The Musette: basic sourdough loaf

We have the starter and now we’re ready to bake my first ever sourdough loaf…………..well, almost!

Ingredients (makes a medium sized loaf)

For the sponge

  • About 150ml (2/3 cup) active starter (see previous recipe)
  • 250g (1 2/3 cup) strong flour (white, wholemeal, rye, spelt or a mixture)

For the loaf

  • 300g (2 cups) strong bread flour (white, wholemeal, rye, spelt or a mixture), plus more for dusting
  • 1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
  • 10g (1 tbsp) fine sea salt

Method

1. The night before you want to bake your loaf, create a sponge. In a large bowl, combine 150ml (2/3 cup) active starter with 250g (1 2/3 cup) flour and 275ml (1 cup + 2 tbsp) warm water. Mix, cover with clingfilm and leave overnight. In the morning it should be clearly fermenting: thick, sticky, bubbly and smelling a bit sour.

2. To make the dough, add the 300g (2 cups) flour to the sponge, along with the oil and salt, and incorporate. You should now have a fairly sticky dough. If it seems tight and firm, add a dash more warm water; if it’s unmanageably loose, add more flour, but do leave it fairly wet – you’ll get better bread that way.

3. Turn out the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and silky – about 10 minutes – then put in a lightly oiled bowl and turn it to coat with the oil. Cover with clingfilm and leave to rise. Sourdough rises slowly and sedately, so it’ll take a few hours in a warm kitchen. One good option is to knead it in the morning, then simply leave it all day in a cool, draught-free place until it has more or less doubled in size and feels springy if you push your finger gently into it; alternatively, knead it in the evening and leave to rise overnight.

4. Deflate the risen dough by punching it down with your knuckles on a lightly floured surface. You now need to prove the dough (give it a second rising). First form it into a neat round, tucking the edges of the dough underneath itself so you have a smooth, round top and a rougher base.

5. If you have a proper proving basket – I do – dust it liberally with flour. Alternatively, rig up a proving basket by lining a wide, shallow bowl with a clean, floured cloth. Place your round of dough smooth side down in the basket or bowl, cover with oiled clingfilm or a clean plastic bag, and leave to rise, in a warm place this time, for an hour and a half to three hours, until roughly doubled in size again. It’s now ready to bake.

6. Heat the oven to its highest setting (250C/230C fan/500F/gas mark 10 is ideal). Five minutes before you want to put the loaf in, place a baking sheet in the oven to heat up.

7. Just before you put your loaf in the oven, place a roasting tin of boiling water in the bottom of your oven to create a steamy atmosphere, which helps the bread rise and develop a good crust.

8. Take the hot baking sheet from the oven, dust it with flour and carefully tip the risen dough out of the basket/bowl on to it; it will now be the right way up. Put the loaf in the oven and leave to bake for 15 minutes.

9. Lower the heat to 200C/180Cfan/390F/gas mark 6, add more water to the roasting tin, and bake for a further 25-30 minutes, until the now well-browned loaf vibrates and sounds hollow when you tap its base.

10. Leave to cool for at least 20 minutes – it’s okay to slice while warm, but not if it’s piping hot. My beloved much enjoyed it for a light supper with a selection of French cheeses, and some of my pickles and chutneys.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. My dough was wet and sticky, even after using my dough hook for 10 minutes. But, you know what, it didn’t matter.

2. I used a mixture of bread flours: wholemeal, spelt and rye largely to use up odds and ends though the final loaf was largely a rye and wholemeal mix.

3. It smelled wonderful while it was baking, had a lovely chewy crust, excellent flavour and sliced easily, despite not being much of a looker!

4. What of the rest of the starter? It’s resting in the fridge until I need it next week-end for more sourdough bread and pizza.

The Musette: sourdough starter

The secret to great bread 

Many of our favorite foods are the product of carefully controlled ageing: dry-aged beef, sharp cheddar and umami-packed miso paste all owe their complex, pungent flavours to microbial fermentation. Sourdough bread works the same way, but instead of fermenting after baking, it all happens on the front end with something called a sourdough starter.

I love sourdough bread but until now have lacked the patience to create a starter to make some. Thankfully, it’s not difficult, just stir together some flour and water and let it sit. That’s right! No mysterious rituals required – just regular injections of flour, water and a lot of patience. Every time you “feed” the starter with fresh flour, those microorganisms get to work converting complex carbs into flavourful sugars, acids and alcohols.

The key here is the wild yeast. Bread is typically made from commercial yeast (fresh or dried) because it’s easier for mass production, it’s easier to store and use, and it proofs breads and pastries in a fraction of the time of the wild version.

By comparison, wild yeast is a bit like an unruly teenager, it has to be constantly maintained and monitored. Wild yeast prefers cooler temperatures, acidic environments and works much more slowly to proof breads and pastries.

So why bother? Because the flavour and texture of products made with wild yeast is way better. The taste is more complex and interesting, the texture is sturdier and more enjoyable to chew.

Note: Making a sourdough starter takes about 5 days. Each day you “feed” the starter with equal weights of fresh flour and filtered water. As the wild yeast grows stronger, the starter will become more frothy and sour-smelling. On average, this process only takes about 5 days, but it can take longer depending on the conditions in your kitchen. As long as you see bubbles and signs of yeast activity, continue feeding it regularly. If there are zero signs of bubbles after three days, start again!

Method

Day 1: Make the Initial Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Weigh the flour and water, and combine them in the glass bowl. Stir vigorously until combined into a smooth batter. It will look like a sticky, thick dough. Scrape down the sides and loosely cover the container with cling film (plastic wrap).

Put the container somewhere with a consistent room temperature of 20°C to 25°C (70°F to 75°F) and let it sit for 24 hours.

Day 2: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Hopefully, your starter will have a few small bubbles here and there. The bubbles mean that wild yeast have started making themselves at home, eating eat the sugars in the flour and releasing carbon dioxide (the bubbles) and alcohol. They will also increase the acidity of the mixture, which helps fend off any bad bacteria. At this point, the starter should smell fresh, mildly sweet and yeasty.

If you don’t see any bubbles yet, don’t panic – depending on the conditions in your kitchen, the average room temperature, and other factors, your starter might just be a bit slow to get going.

Weigh and add the flour and water as per day 1.

Day 3: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

By now, the surface of your starter should be dotted with bubbles and visibly larger in volume. If you stir the starter, it will still feel thick and batter-like, but you’ll hear bubbles popping. It should also smell sour.

Weigh and add the flour and water as per previous 2 days.

Day 4: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

The starter should be looking very bubbly with large and small bubbles, and it will have doubled in volume. If you stir the starter, it will feel looser than yesterday and full of bubbles. It should also smell pungent.

Add ingredients as per three previous days.

Day 5: Starter is Ready to Use

The starter should have doubled in bulk since yesterday and look very bubbly, even frothy. If you stir the starter, it will feel looser than yesterday, be completely webbed with bubbles and even more pungent.

If everything is looking, smelling, and tasting good, you can consider your starter ripe and ready to use! If your starter is lagging behind a bit, continue on with the Day 5 and Beyond instructions.

Day 5 and Beyond: Maintaining Your Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Once your starter is ripe (or even if it’s not quite ripe yet), you no longer need to bulk it up. To maintain the starter, discard (or use) about half of the starter and then “feed” it with new flour and water.

If you’re using the starter within the next few days, leave it out on the worktop (counter) and continue discarding half and “feeding” it daily. If it’s going to be longer before you use your starter, cover it tightly and place it in the fridge. Remember to take it out and feed it at least once a week.  I usually let the starter sit out overnight to give the yeast time to recuperate before putting it back in the fridge.

How to Reduce the Amount of Starter:

Maybe you don’t need all the starter we’ve made here on an ongoing basis. That’s fine! Discard half the starter as usual, but feed it with half the amount of flour and water. Continue until you have whatever amount of starter works for your baking habits.

How to Take a Long Break from Your Starter:

If you’re taking a break from baking, but want to keep your starter, you can do two things:

Make a Thicker Starter:  Feed your starter double the amount of flour to make a thicker dough-like starter. This thicker batter will maintain the yeast better over long periods of inactivity in the fridge.

What next? Get baking!