As I said in my last post, I find making a loaf of bread without any commercial yeast in it at all, gives me a thrill every time I do it. The alchemy which takes place in the jar of starter leaven seems nothing short of miraculous to me although of course it's really just straightforward biochemistry. There are natural yeasts present in the flour, from the outer casing of the grain, and these can be added to and grown in an appropriately encouraging environment just like any other fungal or bacterial culture.
First up, I must say that this is not a quick process. Sourdough aka Slowdough! The starter culture takes about a week to reach a stage where it is ready to use, although you might find it gets going a bit more quickly if your kitchen is warmer than mine or your local yeasts are quicker off the mark. And once you're in business with actually using it in a bread dough, like the teenage male of our species, it is a Late Riser and Does Not Like To Be Chivvied! Once one has taken this on board, making sourdough bread is very easy and actually will fit around your day quite flexibly rather than the other way round, with you having to fit round it.
If you want to have a go yourself, this is my method, based on Dan Lepard's version in his book "The Handmade Loaf":
What you need:
a jam jar and a second larger jar. I use two Kilner preserving jars, a small one and a tall one.
white breadmaking flour
dried fruit* (currants, sultanas or raisins)
* You can make a starter without the yoghurt and dried fruit but the unique yeasts and bacteria they add, round out the bouquet of the culture nicely.
This is what you do:
Put 2 tsps of rye flour, 2 tsps white bread-making flour, 2 tsps of live yoghurt and 2 tsps of currants into the smaller jar.
Add half a cup of water and stir.
Cover loosely and leave at room temperature for twenty four hours.
After twenty four hours it will look like this:
Now add 2 more tsps of rye flour and 2 tsps of white bread-making flour and 1/4 cup water. Stir again, cover and leave for another twenty four hours.
It will now look like this:
(I know, not very appetising!)
Now add 4 tsps rye flour and 4 tsps of white bread-making flour and half a cup water and stir again. Leave it for another twenty four hours covered in the same way as before.
Want a peek of how it looks now?
Not very different and still not very appetising!
You now need to stir up the unholy-looking mixture and pour through a sieve into a jug. The nasty-looking detritus left in the sieve can be binned.
Add half a cup of white bread-making flour and a third of a cup of water. Stir thoroughly. Cover loosely and leave again for another twenty four hours.
The mixture should now be visibly beginning to show signs of fermentation with little pin hole bubbles appearing in the mixture and a distinctly sourish smell that my son says makes him feel sick, so if you have a sensitive nose, approach with caution!
Discard two thirds of the mixture again. It's quite gluey in consistency by now, so make sure you run the hot tap well, if you pour it down the sink! Add another half cup of flour and another third of a cup of water and stir well. Cover and leave again for a further twenty four hours.
The mixture should be definitely bubbly by now and is almost ready to go but benefits from an extra day of feeding so add another half cup of flour and third of a cup of water and stir, cover and leave again for another day.
You and your sourdough starter are good to go!
As a general rule I use about 200 g of the starter leaven to 500 g flour in any normal bread recipe. Omit the commercial yeast and keep all the other ingredients the same with perhaps just a bit less water. The dough will be slacker than a normal bread dough so if you are making by hand you will probably need to add extra flour as you knead to prevent it sticking. As previously indicated, sourdough is a tortoise rather than a hare in the proving stakes, so once it's properly kneaded (about ten minutes' kneading will be more than adequate - no need to stand there at it all morning!), - leave it to rise for a number of hours. Up to twelve hours or more are good. It tends to slump, so it's best to leave to rise in a tin. When you come to bake the loaf, it needs a bit longer than a normal loaf, I find.
The taste is worth the wait - flavoursome and with just a hint of sourness but nothing oppressive or offensive.
And your starter can now be kept going by feeding it with a bit of flour and water every day and will always be ready for when you want to use it. Just pour away a bit of the contents before you add your regular top-up of flour and water so that the quantities stay manageable and a proportion of the the dead yeast cells are discarded. And when you remove a quantity for baking, remember to replace what you've removed with the usual half cup of flour and third of a cup of water so that there will be enough for next time.
If you want to have a patch when you don't use the sourdough starter at all, just refrigerate the jar with a small amount of starter in it. After a while it will darken and separate. When you want to reactivate it, get it out of the fridge and feed it with the flour and water mix again for a few days to refresh it. I have kept sourdough starters going for months like this and the good news is that the flavour of the bread you make, gets better and better and better, the longer you've kept the starter going!
My own favourite recipe for sourdough bread is a mixture of rye and white flour, flavoured with caraway seeds. I don't know how authentically German it is, - probably not very - but it tastes very good. And a huge thank you to the Helen who commented on my pumpernickel post for her serving suggestion of cream cheese, jam and walnuts. The pumpernickel had disappeared by yesterday but even on the less dark, sourdough bread, I have to say it was heavenly!
Helen's original suggestion was for raspberry jam atop the cream cheese. I couldn't find any raspberry jam in the larder - I think it's been wolfed on scones - but a jar of black cherry jam stood in very nicely. I added a sprinkle of chopped fresh dill and toasted the walnuts and the whole thing was divine!
The cheese and jam thing obviously works really well because another great suggestion in the comments on the pumpernickel was from Debs: camembert topped with raspberry jam with an optional layer of peanut butter as well. Sounds very good. Haven't tried this yet as have no camembert in the house but I'm going to. Quince or rose-hip jelly might also play well if you have any.... Choices, choices...!
Here are the quantities for my recipe if you want to try it:
12 oz / 350 g strong white bread-making flour
5 oz / 125 g rye flour
1 tsp salt
a knob of butter or pure vegetable margarine
2 tsps caraway seeds
7 oz / 200 g sourdough starter from the jar
300 ml water
I am afraid Mrs T usually (although not always) cheats and puts the above in the automatic bread-maker on the dough programme and lets it get on with it and when it's finished its stint, I often leave the dough where it is overnight before tipping out into a tin and baking in the morning. But of course you can make the whole thing by hand, if you prefer. Be warned however that the sourdough starter and the bread dough made with it, can give cyano-acrylate glues a run for their money! Use the add and weigh facility on your scales to weigh directly into your mixing bowl or bread-machine bucket to minimise mess when you are weighing out the starter and if making the dough by hand, make sure you get plenty of flour on your hands before plunging your paws into the kneading, or the dough can be mighty difficult to get off your fingers. Not good news when you need to answer the phone. Even less good news for the person who picks up the phone after you!
The above quantities make an average, decent-sized loaf and I bake it in a large loaf tin, lined with baking parchment, for an hour and a quarter at 195℃. It comes out with the most amazing crunchy, crispy crust and when you cut into it, you will find that all those natural yeasts have done their miraculous thing and aerated the crumb beautifully as you can see in my pic.
Biochemistry or alchemy? Delicious either way!
Never mind those Medieval alchemists beavering away, trying in vain to turn base metal into gold,
let out your inner biochemist and turn your kitchen into a successful laboratory!