If you are going to make your own bread on a regular basis, the method has to fit in with your lifestyle and the time you have, and the type of bread has to be one that you and your household enjoy eating.
Sourdough freezes really well, so I usually make two loaves at least in one go. It’s more economic on the oven as well. Rolls and small breads can be made out of the same dough as the big loaves and defrost quicker for lunches. Soda breads, the fastest to prepare are best eaten fresh on the same day you bake them. Don’t get hung up on sourdough if you don’t have time for it in your life right now but do have a go at baking other sorts of bread: home made soda breads, pitta, naan, all done pretty quickly and so much better than most breads you can buy. Brioche is a classic bread that you can prepare the day before and bake on a weekend morning and it’s delicious!
I have squished this into a 4 sheet .pdf which you can download here : → Weekly sourdough pdf
Sourdough Starter Thoughts
Feed, discard and keep it small. Lots of people successfully get a starter going and then forget it in the back of the fridge for several months. This seems to be quite common.
However if you do have a good starter and you know that you want to bake with it in the future, either dry some, freeze it or feed it once a week. I prefer to feed once a week as it doesn’t take long and the cost of 50 g of fresh flour is one that I am prepared to pay to keep my starter healthy and well fed. If you really don’t feel happy about discarding starter, then make pancakes or waffles with the little bit of old ferment, or just add it into any other dough you are making.
Drying sourdough is a useful back up and you can do it by spreading a couple of dollops of active sourdough out on a piece of baking parchment, leaving to dry for a few days and then crumbling up and storing in an airtight bag. Don’t forget to label it!
If you keep your starter fairly small when you are not using it then you won’t feel that you are wasting very much. You can keep even less going than I do. Some bakers only keep 50 g of starter on standby. Why refresh it when you are not going to use it? To give you an analogy – you wouldn’t want to sit around in your old underwear for months at a time, it would make you feel grumpy and not terribly enthusiastic about going to a party at short notice either.
By refreshing once a week I am never more than 36 hours away from baking true sourdough. I’ve uploaded a little film of some of my starter to share with you here on Flickr.
This is a fairly liquid starter (125 g/ml water to 100 g flour) but you can see that it is quite thick and elastic looking and it is full of bubble-rich activity. If it gets too watery and sloppy and doesn’t cohere at all, then the gluten has been destroyed by the yeasts and bacteria and it has gone too far and become too acidic, to make good bread with and you need to take a little and re-feed and wait.
I allow the starter at least 16 – 24 hours and two feeds to get back up to strength if it hasn’t seen action for more than five days.
You can of course, bake starting in the morning and finishing in the evening and not retard the bread at all, but it can take up to nine hours and the method detailed below is for people who are not at home on and off through the day.
Thursday Evening for Saturday Morning Bread
By starting on a Thursday evening I am ready to bake my bread on Saturday morning. I can switch the process around so I have a morning start instead bake towards the end of the day. The trick is to work backwards by 36 hours from when you want to bake.
I take the starter out of the fridge on Thursday evening.
First refresh :
I take 25 grams from the pot ( a dessert spoonful) and put it in a clean small bowl. I then add 50 grams of water and 50 grams of flour to it. Give it a stir. Cover and leave it.
Second refresh and final starter preparation:
On Friday morning I take 50 grams of this and make a new mixture in a separate bowl. This is the one that will go in the final dough.
- 50 g starter
- 200 g bread flour
- 250 g room temperature water
Mix and leave until it has doubled in size and has distinct bubbles in it. It helps to use a straight sided container if you are not sure of your ability to judge when the sourdough is at its perkiest. You can use it when it has passed its peak but in an ideal world use it at the top if you can.
Usually mine is ready by about 6 pm. Depends on how early I got up of course!
This will give me 500 grams of starter. I always refeed the pot I keep in the fridge separately that way there is no risk of using it all up by mistake in a dough. I put back 25 g happy re-fed starter (from the first feed) on Friday morning with 50 g water and 60 -70 g flour in the pot ( edit : emptied out of old starter). The reason for more flour is that it simply gives the yeasts and bacteria more food to nibble on while they are waiting to bake again.
Friday Evening – The final dough
I mix the following ingredients together thoroughly so that there is no flour left visible but I don’t do any kneading at this stage.
- 500 g starter
- 400 g room temperature water (20 C or as close as possible)
- 650 g wheat bread flour (if you want big holes and big rise use some very strong flour in this – maybe a ratio of 450g bread flour to 200 g very strong)
- 150 g rye flour, spelt, or wholemeal flour for flavour and crust colour
After half an hour to an hour I tip the rough mix out onto a lightly oiled board and pat and stretch it out and sprinkle over
- 20 g salt (you can use less if you prefer)
over the surface, and then I gently knead that in to the dough for maybe a minute or two. Then I put it back into a clean and lightly oiled bowl.
An hour after mixing and adding the salt, tip the whole lot out onto a lightly oiled board. Do a little gentle stretching and folding of the dough and make into a smooth round ball. This takes less than a minute to do. You should see a few bubbles appearing in the dough at this point but not that many. If stretching and folding is new to you then basically what you do is pat the dough out into a large rectangle, divide it by eye into three and then stretch it out a bit more and fold as you would an A4 piece of paper going into a narrow envelope.
Place the ball of dough in an oiled bowl and then place a piece of clingfilm directly over the top of the dough itself and try and get any airbubbles out. Place a second piece of clingflim over the top of the bowl and put the whole bowl in the fridge.
This only applies if you are putting the dough in the fridge overnight like I do at this relatively early stage in the process. If you are keeping your dough out then just cover the bowl with a cloth or a shower cap.
If you don’t protect the surface of the dough like this you find the dough will discolour and might go a bit hard on top.
Saturday Morning – Bake
The following day, take the dough out as soon as you get up. Once it has warmed up a bit (it will still feel cool to the touch) divide it into two parts and on a floured board, preshape it into two boules. Leave for 15 minutes and reshape more tightly, use just enough flour to stop the boules sticking to your hands. Lightly flour two baskets with rye flour, put the boules into these upside down. Leave to prove for another two or three hours. We used to be told to leave the dough to double in size, but now the advice from Dan Lepard is to leave until it has risen by about a half. That way you get a better oven spring effect and the risk of having overproved bread is reduced.
Testing the dough for readiness to bake : The finger poke test isn’t that useful, though it doesn’t do any harm. If the dough feels very bouncy and rebounds when you poke it then it can be left a little longer to prove. If however the dent doesn’t come back then you should be thinking about baking fairly quickly. You should be able to see that it has grown and usually the dough feels soft to the touch and you can feel the bubbles moving if you press gently. Sometimes I sniff the dough and that gives me a clue as to what it is up to – you are looking for a ripe slightly acidic smell, something like warmed yoghurt mixed with an overripe apple. Sourdough doesn’t smell like commercial yeast. Yours might smell a bit cheesy or beery, that is all right too. Over time the smells will build up into a ‘library’ in your head and you will recognise the distinctive perfumes of your particular sourdough.
Heat the oven to 220 º - 230º C (200º C Fan) if your oven goes that high. If you have a stone then put it in at the beginning of this process. I use a potters kiln shelf as my ‘oven stone’ it is cheaper than granite and the one I have has lasted me for over two years now. It takes maybe 30 – 40 minutes to heat up. Edit: Please see my reply to Jo H about using fan ovens.
Remember to put a little metal tray in the bottom of the oven so that you can have a go at creating steam in there. The steam is important in the first part of the bake as it helps the top to stay soft just long enough while the wild yeasts inside the loaf are doing their final gas production while they heat up and ultimately die. Modern ovens see it as their job to get rid of steam, so it is a fight between you and the oven to keep the steam in there long enough to do its job. I use boiling water always which I put in the hot tray once the dough has gone in the oven. You can pre-steam the oven, but I find it all comes out when I open the door to put the dough in so have given up doing that.
Sprinkle fine semolina on the dough in the basket. Then tip it out onto the back of a tray or a peel if you have one. The semolina will help it to slide into the oven and not stick to the peel. You can also put a piece of baking parchment on your peel and slide the bread into the oven on that, removing the paper once the bread has set.
Slashing the dough
Have a small glass of water next to you while you slash the dough. These size boules can easily take a slash that is 1/4 to 1/2 an inch deep. The slash helps you to avoid the loaf bursting in erratic places and is used decoratively also. I wrote a bit more about slashing here in an earlier post and again here. Don’t get too hung up about it, it takes practice, mine come out very oddly sometimes, but I like them anyway! You can dip the knife or blade in the water between slashes if you find the dough is sticking or dragging. If you lightly dust flour over the top of the loaf (before you start slashing) that will also help to create a contrasting pattern on the top of the baked loaf.
Try and be decisive about your slashes, and keep them as even in depth as you can. Angle the blade slightly to slit the ‘skin’ of the dough and the slashes will open more elegantly.
Edit: I have been asked to show how to do the slash pattern for the one in the top picture so I have added a little post here with a diagram and some extra photos from when I baked these loaves.
Once the loaf is fully sprung and taking on colour, you can open the door for about ten seconds or so to let the steam out and you can turn the temperature down to about 200 º C. (180º C Fan) Usually it takes my loaves about ten to fifteen minutes to get to this stage. If you forget to turn it down, then you will have a very beautiful deep russet crust and it is not a catastrophe by any means.
Bake the loaf (mine are around 850 grams each) for about 45 – 50 minutes in total. Tap the bottom to see if they are done, you are listening for a really hollow, slghtly echoey sound, not just a dull thud. Heft the boule in your hand and try and feel whether it feels light enough for its size, if in any doubt, put it back in the oven for another eight minutes or so. You can also weigh the loaf, it should lose about 10% of its original weight in the process of the bake, and if you have a probe thermometer you can use that, looking for a core temp of 92 º C, but I still find that holding the loaf in my hand is the best way for me to judge whether it is cooked enough for my taste.
When you are happy it’s fully baked take it out and leave to cool completely before slicing. If you want to freeze one of them for later in the week, this is what I do: once the loaf is completely cool and as soon after that as possible, I wrap it in paper, the sort you can get from moving companies in a big pack. Then I stick a label on it and wrap it a second time in cling film. That way the label stays put in the freezer and the extra layer of paper protects the loaf from freezer burn and, when you are defrosting the loaf, it absorbs any odd bits of water that might be present.
If you want to bake early in the morning, then do the following, just stay up a bit later on Friday evening and allow the dough to prove in a warm spot. Shape the dough into two tight boules before going to bed and put them into floured baskets, seam side upmost, to prove slowly in the fridge overnight.
The dough will need to be fairly well into its first prove, showing good signs of aeration throughout in order for this to work. It should look something like this if you cut into it.
Protect the boules in their baskets in the fridge by loosely wrapping them in teatowels or something like that.
In the morning heat the oven up first thing and take the boules out of the fridge and bake them from cold. Allow a bit longer for them to bake if doing this, another five to ten minutes and make sure there’s plenty of steam in the oven. Maybe also spray the tops of the loaves with some water as well.