Simple Sourdough Bread

A sourdough loaf on a wire rack

I’ve been baking sourdough bread since the start of lockdown in March 2020. In this post I’ll describe my process now. I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.

Note that all the measurements here are approximate.

Starter

I begged some starter from my neighbour. Or you can order a sachet of dried starter from here. There are a million recipes for making your own starter but I haven’t successfully tried any so I can’t really recommend any particular method. They mostly take a week of daily feeding to get them going.

I keep about 50g of starter in a plastic container in the fridge. You need to feed the starter at least once a week or it goes off. And if you aren’t baking once a week, probably sourdough is not for you. Since I bake 2 or 3 times a week, this doesn’t happen here. If this discourages you, stop reading!!

Preparation

Sponge

In a bowl add equal weights of strong wholewheat flour and water to the starter to make the total weight 400g. Mix and leave to stand for 3 – 12 hours. The time is not critical, provided the sponge has risen properly, in which case the starter will be light and fluffy with plenty of bubbles inside. It will smell rich and slightly alcoholic and if you’ve left it long enough, a bit funky.. The longer you leave it, the more sour flavour your loaf will have. I try to wait until a definite bit of funk has arrived in the flavour before proceeding. This happens a lot faster when the weather is hot.

Before making the dough, reserve 50g of the sponge as the starter for next time, and put in the fridge.

Dough

For wholewheat bread, take 425g of strong wholewheat flour, add the sponge (should be 350g) and 290g of water. Mix together but don’t knead or stretch at this stage. I do this first with a chopstick, and then with a dough scraper to get any dry flour off the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl. I use the chopstick to get any dough off the scraper and vice versa. Cover with a damp cloth and leave for 30 minutes. Then add 11g of salt mixed with 15g water, work into the dough.

For rye bread, put 125g strong white flour, 300g rye flour and 11g salt into the mixing bowl. Mix while still dry. Then add the sponge and 275g water and mix as above. Rye flour is very sticky so avoid using your hands at this stage. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to stand for 30 minutes.

Stretch and fold

Now dip your hands in water, and stretch and fold the dough. If the dough is a bit stiff, or has dry patches, you can use a bit more water on your hands to soften it. Cover with a damp cloth and rest for 30 minutes.

Stretch and fold again, this time starting to form the dough into a ball shape. Cover with a damp cloth and rest for 30 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a floured board, sprinkle with flour, sprinkle flour onto your hands and form into a ball by repeatedly bringing your hands round from the top and squeezing together underneath the ball, stretching the skin of the dough as you do it. A seam will form at the base of the ball. Turn the ball a few degrees each time. You may need to flour your hands several times during this process. Cover with a damp cloth and rest for 30 minutes.

Prepare a 1kg brotform by sprinkling flour over the surface. Repeat the shaping process and then turn the dough, seam side up, into the brotform, cover with a damp cloth and put in the refrigerator. Leave the dough in the fridge overnight*, or over two nights for a really rich flavour. You can leave it for three nights for even more flavour, but it doesn’t spring so well when you bake it, leading to a denser loaf. But that’s fine. Flexibility is the key. Basically you’re trading form/texture for flavour. You can’t lose, whatever you choose.

*Update: If I’m going to leave the dough in the fridge overnight (as opposed to over two nights), I’ve found that I get better oven spring if I let the dough rise at room temperature for a couple of hours before putting it in the fridge. Not necessary if I’m leaving it in the fridge for two nights. Also, you may ask, how long to let it rise if you want to bake it on the same day? I’ve not yet done this to my full satisfaction with sourdough bread, and I’m fairly sure that’s because I’ve not let it rise long enough. So I don’t know the answer. Also, note that these things are highly dependent on room temperature, and dough rises faster in the summer.

Bake

Cut a sheet of baking paper (sometimes called parchment) into a rectangle that will cover a baking sheet.. Put a deep baking tray (for water) at the bottom of the oven. Heat the oven to 230C (or as high as it will go). Take the brotform out of the fridge, uncover and leave to stand. When the oven is to temperature, boil a little water in a kettle, and then turn the loaf onto the baking paper. You may have to wiggle the brotform a bit to release the dough onto the paper. Slash the top of the loaf with a serrated knife (pros use a razor blade but I don’t want one of those in my kitchen).

Put loaf into the oven, then pour boiling water into the tray at the bottom. Try not to let too much heat escape. After 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 170C. For wholewheat bread, bake another 20 minutes. The bread is ready when it reaches 88C at the centre. It’s worth investing in an inexpensive digital thermometer for this.

For the rye loaf, turn the oven down after 15 minutes and then bake for another 45 minutes. The bread is ready when it reaches 98C at the centre.

Save the paper for next time and cool the loaf on a rack for about an hour before eating. Best to go for a walk at this stage.

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