The difference between a bland tomato and great one is immense, much like the difference between a standard, sliced white bread and a crusty, aromatic sourdough.
I have something of an intolerance to certain forms of yeasted gluten breads. My insides get tied in knots. I noticed this (all over again) a few weeks ago when my brother came off his motorbike and I had to make a mad dash to the hospital he’d been taken to, without time to throw something together to eat to take with me. After a two hour drive, and several hours with him, I was so hungry I had to search something out at the hospital cafe. I ended up with a humus and salad sandwich (the only vegan option I could find – even the vegetable soup had milk in it) which, I regretted for days. It was the soggy wheat bread. There’s something about most wheat flours, and the type of baker’s yeast they use that just doesn’t agree with me. However, a sourdough spelt loaf suits me fine, so I thought I would share what I do.
I started investigating sourdough bread months ago, partly because I’m a – ‘if I can make it myself I will’ – sort of girl – and partly because I haven’t found a shop-bought bread that suits me.
To begin with, I came across a charming and amusing American blog about making a sourdough starter, which involved pineapples, hot-water bottles and quite a bit of fuss. It made me smile, but sadly, it didn’t work for me. After several days ado, it smelt sour and unappetising and looked thin and watery. I also read a lot of obscure articles about the mysteries and subtleties of making sourdough, which almost took me to the point of giving up the sourdough project altogether, and then I came across an article which went something like this:
‘In a large jar (that has a lid), mix together a few tbs. of 100% rye or spelt wholemeal flour, (I used spelt), with enough bottled water, (tap water can kill the natural yeasts), until it looks like a medium thick batter, and then put the un-lidded jar on top of the fridge at the back, where the heat produced by the fridge escapes. Leave it for about a week, checking it every now and then, adding a bit more flour and water when you need to, and then you’ll have a bubbling yeasty sweet-smelling sourdough starter. At this point, keep it fed with flour, and watered, pouring off any thin liquid that might form at the top. If the jar gets too full, throw away a bit of the starter and replenish with flour and water. Once it’s good and active you can put it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.’
Now that, I thought to myself, is the kind of advice I can work with!
I did it, and it worked. That was in September 2014, and fourteen months later I still have a functioning sourdough. I gather that there are sourdough starters in San Francisco which are over a hundred years old. I guess a good sourdough starter becomes a family heirloom!
So. That, it turns out, was the difficult bit. And in the end, it wasn’t that difficult. I’m glad I didn’t give up, as I now turn out about six large spelt flour loaves a month, none of which are ever quite the same, but I usually manage a moist substantial loaf, which toasts well, isn’t crumbly and has a nice nutty flavour.
BTW. A sourdough starter will remain dormant, lidded, in the refrigerator for several weeks, although I haven’t tested quite how long it might remain viable.
How to make a basic sourdough loaf using spelt flour
A sourdough loaf takes about 20-30 minutes of active time, but it’s spread over 24-36 hours. If you time it right, each process can be done around a hectic work schedule.
Assuming you have a jar about half-full of starter sitting in the fridge, take it out first thing in the morning, remove the lid and pour away the blackish ‘hooch’ that is sitting on top of the starter mix. It doesn’t look very promising right now, but it’s waiting to go again!
Add several tsps. of wholemeal spelt flour and 2-3tbs. bottled water to it. Stir in well until it’s a smooth thick batter. This needs to be kept warm all day. Here’s a picture of my solution to that: it involves a thermal sock and an angle poise lamp.
Several hours later, feed the starter again, with a couple of tsps. of the same flour and a little more water. Don’t worry if a skin has formed on the top, just stir it in. Keep it warm until bedtime.
Now, it’s time to make the sponge.
For a basic loaf, I use 50% white spelt and 50% wholemeal spelt. You can experiment with different flours, including rye, emmer, wheat, cornmeal etc.
- In a large bowl, put:
- 150 gms. white spelt flour
- 150 gms. wholemeal spelt flour
- Add 120 ml of your lovely, bubbly, yeasty, fragrant,warm sourdough. (Making sure there’s enough sourdough starter left for future batches. Return the sourdough, lidded, to the fridge. )
- Then add 320 ml of warm filtered water to the flour and mix everything together to make a smooth medium thick batter.
- Cover with clingfilm and wrap it in a blanket.
Next morning, the sponge will have thousands of little bubbles on the surface, and it will smell sweetly yeasty. The clingfilm has ballooned because of the gases being produced. All good!
- Add approx. 150gms white spelt, and 150gms wholemeal spelt.
- Add 10gms salt, and 1 tbs. olive oil.
- This is also the moment to add other flavourings such as caraway, sesame oil, poppy seeds…if you wish.
- Bring the dough together, adding handfuls of flour as necessary, until it is kneadable. Try and keep the dough moist, but not so sticky it’s too difficult to work.
- Knead it gently for about 8-10 minutes, until it’s a nice soft ball of slightly sticky, floury dough.
- Drizzle a tiny bit of oil all over the surface and place it in the bowl, recovering with clingfilm and blanket.
About eight hours difference at room temperature – twice the size!
By early evening, the dough will normally have risen to twice its size. This process can’t be hurried. Sourdough has a very particular schedule!
At the end of this stage, this would be the moment to carefully add other ingredients , for example olives, or walnuts or sunflower seeds.
- When it’s about doubled in size, remove it from the bowl , and put it in a loaf tin lined with oiled parchment or oiled cling film and then cover it with a big bowl or something. I use a domed wire basket normally used for protecting cakes etc. from flies…. I also cover it with a plastic bag to stop it drying out. The dough will seem to deflate at this point, that’s OK. It needs to be quite warm now. It can be placed in a recently warmed oven (but switched off), a warm airing cupboard or by a warm radiator.
I don’t have an airing cupboard so here is my own device to keep it warm! PS Don’t let it rest on the radiator (it’s too hot) – I put a thick book for it to rest on!
In a couple of hours, it should’ve risen a bit, and it should be ready to bake. The length of time this takes does depend on the ambient temperature.
- Turn the oven to gas mk 9/ 240C and place a small baking tin of water in the bottom of the oven to create steam, which will help keep the loaf moist.
- Put a greased loaf tin (same size as the one the dough is already in), to heat up, on a high shelf (leaving enough height for the loaf to sit).
- When everything is nice and hot, remove the loaf tin from the oven, and transfer the proved dough into the hot tin, by upending it over the tin, and then removing the clingfilm/parchment paper. Draw a knife lightly across the top once or twice, and sprinkle with a little flour or a few seeds if you wish.
- Put the loaf quickly in the oven and cook at gas mk 9/240C for 15 minutes.
- Then lower the heat to gas mk 6/200C for 25 minutes.
Et voila! Remove the loaf from the oven, and the tin, and allow to cool on a cooling rack before slicing.
Making sourdough bread is a process that develops, you have to make it your own, using a little bit of creativity and inventiveness. For example, I believe that depending on the fermentation state of the starter, the bread will be different. Different flour combinations will produce a different crumb, just to name two processes that will alter the end result.
I’m far from being an expert, but I seem to be able to produce a fairly consistent nice loaf that keeps well, tastes good, toasts nicely, and makes great sandwiches. So, that’s the best I can offer.
Served with my very own blackcurrant jam ( recipes to come…)
I will add more sourdough recipes to the blog when I master successful ones: for example I’m working at the moment on a sourdough italian-style foccacia, and also cornbread.
Frankly, you can’t beat making bread. There’s something about it.
Peace goes into the making of a poem as flour goes into the making of bread.
PS My brother is doing just fine, he will be back on his feet in the next couple of weeks. Amazing surgeon has fixed his pelvis. Thank goodness for the NHS.