Does anyone remember that craze back in the 90’s, where people gave each other little pocket sized computer thingies that you had to ” feed” and “bathe”, or they pinged in an annoyingly loud manner? Or that episode in “Frasier” where Niles attempted to simulate fatherhood by looking after an eight pound sack of flour for a week? No?
I had forgotten them too – but they all came rushing back to me in the early hours of the morning about a month ago, when I found myself under the glare of my kitchen lights, giving it the full Colin Clive and screaming, “It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!!”
I was making my own sourdough bread.
Moreover, I was learning – all too painfully – that making your own sourdough bread is not about the baking the bread, but rather about making the “starter.” And making a sourdough starter is uncomfortably like looking after a small baby for an extended period of time. There’s a lot of feeding and changing, quite a bit of gas, the regular disposal of beige goop, some malodorous smells, and far too much fretting and crying.
How did I get to that darkly cinematic moment in my kitchen in those wee small hours? Not naturally or easily actually. I have always considered myself more of a “cook” than a “baker” but my confidence in baking had truly grown in the last few years. I had routinely produced a bourbon pecan pie that simply could not be bettered,
- poured wine during the baking of a glorious holiday challah bread,
- nodded sagely at Paul Hollywood’s tips and criticisms on “The Great British Bake Off,”
- even casually observed to former friends that they were dealing with puff pastry somewhat incorrectly. (“No, dear. Your butter must be cold. As cold as your shallow little heart.“)
So it was with a snoutful of self- confidence that I approached baking bread.
I got off to a very good start. I wasn’t initially after achieving anything like sourdough. Nothing fancy, just your basic white loaf from a very basic recipe, using instant “fast action” yeast as my rising agent. I hunted around on the net and found this BBC Good Food recipe for easy white bread, went out and bought my strong white bread flour and my instant active yeast, and it worked an absolute treat the very first time. I followed the recipe to the letter, kneaded the dough with vigor, set it to prove somewhere warm for a couple of hours, then proved it again, cut pretty slashes in my loaf, and baked for the allotted time at the allotted temperature, and I had great bread!
I did it again … and again. Soon, I was baking my own loaf on a weekly basis. It even occurred to me at the time that preparing a basic white loaf for baking was not unlike babysitting a baby for an evening. You feed it, play with it, and then leave it somewhere warm for a nice rest while it grows a bit. With basic bread dough, you can even pop it in the fridge overnight, though for legal reasons I would never recommend doing that with an actual child.
I might have continued indefinitely and quite happily with just my basic white bread. Of course, I knew of sourdough but when and if I thought of it, it was only peripherally and always in terms of pretentious artisan bakers in Shoreditch with manbuns and ear spacers, carving equally pretentious runes into each loaf as their trademark before they set them to bake. In addition, there was something about a “starter”- a mystical, living substance hoarded by those men with manbuns in deepest darkest Shoreditch. It wasn’t for me. I knew I couldn’t carry off a manbun and at my age, putting spacers in my ears would give me lobes down to my knees.
Then I happened to watch the brilliant documentary series “Cooked” on Netflix. In the final episode, host Michael Pollan discusses the role fermentation plays in our cooking history, from cheese to chocolate to kimchee to bread. He mentioned that the first leavened bread probably originated in Ancient Egypt thousands of years ago when porridge or something similar was mistakenly allowed to ferment, and some thrifty ancient cook decided to use it anyway. That fermentation had drawn in and grown natural yeast and bacteria that both fed on and fed the flour. This, said Mr Pollan, was the first “starter”- the origin of the sourdough bread that is so fashionable today.
Now I may have been in a somewhat fermented state myself, but my ears pricked up instantly.
“Wait!” thought I, “Is that all a sourdough starter is? It’s that easy? If some ancient schmuck in a knee length skirt and a topknot (I should have made the manbun connection) could make his own sourdough starter, then why can’t I? I have tools! I have an electric oven! I have the internet!”
At this juncture, I should point out at that my newfound inspiration to make my own sourdough starter didn’t stem entirely from a sudden blaze of historical culinary appreciation and adventure. It also stemmed largely from the fact that the older I get, the cheaper I get. My very next thought was “I no longer have to pay for yeast!”
Turning to the internet for guidance, I found that researching sourdough starters was not unlike researching how to care for babies. On the subject of both, the internet is a teeming sea of opinions, intractable beliefs and contradicting advice rather than straightforward facts. From celebrity chefs to home cooks, everyone was adamant about their recipe/process.
- I was to be careful about my choice of basket. (Basket? Why on earth would I need a basket?)
- one chef insisted I add a grated apple to my flour and water mix,
- another said no, add unsweetened pineapple juice,
- a third website was very clear about my need to use a blend of three flours, rather than just one.
Three flours? Pineapple juice? I was about forget the whole thing (along with the nascent possibility of a manbun at the nape of my neck – perhaps more of a man-chignon), when I suddenly remembered that a dear friend of mine who had emigrated to Majorca (far less pretentious than Shoreditch) had been making his own sourdough for a couple of years now. Perhaps he could be that calm voice of friendship and experience that every beginner baker/babydaddy needs?
Imagine my relief when that was precisely what he turned out to be. What was his recipe? Nothing more than equal parts strong bread flour and water, whisked together and left to stand, just like that ancient Egyptian. All I had to do, he said, was whisk the flour and water together, and then let it stand for a day. After a day, I was to discard half the starter, and add in equal parts flour and water again. Within a few days, he assured me, my starter would start to bubble and smell, and I should be ready to bake my first loaf within a week. Couldn’t be easier!
That’s what he thought.
Unfortunately, my starter proved to be something of a late bloomer, so to speak. There I was, dutifully feeding and changing the damn thing every twenty-four hours (you see how these quasi-parental thoughts creep in?), and nothing. It lay there inert in its Tupperware container, stubbornly refusing to spring into yeasty bacterial life. I peeked at it and fretted over it constantly, my Colin Clive moment preceded by at least one Shirley MacLaine moment (“Rudyard? Rudyard she’s not breathing.”) and several new internet searches to see where I had gone wrong. I couldn’t entirely rely on my Balearic buddy you see. There are no doubt many delightful aspects of a semi-rural existence in the mountains of Majorca, consistent communication connect-ability is not one of them.
The putative answers I found online there only increased my growing belief that I was a terrible sourdough parent.
- I was keeping it somewhere too warm (on top of the fridge).
- I was keeping it somewhere too cold (Britain).
- I was living in a hard water area and using plain tap water (You can’t raise children in the city!).
- I should be looking for a smell somewhere between stale beer and acetone (so my kitchen should smell like I’d shacked up with a boozy floozy who spent a lot of time doing her nails? Didn’t sound like a healthy parental environment to me).
- I was supposed to “inherit” a starter (I’m genetically unqualified).
- I was fretting over it too much/not enough (what should my sourdough parental standards be? Mama Rose? “Flowers In The Attic”?)
And what was all this stuff I kept reading about baskets? It turned out that there was one point on which the internet was unanimous- should I ever get my starter to actually start, I was going to have eventually put the resulting dough in a fabric-lined basket. This seemed unnecessarily biblical to me. Was I going to sail it down the Nile? It was beginning to seem like I’d be weaving baskets in an institutionally calm environment long before I ever got close to actually baking.
Many times did I consider turning this whole farrago into a papier-mâché art project instead. But then, after days and days of feeding and changing this seemingly lifeless wallpaper paste, I got home from work late one night, and there was a distinct whiff of Courtney Love in my kitchen. Dared I hope?
I peeked into my starter container, and Oh JOY! It was bubbling away!
So I fed it and changed it once more as per previous instructions, and the very next day set about making the sponge (where you mix some of the starter with more flour and water and then let that start to bubble too), and then that last big bit of flour and a tablespoon of oil and a teaspoon of salt to make the dough. I kneaded it for the full ten minutes as ordered, set it into a bowl for its first prove, waited for it to double in size, and then contemplated the problem of the basket/bassinet. Because apparently the point of the basket was that during its second “prove,” that dough was gonna grow.
Fortunately, some previous occupant of my flat had left behind one of those unwieldy wicker baskets wherein loo rolls are artlessly tumbled. Out went the loo rolls and in went two unused pillowcases.
I re-kneaded my dough and then, much like either the fabled Jochebed (or just that schmuck with the skirt and the topknot), plopped it in the basket, and named it Moses. It seemed somehow right.
Several hours later, I came to understand the need for the basket. That dough had grown. It was massive – (several times its original size), loose, and somewhat difficult to control (not unlike a surly teen). But dutifully I moulded it back into a loaf-like shape, set it on a baking tray, slashed an SOS into the top, then – per my friend’s instructions – popped it into my oven set as hot as it could get. Keeping to what I had been told, I turned the oven down after fifteen minutes and then let it bake for a further twenty five minutes.
What I got was a brick – flavourless, dry, and suitable only for concussing an unwary intruder.
I was crushed. I thought I had finally done everything right! All that time and effort, nurturing, and money (the yeast may have been free but I still had to pay for the flour. I told you, cheap). It was almost as if I had carefully raised my child, instilled in them my values, paid for them to attend the best schools, only for them to inform me that they were dropping out of Harvard Pre-Med to deal drugs for a thrash metal band. I asked my friend if he had the same result and he cheerfully informed me that he used his bread mainly for toast. Without openly questioning his starter parenting philosophy – clearly there would be no Montessori bake dates for us- I seriously questioned mine.
Was I suited to this sourdough lark at all? In the baking world, would I always be more of Auntie Mame than Maria Von Trapp? What frustrated me most was that this was baking, If you follow the rules, you get it right. Right? Apparently not.
But my starter was still there, now fizzing happily away at me every time I opened my fridge. Was it my starter that was essentially flawed or just wrong? Should I have named it Rhoda? I started to seethe at it with resentment while it seethed back at me with yeast. But still. Could I really just throw it away now? And if so, would it block up the drains? So I thought, and I thought. And eventually it hit me.
The starter wasn’t the bread baby. I was the bread baby.
I knew nothing about baking from a starter; at least not in the real, experiential sense. I had only made one attempt. And if I gave up now, it would just be a tantrum worthy of a real crybaby. So I thought about what it was I really wanted from my starter. And I realized that what I originally wanted had never been “fashionable” sourdough bread, with a fancy signature rune carved into it, more air than actual bread, and that damn manbun. What I wanted was just honest bread; bread that would stay fresh and moist enough to last me the week. And I already had the means for that with my starter. I just had to go back to what I already knew; what had already worked.
So back I went to that original bread recipe that had served me so well. I still kept to my friend’s instructions about creating the sponge and then adding the final heft of flour, and the double-prove (basket et al) but this time I tripled the amount of oil and doubled the amount of salt, and baked the bread (Moses Mark II) at the steady temperature indicated in the original recipe.
What I got was the most beautiful loaf I have ever seen in my life. You could smell the yeasty tang as it came out of the oven. When I cut greedily into it (there were always absolute limits to my parental affections), it was delicious!
Was it artisan? Nope. Would it even have passed muster as a true sourdough? Probably not. But it was mine, and therefore perfect in my eyes.
That was a month ago, and I’m very pleased to say that I’ve been knocking out at least one sourdough loaf every week ever since. With each loaf, I’ve tweaked and adjusted proving times and baking methods. I now fill a roasting tray with boiling water and put that under my loaf as it bakes. The steam creates a lovely hard crust that also seems to trap moisture inside the bread. I’m lucky to have a flatmate willing to eat lots of the bread. Otherwise I would be a loaf too. I haven’t yet branched out into different flours yet, but I will. I’m saving that for an occasion that calls for it. And I haven’t bothered yet to come up with a signature slash on the top of my loaf. It turned out that particular act of violence was only to allow steam to escape. That said, the slashing I usually do is in an effort to create regular steam breaks, and the end-result looks not entirely unlike a scarab beetle. So I guess it’s back to Ancient Egypt on that front after all.
Though I’m very proud of my sourdough starter, I no longer feel even the slightest bit parental about it. I guard it jealously of course- and it is my starter. But I look forward to the day when I can lend somebody some of mine to start their own, should somebody ever ask. That won’t feel like parting with anything; the starter can be infinitely replenished, which is part of its wonder and genius.
And as my starter matures and deepens in flavour in my fridge, I’m maturing with each loaf I bake. I know now of course that nurturing a sourdough starter is not really at all like raising a baby. The real parents I know only toast their children with champagne, and almost never slather them with Marmite.
Patrick’s Basic Sourdough Starter And Bread Recipe
(With a Muchas Gracias to Majorca)
To make a starter:
- Whisk 200g strong bread flour and 200g water in a tupperware container and leave somewhere at room temperature for a day.
- 24 hours later discard 100g of the paste, and then add in another 100g of flour and 100g of water and whisk in.
Note: Keep doing this every day, but be patient. You will eventually start to see bubbles on top of your starter, and as the days pass, the bubbles will multiply, until they cover the top of your starter. These bubbles will be accompanied by a tangy smell of beer. This will take anywhere from 5 days to a week.
How long it takes will depend on so much: where in your kitchen you keep it, how often fresh air gets into your kitchen, whether the planets are in alignment, who knows? It’s a wild living thing, and therefore not subject to schedules. There is NO SET time limit for a starter. History does not record how long that first pot of porridge sat there bubbling away before it got noticed.
- You now have a sourdough starter! It will now sit happily loosely covered in your fridge until needed! Once your starter is reliably fizzing, you can stop discarding half. Just give it the occasional whisk from time to time and feed it weekly (with 100g of flour and 100g of water), or whenever you’re going to bake. The goal is to have 200g of starter on the go at all times.
When you’re ready to bake, add another 100g each of flour and water (for a 200g combined total) to the starter, and let it bubble up again.
To make the bread:
- Take 200g of the starter and place it in a large bowl with a further 250g each of flour and water and whisk or stir together. This is your “sponge” or “leaven.” This mixture itself will start to bubble in a couple of hours.
- Once bubbling is evident, add in 300g strong bread flour, 3 tablespoons olive oil, and 2 teaspoons salt.
- Using your hands, bring this all together into a dough.
- Knead on a floured surface for a good ten minutes until you have a smooth, stretchy dough. You may have to keep sprinkling more flour on the dough as you go.
- Then pop the dough into a large lightly oiled bowl and leave to double in size. This will take about 4-5 hours (or at least it did for me).
- Once the dough has doubled in size, take it out of the bowl and knock the air out. Knead it again for 5-10 minutes, and then pop into the fabric-lined basket of your choice.
- Then, over at least another 4-5 hours (though I leave it overnight) let it grow as large as you dare! As soon as you pick it up it will collapse a bit, the more so the longer you have left it.
- Preheat your oven to 220c, and line a baking tray with parchment.
- (Optional: place a roasting tray on your oven floor and fill your kettle. Once you’re ready to bake, boil the kettle, and pour the contents into the roasting tray before you put your bread in the oven. This gives me a lovely hard crust and a moist crumb.)
- Place your now collapsed loaf onto the baking tray and cut several slashes in it. They will seem to collapse on themselves but fear not. They will rise again.
- Now place your baking tray on the middle shelf of your oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it! Of course your oven is your oven, so adjust cooking times and temperatures as you see fit. Ovens can be as temperamental as sourdough starters.
You have your first sourdough loaf!