Nov 7, 2011

Sourdough, my third child

Now, this may seem an offensive title, given that we have two children, but by its fickle, living cultural nature the baking of sourdough bread is truly a kind of parent-child creative process. 

In this post I am going to walk you through how to bake that wonderful elusive being - artisan sourdough bread. I have included our recipe for wheat sourdough bread - just one variation that works here at our place with our flour, temperature, humidity, get the idea. 

Go natural - go sourdough
Sourdough is a living diverse culture. You do not buy this culture in a packet of yeast at the supermarket - you grow it yourself from scratch, or using a little of someone else's "mother". 

It is a nice metaphor for a small town in your kitchen - everyone different, working together, not rigidly consistent, handed on from one person to another, takes time to develop its own flavour, sometimes ailing and needing reinvigorating with new cultures (well, from the air in your home), thrives on rainwater and organic (or at the very least unbleached) flour . Wow - Mullumbimby is sourdough :)

Homeschool and baking sourdough
Apart from the Sonoma Miche slice shot below, all of the other bread shots were taken on a typical single baking event here at the Mansted Family Project. A day and a half full of all the other stuff a homeschooling family does, with just a little time taken here and there to feed the starter, or mix, or knead, or fold, or bake.

Make your own bread and save lots of dough
Pardon the pun, but bread is a family food that ticks all the do-it-yourself boxes. 

It has cheap ingredients but in its best form is expensive (and worth every single cent from the wonderful Sonoma and Bourke St bakeries in Sydney - the best bread I have ever tasted is at the first bakery, the Sonoma Miche shown here...

though my own bread would be my second-best tasting ever);
it is nutritious; 
all the family can be involved in the baking and eating; 

and it is a dying art that needs to be preserved, just like... well, preserving.

How I started with sourdough
Here is the way I make sourdough - well, I did until going gluten-free 3 months ago for auto-immune thyroid reasons (for me) and gut-achey head-achey grumpy reasons (for July). More of that in another post...

I am a person often described by others in social situations as a "baker", as in, leaning conspiratorially forward: "Tracey bakes". Not as a job, but for love (especially for birthday cakes). But I was underwhelmed by baking bread...until sourdough. It started with Sol Breads which, while rubbery and un-sour, were the best we could get in our country town. 

So I started looking for recipes. I found the Australian run Sourdough Companion, a wonderful site with blogs, forums, recipes. I got started with a commercially sold starter from baker Brett Noy purchased through Basic Ingredients

First, you need to get some culture
Sourdough is one of the superfoods - a fermented food. Until the horrors of commercial baking - preservatives, over-refined bleach flours, commercially bland mono-culture yeasts, plastic wrapped supermarket blandness - all bread was made this way. A baker would develop his starter (some in Europe are believed to be hundreds of years old) and by feeding it with flour and water the individual mix of natural yeasts present in the air and flour would develop a lovely sour sticky glutenous mess. Mmmm.

It is straightforward to start your own culture - see Sourdough Companion for detailed instructions, or indeed any good book on sourdough baking.

As always, buy some books!
Here are my favourites. "The Bread Builders" book is totally SD, right down to making your own oven. "Bourke St Bakery" has lots on SD and other recipes (love their miche by the way). "Bread" is an artisan bakers' bible with line drawings to highlight technical understanding. "Whole Grain Breads" is good too, with some interesting ideas and recipes around grains.

Good strong flour is crucial
In my SD baking years I have used a variety of flours from wholemeal organic stoneground, mixes including rye, to bread making flour from a supermarket. In these photos I am using a strong flour with about 12 % protein, from Laucke. You must absolutely avoid horrible bleached flours...yuck.

Equipment really helps
You could go really minimal here and just use what you already have, or as shown here, build up over time a good (read substantial!) kit.

Must Have:
Enough sourdough starter - look in your books or online to calculate.
Strong flour.
Sea salt finely ground.
Diastatic malt (optional but helpful).
Olive oil to grease the resting bowl after stretching.
You really should have an electronic scale to zero the weights as you add ingredients. 
Clean non-chlorinated water. 
Accurate measuring jugs. 
Silicone paper.
Time - using this method you need about 36 hours hours from taking your small starter out at 8pm on day 1 and building it up, through the kneading to shaping stages on day 2, then overnight retard in the fridge for baking on the morning of day 3 at say, 8am.

It would be good to have:
A flour scoop and flour shaker.
A dough blade for chunking dough ready for scaling and pre-shaping. 
A plastic bench scraper is great for the concrete that is dry dough. 
A sharp knife blade or lame for slashing loaves seconds before going into the oven - for good oven spring. 
Free-form loaves are lovely, but as I usually make 4 loaves in each batch I relish the convenience of a dough basket - a banneton (green plastic rising baskets that do not go into the oven and when dusted with flour give that characteristic artisanal look to the cooked crust).
A water spray bootle for misting bannetons to get that characteristic flour mix to stick to the plastic, and also to spray into the oven to keep humidity up and encourage a soft initial flexible crust that allows oven spring to occur. I use a paintbrush to flick a mix of rice flour, wheat flour and semolina onto the damp plastic bannetons.
A notebook to write down all of your observations, recipe notes, times etc. Sourdough is a great science experiment as you are dealing with live cultures, and seemingly tiny variables will have great effect.

Equipment not shown here:
An oven - preferably one you can use top and bottom elements without fan (have also used with great success a gas-fired BBQ with a hood and thermostat) .
A pizza stone or large terracotta tile that helps achieve oven-spring by stabilising the temperature drop as you open the door and put that big mass of cold dough in - preheat this for at least 45 minutes.
A shallow tin that sits on the shelf below your pizza stone that you will pour one half of a cup of boiling water into when you slide your loaf dough into the oven. Don't use your best one - it will buckle.
A pizza paddle to easily shift dough into the oven (I use silicone paper on the paddle to ensure an easy slide).
Kitchen timer.

Getting started - build your sponge
This is when you take your small amount of sponge (or mother) from the fridge and build it up by adding flour and water so it gets bigger. Don't forget to reserve some to go back in the fridge for the next batch.

Now build your dough
Here are our amounts for a four loaf batch. Just scale up or down as needed:

800 g wheat flour
800 mls water

800 grams activated sponge (also called starter)
360 mls water
24 g malt
43 g fine sea salt
1175 g wheat flour
more flour for dusting bench and hands
olive oil for bowl

First mix equal portions of flour and water together to autolyse in a bowl for 30 minutes or so (the first two on the above list). This helps soften the flour and prepares it for the second mix when you will mix your large amount of sponge with the autolysed flour and water, malt, salt, more flour, and water. 

It looks pretty horrible as you mix this altogether in the bowl, but we aren't aiming for smooth just yet. 

Rest for 5 minutes (you and the dough).

Dust your bench with flour, tip the lump of dough out onto the bench, scrape the bowl clean and oil the bowl lightly with the olive oil.

Need to knead
Set your kitchen timer for 5 minutes and knead it gently, until smooth. This may take up to 10 minutes though, so feel free to reset the timer for another 5. Put the dough back in the oiled bowl, and cover with a damp tea-towel.

Time to bulk proof the dough
Leave it to rest (actually, the gluten is really relaxing now and the culture is feeding) and come back in 30 minutes to lift the dough out, stretch and fold. Put back in the bowl and do the same thing in another 30 minutes. These wonderful photos from "Bourke Street Bakery" show the method...

Leave to rest for an additional 30 minutes (bulk proof takes 1 and a half hours all up) while you can prepare your bannetons if you use them, then come back to...

This is the step where you chunk the dough into loaf-size weighted portions if you are making more than one loaf. Once weighed out evenly, you do a pre-shape which is essentially stretching the dough once again into a round shape. Rest 20 minutes.

Final shape and retard
Now is the time to make round loaves round and ovals into...ovals! See these lovely drawings from Hamelman's book "Bread". There are also lots of kind people on you-tube who have put together video tutorials if you need some help...

The best method I have found to get a strong dough with lots of air-holes and that lovely sweet sourdough tang is to then retard them overnight in the fridge. To help with this, I put the final shaped loaf upside down (yes - smooth bit is down, bumpy join is visible from the top) into the dusted bannetons, slip a big plastic bag over the whole thing, peg the bag shut and pop into the fridge to develop some complexity.

Baking time at last
Ah - the moment we have all been waiting for! Preheat your oven (220 celsius, 425 F) with your shallow tray on the shelf below your pizza stone. At least double or even triple your usual pre-heat time. I tend to use the fan-free setting as it seems to get a better result with rising. Less drying of the crust initially I suspect.

Once the oven is at the right heat, get the kettle boiling. You will need a half cup of boiling water to pour into the tray beneath the pizza stone as you put each loaf in.

Take out of the fridge one of your dough loaves. It should have risen by at least a third and look soft and firm. Puffy and when poked leaves a finger mark? You may have over-proofed it...

Put silicone baking paper on the pizza paddle then up-turn your banneton (if using one) or just place your freehand dough loaf onto the paper. Slash the top with great gusto - don't be nervous - as a deep long slash allows the dough in the centre of the bread to expand upwards through the cut. 

Place the dough in the oven, sliding the paper onto the pizza stone, pouring your boiling water in the pan underneath, then turning your oven immediately down to 180 celsius/350 F.

Bread's in the oven - I can't wait!
Showtime! Hopefully you can peep through the glass and watch the miracle of oven spring ; ) 

I set the timer for 15 minutes and open the oven to turn the loaf around and remove the paper. The ovals shown here take 35 minutes (the round loaf takes 30) PLUS they all get another 10-15 minutes upside down back in the oven to brown and caramelise the soft whiteness of where the base has rested on the stone. To be clear, it takes some 45 minutes all up.

Think it is ready? Tap the base - if a soggy oosh, it needs longer. It should sound hollow.

Now do it all again with the next loaf - remembering to preheat up to 220 celsius/425 F again...

Finishing points
Cool on a rack and do_not_cut until cold. This is the most difficult thing to bear, but really do not cut it open as the sugars are still developing and lovely complex flavours are proceeding inside the steam within the crispy shell of crust.

Now eat it!
Sourdough is such a magnificent creature it is good fresh, toasted, plain or adorned. If you have any left, slice then freeze and spread the joy. 

My particular version of joy is home-made butter...

Now it's your turn
Have you had any sourdough adventures? Where did you eat your best bread ever? And the hot topic here - got a good gluten free sourdough recipe to share?

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