This is Maybelle. It’s high time I introduce her. She bubbles away in the fridge all week, until I take her out to feed her. Then I leave her on the bench overnight to get excited. After her party, I put half of her back into the cold for rest time. The remainder I turn into beautiful sourdough bread for the family, with just flour, salt and water. Here’s my man working Maybelle, before he left town.
Sourdough is very forgiving. It’s an easy ferment to look after. She’ll survive cold (just slows her down) and drying out (which allows for easy posting through the mail, in flakes). You can even freeze her (I haven’t tried). If you don’t have time to feed her every day, just pop her in the fridge or somewhere cool. You can keep sourdough starter at room temperature, but I find it easier to fridge it because then you have weeks to remember to feed her rather than days.
Because it’s fermented, sourdough is more digestible than fast-baked bread because the long proving time allows some of the starches to be pre-digested. Also, the more you forget about it, the better it is for your gut. That takes the pressure off me, as a working mother. Yay! I often leave my dough two days before baking, or even three. If you can’t tolerate normal bread, try authentic sourdough and see how you go. It also tastes better than fast bread, and lasts longer. My sourdough tends to dry out rather than go mouldy, so I use the stale bread for croutons, breadcrumbs or puddings.
I first started making my own bread eight years ago when I realised that my baby was violently allergic to soy products. Every bread I could find at the shop contained soy. I started off using a bread machine and buy yeast, but then I discovered sourdough. I sold the bread machine and have never looked back. Now I make bread to avoid plastic packaging, and it’s cheaper and healthier. Plus you don’t need to add bread improver (chemicals) or fiddly little ingredients (sugar, milk, yeast, etc). Simply flour and salt. I also use rainwater, instead of tap water. Tap water contains chlorine, which can affect the health of the starter. Now that I’m living in town, I fill up 5 litre containers whenever I’m at the farm, to use for drinking water and breadmaking.
To begin, you’ll need a starter. You can obtain these from a friend, or make one yourself using flour and water. Sourdough starters multiply easily, so they are easy to share around – above is a photo of some sourdough starter (Maybelle) that we gave to a friend (they called theirs Maybelline!). Just feed with the normal ratio of flour and water, return the original quantity to a jar and use the extra for baking or giving away. I use 1 to 1 flour and water with white flour, and 1 flour to 1.5 water for wholemeal flours.
I used to keep my starter on wholemeal rye flour, because it’s supposed to produce a good-tasting, robust culture, but I’ve gone back to basic white flour (it stores better without going rancid). You can use rye, wheat or spelt, but if you’re going to feed it something different, it’s best to transition over gradually using a half-half mixture of flours to start with. I’ve tried keeping a gluten-free starter, but this is much more difficult. I couldn’t get it to work, and I gave up on that because we can eat gluten okay.
I keep our mother Maybelle starter in the fridge, because this slows the fermentation down and means I only need to feed her once a week. This is manageable for me, and means the bread gets made instead of dismissed as too hard! You can also keep yours on the bench and feed it daily if you like. I can always feed mine more often if I choose. I usually bake once a week, make two loaves and freeze one. When I’m halfway through the last loaf, I start the next batch. If I’m going away, I might do an extra bake and either take the loaf with us or leave one in the freezer so it’s ready to go when we return home.
To start a new batch, I take Maybelle out of the fridge. I usually let her warm to room temperature overnight, or a few hours. The wild yeasts will start to wake up from their cold hibernation, and they’ll be hungry.
Then I feed her with the combined amount of flour and water starter than I want to remove for a batch of bread; for me, this is 500g. So using wholemeal flour, this is 200g flour and 300ml water. Or 250g flour and 250g water for white flour.
This is one job do I use (durable) plastic for. Large food-grade plastic buckets are one of the most inert plastics, long-lasting, and safer than metal or cracked ceramics for salty or acidic ferments. I used to wash my bread bucket after every use, but this year I’ve started letting the dregs dry onto the bucket. If you want to, you can peel them off easily for sharing – she’ll reconstitute in water and come back to life. This is how I get raw sourdough flakes, that can be posted in the mail in a ziplock bag. I don’t bother washing the wooden spoon either. I just pop the netting cover back on (this stops fruit-fly from honing onto the lovely sour smell) and leave it til next time. It dries out quickly. My bread has started to rise better since I did this, I think she likes the seasoned bucket. Less washing up for me!
I mix it up well in a large bowl or pot and leave her on the table until she becomes active. This could take a few hours, overnight or longer, depending on the room temperature. It will be longer at cold temperatures. You’ll see when she wakes up because when you stir her, there will be lots of little bubbles. When she’s partying, I spoon 200g of starter back into the original jar. I then return that to the fridge, so there’s starter for next time. This is really important – don’t change anything about your original starter (no salt, herbs, etc). That way she can last for years. Sometimes she gets all active in the fridge and bubbles right up to the lid, so she needs plenty of space in the jar or it will overflow like a goopy volcano.
Next, stir in flour, water and salt to make your dough. I use 700g water, 1300g flour, and 15g salt. You will notice if you forget the salt, the bread won’t taste the same! Mix her roughly with a sturdy wooden spoon and then leave her to rest for 20 minutes at least. If you forget and leave it longer, no worries. This will be like giving it two risings. But she’ll will be quite fine with just 20 minutes – this begins to soften the starches. Especially important for wholegrain flour.
Tip a little flour onto a table or bench. I used to oil my bench and slap knead, but I found that a bit messy although it’s good exercise! It’s good for a wetter dough. Now I just knead for a few minutes on a floured bench. Some people recommend a minimum of five minutes kneading, but I don’t bother with that any more and the bread still rises. As long as the dough is springy and smooth, it’s kneaded enough. I like how sourdough doesn’t stick to my fingers the way unfermented bread dough does – see how clean my hand is after kneading?
Divide the dough into two. I use the wooden spatula to do this. You might like to use a knife. Flour the base of two loaf tins, and also flour the outside of each dough ball generously. Don’t forget the sides. You can also oil the tins lightly, and swirl flour inside them. To shape the bread neatly, you can flatten the balls slightly then roll them up like a fat Swiss roll, and carefully pop them into the tins with the join on the bottom. Press them in to fit.
You can make rolls, pullapart bread or any shape you like with the same dough. Prepare your trays, shape your bread now and put it on the trays to rise.
If I’m making pizza dough, I use the same recipe. Sometimes I add some olive oil, herbs or extra salt. Then I oil and flour pizza trays, and press the dough into the trays. Half of this batch will do four pizza trays. I usually make one loaf of bread, and several pizza bases to use or freeze. I leave the pizza bases to rise for a few hours, then pre-bake them for 5 or 10 minutes before adding toppings and baking again. You don’t have to pre-bake if your toppings are fairly dry.
For bread and rolls, leave the dough in a warm place until doubled in size. This will take a few hours or overnight, depending on temperature of room and vigour of starter. I usually leave mine overnight, in my cool house.
Then preheat your oven to 210 degrees C, and bake at this temperature for ten minutes. Turn the oven down and bake at 180 for about half an hour. It should be slightly golden and sound hollow when tapped.
Tip the loaves out onto a rack to cool. If it cools in the tin, the condensation will make the bread soggy. Then slice and eat. It’s much easier to slice when cool, if you can wait that long! It’s delicious with cheese, olives or other fermented foods like kimchi or sauerkraut.
500g active starter
Mix all and leave for 20 minutes. Tip dough onto floured bench and knead for a few minutes until smooth. Divide into two, flour well and put into two medium size tins. Leave for abut 12 hours, depending on room temperature, until the dough has doubled in size. Preheat oven to 210 degrees C, bake for 10 minutes, turn heat down to 180 degrees C and bake another half an hour until the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Turn out onto cooling racks.
Enjoy your homemade sourdough bread!