Sourdough Bread! The oldest (and probably best) loaf

As I type this a loaf of sourdough bread is crackling cheerfully at me. I think it’s the crust settling down as it sheds heat and the loaf’s insides stop trying to shove their way out into my kitchen. A baking loaf is a slow-moving explosion of flour, water and gas and the cooling period is the debris settling into something chewy, crusty and delicious.

“The song of bread,” Chad Robertson calls it in his book, Tartine Bread, quoting one of his proteges. The phrase is the stuff of the aspirational YouTube videos I love to hate-watch, but I do like to stick my ear over a cooling loaf.

Sourdough is fetishized like nobody’s business. It’s also the most bro-y of all foods (the only challenger is BBQ). YouTube is full of white dudes with beards and tattoos talking sincerely about hydration levels, scoring patterns and oven humidity. The root of it, I suppose, is the fascination with how a simple ingredients list (flour, water, salt) can produce such wildly different results. The magic is all in the process, and bros love a process. If you’re serious about sourdough, you annotate every stage of your bake, every time, and you’ll always be playing with the variables. Sourdough baking lets you take something primitive and hit it with a whole bunch of science.

But, while it’s easy to mock the culture around sourdough baking, there’s something deeply satisfying about taking those three basic ingredients and turning them into something magnificent. I’ve been baking sourdough for just shy of a year now and I’ve run through a slightly obsessive period to a point where it’s just deeply embedded in my life.

Homemade bread is one of those foods that immediately elevates any meal. Fried egg on toast or a ham sandwich becomes a proper treat when you have a fresh, crusty, chewy bread to serve it on. A slice of toast can be a masterpiece. There’s no bread I enjoy more than my own now, and I sulk whenever I have to buy a loaf. It’s equal parts pride and the fact that it’s just genuinely really good.

Sourdough Bread
Sourdough cooling on the wall

A bit of history, a bit of science

Honestly, I only have pretty tenuous of reasons for including sourdough on Yorkshire Grub. Historically, natural leavening was how you made bread. Leavening, in fact, is one of the great technologies that human civilisation is built on.

You mix flour and water and after a bit airborne bacteria and yeasts set up shop in your gloop. The bacteria get to work consuming the sugars in the flour and spit out other sugars that the yeast, in turn, can eat. The yeast exhales carbon dioxide and your mixture starts to rise while gluten starts to form. The rest is… well, baking. And at the end of it you have a tasty, calorie-dense way of consuming a very farm-able plant: wheat.

Maintaining a starter is a bit of job, though, and when the microscope was invented in the mid 19th century and the yeast needed for bread was isolated, it became commonplace for bakers to buy commercial yeast, skipping the fiddly part.

It’s a shame, because a loaf of naturally-leavened bread has dimensions of flavour and texture that breads made with commercial yeast (especially those that are mass-produced) can’t touch. It keeps longer than other home-baked loaves and there’s evidence that the fermentation process makes it better for your guts.

Some people are put off by the sour taste that comes from the lactic acid produced during fermentation, but to be honest ‘sourdough’ is a bit of a misnomer. How sour your bread will be depends on the starter – mine has a mild tang, but that’s about it.

Indeed, a lot about your bread will depend on your starter, which in turn depends on how you feed it and what microbes are naturally present in the air where you keep it. (I heard one story about one Leeds baker whose bread went to crap when his local airborne yeast cultures moved out of the city centre along with the Tetleys brewery).

Below is how I make it, as relayed to my friend Avon. Nods go to Daniel Stevens and his River Cottage Bread book, Chad Robertson‘s Tartine Bread and Tim over at Zuzu’s Bakery, as well as a whole great raft of forum posters and YouTube videos that I’ve learned from along the way. Hopefully if this is your first bake then by the time you get to your 10th you’ll have tweaked the recipe within an inch of its life to adapt it to your own preferences based on things like your schedule, oven and ingredients.

It all looks quite involved, but once you’ve done it a few times you’ll realise that most of the steps can be fitted in around whatever else you have going on. The most helpful thing I’ve learned that isn’t in the method below is that you can bang your dough in the fridge for long periods. It’ll keep fermenting, just at a slower pace.

I often leave my shaped loaves in the fridge overnight to bake in the morning, then get them out to warm up a little while the oven heats up. As an added bonus, they’re easier to handle and slash while still slightly cool. You just have to leave the pot lid on and the oven temp up a little longer. Likewise, the bulk ferment can be prolonged by shoving it in the fridge while you go out and do your stuff.

Sourdough bread
Sometimes the crust will split along your slashes, sometimes it just won’t.

To create a starter:

Stir about a cup of water and a cup of strong bread flour together into a rough paste in a good-sized jar or plastic container (yes, volume measurements bug me, too, but learning to deal with your starter by eye will save you time in the long run). Leave it covered with a tea towel for 24 hours or so, then add another cup of flour and another one of water. Stir it. Leave it.

24 hours later, hopefully it’ll have bubbles starting to form and a bit of a whiff. Chuck half of it out and replace it with equal parts flour and water. Keep doing this and after a week or so it should be ready to bake with.

You can keep your starter alive indefinitely. Rumours of starters that have been in families for generations abound. Just keep feeding it by getting rid of half (or, ideally, baking with it!) and replacing it with equal parts flour and water. If you know you’re not going to bake for a while, it’ll get by in the fridge with weekly feeds (I gather you can freeze it, too, though I haven’t tried that).

There’s a pretty good chance you’re going to become obssessed with your starter. Your romantic partner might harbour ill will towards it. Ignore them. They don’t understand you.

Anyway, there is an actual recipe here. Eat your bread with a lot of bacon and a good slather of beetroot ketchup. Or with just about anything, really. Measurements can, of course, be halved or doubled or multiplied and divided however you see fit. Have at it:

The Basic Sourdough Recipe

Things you definitely need:

  • Sourdough starter
  • 1.1kg strong bread flour
  • 20g salt
  • 630g warm water
  • A big mixing bowl
  • Two smaller bowls with clean tea towels or two proving baskets
  • Your big pot
  • Scales

Things that will help but you can live without:

  • A dough scraper
  • A bench knife
  1. The morning of the day before you want to bake, feed your starter.
  2. The evening of the day before you want to bake, put a generous spoonful of starter into your mixing bowl then add 100g flour and 100g water. Yes, I’m giving the water measurements in grams. It’s functionally the same as giving it in ml, but makes life a bit easier when you’re pouring everything into a bowl on your electronic scales. You’ve just made your leavain. Put the bowl in a big plastic bag and leave it out on the side overnight.
  3. The morning of the day you’re baking, have a look at your levain. It should be nice and lively. If you take a bit of it and drop it in water, it should float. If it doesn’t, give it a bit longer. When it’s good to go, add 500g of warm water and give it a good mix to disperse the starter. If you keep making sourdough, you might start upping the amount of water for a more moist loaf with a potentially better rise. This also makes the dough really tricky to handle though, so we’re starting at a manageable 500g.
  4. Add the flour and hand mix it into a shaggy mess. Leave it in the bowl, covered, for 20-40 mins. This is the autolyse stage, when gluten starts to form.
  5. Add the salt, press it into the dough, then add a further 30-50g of water to dissolve the salt and mix it in. Use your hands. Your dough will start to fall apart as the salt screws with the bacteria. It’s fine, it’ll come back together in a minute or two. Once it’s looking like a doughy whole again, tip it onto your (clean and well floured!) work top and knead it for 10 minutes or so. I like the slap and fold (Google it) because I think it works air into the dough, but the main thing is that you’re stretching it and working it to get the gluten going.
  6. Once it feels nice and stretchy, flour a big bowl then form a round (Google!) and put it in. You’re going to rest it for around four hours – this is your bulk fermentation. If you’re around, come back to it once every 30-60 mins to take it out and form another round. If you’re feeling cocky you can use water instead of flour to prevent sticking in the bowl and, wetting your hand, form the round within the bowl. This is all to add a bit more structure to the bread. If you have to just go away and leave it at this point, though, that’s fine. If you’ve given it a good knead it should be right.
  7. After the four hours are up, tip your dough onto a floured surface and divide it into two equal rounds. Flour and cover them with a clean tea towel or something similar and leave them for 30 mins. This is your bench rest. If it looks real saggy at the end, re-form the rounds and leave them a bit longer. If they’ve held up OK, flour your proving baskets or clean tea towels in bowls (they should be a little bigger than the dough balls), form two new rounds and then put them in for the final prove, seam sides up, and cover.
  8. These need another two to four hours. If you press your thumb in and the dough springs back, but not too quickly, you’re hot to trot. When you’re ready to go, heat your oven as high as it’ll go with your pot inside of it. We’re about to get to the tricky bit.
  9. When everything seems hot enough, take your pot from the oven and tip your first loaf in. Ideally it’ll drop straight in. In reality it may cling awkwardly to your basket or tea towel and plop into the pot looking a right mess. Don’t panic, the pot is your friend. It’s going to radiate heat and control the rise so you’ll probably still get a decent loaf.
  10. Try to slash your dough using something dead sharp. I like to use stanley knife blades, but a proper sharp knife, scalpel or actual baking lame will do it too. Try to cut it briskly and cleanly. This probably also won’t go to plan either, but it should still work out OK. (The point of the slash is to control the rise as the dough expands and breaks the still-forming crust. Without good slashes it’ll break the crust at some random point of weakness. You’re less likely to get a beautiful loaf, but you’ll still get a tasty one, which is the main point.)
  11. Get the lid on, get it in the oven. If you think your oven gets very hot, after 10 minutes you should remove the lid and turn the temp down to 200 degrees (or a bit less if it’s already looking pretty brown). If not, give it around 15 minutes. This might be your favourite part of the process, when you exclaim ‘holy shit!’ at your gnarly risen loaf.
    After 40 minutes total baking time, check on it. If it’s baking up nice and deep brown, get that sucker out of there and tip it onto a cooling rack (the top of your toaster will do in a pinch). If not, give it a few more mins. Don’t fret – so long as it’s not looking burnt, you’re not overdoing it. There’s no secret alchemy at this point.
  12. Repeat steps 9-11 for loaf two (or just do it all at once if you have two pots).
  13. Congratulations on your new loaves of bread! You did great. Try to hold off slicing into it for an hour. Certainly wait 20 mins. It’s still cooking on that rack (can you hear that crackling sound?) and if you slice it too early it’ll be sticky on the inside.
  14. Eat!

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