Sourdough made simple

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Or should that be “Sourdough made. Simple”? Read on if you…

  • want to be able to make great tasting, fresh easy sourdough
    • whenever you want it at short notice
    • on a schedule that works for you (e.g. 2 minutes work the night before and have fresh sourdough for lunch, or start in the morning for fresh sourdough the next day for breakfast)
    • for just ~20 minutes of total effort to make two good size loaves
  • don’t want any effort maintaining your starter (just feed once a month)
  • don’t want lots of waste (no need to keep throwing half your starter away)
  • want a recipe that can be easily adapted to make e.g. rolls or Sourdough pizza and dough balls

For a long time I wanted to make sourdough, but I was always put off by the amount of work that seemed to be involved: you had to feed your starter every day and unless you were baking every day you had to keep throwing lots of it away; or you could avoid that by keeping it in the fridge, but then you needed to remove it 48 hours before you wanted to bake and refresh it multiple times before use. I don’t want to plan my life to that level!

So I stuck to making my overnight bread with Poolish which was great. It tasted fab, it was easy, minimal effort and I could bake it at short notice on a schedule that worked for me.

Eventually I took the plunge though, and after lots of experimenting I now have a way of maintaining my starter and baking sourdough which is just as easy as making regular bread… Read on for how to make super simple, easy sourdough that tastes GREAT.

The starter

I use a San Francisco sourdough starter (culture) that I originally purchased from freshly fermented. I don’t know whether my approach would work with other starters or not — I suspect it will, but YMMV: your mileage may vary…

My starter spends it’s entire life in the fridge (in a kilner jar with a loose fitting lid) apart from one day every month or so when I show it some TLC and take it out to refresh it. On that day I…

  • take a dessert spoonful of culture and put it into a clean jar
  • add about 20g of white flour and 20g water and mix
  • leave until it’s looking bubbly again (12 – 24 hours depending on how old it is, the weather etc. It doesn’t need to be precise — I often forget it and leave it for longer…)
  • Add another 50-100g of flour and an equal amount of water.
  • Leave for a few hours and then return to the fridge.

I then use the starter straight from the fridge when I want to bake. I don’t bother taking it out and refreshing it, and even after being left in the fridge for a month without any care, it’s active enough to be able to make bread in less than 24 hours.

The bread

Credit for (almost) all my technique goes to Ken Forkish and his excellent book “Flour Water Salt Yeast”. I’m not going to duplicate all of the important detail here — or at least not until I have more time! If you possibly can then go and buy the book. He has lots of sourdough recipes in his book, but my simple approach to sourdough is based around his (non-sourdough) Overnight bread with Poolish. It’s a great bread — and if you’re new to baking it’s a great place to start.

The following method describes how I adapt this to make sourdough, assuming I want to bake bread for lunch, and to make two decent size loaves.

The night before you want to bake…

  • Make up a “Poolish”, but using a spoonful of sourdough starter (straight from the fridge) in place of the yeast.
    • 600g white flour (I always use Shipton Mills’s Organic White Flour No.4 which I buy in bulk)
    • 600g water
    • 1 dessert spoonful of sourdough starter from the fridge.
  • Cover with a tea towel and/or carrier bag and leave overnight at around 20 C. In the summer I just leave it out on the side, in the winter I put it in the airing cupboard.
  • Ideally start the Poolish at around 6pm. If you forget until bed time (I often do) use warm water to give the starter a helping hand 🙂

By the morning the Poolish should be doubled in size and spongy. If it isn’t then leave it longer — you’ll just have to have bread for tea instead of lunch — and next time try starting it earlier, adding more starter, using warmer water, or leaving it somewhere warmer overnight.

  • Add the rest of the ingredients to the Poolish. I always use white flour for my Poolish but at this point I’ll add whatever type of flour / seeds I’m in the mood for. I recommend starting simple though with a straight white loaf to really appreciate the flavour and texture of the bread.
    • 600g white flour
    • (entirely optional) a pinch of diastatic malt
    • 340g water. Again I’ll vary the temperature. If the Poolish was nice and active and I’ve got 4-5 hours until lunch then I’ll just use cold water. If I need to speed things up a bit I’ll use warmer water.
    • ~12g salt. Forkish (and most other bread recipes) would say to use about 20g of salt, but I find that 12g works fine.
  • Mix by hand in the bowl alternating between folding the dough (reach under with your hand, stretch the dough up and flop it over, rotate the bowl 90 degrees, repeat all the way round) and using your thumb and forefinger to repeatedly “pinch” through the dough. Read the book!
  • The dough will be wet. This is definitely not the kind of dough that you can take out and knead on a worktop. Wetting your hand regularly whilst mixing will reduce how much it sticks to you, but in my experience it will still stick a bit.
  • Once the ingredients are all fully combined, cover the bowl and leave at room temperature (at least 20 degrees C).
  • Over the next couple of hours, repeat the folding exercise ~4 times — three times in the first hour. Each time you should find the dough showing a bit more resistance and becoming slightly more manageable.

Shaping and proving…

  • Once the dough has doubled in size it’s time to shape it. You need to get it out of the bowl, divide it and shape it. Once you’ve got the hang of how to do this it only takes a few minutes, but the technique is difficult to explain, so buy the book, or watch the video
  • Like Forkish I like to prove my dough in wicker bannetons, like these, generously dusted with rice flour (because it doesn’t go sticky). I recommend investing in a couple, but if you don’t want to, you can get away with lining a bowl with a tea towel and dusting with flour.
  • Leave to prove for an hour or two — the loaves should have risen to ~the top of 22cm bannetons, and then bake.

The bake…

  • Forkish uses a dutch oven, but I don’t have one and I’ve found that I get perfectly good results using a pizza stone, and a tray of water in the bottom of the oven to create steam. Put the pizza stone in the oven when the oven is cold (otherwise it is likely to crack). Heat the oven to about 250 degrees C and then immediately before you bake, pour boiling water into a shallow tray in the bottom of the oven.
  • For transferring the bread to the oven I just use a flat tray. I heavily flour the top of my loaves, put the tray on top of the banneton, flip tray and banneton over together and then lift off the banneton. If you’ve put enough flour on the top of the loaf you should then be able to slide it off the tray on to the hot pizza stone.
  • Bake for ~40 minutes until a dark brown colour.
  • Turn off the oven and leave with the door open for five minutes before removing the loaves and leaving to cool on a wire rack.

Eat and enjoy…

If you want fresh bread for breakfast then use the same method as above, but make the poolish first thing in the morning, mix the final dough at tea time, and then prove the loaves in the fridge overnight. You can then bake them straight from the fridge the following morning.

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