Clare Marriage, Doves Farm
Sourdough is typically bread made from the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria in flour. The sourdough process begins with ‘the mother’, also known as a ‘starter’: a paste made with flour and water. This paste will need regular attention, including ‘feeding’ it with flour and water about every 12 hours, and must be kept in a warm place for 3 to 5 days to become active – but the effort is worth it. Once the starter is active some of it is used to make a ferment, which is eventually mixed with more flour and water to make recipes such as a bread.
Don’t be disappointed if your first attempt at sourdough isn’t perfect. Do persevere however, because much like making pancakes, the first attempt isn’t always perfect but with a little practice, things improve.
Here are a few things to consider…
Wholegrain flours are best for making and feeding a starter.
Keep your bowl or container of starter loosely covered with some cling film or a clean, wet tea towel rather than tightly sealed.
The ideal temperature for all sourdough stages is a warm place at 22-24°C. In cooler room temperatures, the starter will take longer to become active, so allow for more time between feeds. At warmer room temperatures, the starter will become active more quickly and will need feeding more often.
A dry, flat, sweaty or watery-looking starter usually means a feed of flour and water is urgently needed.
If a dark, alcoholic smelling liquid forms on the surface of the starter it means your starter has been active but is getting tired so pour off the liquid and feed with flour and water.
Remove and discard any mouldy looking crust at the edge of the bowl.
Feeding a starter when it looks active (i.e. bubbly) will encourage increased activity.
If you’re not going to use your starter regularly, don’t worry, all won’t be lost. Just put your starter into a lidded container at the back of your refrigerator where it should go into a dormant state. You will just need to revive it and get it active when you’d like to use it again.
Roz Bado, Bertinet Bakery Sourdough
Make sure your starter has doubled in size before using it in your dough. A good tip is to mark with a pen or an elastic band where your starter level was when you refreshed it, then it’s easier to track its growth.
Dough temperature is key. Don’t be scared to use warm water or hot water if you are mixing in winter or your flour is cold. Your final dough them needs to be above 20°C so the wild yeast in your sourdough starter can get to work, so a warmer dough is preferred. Also keep it in a warm place when proving.
Try out using a mix of different flours to create more diversity in your diet and promote a healthier gut. You can add a seed mix too. If you’re putting seeds into your dough, soak the seeds in equal parts seeds and water a couple of hours before the mixing. This means that the seeds won’t absorb water from the dough and will give a moister loaf for longer and help kick-start the breakdown of the seeds so that your body gets more nutrients from them.
When scoring your bread before you put it in the oven, make sure you are using a super sharp knife or blade to give a clean cut and will help the loaf grow in the oven and get a good ear.
When baking, the best thing to use is a cast iron pot with a lid. If you put it in the oven when you turn the oven on, then it gives it time to warm up enough. The pot acts like a mini deck (baker’s) oven because it holds so much heat. Using means your loaf will get a good spring from the heat and will hold in the moisture release for the loaf and help steam it so you get a lovely crusty crust. After around two-thirds of the baking time has passed, take the lid off and let it bake for another 10-15 minutes to get a wonderful brown crust.
Tom Aikens, Muse
The one thing that I’ve always loved making is bread, and in particular sourdough. There is something truly comforting, rhythmic and almost hypnotic about making it. You never become a complete master at it, as you are always learning, no matter what. The texture can change, as can the taste, crumb, moisture and crust all due to the flour that you bake with. But think about how many different loaves of bread you can make with all the different flours out there.
James Hearfield, Daylesford Cookery School
In bread-baking terms, proving means allowing the bread dough to rise. Specifically, it refers to the fermentation action of the yeast. In basic yeast bread recipes, such as sourdough, the dough will be proved two times, during which time the bread is allowed to rise. Don’t be tempted to cheat or use a shortcut and be sure to double check the instructions in the recipe for specific timings.
Here’s how to prevent a soggy bottom. When you remove the bread from the oven, leave it in the tin for five minutes and it will steam itself free. Once the bread is removed from the tin, put it onto a cooling rack and allow it to cool down properly. This will prevent a soggy bottom and ensure the loaf is cooked all the way through. Be sure to invest in a sturdy, good quality baking tin, too. Not only do they heat up faster, they retain a higher temperature to keep the bread crisp.
Andy Tyrell, River Cottage
Look after your starter. Feed your starter consistently by discarding almost all of it each time you feed. Make sure your starter is fully match fit and very active before trying to use it for baking.
Sourdough isn’t just for those gorgeous, airy, loaves dotted over Instagram. Try turning your sourdough starter into a pizza base for ultra-puffy crusts, baguettes with character and even brioche. Don’t waste the discard, either – that’s the starter you have left over once you’ve finished ‘feeding’ it. Turn it into quick flatbreads or tasty crumpets.
Don’t worry about inaccuracies in shaping or panic if the dough sticks, it’s all perfectly normal. If you’ve followed the first set of advice, you’ll most probably still make delicious bread and be learning as you do.
Emily Munsey, Wessex Mill
Always weigh out the exact ingredients carefully. It’s best to weigh water rather than using a measuring cylinder. For reference, 1ml = 1g of water.
Follow the recipe. Never add any flour or oil at the first kneading stage to make the dough less sticky. You’ve kept to the formula to create that dough; you don’t want to alter it when you’re moving the dough around. Instead, use a dough scraper every few minutes to bring the dough back together. Once the bread has risen and you're shaping it, it’s fine to use flour to prevent it sticking.
Think about temperature. Ensure cold ingredients come straight from the fridge and those at room temperature have been left out for a while to get up to the correct temperature.
Don't be afraid to use equipment that helps make the job easier. From hand blenders to mixers, it enables you to have better control over your quantities and ingredients.
Enjoy the process. And take your time – rushing can often lead to mistakes.
Aeration is your secret weapon. Sifting flour for example, makes a huge difference.
There is no need to put your dough in an airing cupboard or oven to help it rise. Normal room temperature should be plenty warm enough to get your dough moving, although if you have a particularly cold house, on top of a radiator might be a great spot.