I’ve been baking bread for over a year now. The picture above is of my latest effort; two basic sourdough loaves and a spelt loaf. The smell of baking bread is wonderful throughout the house, the loaves look terrific and taste delicious. This picture below is of my San Francisco Sour Dough, a famous sour dough recipe. These two are ciabatta loaves. They don’t look as attractive and they are lighter than the other loaves but they are wonderfully chewy. This my first Spelt loaf. Heavy, fantastic smelling and wonderfully tasty.
I don’t know why, but there’s a certain primal satisfaction in making bread. At least that’s what I feel. Maybe it’s the fact that the raw ingredients are so basic: flower, water and salt. Maybe it’s because its been done since time immemorial. Maybe it’s the ritual of the different steps; the measuring out, the mixing and folding then shaping of the dough, the slow rising and the tension every time you pop it into the oven; has it worked this time? Or have I done something wrong?
Because regardless of how often you do it, there’s plenty of room for error from one loaf to the next. Different flour, slightly out with the measurements of flour and water, too loose in the folding and shaping processes and finally wrong oven temperatures. In any event, for whatever reason I love baking bread for my family. We haven’t bought a commercial loaf since the start of 2017. Here’s how I do it.
My go to recipe is the first one I tried from this website, How To Make Sourdough Bread by Emma Christenson. And then I found this great book at Readings bookshop in Carlton which I also recommend, Perfecting Sourdough by Jane Mason.
All of the flour that I use is specially labelled bread flour which I get from our local supermarket, Piedmontes, in 5 kilogram bags. Here is the equipment that I think you need. Plenty of Gladwrap, bread proofing baskets (although I have read that you could use round metal or plastic colanders), plenty of tea towels, a sharp knife or a baker’s blade and a digital timer. Not pictured, but also necessary, is a very big mixing bowl and one or two Dutch Ovens – I use my old Crueset casserole dishes.
Here is the first of my bread recipes. My normal sourdough which makes two loaves. This is the first of what will be a series of blogs on my bread making. I want to share the joy!
Before you can do anything you need a sourdough starter. Some people call the starter a mother but I prefer the term starter. It’s easy to make, all you need is time.
Day 1 – Mix well 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons of flour plus 1/2 cup water in a ceramic container; leave covered with a tea towel overnight on the kitchen bench.
Day 2 – Starter should be bubbly and may be a bit larger. Add another 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons of flour plus 1/2 cup water to the bowl and mix well; cover and leave in the same place.
Day 3 – Starter should be bubbly and visibly larger. Add another 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons of flour plus 1/2 cup water to the bowl and mix well; cover and leave in the same place.
Day 4 – Starter should be very bubbly, doubled in volume from Day 3 and smell sour but fresh. Add another 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons of flour plus 1/2 cup water to the bowl and mix well; cover and leave in the same place.
Day 5 – Starter should have doubled in volume from Day 4 be bubbly, even frothy, smell sour and vinegary. It’s ready to use. If it smells bad, it probably is. You will know the difference between sour and off. If its off, throw it out and start again.
Having got my starter going I keep it in the fridge. This is because I couldn’t bear throwing any excess starter away. After I’ve used a bit, whenever I feel it’s getting low, I leave it out of the fridge for a couple of days after making a loaf. I then add flour and water every day it is out of the fridge which you have to do to keep it alive. My daily maintenance routine when I do this is 3/4 a cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water. This is quite a thick starter, which I’ve read is better for one that you are keeping in the fridge for long periods. I keep mine out for about 3 days; until my container, which is quite a large one, is full.
Once you have your starter, it’s time to make a loaf, or in my case, two loaves. This recipe comes from the website I refer to above, although over time I have made some variations.
First you make what is called a
Mix 1 tablespoon of starter with 1/2 cup of flour and 1/3 cup of water in a small ceramic bowl. Cover with Gladwrap and leave on the kitchen bench overnight. On the website where I found this recipe, it says to use an active starter, which means starter that’s has been out of the fridge for a couple of days. I make my leaven with cold starter, straight out of the fridge, the night before I make my bread. This works well for me.
In the morning your leaven should be bubbly and increased in size. It should smell sour, but not off.
Then you are ready to mix your
Pour 2 & 1/2 cups of water (it can be cold or tepid) into a very large ceramic mixing bowl.
Add the leaven to the water and gently stir it through. It does not have to be completely dissolved, just shaken out a bit.
Add 5 & 1/2 cups flour to the water and leaven mixture. Mix together with a spatula – make sure it is mixed in well and there are no lumps of flour left. It should look like a shaggy dough when you have finished, not smooth at all. You can use all the same flour, or add other types of flour to your mixture. It’s better to start with ordinary and then experiment. I put half a cup of a different flour in mine from time to time. I have mostly but buckwheat which is actually not a grain and therefore is gluten free. I have occasionally included half a cup of wholemeal spelt flour. It’s amazing the difference just half a cup of a different flour makes.
Cover the bowl with Gladwrap and leave on the kitchen bench for between 2 and four hours. (I’ve left it for longer and nothing happens, I think about 2 hours would be the minimum, although I have always left it for a longer rather than shorter period.
After 4 hours, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of salt over the dough and pinch it in so that you can’t feel it any more. The pinching motion is meant to draw the dough together and start the process of making it more elastic. The important thing is to make sure you can’t feel the salt.
Folding the Dough
You are then ready to start folding the dough. Start by pulling the dough from the top down into the middle or as far as you can to the other side of the bowl. Then turn the bowl 45 degrees and pull the next bit down and repeat twice so that you’ve been around the whole of dough, folding it down. I do this for up to 12 or 16 times. It’s quite addictive!
At the start the dough will be quite sticky, I read somewhere that sticky is good for sourdough, so don’t worry about it sticking to your fingers, just persevere. You will feel the dough get smoother as you fold. This is an alternative technique to kneading. Easier, but it’s the result that matters. This works. Leave for 30 minutes, covered with Gladwrap. (First fold)
Repeat the folding process. The dough will have spread out in the bowl and be a bit wetter when you return to it. Folding it again you can feel it tighten. Try and scoop down and under the middle of the dough as you pull it up to fold over. Leave it, covered, for another 30 minutes. (Second fold)
Repeat the folding process. Each time you fold it, the dough will get tighter and tighter. Try and stretch it as far as you can while folding it, pulling it out from the middle and then folding over. Turning the bowl as you go. Each time I do it for between 12 and 16 times. Leave, covered, for another 30 minutes. (Third fold)
Repeat the folding process. The dough should be firmer and smoother now. Leave for another 30 minutes (Fourth fold)
This is the minimum number of folds and I often stop at this stage and my bread always rises properly. When I started I did six as suggested on the website. Over time you will recognise the feel of dough when it is ready – smooth and silky.
If you have time you can do another two folds. Repeat the folding process. Leave for 30 minutes. (Fifth fold) Repeat the folding process. Leave for 30 minutes. (Sixth fold)
The dough will get shinier and more pliable with each fold and should be quite silky at the end.
Shaping the Dough
Tip the dough out onto a well floured bench top. Divide it into two pieces – use a bread scraper if possible, it’s worth buying one. The dough will be sticky which is why the flour is important. Sprinkle some flour over each piece of dough and turn them over on the bench.
Roughly shape the dough by turning it around using the bread scraper (or with your hands, well floured). It’s like turning the wheel of a car. Just put the scraper under the dough and move it round gently. You are aiming to tighten the dough.
Use plenty of flour to prevent sticking, either to the bench or to your hands or the bread scraper; including when you have finished, flouring the top of each piece of dough. Cover with a tea towel and leave for 30 minutes. The dough will spread out a little and rise a bit.
Now finally shape the loaves one by one. For each one, you turn it around again with the scraper, tightening the dough as you go. Flip it over. Then fold the right side over into the middle, or right to the edge on the other side, then fold the left side over into the middle or to the other side, then pull out and stretch the bottom lip of the dough up to the top and then take the top of the dough and pull it over to the bottom.
Give it a final turn with your hands and place it carefully in the basket. The seams of the final folds should be at the top – so that when you place the dough in the dutch oven they will be at the bottom. Fold the ends of the tea towel over the dough as you would fold an envelope, loosely covering the whole lot. Repeat with the remaining dough.
While your dough is resting before the final shaping, prepare your bread proofing baskets. You can buy these baskets at kitchen ware shops and at some bakeries. I think they’re made of bamboo. (See the picture below). You can get oval or round ones. I’ve read that you could use a colander for this purpose, but I haven’t tried that. I have two oval bread baskets that I use for this recipe. (I also have a round one for other recipes). I put a tea towel in each basket with the ends hanging over the edges of the basket.
Put a handful of bread flour in the middle of the tea towel in the basket and rub it in as thoroughly as you can. Make sure you go up the sides of the basket too. Use plenty of flour – over-do it rather than under-do it. If you don’t flour it thoroughly the dough will stick to the tea towel and it will be impossible to get it out in one piece and your loaf will be ruined. Fold the ends of the tea towel over the dough so that it is loosely covered. Place the baskets in the fridge for the night. This is to allow the dough to rise slowly over night.
Baking the Bread
Next morning turn on your oven to the highest temperature – mine is 260C. Place two dutch ovens (cast iron casserole dishes) in the oven, lids on. If you haven’t got two you will just need to do one after the other.
When the oven has reached 260 degrees take the bread out of the fridge and, doing one at a time, take the dutch oven out and place a loaf inside as quickly as possible, taking care because they are very hot. I’ve had a lot of small burns!
Quickly make a relatively deep incision along the side of the loaf. I have a bakers blade, another useful utensil – essentially a razor blade with a handle – for this purpose. This will give you the shelf effect on the baked loaf of bread. Place the dutch oven back into the oven, lid on. Do this as quickly as possible. Then repeat with the other loaf.
Bake at the highest temperature for 20 minutes. I have found a timer is critical for this baking process.
Then reduce the temperature to 230 degrees for 10 minutes. Do not open the oven or remove the lids of the dutch ovens at this time.
Then remove the lids and bake for a further 10 to 15 minutes. You need to make sure the bread is fully cooked through although you don’t want it to be too dark on top. This can be tricky. Getting the timing right is a bit of a trial and error process. I find going for a further 15 minutes makes the bread appear over-done so I’ve settled on around 12 extra minutes.
Remove from the oven and place immediately on wire racks to cool.
The Process in Pictures
Here are some photographs of the different phases of my bread production. It was tricky making my bread and taking the pictures at the same time and to cap it off, some of them won’t download! This is to give you a bit of a better idea of the whole process.
Starter Here are two photos of my starter. I have quite a lot I think compared to some people. You can see the texture in the second picture below.
A big bowl for mixing the dough and then folding it is essential. This was the bowl in which my mother mixed her annual Christmas Cake. I liked licking the residue of the raw mixture better than the finished product.
This is what the dough should look like after you have mixed in the flour. This is what a shaggy dough looks like.
And this is what it looks like after resting, covered, for four hours. It is wetter, and has spread out to fill the bowl. It is also very sticky.
I wanted to include a picture of the dough tipped out on the bench here and cut into two pieces, but my photograph won’t upload!!! A technical glitch. But here are my bread baskets, one without and one with the tea towel in place.
And here is the dough, after it has been shaped for the first time and left to rest and then prepared for it’s final shaping.
And here are the folds – from right to left, left to right and not shown, because they wouldn’t upload, from the bottom up and the top down. You can see the lips of dough at the bottom and the top that are to be folded over.
And here is the shaped dough in the bread basket.