The Sourdough Chronicles

In October 1995 I ate at Chez Panisse, Alice Water’s quietly lovely restaurant in Berkeley, California. It was a huge deal. The dinner was a thank you to my friend John for putting me up at his apartment for a while and was, to be honest, more than I could afford to spend. As we sat down and were handed our menu – decorated with a watercolour of radishes by Patricia Curtan – a basket of bread was set down on the table. Exhausted from a day spent walking San Francisco, we pounced.

I had never eaten bread quite like it. The crust was dark, almost black, the crumb was filled with huge air pockets. It was chewy, and deliciously so. Embarrassingly, we finished the entire basket even before we had finished our drinks. (We were young and hungry.) In a heartbeat, our empty basket was silently replaced with a full one. I don’t always remember restaurant meals, even those I had last week, but this one – roasted figs and mozzarella, a seafood stew with almonds, sweet peppers and aioli and a hot tangerine crème brûlée, I doubt I shall ever forget. (I use their salad dressing recipe to this day.)

That was my introduction to sourdough bread. There was probably no better place to eat it at that moment. The sourdough I knew from Paris was unremarkable (in truth, it tasted like a bit of old cake). This San Francisco sourdough was something completely different.

Good sourdough can still fill me with sheer, unbridled greed. I am not bored with it the way others are. I thank my lucky stars that it is here and bow to all those bakers who have mastered it. But it has to be said that there is a lot of poorly made sourdough around. The crust is weak, the baking timid, the inside spongey and dry.

Hobby baking really took off after we got hooked on the Great British Bake Off, and again, when we found ourselves in the midst of a pandemic. Home-made bread is both comfort and cure.

During the pandemic of 2020 sourdough became ‘a thing’. I’m not sure why, but suddenly the internet was a bubble with pictures of starters – the jars of fermenting flour and water paste that makes a sourdough loaf rise. Giles Cooper, who played the young me in the stage production of Toast, left a glass jar of his own starter on my doorstep. I made my first loaf, and with the encouragement of other kindred spirits, I kept on making them. Close friends started sending each other pictures of our latest bakes – for me, a Saturday morning thing - just as others post photographs of their children or their cats. We compared notes, sent ecstatic emojis applauding one another’s handiwork and generally enthused and commiserated as seemed appropriate. Some loaves were (and still are) better than others, some make me proud, some make me feel like a total failure but either makes great toast.

And whilst there must be a million sleeping sourdough starters at the back of the country’s fridges, it is a habit that many have continued since life returned to near normal. And yes, my starter has a name. (Erik, since you’re asking.)

I include my sourdough story here only because I probably get more enjoyment from making a good loaf than almost any other form of cooking and suspect that others might too. It’s a bit geeky, an up and down time for the emotions (you feel like weeping when your first starter dies) but let me assure you that it is immensely, insanely, rewarding when it works.

 

A Sourdough Diary 

The first day

Weighed 100g of strong, white bread flour and 100g of lukewarm water then stirred them together in a sticky white paste in a white china bowl. Slipped the bowl inside a heavy duty, open freezer bag (I wouldn’t normally have these in the house, but they work better than covering the dough with a tea cloth because they encourage the essential humidity for the flour to ferment) then left it, the mouth of the bag gaping, in the laundry room. The location chosen for its warm, slightly humid quality. Failing that I would probably have chosen a window ledge above a radiator.

The second day

Nothing much happening. The dough has softened enough that it can be poured, all be it slowly, from the bowl, and the smell is simply that of slightly porridge-like, wet flour. Not a trace of sour or ferment. Doubts are setting in.  Am I just being impatient?

The third day

The starter has risen, the surface has a thin crust, and the smell is that of an untoasted crumpet. Below the surface there are bubbles and a sticky, ivory coloured goo. It seems alive. I remove 30g of it, put it into a clean bowl, then stir in 100g of lukewarm water and 100g of strong white bread flour. The bowl and resulting paste are returned to its clean cloth and its warm home. I have a good feeling about this one.

The fourth day

A bit of a quandary. The mixture is certainly alive and kicking. Bubbles are breaking the surface, even bursting as I watch. What concerns me is the smell, which has a faint note of Parmesan. Some online research suggests I should chuck it and start again. Others suggest it is as it should be at this point. The smell will sweeten once I start feeding it regularly. So lively is it that I can’t bear to throw it away. So once again I feed it, taking 30g of the starter (discarding the rest) and stirring in 100g each of strong white flour and water. This time I use bottled water, as some online suggestions say it will help. I lightly cover it and put it back in its safe place, the bag, as always, open.

The fifth day

Much jubilation this morning at the sight of a frothing starter. The whole bowl seems to be fizzing sand bubbling and smells yeasty, but not particularly sour. Once again, I feed it, by mixing 30g of starter with 100g each of flour and water and return it to its warm place.

The sixth day

The starter is looking rather different now - a whole lot more alive. There is thin crust, but beneath the surface the dough is stretchy and bubbly. I remove 30g of it, stir it onto 100g each of warm water and white bread flour, then transfer it to a storage jar. I leave it out overnight, then loosely cover it and keep it in the fridge till the day before I need it. And that is it. A jar of bubbly, yeasty sourdough starter. A little pot of opportunity and joy.

A few points I feel worth mentioning.

Not every starter succeeds. Be prepared to try more than once.

At first, you will need to discard quite a bit of your starter each day. It is worth remembering, as you pour it down the sink, it is only a bit of flour and water.

Every starter is different and some are stronger and more active than others.

If you can’t be bothered to make a starter from scratch, buy one online or beg some from a geeky baking friend. There’s always one.

Your jar of yeasty bubbles will keep in the fridge for weeks. Especially if given the occasional feed and a while out of the fridge. (I feed Erik once a fortnight, leave him out overnight then pop him back in the cold once he’s active again.)

If it doesn’t rise and bubble when removed from the fridge, then it has probably passed away, and you should pour it down the sink.

Oh and by the way, raw bread dough is the death to washing up brushes. Don’t use your best hand-made wooden brushes to clean starter or dough bowls. Soak everything in warm soapy water over night, pour it away, then wash the bowl with wet kitchen wipes to remove any dough before scrubbing or putting through the dishwasher as usual.

I owe much to Nicola Lamb for my sourdough bread. My recipe is based on the recipe she gave me. I was sceptical about the logistics at first and true, you do need to be at home for most of the day, as you need to tend to the dough every half hour. That said – and this is one of the joys of making sourdough – I have found it fits easily into the rhythm of an ‘at-home’ day. I just have to be sure to pick the right days on which to make it.

For one large loaf

First stage: 
sourdough starter   100gstrong white flour   550g
warm water   350g 

 

Second stage: 
sea salt   10gwarm water   30g

The night before you plan to bake, remove the starter from the fridge, leave it, loosely covered in a warm, but not hot, place.

Weigh 100g of the starter into a mixing bowl then pour in 350g of warm water. Stir until the starter has more or less dissolved then stir in the flour. Don’t knead. Just cover with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place.

Dissolve the salt in the warm water, then pour over the dough and squish everything together with your hands. Wipe a little oil round the inside of a second, large bowl, then transfer the dough to it. Cover and set aside in a warm place for an hour.

Now there are many, many ways of incorporating air into your dough, but this is the way I do it. Place the dough on a very lightly floured board and gently pull it into a rectangle about 30cm x 18cm. (The measurements are only a rough guide, there is nothing crucial about this.) Now, with the short end facing you, fold the dough into three, (I fold the top third down first, and then the bottom third over that.) Now give the dough one quarter turn (as if you were turning it from 12 o’clock to 3 o’clock), tease it into a rectangle again, then, with the short side facing you, fold into 3 once more. Give it another quarter turn (as it you were turning it from 3 o’clock to 6.) Do this twice more, stretching, folding and turning once quarter turn each time. Be gentle, don’t knead or tug the dough. You are simply trapping air between the folds.

Put the dough back in its oiled bowl then cover and leave for a further 30 minutes, then repeat all over again. Stretch, fold, turn and so on. Do this, every half hour for a further five times. Now, put the covered bowl of dough into the fridge and say goodnight.

Bring the dough from the fridge and turn out onto a lightly floured board. Shape into neat ball and put it back in the oiled bowl, then leave it for an hour.

Set the oven at 230C. Place a cast iron casserole and its lid in the oven. Once the oven is up to temperature, very carefully (with good thick oven gloves, not a folded tea towel!) remove the pot from the oven, lift off the lid, and tip the dough from its bowl into the pot. Cover with the lid and place the pot back in the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the lid and continue baking for a further 20 minutes.

Remove the pot from the oven, tip the loaf out onto a cooling rack and leave to cool for at least 45 minutes before cutting. And I know it is tempting to cut a slice off while the loaf is still hot, but the loaf hasn’t finishing baking until it has rested. Much magic happens during the resting period and we must leave it to happen.

*This recipe is an excerpt from Nigel Slater's A Cook's Book.

 

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A Cook’s Book

From the first jam tart Nigel made with his mum standing on a chair trying to reach the Aga, through to what he is cooking now, this is the ultimate Nigel Slater collection brimming with over 200 recipes. Chapters include—a slice of tart, a chicken in the pot, everyday greens, the solace of soup and the ritual of tea.

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