Sourdough is a type of bread made with natural or “wild” yeast and bacteria. These organisms occur naturally in the air around us and in the flour used. One of the benefits of sourdough is that it lasts a lot longer than bread made with regular yeast. It takes about a week for a loaf of my sourdough to stale (if I haven’t eaten it before then!), which means I can make it weekly and none of it goes to waste. It is also supposed to be easier on the stomach, and people who have trouble with eating regular bread (for example IBS or indigestion) often have no trouble with sourdough.
You start by making a starter. A starter is just flour and (filtered) water. Every day, you have to discard some of the mix and add more flour and water to “feed” the starter. It is like having a hungry and demanding pet! Some people even name their starters. I thought about naming mine but nothing has really come to mind. Any ideas?
Now I have to confess, I attempted to make a starter once but by the fourth day or so I got a bit freaked out by the terrible smell and ditched it. Luckily, I had some offers of starters from friends. Since then my starter has also had “children” which I have gifted to friends. Starters change and develop over time depending on their location and the flour used to feed them. San Francisco sourdough is famous because it contains a type of bacteria only found in San Francisco. Starters can have a pedigree similar to that of dogs or racehorses. Their lineage can be traced back through the generations. Franco Manca, possibly the best pizza place in London, make their pizza dough from a 300 year-old Neapolitan starter.
In comparison, my starter is a bit of a mongrel. I obtained my current starter from Helly of Fuss Free Flavours and I have no idea where she got hers from!
After your starter is up and running you can keep it in the fridge for a week between feedings, or you can even freeze lumps of it in the freezer ready for quick defrosting a la Dan Lepard. Making a loaf does take a bit of planning. You need to take your starter out of the fridge a day or two before you plan to have bread on the table. However you will spend very little time actually physically making the bread.
I’ve learned a lot about making sourdough through my experiments and research. The starter has to be really active before you add the rest of the ingredients for the bread, or it will take too long to rise. However, a long rise can give longer for the flavours to develop, and I think bread that has taken longer to rise also takes longer to stale. You can put your dough in the fridge to slow it down. Rye flour can really speed up the activity of a starter and has a nice flavour. Stoneground organic flours are definitely the way to go, and even though they are quite expensive it works out much cheaper than buying bread.
Most of my efforts to date have not been particularly photogenic, even if they have tasted good. But I was quite proud of this loaf:
My obsession with the perfect loaf has now spilled over into my working life as I have recently started working on the Real Bread Campaign. But more on that later!