapeutic experience. Most things in modern life involve instant gratification – photos get instantaneous likes and comments on Instagram; emails get responded to promptly; Snapchat messages only last seconds. Whereas making bread from scratch with a sourdough starter is soulful and takes pretty much a whole day of respect and careful attention. Haste, rush, speed and hurry simply aren’t possible when making bread. Baking is a miraculous balm to modern life’s sting.

It all started with a terrible loaf of bread that I made during a short trip to Whitstable made with fast action yeast and not very much skill. It bubbled away and ossified into a loaf with the texture and density of depleted uranium that had been compressed by the weight of an ice age. An airy, light, bouncy loaf it was not.

Irked and inspired in equal measure I decided to try to make my own starter. It seems like a rite of passage for anyone who is a bit of a food nerd. Dan Lepard has been my wingman ever since. Along with a sprinkling of advice from a Guardian article that suggested using rhubarb as part of the initial mix.

All we did was to mix 100g rye flour with 100g water and about 50g of finely sliced rhubarb from the garden. And then we undertook the very arduous task of leaving it for 5 days in a loosely covered jar. I think we may have stirred it on day 4 when it got a bit moldy. But that was it.

Then on day 6 we simply poured half of the acidic smelling gloop away and added 100g rye flour and 100g of water and left it for 6 hours whilst it doubled in size. And then we made our first loaf very simple loaf using Dan Lepard’s method.  The quantities below are for the first small loaf we made, using half measures from Dan Lepard’s Barley and Rye Loaf in the Handmade Loaf, which has become my baking bible. These ratios seem to work for all manner of loaves.

Mix together 125g starter, 250g flour, 150g water and a teaspoon of salt. Leave to autolyse for 10 minutes. Then knead for 20 seconds using sunflower oil to stop it sticking to your hands and work surfaces. Then leave it. Half an hour later knead it again. And then leave it for an hour. Then knead it again and leave it to prove on a baking tray with some oiled clingfirm on top.

Once it has doubled in size sprinkle with flour, shape it, slash the top with a bread knife and bake in a preheated oven with a roasting pan of water in the bottom to generate steam at 200 degrees C for 40 minutes. When golden and with a crisp bottom remove nad allow to cool on a wire wrack. Give into temptation and slice. Smear on butter and marvel at your first loaf. I swear nothing has ever, or will ever taste as good as your first mouthful of your own sourdough loaf.

Since that virgin loaf I’ve advanced the technique. Now the loaf is proved in a banettone (wicker basket), which is my new favourite word. However, only last week did I realise that the muslin cloth it comes with is designed to act as a hat not a lining! Whoops. The bread as a result now has lovely concentric circles of crusty semolina flour as decoration, rather than looking like it’s slept on a rather course pillow.

We’ve also got the hang of preheating the oven enough and even found a slab of marble in the garden that is the perfect size for the oven. It now acts as our baking stone. I’m convinced the people who used to live in our house must have had it cut to size because it fits like Cinderella’s shoe. The marble slab takes longer to heat up, but it is giving the loaves more bounce and a better rise, but without burning the bottom.

We’ve also got more confident at playing around with ingredients. We’ve discovered via some vegetable experimentation that you can substitute the water in a bread recipe for vegetable juice. So we’ve been juicing our glut of beetroot, chard and courgettes as the means of hydration for the bread. You can also add some of the pulp to the dough, balanced out with a bit more flour to get the right moisture ratios. The results of this have been great.

The bread takes on a great colour and flavor in the case of beetroot and really helps to keep the otherwise quite dense rye loaves very moist and lively.  I always like anise flavours with beetroot, so caraway and fennel seeds are a perfect match. It’s great with salted butter on it’s own. Amazing with marmite. And is a revelation with smoked mackerel pate.

The courgette juice and pulp loaves blend in nicely and just give a hint of background sweetness and a very pleasant moistness to the crumb. Mixed through with pumpkin seeds it makes for a fantastic loaf. The colour is less vivid than the beetroot, but it still makes for a fine looking loaf that’s got plenty of character. Subtle.

I’ve also started adding in the salt during the second knead. It seems to be working well. But, it has meant that I’ve made a couple of saltless loaves which have been irritating, but still tasty.

This baking journey has only been going for 2 months. But I’m hooked. And really hope I’m still doing it with the same starter in 2 decades time. I’m determined to make a super light white loaf with enormous holes and to master the dark arts of German pumpernickel with it’s treacle like demeanour. And I’m also keen to perfect some gluten free loaves for my new colleagues at work. If you’ve got any sourdough suggestions to try out, please let me know.


freerangegirl said...

I admire your persistence - my attempts at sourdough have resulted in rock like creations - clearly I need to persevere!

Unknown said...

I really liked your post about Sourdough Virginity

Paunchos said...

@Freerangegirl & @mita parvin - I'm still going strong. It's such a rewarding experience. Looking back at these early loaves is quite funny. They are a lot bouncier and bubblier now.


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