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by Jack Lang (jackal10)
Dan Lepard, for inspiration and and contribution.
Charles Lang, whose hands are in the photographs.
Brendel Lang for the painting.
The Members of the eGCI team for considerable labour and expertise.
Samuel Lloyd Kinsey (slkinsey) my fellow instructor.
Jill Grey, my partner, for putting up with the mess.
The object of this lesson is to teach you to bake better bread— bread that will be the envy of your non-baking friends—bread so good that people will wonder where it came from!
The recipe is archived here.
Why sourdough? Because it tastes better. This is the real stuff; not some machine-made pap. You will make bread you just can’t stop eating, and that will spoil you for mass-produced bought bread. Once you have mastered basic white bread, you (or we) can go on to whatever variations you like or request. This is daily bread, fragrant with tastes of the yeast and the grain, and with a crisp crackling crust. Perfect on its own, or with good butter, or jam, or cheese and maybe a ripe tomato. It keeps (in a paper bag, not in the fridge) for close to a week, although you may need to toast it toward the end of the week. Toasted it makes magnificent bruschetta. You can bake weekly, or less often as the bread freezes well.
This recipe and technique may seem straightforward, but it contains the results of years of experimentation and optimisation. We’ll make plain, white bread. Once you have mastered that, you can go on to fancier loaves. However (unless you really need the bran) you will come back to this basic bread just because it is so good and so pure.
Bread comes in many shapes.
English bread shapes
European bread shapes
This lesson will teach the basic French boule or flattened ball shape. We will also look at baguettes. But you can make any shape you fancy. The same dough works well in a tin, too.
You can find more technical details regarding the history of sourdough bread and the composition of the starter by clicking this link. Reading this background history and science is not essential, but very helpful. It will give some insight into why as well as the how.
Where to get your starter
You basically have three options –
1. Buy a starter off the web or from a local artisanal bakery. One place is here.
2. Order the eGullet starter.
You can obtain the special egullet starter by sending a PM to jackal10 with your snail-mail address. The starter will be sent out free, although the cost of the starter and postage is about $10. Please donate at least that much to your favourite charity, and we would appreciate it if you could include the name of the charity and the amount in your PM.
Your egullet starter was collected originally in the vineyards of California, but has travelled extensively since. It produces a light, mild bread. When it arrives, it will look like raw dough in a plastic bag
How your starter will look when you unpack it.
You can leave it in the fridge until you are ready, or better, turn it into your own starter. To do this, add one cup of flour and 1 cup of water and mix to a smooth batter. You can do this by hand or in a food processor. Put the batter into a basin, cover and leave in a warm (80-85F/27-29C) place for 4-8 hours, or until you see bubbles on the surface. Ideally refresh it a couple of times, and you are ready. You can store the starter in a jar in the fridge.
3. Make your own.
You can make your own starter and harvest the local wild yeasts with some patience. The key is the remarkable stability of the yeast-lacto bacillus pairing. If you keep almost any fermentable mixture of flour and water at about the right temperature, and when it begins to bubble, feed (refresh) it regularly, you will get the right bugs.
Some people add grapes with bloom on them (yeasts live on the surface), rye (high in enzymes), or other things, but that is mostly superstition.
How to roll your own starter
a) Mix 1 cup flour and 1 cup water to a smooth batter.
b) Cover and leave in a warm (85F/29C) place until it starts to bubble (12 hours or so but it can take several days). Don’t worry about off smells or colours at this stage. Skim any obvious muck.
c) Refresh it by adding another ½ cup of flour and ½ cup of water and stir. If the volume gets too much for your container, throw some away. Cover the rest and put it back into a warm place.
d) Repeat the last step for 4 times at 8-12 hour intervals. The starter should be active, and smell wholesome.
Starters can be kept in a closed jar in the refrigerator for months. They may separate into two layers, but just stir them together before use. They will, of course, keep best if used and refreshed regularly. If the starter seems sluggish, refresh it a couple of times (step c above) before use.
Starter doesn’t freeze well, but can be dried for a reserve supply. If you need to ship it, make some into a lasagna sheet, or stiff dough.
For best results always use the same flour, so the bugs can get used to it. Some people keep separate starters for white, rye and for wholemeal (whole wheat). I use white unbleached flour, which has added Vitamin C as an improver. As mentioned above, if your flour does not already have Vitamin C in it, you can add 1/2tsp Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid) but it is not critical.
Recovering a sick starter
If your starter smells off (cheesy or of peardrops), or has gone sluggish you can recover it by following the procedure for a new starter above, but inoculate the initial flour and water mix with a tablespoon or two of the old starter.
A typical bread-making timetable is
09:00: Refresh starter
- Starter ferments -
13:00: Make dough
13:15: Dough kneaded (by hand)
13:45: Add Salt
14:00 Finished dough
- Bulk fermentation-
-Retard overnight –
Pre-heat oven, and bake for 40 minutes.
Ingredients for 1 loaf or four baguettes.
To refresh the starter:
1 c sourdough starter
1 c Strong white bread flour
1 c water
For the dough:
1 c refreshed sourdough starter
3 c Strong white bread flour.
1 c water (you may need more -- see below)
2 tsp salt
The dough in the illustration is ordinary unbleached supermarket (Tesco) strong white bread flour, 11.7g protein, with ½ cup of spelt flour added for flavour. This supermarket adds Vitamin C and amalyse to their bread flour. Different flours may adsorb different amounts of water. This flour needs a bit more water. The object is to make a very soft dough -- one that has only just stopped being a batter and just holds together.
Sourdough Bread Instructions
A. Refresh the Starter
1. Mix together 1 cup starter, 1 cup strong flour and 1 cup of water. It should be the consistency of very thick cream.
Starter just mixed.
3. Cover, and allow to stand in a warm (85F/29C) place for 4 hours.
Starter after 4 hours.
After 4 hours or so, it should be bubbly. Temperature is fairly critical, as discussed above. Any hotter than 85F/29C and you start to kill the yeast; any colder and it will not be as sour and will take longer to rise.
What we are making here is a sponge starter or poolish. Starters (pre-ferments) can be roughly divided by hydration into wet, batter-like pre-ferments, often called poolish from their origin and dry, dough-like pre-ferments, often called biga, as the technique is typical of Italian bread. Some bakers call a poolish a sponge; others use sponge to refer to all pre-ferments.
B. Make the Dough
Assemble Ingredients as listed above.
The storage jar with the rest of the starter is at the back right, ready to go back into the fridge for next time.
The easiest way is to whizz together refreshed starter, flour and water (but not the salt yet) in a food processor for 20 sec.
Alternatively mix them in a large bowl:
Ready to mix
Dough after mixing.
Should make a softish dough. The wetter the dough the bigger the holes in the final bread. Different flours need different amounts of water – add more water or flour to get the right consistency. You may need to add up to another ½ cup of flour so that it just stops being a batter and holds together as a dough. On the other hand if it is too stiff then add more water. Plenty of loose flour will stop it sticking too much.
If you are making the dough by hand then knead for 10 minutes by the clock.
Be rough with it. Lose your temper with it. Take out your frustrations on it. Slam it about. When it is properly kneaded it should feel resilient to the touch. It has been described as feeling like an earlobe, but I describe it like feeling a soft breast or buttock. You should be able to take a pinch of dough and stretch it so thin you can see through it – called the “windowpane test”.
When kneaded the dough will stretch without breaking
You cannot over-knead by hand. It is possible (but quite difficult) to over-knead if you are using a mixer or a food processor, as the dough can get too hot, and if worked too long and hard the gluten will begin to break down.
Gather it together, and wipe a little oil over the surface to stop it sticking, cover it and leave it in a warm place for 30 mins.
This pause, before the salt is added, is for several reasons:
- It lets the enzymes do their stuff. They begin breaking down starches into sugars to feed the yeast to make a better crust colour. Salt tends to retard this reaction.
- It lets the dough (and you) rest and relax after the exertions of kneading.
- It allows the flour to complete its hydration, High levels of salt can interfere with this.
- It allows time for you to prepare your “banneton” to receive the finished dough. See Preparing Your Banneton below.
After 30 mins add the salt and whiz for another 20 sec, or knead for another 10 mins. Oil, cover, and leave for 2 hours or so in a warm (85F/29C) place. The exact time is not critical – anything from about 90 minutes to 3 hours will work. Temperature is more critical than time.
The dough will have expanded a bit. Don’t worry about whether it has doubled or not. A lot of nonsense is written in some cookbooks, resulting in much overproved dough. The dough will also have got a bit softer and wetter.
Turn out onto a floured board.
Dusting the board with flour
Now handle gently - don't knock all the air out. The time for rough handling is over. Take the sides and fold to the centre.
Folding the dough
Folding the dough like this (you can also fold top to bottom as well) gently stretches the gluten and the bubbles forming in the bread. Dan Lepard's technique for his wonderful bread is to repeat this folding operation every hour for up to 5 hours during an extended bulk fermentation phase, resting the dough between times. When the dough is ready for shaping bubbles are clearly visible if you cut a small slit
in the top of the dough with a sharp knife.
Turn the dough over and shape into a ball. As you shape it try and stretch the surface a bit so it is taut.
Shaping the dough
Put it upside down (on its stretched, taut surface) into a cloth lined basket (called a banneton). The top of the dough in the banneton will be the bottom of the finished loaf.
Preparing Your Banneton
Traditionally, bannetons are made of cane or wicker, lined with linen, but you can improvise from a basin or a basket and a tea-towel or a piece of muslin. Ideally they are porous, so the outside dries slightly to help in crust development.
Dough in the banneton
Don’t worry if the top surface of the dough in the banneton is uneven: it will even itself out. Put into the fridge, covered with a cloth, overnight.
In the fridge
The dough is soft and needs the support of the basket. You could bake it after letting it rise for a hour or so, but its easier to handle, and gives a better crust if you keep it in the fridge (retardation) for between 8 and 24 hours. The cold will practically stop the fermentation, and so timing is not critical, and it gives you back control in that you can bake the dough when you want, rather than when the fermentation dictates.
I’m lucky enough to have a brick bread oven that has a brick floor that holds the heat. The shell of this one I imported from France, from a company called Four Grandmere. If you are inspired to build your own, Dan Wing’s and Tom Jaine’s books are given in the references
Inside the oven
You can approximate a similar environment in a domestic oven by putting a pizza stone or a layer of quarry tiles or engineering bricks on the lowest shelf to provide bottom heat.
You are aiming for 440F/230C or even 500F/260C, as hot as most domestic ovens can manage. Heat the oven at least an hour before you want to bake to allow time to stabilise, and for the heat to soak into the tiles or equivalent. (If you have a wood fired oven you will need to light the fire about four hours before baking.)
My oven heating up
If you have an oven thermometer, check the temperature of the oven. You are strongly advised to do this as oven thermostats are surprisingly inaccurate.
When ready to bake, take the dough out of the fridge. Some advise letting the dough return to room temperature --a couple of hours or so, but I find I it better and easier to cook these very soft doughs straight from the fridge. The cold dough is stiffer, handles easier and spreads less.
The dough from the fridge
Again, don’t worry that it does not seem to have expanded much. Most of the expansion will be in the oven (called oven-spring). This will result in a lighter and better-shaped loaf than if the expansion is from proofing when some of the gas may leak out.
When ready to bake, turn the dough out onto a baking sheet and remove the cloth. (For the wood fired oven we use a peel, lightly dusted with dry polenta meal so the dough does not stick.)
Slash the top firmly with a very sharp knife. Professional bakers use a razor blade on a stick, called a “lame”. Slash quickly and decisively – it is a slash not a cut. Don’t mess the dough about. Spray the knife blade with cooking spray to prevent it from tearing the dough.
The slashes allow the dough to rise in a defined way, and lessen the resistance to expansion by making weak points in the crust. In ancient times the pattern of slashes identified whose bread it was in the communal oven.
Here a slightly careless slash has caught the dough on one side, so the finished loaf will be a bit uneven and rustic.
Into the oven:
20 minutes later, and halfway through the bake. Most of the expansion has happened. Our loaf is the one on the left.
The pattern on the rye bread on the front right is created by using a banneton made from coiled cane. No cloth is used in that sort of banneton. Bannetons can be obtained from any good baking supplier. The ones shown come from Four Grandmere and the San Francisco Baking Institute.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until it is a good colour. You might need to rotate it after 30 mins.
Let the bread cool to warm before you slice it. Hard to resist the temptation to slice into the loaf too soon, but it needs time to finish cooking and for the structure to firm up as it cools.
I like an open texture, as it gives more room for the butter. The crust is a little thick as the bread was slightly over baked.
That completes the basic bread lesson.
Variations on the basic recipe/technique
I’d advise practicing plain white bread before trying variations. When you get that right you can get fancier. You might not get it completely to your satisfaction the first time, but as you go on your baking will improve. There are infinite variations possible.
My brother prefers a flour dusted crust. These were the other loaves in the bake:
To get this effect, lightly dust the banneton and the top of the dough with flour before putting in the dough.
The legs in the top of the picture are my sister-in-law, painting the scene. I’m the one sitting down; my brother is loading the oven.
The dough is slashed in a feather pattern. To achieve this, make alternate slashes from each side of the loaf to just over halfway across. This pattern was tought to us by Ian Duffy, then of the San Fransisco Baking Institute.
This is a loaf with 25% rye flour.
For a shiny, thinner crust, put an empty pan in the bottom of the oven and pour a cup of boiling water into it after you have put the bread in the oven (be careful of the hot steam), and shut the door quickly. The idea is to provide a burst of steam, which gelatinises the outside of the dough. Professional ovens have steam injection for this purpose. Alternatively (but not as good) you can paint the bread with water before it goes in the oven, or use a garden sprayer. (Be careful not to get cold water on the oven light or it might shatter.) The baguettes below are made like this.
Other crust variations you can try:
Brush with milk or cream
Brush with egg glaze (egg yolk+milk)
Toppings (stick on with egg-wash or water):
Porridge oats (oatmeal)
Flavours and additions
Add with the salt, but you might want to chop them and then hand-knead them in – the food processor chops them a bit too fine
Onions (soften in butter first),
Sun-dried tomatoes (oil-packed?)
Smarties or M&Ms
Seeds: Pumpkin, sunflower, sesame
Flour variants: I’d recommend replacing only 1/3-1/2 of the plain strong white flour with:
Wholemeal (whole wheat) (will not rise as much)
Granary (has added malt)
Rye flour (makes a sticky dough)
For dark rye add 1 Tbs black treacle (molasses). Some like caraway seeds as well.
Spelt (ancient wheat) (Poilane is reputed to use 1/5th Spelt. This was the example bread).
“Mighty White” (steamed, corned grains)
For a sweet bread: add sugar and butter with the fruit. Saffron for Easter.
Baguettes, that typical French loaf, are long thin loaves made with a soft, white dough. Because they are thin, they are baked at a higher temperature but for less time. The dough is delicate, and needs supporting continuously during proof and baking. You can get special pans for this. I’ve now thrown away my tin baguette pans (the ones in these pictures) and instead use a silpat baguette form (from www.demarle.com). You can just see it in the crust variation photo. Much easier and no sticking.
To Make Baguettes from the Finished Dough
Divide the dough into four, at the shaping stage:
Roll and stretch into long cylinders, tucking the end in neatly. Cover, put into a large plastic bag, like a dustbin liner so that they do not dry out too much, and put in the fridge overnight. Next day take them out, and slash the tops.
Put them in the hottest oven you can, and throw half a cup water into a pan or onto the oven floor. Beware of the hot steam!
Bake until golden, say 30 mins
Let cool on a rack. Enjoy with cheese and a glass of wine, or maybe some good soup.
Dan Lepard Baking with Passion - Dan Lepard - A great book. Website: www.danlepard.com.
Joe Ortiz The Village Baker ISBN 0-89815-489-8 wonderfully evocative.
Bread Builders. Hearth loaves and Masonry Ovens - Daniel Wing and Alan Scott. The definitive book on building and using brick bread ovens.
The Bread Baker's Apprentice - Peter Reinhart
Breads from the La Brea Bakery - Nancy Silverton
Elizabeth David English Bread and Yeast Cookery ISBN 0-14-046791 is, like all her books, masterly for its time.
Tom Jaine, Building a Wood Fired Oven for Bread and Pizza. Prospect Books ISBN 0907325
www.fourgrandmere.com (Click on the Union Jack to get the English version).
www.faqs.org SLKinsey is a contributor- a good resource.
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