Over the past ten years or so, bread has become big business in the UK. A good thing too, for much of what masqueraded as our daily staple since WWII had increasingly become a poor imitation of the real thing. With a texture not unlike a kitchen sponge and a whole array of chemicals to aid rising and preservation, the heavily processed sliced white loaf is a culinary abomination with minimal nutritional value. Oh, and it tastes of nothing, either, save for the generous quantities of sugar and salt which are added to mask the blandness.
The excessive use of raising agents is the principal reason for the lack of flavour in mass-produced bread. For what these do is to rob the loaves of a key ingredient: time. Whereas an industrial dough is designed to rise as quickly as possible, its home-made counterpart, using a small amount of yeast and left to prove for several hours, will gradually develop complex, appetising flavours thanks to natural processes of fermentation.
Nowhere is fermentation in bread more evident than in sourdough cultures, which use the natural yeasts in the air around us to leaven the dough. As the name implies, sourdough bread can be quite acidic, often with a distinct tang that marks it out from yeast-risen breads. Also, the leavening action of these natural yeasts, in the form of a starter culture, is slower than that of baker's yeasts, which means that plenty of fermentation and thus flavour development takes place before the dough has risen to the required volume.
As sourdough cultures are notoriously capricious, baking a successful loaf of sourdough bread is the Holy Grail of the home baker. Sourdough, moreover, has become so fashionable that the top chefs and restaurants are at it, too, and many are keen to share their tips and recipes. A quick perusal of my kitchen shelves reveals entries on sourdough in cookbooks by Moro, St John, Jamie Oliver, and Locatelli, amongst others. These boast a variety of procedures for creating a sourdough culture, one involving grape juice, and another rhubarb and yoghurt. Some are quite lengthy and intricate, which may be disconcerting to the aspiring sourdough baker.
I have been baking bread off and on for around fifteen years now, and have made many attempts to develop an active and durable sourdough starter. A few times it didn't work at all; on other occasions I managed to bake a handful of decent loaves before the starter seemed to just run out of life. I found the Jamie Oliver technique the simplest and most reliable of the four listed above; he uses rye flour to capture the natural yeasts outside and it only takes five days before you can bake your first loaf. A couple of my very early efforts, which were made with a substantial proportion of rye, were a revelation - quite the tastiest bread I'd eaten. And yet, what had started out with a bang quickly fizzled out with a whimper; no sooner had I taken my eye off the starter than it sulked at me like a petulant teenager, obstinately refusing all I asked of it. I went back to using yeast.
When, therefore, I was given by a relative a small quantity of her sourdough starter, I received it with a mixture of gratitude, excitement, trepidation and resignation. I was under pressure to make sure that this present was not just for Christmas; the responsibility felt like having very small children all over again. Fortunately I had in the meantime acquired the excellent River Cottage handbook on bread, by Daniel Stevens, which I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, even more experienced bakers. His section on sourdough is particularly enlightening and I'm sure is the main reason why, four months later, my starter is alive and well in the back kitchen.
So: to my own efforts. What follows is not a detailed recipe or procedure for making sourdough loaves - this can be found elsewhere. Instead I will focus on tips and hints which I've found particularly useful along the way.
The first piece of advice - and a good reason why you should not always be too rigid about recipe timings - is perhaps the most important of all: do not begin the bread-making process until your starter is ready. What is ready? Well, it is hard to define precisely, but if the culture is bubbling and frothing away with a pungent yet not unpleasant smell, then it's probably time. The difficulty here is that you can also leave it for too long. When the natural yeasts have gobbled up all the sugars in the flour, the starter will, like someone after a gargantuan meal, become rather inactive. It will need feeding again to return it to an vigorous state.
At this point I should perhaps take a step backwards and make a note about feeding your starter. A key tip I have picked up only recently is the routine of discarding half the starter and refreshing it with a similar amount of flour and water. Initially I was reluctant to follow this procedure, having been brought up never to waste food, but it really does make all the difference. And if you're baking frequently, you will use the discarded portion for your next loaf. I would also advocate freezing one or two pots of the starter, just in case your main culture does decide to give up the ghost. While we're on the subject, most writers recommend you discard and feed your starter on a daily basis. I have found mine to be so greedy that it actually prefers a twice-daily feed. But you get through a hell of a lot of flour.
When you're confident that your starter is in the right mood, it's time to try a loaf! Since I bought the River Cottage book I have been first making a 'sponge' overnight, which is where you mix your starter with all of the water but only half the flour. By the following morning, this batter should be frothing contentedly and hungry for the rest of the flour and salt. Daniel Stevens advises keeping your dough on the sticky side, and I've found a food mixer very handy for this. But I've also baked without one; you just have to be prepared to get mucky. He also advocates a number of risings, after each of which you gently knock back the dough and reshape it into a round. For the final proving, which can take several hours, I line a tall-sided bowl with a floured cloth, to give the loaf some shape. At baking time, the cloth is carefully lifted from the bowl and the dough transferred to your baking sheet/tin.
Another excellent tip is to ensure the oven is as hot as possible before your loaf goes in to bake. I am currently using a large stainless steel roasting tin for my bread, as it retains the heat and seals the bottom of the loaf, preventing it from sticking. I also make slashes in the dough before putting it in the oven (these should start opening up immediately) and spray the top with water from a plant mister. The fierce heat of the oven should give your dough a final chance to rise (and quite rapidly, too), while the water on the top temporarily inhibits the formation of the crust, thereby extending he rising time in your oven. You should leave the oven at its highest temperature for ten minutes, after which it can be turned down depending on how brown your loaf already looks.
One final piece of advice: do not cut open your loaf until it has fully cooled, which may mean leaving it until the following day. We are easily seduced by the aromas of baking bread, and the temptation to devour a chunk while it is still warm may seem irresistible, but until the crumb has properly settled inside you will just end up with a squashy, albeit delicious mass.
The differences between a regular loaf and a sourdough one should be immediately apparent. Quite apart from the distinctive 'sour' smell and taste, the crumb ought to be much looser with larger holes, while the overall texture of the bread should be springier and less crumbly. Sourdough also lasts longer than other breads, but it is unlikely you'll ever let it get stale.
So how am I getting on? Below you will see two pictures of my most recent attempt at sourdough bread. In the first you can see how the slashes on top of the dough opened up (although not completely), allowing for more rising. The second shows a cross-section of the bread. The crumb is denser than I am aiming for - some earlier loaves have been more successful in this respect. All in all it's not a bad result, and far better than my previous forays into sourdough bread. But I shall continue to strive for the ultimate loaf and let you all know if and when I get there!
What are your sourdough experiences?
Jamie Bulloch, 30 April 2013 Follow @LoveVirtually on Twitter