The Ultimate (??) Sourdough

Aware of the extreme difficulty of finding good bread in the UK, your breadhound set out, 5 years ago, to develop the ultimate sourdough. This is the result of his quest so far.

Here’s the recipe. Help! Prepare to duck! Also the disclaimer: there may be better sourdoughs around – in an earlier blog, I mentioned the E5 Bakery in Hackney. Quite possibly, there are others undiscovered, perhaps a quiet fireside sourdough made by a retiring pensioner in Worpleswick. Who knows?

Okay, enough blether.

In the Beginning, the Plug

For bread to be light and noticeably three-dimensional, it needs yeast. For most bread (and many sourdoughs), yeast is bought from a shop, usually dried. Not with this sourdough: you cultivate your own.

What gives this sourdough its oomph, is the plug (or levain, as the French call it). It takes 5 days to make; but don’t worry you only have to do it once.

  • Start with a flour that hasn’t been sprayed to death or crushed into tasteless pap. I use organic rye, but a whole grain wheat (if you can find such a thing) will do just as well.
  • Put about 300gms of your flour in a bowl and add water. Stir it and add more flour or water until you have a sludge the consistency of wet mud. I’ve never measured the precise amount of flour and water, but precision is not important at this stage. You’re aiming for something that is not as thick as potter’s clay and not as watery as broth: somewhere in the middle.
  • Cover it over and leave it. After a couple of days, it should start to bubble. Add in a little more rye and water and return it to its original consistency. Aim for a final weight of 500 gms but you don’t have to be precise.
  • Keep the mixture covered for a few more days and, if it smells beery and yeasty and is bubbling nicely, that’s the sign you’re on the right track.
  • You now have a plug. Time to start.

Ingredients

  • You’ll need 1kg of flour. Some of this should be a strong white, but use a mixture of flours to put different tastes and consistency into the bread. 50% can be strong white, and the rest something else. Try a spelt. Or there’s a wholegrain seeded bread flour from Sainsbury’s which is good. Experiment. The more strong white you have the better it will rise. The more interesting the flours, the more interesting the taste. All you have to be exact about is the weight. Exactly 1 kg please; but what it’s composed of doesn’t matter.
  • Mix all the flours together with your hands and add the plug. Work it into a crumbly sort of a mixture. You are just trying to get it all mixed together.
  • Add a teaspoon of malt. This enriches the flavour and feeds the yeasts.
  • Now add 700 grams (70%) of water. Exactly 700 grams. Use electric scales if you have them. Accuracy matters here. Find a weapon and stir all this together.

Mixing (aka kneading)

  • This dough is wet (but as we bakers say, so I’m told, ‘wetter is better’.) You can knead it by hand (though I don’t recommend it): in which case you’ll have to keep flouring your hands and your kneading surface to stop it sticking. Or you could try creaming your hands with olive oil. I’m told this works, though I haven’t tried it myself. (If you use flour, be careful that you don’t end up adding so much flour that you change the percentages.)
  • I use a mixing machine. At first, it felt like a cheat, but it just takes all the hassle out of it. I bought an Andrew James Stand Mixer a year or so ago because it was half the price of all the others around (c. £80) – it’s still going strong.
  • Mix the dough slowly in the machine for about 5 minutes until you have a pliable dough.
  • Remove 500gms and cover it. This is the plug for your next loaf. (If you are going to bake within a week, keep it in the fridge. If longer, put it in the deepfreeze.)
  • Add 20 to 30gms of salt to taste. Do not add salt until you have removed the new plug. (Salt will stop – or at least not help – the new plug from fermenting.)
  • Run the mixer for another 15 minutes or so until you have a fairly springy dough.

Fermenting 

  • Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and cut it in half.
  • Put each half into a wicker basket lined with a tea towel. Make sure to first dust the tea towels with flour (rice flour is best but any flour is okay) to stop the dough sticking to them. Cover over with a damp cloth.
  • You now need to leave the dough balls to rise slowly so they develop the wonderful subtle flavours that only sourdough is capable of. The longer you leave them the better – up to a point. Keep them waiting too long and, instead of rising slowly, they will start to fall in on themselves. I’ve found that putting them in a fridge for 12 hours overnight works well.
  • Bring them out of the cold and leave them at room temperature for a further 5 or 6 hours until they come back to life.

Baking

  • Turn out the dough balls onto a lightly floured, flat baking tray and shape them. I go for round but any shape is fine.
  • Heat the oven as hot as it will go. Mine goes up to 275 degrees. Put an iron skillet on the bottom of the oven.
  • Gently reshape the loaves. Score the loaves (a deep cut down the middle) and dust with a little flour for decoration if you are so inclined.
  • When oven and skillet are hot, put the baking tray in the middle of the oven. Throw some ice cubes into the iron skillet. These will steam. The steam keeps the crust soft for a while and this helps the bread to expand.
  • Remove the loaves after 30 minutes.
  • Leave to stand on a grid so that air can get under them for at least one hour.
  • Devour.