There's nothing quite like tucking into a heart-warming soup on those bitterly cold British winter days. Throw in a loaf of homemade sourdough bread and you're truly onto a winner!
For many of us home bakers, the idea of making sourdough bread at home can seem like an impossible task that's best left to the Paul Hollywoods of the world. With all the additional steps to get your head around, it can seem pretty intimidating at the best of times. But what if we told you there's an easy way to reach your home baking goals? No, really!
But before we delve into all that, we need to understand what makes sourdough well, sourdough! Once you've worked your way around the sciency stuff, baking becomes a breeze!
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So, what is sourdough?
Sourdough is naturally leavened bread, which basically just means that it doesn't use conventional yeast to rise. Instead, it uses what is known as a 'starter' - a mix of fermented flour, water, wild yeast and good bacteria - to give it that bread-like prove. It's this blend of ingredients that gives sourdough its quintessential tangy flavour and ever so slightly chewy texture that we all know and love.
Unlike commercial yeast found in typical bread, wild yeast needs a little more TLC to get the best out of it. It's slower-acting than commercial yeast, so it's best to do all the mixing, shaping and baking over the course of a few days to yield the best results. This process, while lengthier than usual breadmaking, is what helps to tease out the complex flavours that make sourdough so irresistibly moreish, so it's definitely worth the wait!
But where exactly does that scrummy sour taste come from? The answer is in the blend of friendly bacteria that grows alongside the wild yeast in the starter culture. For all you science buffs, it's the lactobacillus and acetobacillus that gives your sourdough that tantalisingly tangy flavour, but we don't have to worry about that...
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How to make your sourdough starter
So, we already know the basic elements of what makes a sourdough starter, but how exactly do we achieve that from home? It's actually a lot less daunting than you'd imagine, so get stuck in!
Start with a large, clean jar. A clip-top preserve jar with a piece of cheesecloth over the top will do you just fine. Measure out equal parts of plain flour and water (top tip: for better accuracy, use grams or ounces, not tablespoons or cups) and mix it all up directly in the jar until you get a smooth batter. Let the mixture sit in a temperate place in your kitchen for up to a week. Over the next few days, you'll need to feed your culture by pouring off small amounts and replacing it with a fresh mix of equal parts flour and water.
During the first week, you should notice lots of air bubbles forming and your starter beginning to expand - this is how you know it's working! As the wild yeast breaks down the sugars and carbohydrates in the flour it will begin to release gas, hence the bubbles. You may also start to notice that tangy sourdough smell, which is a sign that it's almost ready for baking! You'll know it's ready to go when the culture becomes very active and bubbly within a few hours of feeding.
Once you've made a starter, you'll never have to make one again! Just keep a small amount in the jar, pop it into the fridge and feed it once a week with your flour/water mix to have a culture ready to go whenever you fancy. The colder temperature of the fridge slows down the fermenting process, so it'll need far less maintenance from here on out - perfect!
If you don't have the time to create your own culture, you can always get your hands on a hassle-free starter sachet or a premade fresh sample to get you going in no time at all. The beauty of sourdough culture sachets is that all the hard work has already been done for you! All you have to do is mix it straight into your bread mix and away you go! Buying an already established fresh culture means you can skip the uncertainty of your starter not fermenting properly and it has the additional benefit of being a lot easier to care for. It all boils down to how involved you want to be in the process of making your sourdough (or how much time you have spare!).
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Let's get baking!
Now that we've dealt with the starter, we can get onto the part of breadmaking that everybody loves - the squishy, squidgy dough making!
Step 1: First, we need to create a leaven. "What's a leaven?" I hear you ask. Essentially, a leaven is what gets mixed into your dough. Simply take a tablespoon of your starter (yes, just a tablespoon - a little goes a long way!) with equal parts flour and water (around 75g will do to make one large loaf or two smaller loaves). Make this the night before and leave it on the counter for the culture to get to work overnight. If you're limited on time, leave it to sit for at least 30 minutes before use.
This resting period is called the autolyse and it develops all the yummy scrummy gluten without you 'kneading' to do anything... Get it?
You know that your leaven is ready to go if it's got that brilliantly bubbly texture to it. To test, drop a small spoonful of the leaven in a cup of water and if it floats, you're good to go!
Step 2: In a separate bowl, mix about a quarter cup of water with one tablespoon of salt and set aside, stirring occasionally to ensure all the water has dissolved. Just pop it to one side for now, as we'll come back to this later.
Step 3: Add two cups of unsalted water to the leaven mixture and stir with a spatula to dissolve it. Don't be alarmed if it appears a little lumpy, this is completely normal! Add 700g of all-purpose flour or bread flour and stir with a spatula until you form a shaggy dough.
Step 5: Once this rest period is over, pour the dissolved salt water mixture from step 2 directly onto the dough and work it in with pinching and squeezing motions. Your dough should be looking a little looser now.
Step 6: This is where the real work begins: it's time to fold! To fold your dough, lift it up from one side and fold it over itself. Fold the dough four times, moving clockwise from the top of the bowl, rest for 30 minutes and then repeat. Do this a total of six times over the course of two and a half hours until you reach a tight and smooth texture.
Step 7: Reward all your hard work with another relaxing break! Leave your dough to rise for 30-60 minutes. It won't look as large as traditional bread dough, but once it's looking a little puffier than it did before, you can start to divide it up.
Step 8: Sprinkle some flour onto your work surface and turn the dough out on top. Gently divide the dough in half to create two equal loaves. Be very careful you don't deflate the dough and ruin all your hard work! Softly, gently, catchy monkey and all that...
Step 9: More flour sprinkling (bet you can't wait to clean that up later!). Pop a light dusting of flour over each piece of dough and use a pastry scraper to create little rounds. This isn't the final shaping, but it will prep the dough to make your life easier a little later on.
Step 10: Give the dough another 20-30 minutes to rest. While it's resting, prepare two bread proofing baskets or mixing bowls, whatever you have handy, by lining them with clean kitchen towels. Cover them generously with flour, rubbing it all over the cloth to ensure each and every surface is coated in a generous amount (top tip: use more than you think, too much is never too much in this circumstance!).
Step 11: Almost there! Dust your rounds made in step 9 with flour and flip it over so the floured surface is against your worktop surface and the sticky, unfloured side of the dough is facing up. Shape the dough in the same way you folded it in step 6 by grabbing it at the sides and folding it over itself. Repeat with the right and left side. When folding the top, grab the bottom lip with your thumb and gently roll the dough over so that the floured side is facing up again. If it's not quite the shape you'd like, gently cup your palms around the dough to shape (think Patrick Swayze in Ghost, for reference!).
Step 12: Pop the dough into the lined mixing bowls or proving baskets and leave the dough to rise for three to four hours or overnight in the fridge.
Step 13: You're finally ready to bake! Preheat two Dutch ovens at a high heat (around 260 degrees Celsius). Once preheated, transfer your dough into the Dutch oven seam-side down and score the top surface of your loaves at a slight angle to create that distinctive bread score.
Step 14: Cover the dough with the lid and pop into your oven to bake for 20 minutes.
Once baked for 20 minutes at 260 degrees, reduce the heat to about 230 degrees and carry on baking for another 10 minutes.
After the 10 minute period, remove the lids and allow the bread to bake uncovered for anywhere between 25-50 minutes, until the bread turns a deep brown.
Step 15: Once you've achieved your desired colour and crispiness, remove the breads, allow to cool and tuck in!
Phew! All done - and nowhere near as tricky as you imagined we bet! Though making your own sourdough from home is a lengthy process, each step is far easier than it looks and, once you get stuck into your deliciously decadent loaf, you'll know it was all worth it!
Follow your favourite recipes to create hundreds of different variations of this wonderfully versatile bread for the whole family to enjoy. From pancakes to pizzas, hot cross buns, bagels and more, the possibilities are endless from here on out!
So, as the weather gets colder and the autumn nights draw in, why not try your hand at making some sourdough to stay cosy?