Sourdough is the majestic grandmother of leavened breads. Some say forms of sourdough have been around for two or three thousand years! The sourdough loaf currently in my kitchen has been around since yesterday morning, and I sincerely doubt it will last more than another day or so before it vanishes into the appreciative digestive tracts of my household. Lacking the controlled, processed qualities of regular bread, sourdough is an expression of creativity made with a combination of flour, water, love, and an unpredictable concoction of wild yeasts. As a result, sourdough varies greatly depending on a number of factors, but in general it produces a tastier, and more readily digestible bread than other more “conventional” baking processes.
Baking bread has been a regular creative project for me for the past year of so. I’ve experimented with different grains, different cultures, and different techniques. I mastered the art of making my own sourdough starter, and have gradually developed a simple, relatively fail-safe method of making tasty loaves of bread that satisfy the appetites of several toast loving households in my community. There are myriad methods for making sourdough and each produces a different loaf. This recipe is based on a German-style sourdough, but I’ve adapted it to suit my eclectic lifestyle so it requires minimal effort and can be left unsupervised for hours at a time whilst one swims laps at the pool, gardens, or goes for a quick climb at one’s local crag.
To make two large loaves, or three smaller loaves, you’ll need:
- 1.2 kg good, fresh wheat or spelt flour
300 g bubbly, active sourdough starter (click here to see how to make your own). To reactivate a starter that has been stored in the fridge for a while, take it out of the fridge a few hours before you want to start baking (I do this the night before), “feed” by stirring in a little flour and water in equal proportions, and leave in an unsealed container or covered with a cloth until it warms and starts to bubble again.
- 500 – 700 mL of warm (not hot!) filtered or spring water (some flours are more absorbent than others, so maybe start with a lesser amount and add more if necessary)
- 25 g good quality salt (I like to use unbleached Australian seasalt)
- Pour the water into a large bowl. Add active sourdough starter and stir gently with a wooden spoon. Make sure to reserve a little of the starter to re-culture for future baking… to do this, simply mix roughly equal measures of flour and water with your reserved starter, cover with a cloth and leave at room temperature for up to six hours (depending on the weather) until it starts to bubble again. At this point you can seal and refrigerate until next needed.
- To the bowl of water and sourdough starter, add fresh flour a little at a time, stirring well with a wooden spoon to combine. Depending on the flour, you should be able to add 1 kg to 1.2 kg of flour, kneading with wet hands towards the end, until the dough comes together into a single, handleable piece. At this point, form dough into a rough ball and cover bowl with a damp cloth for about an hour.
- After the dough has rested, add the salt. It may seem like quite a lot but you’ll be surprised! Knead salt into the dough until it’s well combined. You may notice the dough stiffen as the salt is added.
- Shape dough into a rough ball again, and cover with a damp cloth in the bowl. Leave for 2 to 3 hours for the first proof. If you can, turn the dough gently with your hands every half hour or so as this will help it to develop. During this stage, the dough will rise in the bowl, sometimes doubling in size. If you don’t want your bread to taste at all sour (although why wouldn’t you?!), reduce the time of this first proof.
- After the initial proof, divide the dough into two or three portions (depending on how many loaves you’re intending to make).
If you want to add delicious things such as olives, herbs, nuts and seeds, spices or dried fruit to your bread, now is the time! My current favourite combination is big juicy olives and fresh rosemary from my garden, but try whatever takes your fancy, and let us know! Knead extra ingredients through the dough until well combined.
- Using your hands, round dough portions into cylinders and place into greased baking tins, filling about one third to half full. I find butter works much better than oil for greasing, and old-style stainless steel tins produce the best results (make sure to season your tins well before use to bake a good non-stick patina on to the steel… comment on this post if you want instructions for seasoning baking tins). Cover bread tins with a damp cloth and leave dough for a second proof for up to six hours or until the loaves have risen to fill the tins a little over the top.
- Bake in a very hot oven (200° C or 250° C if your oven will go that hot!) for about 30 minutes. When they’re almost done the loaves will shrink in a little from the edge of the tin. Run a knife around the edges and carefully tip each loaf out then bake for a few more minutes out of the tin to finish the crust. If you want extra crusty bread, try putting a shallow dish of water on the bottom of the oven while you bake… something about the steam as this evaporates helps to form a good crust.
- Cool slightly on a wire cooling rack, and eat fresh smothered in butter. Or cool completely and keep in a sealed container for up to a week (sourdough rarely goes mouldy in my experience, just a little dry over time). If you’re really into toast, you can slice the bread while it’s fresh and freeze immediately for longer storage.