Yep, it had to happen. It's weeks now since I stopped buying supermarket bread in favour of homemade no-knead loaves, and with all this reading about bread and experimentation (and particularly inspired by this programme on BBC4 not long ago) it was only a matter of time before I tried my hand at that so-called king of breads, sourdough.
You won't find yeast in a sourdough recipe. Instead it calls for a few tablespoons of 'starter' - a boozy-smelling home-brew of flour and water which breeds wild yeasts present in the air and the flour. This creates a bread with more complex flavour. Caring for a starter is a little like caring for a pet: you have to clean it out and feed it once a day, by transferring half the concoction to a clean bowl or jar (discarding the rest, otherwise it'll just keep getting bigger!) and adding fresh flour and water to feed the yeasty microorganisms and keep it going. Luckily it's more forgiving than most pets; if you forget to feed it once in a while it won't really mind, and you can slow it right down by keeping it in the fridge, where you won't have to feed it very often at all.
You can buy dehydrated starter and wake it up by rehydrating or you can beg some from another sourdough baker, but I decided to make my own from scratch, and followed Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's instructions here to do so. It's basically a case of whisking flour and water together, leaving it until it begins to ferment, and then feeding it regularly until it builds up its strength.
Here is my starter after the first 24 hours. I used wholemeal flour, which is why it's so dark, and if you look closely you can see lots of little bubbles have risen to the top to show that fermentation has begun. Appetising, huh?
I got into the routine after a few days, but I was a bit worried about my starter. Looking at pictures of other starters online (like this one), most seemed to be a lot bubblier than mine. Mine also kept getting a layer of liquid through the middle, with a frothy layer which sort of dried out and went crusty on top:
Apparently the liquid is called hooch and is perfectly normal - an indicator that the microorganisms have finished their meal, thank you very much - and the crust can just be stirred back in, so I had nothing to worry about. But still, my starter didn't look like others - the bubbles are tiny and few, while others look like swiss cheese right through!
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says that the starter's consistency should be like 'thick paint', but I started to notice that in a lot of the pictures I was looking at, the starters appeared thicker than mine. So I began using a little less water each feed to thicken mine up.
Lo and behold, the bubbles got bigger and the top frothed more...
I kept thickening, just a little each day, until the spoon left a trail when I stirred, and the layers disappeared altogether so there's no hooch, and bubbles throughout. Hurrah!
Now I had much more confidence in my starter, it was time to put this baby to work!
I followed Hugh's recipe as in the link above for my first attempt. He's pretty vague on timings, but that's probably a good thing as my dough was very slow to rise.
First you make a 'sponge', by mixing a portion of the starter with some more flour and water - this basically just makes it bigger and thicker. I left this gloopy mixture overnight to rise.
Then this is mixed with more flour and a little salt, and kneaded for ten minutes until 'silky and elastic'. I don't think I've kneaded anything since home economics lessons in school... It was tricky and I reckon I added far too much extra flour as I went along to try to stop it sticking. If you put it down and leave it in the same place for more than a couple of seconds it sticks! In the end I resorted to kneading it mid-air, without the board - just stretching and folding it between my hands! Not sure it'll catch on but it seemed to work! When it was really stretchy I shaped it into a ball, oiled it all over, and left it in a bowl - covered with clingfilm to stop it drying out - to rise.
Eight hours later...
Well, I wasn't that impressed by its rising-power, but I wanted to get this loaf baked before bedtime so I pressed on.
The next stage is to 'punch down' the dough - squash it and knock it about a bit to knock the air out. Easy enough. Then I shaped the loaf into a round again, floured a bowl, and put the dough in for a second rising period, called proving. What I didn't do, and should have done, was to line the bowl with a floured cloth instead of just putting the dough straight in. Having preheated and floured my baking sheet and put a tray of boiling water in the bottom of the oven to increase humidity, I then had to wrestle the dough out of its bowl at the last minute. Not good at all for all the precious air bubbles it had been forming all afternoon - you're supposed to be gentle with it once proved!
At this stage, I pretty much thought all was lost. It hadn't doubled in size like the recipe said, it wasn't holding its shape like it should (it pretty much just oozed all over the baking tray as soon as I tipped it out of the bowl), and to make matters worse I'd noticed a bad smell in the rapeseed oil I'd used to oil it... I didn't bother slashing it and I didn't bother taking photos. In fact I was feeling pretty grumpy about it all.
But before my very eyes, it started rising in the oven... It rose and it rose and it rose! And forty minutes later...
Wow. The crust is crunchy but thin, and beautifully golden-brown. The crumb is bubbly and moist and springy. A triumph! There is just one little problem though...
I don't like the taste! I can't quite think whether I've ever eaten sourdough before, so I have little to compare it to, but it has a really vinegary hit right at the back of my mouth which I can't bear. It's not so bad toasted, but cold it's just inedible for me! (Luckily Mum likes it, so she's helping eat it.)
I got straight back online, of course, searched for 'sourdough too sour', and quickly found that it's a common problem for beginners and can be combatted. Phew! This very useful article explains that the sourness comes from a build-up of acid, which can be lowered by (a) feeding the starter more frequently (b) letting the dough rise for a shorter time - this will mean using more starter in the dough to provide more yeast (c) using a flour with a low ash content and (d) thinning the starter.
So the adventure continues...
I'm going to feed the starter three times a day for a couple of days and then try Carl Legge's sourdough method here, which involves folding the dough instead of kneading it (sounds much more my cup of tea). I might also try a higher proportion of starter in the sponge (or a higher proportion of sponge to additional flour)... can any seasoned bakers comment on the best way to do that?
In the meantime, I found myself breadless yesterday since I couldn't eat the sourdough loaf, so I had a crack at Mark Bittman's 'speedy no-knead bread' here. It uses six times the yeast but only needs to rise for four hours and prove for one, so we had bread by dinnertime after all. And what a lovely loaf! It has perhaps a little less flavour than ordinary no-knead bread, but it's so delightfully soft and light and moist and lovely that it was a struggle not to munch the whole thing down fresh from the oven.
I'll certainly be calling on this recipe again next time I need bread within an afternoon, rather than within a day.