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Sourdough – Making a Loaf

<<– Creating the Sourdough Starter

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I like making sourdough bread. For me, a sourdough loaf is a real treat. I love the combination of a thick, crunchy crust and the soft, strong-flavoured inside. I’ve been asked a few times how I make my bread and I keep saying I will write it up. This blog post is the fulfilment of that promise.

Making sourdough is a longer, more complex baking process than most modern versions of baking bread, but it is actually a very old method of baking and was probably the main method used by the peasant and working classes over the last few hundred years. It takes several hours to make sourdough. I start mine in the evening and bake it in the morning.

Work is stressful (even working in I.T. from home), this pandemic is stressful, baking a nice loaf of bread helps balance that stress.

A key part of the process is that you need a “starter”, a mixture of flour, water, and actively growing yeast. I did a long and detailed post on creating a starter about a month or so ago. If you created a starter then and have been feeding it since, it’s well past time to make a loaf!

Get the Starter Active

If the starter mixture is in the fridge, take it out of the fridge several hours before you are going to use it. If I am making my dough in the evening (my usual method so it can prove overnight) I take the starter out the fridge about noon.

A few hours before you are going to make your dough (usually 6 hours or so for me), mix up 200 grams of strong, white bread flour with tepid water so it is a similar consistency to porridge, add it to the starter and give it a good stir.

This should help get the starter really active and, after a couple of hours, you should see bubbles in the mixture and the volume will increase. I do not seal the jar during this process, I leave it with the lid over the top of the jar but not clipped or screwed down.

Making the Initial Dough

I’ll give you two recipes for making the dough. The first is from a man called Paul Hollywood, who is a very well known and successful baker in the UK. He is one of the judges on “The Great British Bake off“, which is one of the most popular TV programs in the UK. I know the program has been syndicated across the globe, with over 25 countries showing their own version, and a couple showing the UK original. The second recipe is mine, which is derived from Paul Hollywood’s. I increased the size of the loaf as I wanted something to provide sandwiches for 2 people for 2 days and I found a little more salt and a lower percentage of starter gave results I preferred. Less starter seems to give a better final rise to the loaf. Please note – Paul Hollywood is a considerably better baker than I! Perhaps try his recipe first.

Paul Hollywood recipe

  • 375g Strong white bread flour
  • 250g sourdough starter
  • 7g salt
  • 130-175 ml tepid water
  • a teaspoon of olive oil

Martin Widlake recipe

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 200g sourdough starter
  • 10g salt (but no more!)
  • 7g sugar
  • 200-220ml tepid water
  • a teaspoon of olive oil

 

 

The below is based on my recipe

I have a little plastic jug for measuring the water. Before I put any water in it I put the 10 grams of normal, fine table salt (1). Do not go above 10g of salt in 700g total flour & starter as too much salt inhibits the rise of the loaf. I’m adding about as much salt as you can without this happening.  I also add a teaspoon of sugar (7 grams) as I feel it balances the sour of the loaf and slightly boosts the loaf flavour. Skip this if you like.
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I then put 500 grams of strong bread flour into the mixer bowl (see later for some variations to 500g of flour). As I add the flour I also dribble in the salt/sugar mix. This is to help it all mix in evenly. I found that if I just chucked the salt in after all the flour, again the rise could be problematic and the bread seemed to be a bit patchy in it’s flavour. Give the flour with the salt/sugar in a quick swirl with a spoon or something.

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I now add 200 grams of sourdough mixture and about 100ml of the tepid water. I do not add it all as I use a food mixer to initially combine my dough. We have a Kenwood Chef that is 40+ years old. To make bread dough in a food mixer you need a dough hook. The one you see in the picture by the recipes is only a few years old, it is coated with Teflon to help the dough to not stick to it.

The mixer can throw little fountains of dry ingredients out of the bowl so I put a towe over the whole thing. If you do this, make absolutely sure the towel is not going to get caught on the dough hook/mixer! With the mixer on it’s lowest setting, I slowly add more of the water to each side of the bowl so that the ingredients combine. I have found that as the dough mixture gets towards the consistency I want, or is damper than I am aiming for, it wraps around the dough hook and no longer mixes! It just wizzes around with the hook.  This is why I added the water slowly and keep about 20-30ml in reserve. Then, when all the ingredients are well mixed but it is not quite forming a single ball, I add the last of the water and keep the mixer running until the dough does wrap around the hook and stay on it. Take it off the hook and make it into a rough ball, as shown In the picture of the mixer.

You can mix it all by hand, which is fun, but your hands get really messy and it takes longer. If you do mix it all by hand, add the water bit by bit until the dough is quite sticky.

I now put a little olive oil, half a teaspoon is all, on a thoroughly cleaned work surface and spread it around  into a 20-30cm circle. I drop the dough in the centre of this and I knead it by hand to finish it off and get a smooth consistency in the dough. Different people like to mix their dough in different ways. I push into it with the heel of my hand, stretching it against the work surface, and then fold it over a little and push into it again. I do this with just the one hand in a regular rhythm of about one one push a second, slowly rotating the dough ball and moving it around so I am working all of the ball. I swap hands occasionally for a full upper-body workout…

Other people slap the dough onto the work surface or throw it down, others squidge it out with both hands and then fold-and-squidge. Do what seems right to you. There are lots of videos on the internet.

The whole aim is to get all the ingredients mixed in smoothly and keep going until the dough is a little elastic. Apparently the best test as to whether you have worked the dough enough is that you can stretch some thin with your fingers and see light coming through it. I don’t do this, it does not seem to work well with my dough, maybe as I do not add enough liquid, maybe because sourdough is a little different. I know it is ready as it…. feels ready. Smooth, not rubbery, but with some stretch to it. Because I use a machine to initially mix and knead the dough I only have to hand knead it for 5 minutes. If you mix the dough by hand then you will need to knead it for 10, 15 minutes. Maybe more.

The whole idea of the kneading is to get some of the protein in the mix, the gluten, to form long chains which give the final loaf it’s structure of a soft and flexible material. If you over knead the dough then the bread will not rise so well and the bread will be rubbery and dense. You don’t want rubbery, dense bread.

Proving the Dough

Once your bread is kneaded to the consistency you want, you have to let it prove – which means left alone to grow. You prove the dough twice.

Use the other half a teaspoon of oil to lightly oil the inside of the mixing bowl. The only reason for the oil is to stop the dough sticking. Put the dough ball into the bowl and cover with clingfilm or similar. I use a clear, plastic shower cap that I can re-use dozens of times as (a) it’s so easy to pop it over the bowl and (b) less plastic waste.

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You need to keep the dough at about room temperature – between 18C and 22C – for several hours. Less time if it is warmer, more time if it is cooler. I make my dough about 8-10pm in the evening and leave it overnight, near a radiator that will come on in the morning. This seems to work for my dough.

During the proving stage the yeast in the dough consumes sugars (the sugars come from the starch in the flour being broken down) and they produce carbon dioxide (CO2). this is what makes the dough grow and become soft.

In this first prove of the dough it should doubled to tripled in volume, and become soft and spongey to a light touch. Sticking a finger in it will leave a dent that only partly fills in.

Lightly dust a clean, dry area on your work surface with plain or bread flour and turn the dough out of the bowl it has proved in onto the area. I lightly dust one side of the bowl to stop the dough sticking to it and I ease the dough from the sides and bottom of the bowl with a small, flexible spatula – one of those made of silicon or soft, heat resistant plastic. In the picture above of the dough on the work surface you can see bubbles in it – this is from the CO2.

 

You now need to “knock back” the dough – knead  it all over with your knuckles or, like I do, give it 30 seconds of kneading like you did when you first made the dough. Some instructions tell you to do things like make a ball after knocking it back and  tuck the dough down under the ball and into the bottom of it. I think these are to create little air pockets in the dough that make the large voids you get in posh hippster café sourdough. I don’t want those large voids. I keep the flour dusting to a minimum and push the dough together well to avoid any air gaps or having any folds in the dough which do not “heal” (stick to each other).

You now need to let the dough prove for a second time. I use a “banneton” for this, a special wicker or similar material bowl that is specifically for the final proving of bread. They also impart a nice pattern on the loaf. Dust whatever bowl or banneton you are using well, put the dough into it and push it down firmly. Lightly dust the top and then cover a plastic bag or similar. You want the bag to be above the dough so when it rises it does not contact the bag, as it will stick to it.  I put the showercap I used earlier back over it, with the damp side inwards to stop the top of the bread drying out too much. Put somewhere warm and leave for two hours. If the house is not that warm, I put the oven on and set it to 50C, then turn it off and pop the loaf in that. If you are dead posh you might find your oven has a proving oven compartment or a plate warmer you can use.

After a couple of hours the dough should have risen a little again and have a smooth top. It is now ready to bake

Baking the Bread.

A key to getting a good bake where the bread rises evenly and you get a good, strong crust is moisture. You need the atmosphere around the loaf to be damp for the first 20 minutes or so of baking.

I’ve achieved this with two methods – baking in the oven with a tray of water, and using a Dutch Oven.

In the Oven With a Tray of Water.

Pre-heat the oven to 220C and put a shallow tray on the lower shelf.

Heavily dust a baking tray with flour, or flour and semolina (semolina is better at preventing the loaf from sticking, but I find flour on it’s own works just fine and I stopped using the semolina as I’m lazy). Carefully tip the loaf out on the tray and slash the top several times. I have a special, small, gentle serrated knife just for this, it seems to work better than a smooth blade. He’s called Mr Slashy the knife. This scouring allows the crust to expand more easily during the cooking.

 

Dust lightly with flour and immediately put the loaf into the oven, and put about 500ml of warm water in the shallow tray. This will create steam as the bread cooks.

Cook at 220C for 30 minutes and then turn the oven down to 200C and cook for a further 15-20 minutes. The bread should have risen and turned a lovely golden brown. You can test if it is done by tapping the bottom of the loaf, it should sound hollow. If, like me, you like your bread slightly darker with a stronger crust, extend the higher temperature period from 30 minutes to 35, 40 minutes.

Take the loaf out and move it onto a wire rack to cool.

In the example I show, the loaf is a weird shape. I think this is because, with this loaf, I forgot to put the water in the oven with the loaf, then added cold water to the tray, not warm. As a result there was not enough moisture, the crust formed early and the still-expanding loaf could no longer grow and burst out the side of the crust. If this happens to a lot of your loaves, try scoring more or gently wetting the top and sides of the loaf before the final dust of flour.

It tasted just fine!

In a Dutch Oven.

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A Dutch oven is basically a heavy iron or aluminium casserole with a well fitting lid. You bake the bread with the lid on initially to trap moisture. I use an iron casserole dish about 26cm in diameter. The casserole needs to be about 5cm wider than your uncooked loaf, to allow for expansion. If you already have a casserole dish you might need to change your loaf size or the bowl/banneton you prove it in so that the loaf fits!

Pre-heat the oven and the casserole dish to 230C. Yes, 230C. It take about 15 minutes for my casserole to heat up fully.

Take out the casserole and  heavily dust the bottom with flour. You will know it is warm enough as the flour will smoke gently.

As carefully as you can, turn out the loaf into the casserole dish. I turn the banneton upside down and hold the loaf in place with my fingers, shake it slightly until the loaf drops onto my fingers and then I open my fingers to let it drop the 6 inches into the casserole. Do not let your skin touch the casserole dish, it hurts like hell! Slash the top of the loaf several times, again keeping the fingers away from the hot metal.

This is the main disadvantage of using a casserole, getting the loaf in and slashing the top is harder and the danger of a nasty burn is ever-present. I have tried turning the loaf out, slashing it and then transferring it to the casserole, but it knocked a fair bit of air out the loaf and reduced the rise.

Cook at 230C for 20 minutes. Remove the lid (the loaf will still be a cream colour) and cook for a further 15-20 mins. Turn the oven down to 160 and cook for a further 15-20 mins. You turn the temperature down more with the casserole as it retains heat for a while.

You might notice my oven says 235 and 165C. My oven temperature is a little cool (I tested with an oven thermometer) so I added 5C. You do get to know your oven when you do baking!

 

 

 

 

 

You loaf should now be dark golden brown. Remove the casserole from the oven. I put a little fan blowing air over the casserole for 5 minutes before I extract the loaf. Using a cloth to protect your fingers, take out the loaf and leave to cool on an a wire rack.

I swapped to the Dutch Oven method as a couple of friends recommended it and the flush of steam from the “oven with a tray” method was making the control panel of my oven go funny. I’ve already had it repaired once.

Having swapped, I think overall the Dutch Oven method gives a better loaf. I have far fewer issues with the loaf rise being uneven and part of the load bursting out the side or the crust “tearing” at the sides.

If I decide to make larger loaves I’ll simply swap to the oven-and-a-tray-of-water method.

 

 

 

Cooling

Once the loaf is out the oven I tend to start losing control of my salivary glands and I am desperate to eat it, so I use a little fan to help it cool in about 1/2 an hour. If you have more will power than I then it takes an hour or so for the loaf to cool naturally.

I love to cut open the loaf and eat it when it is still a little warm. The one disadvantage of this is that the loaf will lose extra moisture as a result of this, so any bread you save until tomorrow will be a little drier. I hardly ever manage to hold off cutting it early for the sake of a better experience tomorrow!

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Alterations to the recipe

I sometimes replace 150-200 grams of the white bread flour with spelt or mixed seed flour. It does seem to drop the rise a little though. I have tried adding a little dried bakers yeast to balance this but with limited success.

I have replaced all 500 grams of white bread flour with brown bread flour. It was OK, but despite me generally preferring brown bread,  with sourdough it just does not seem right to me.

I really like adding a teaspoon of smoked, sweet paprika to the mix. This is partly why I put the salt etc in the jug I later user for the water, I put the extra flavour in the jug too and the water washes out any flavouring that has remained in the jug.

Chop up a handful of sundried tomatoes (drained of their oil on kitchen paper as the oil seems to inhibit the rise) and add those with a good squirt (say 25ml) of double strength tomato puree.

 

1) You could use sea salt or Pink Himalayan salt instead of dirt-cheap table salt –  but it’s all the same stuff really, it’s dried out sea and mostly consists of the specific salt compound sodium chloride. The stuff dug out the ground is from a few hundred million years ago and sea salt is usually from drying out current sea water. The problem with salt that is not table salt is it is probably not as fine so it might impede rise more.