Introduction

This article describes how to make sourdough bread. The recipe is an extension of one made with instant yeast, and described at http://logular.com/bread. That recipe makes a chewy, tasty loaf with big bubbles. The recipe described here makes the same style of loaf, but instead uses a home-made wild yeast that makes the loaf taste better – a slightly sour tang. The only ingredients in this recipe are flour, water, salt and malt, and no kneading is required. I don't describe how to make the initial sourdough starter here (it took me two months of nightly feeding to get mine to a viable stage), but will instead happily give my culture to anybody who wants to give sourdough baking a try. It's a common tradition to hand off good sourdough starters; there are plenty of “hierloom” starters that have been passed down many human generations like the famous San-Fransisco sourdough that contains characteristic organisims.

Just a word for motivation: Don't let the extended preparation period put you off. Although this bread takes a day to make, there is rarely a need to be at the bench for more than a couple of minutes at a time, and most of the timings are quite flexible, so durations can be adjusted according to errands.

In the sections below, I describe the process at length with some information about rationale. A summary of the ingredients/timing is provided at the end of this document.

Theory

A sourdough starter is a culture that is simply made from flour and water. Over time, colonies of two key organisms reach equilibrium in the starter, and they live in a symbiosis that involves them not competing for the same food, and cooperating to defend their ecosystem. They both produce the gas that makes bread rise.

Wild yeast is the first organism. It is a fungus that lives on the surface of grains and fruits, and is called Sacchraromyces exiges. Sourdough yeast is similar to bakers yeast, but is capable of living in an acidic environment. The second organism belongs to a variety of bacteria called lactobacillus. This bacteria converts sugar into the lactic acid that can make the bread taste sour.

The symbiosis works as follows. The acids produced by the bacteria create an environment that the companion yeast can thrive in, but other yeasts die. Thus, the yeast benefits because it does not need to compete with other yeasts. The acids also stop pathogens like botulism and E. coli from growing, and otherwise stop invasion of foreign bacteria that upset the ecological balance. The lactobacillus also secrete antibiotics that stop other “bad” bacteria from growing too. This is also why sourdough is resilient to mould, etc.; the bacteria act as a natural preservative. In return, the yeast metabolise flour sugars into byproducts that the bacteria can eat.

Caring for Your Starter

Just leave your starter at room temperature, and discard all but a tablespoon on a daily basis, and “feed” it with flour and water. The ratio flour:water can be varied to get different flavours, but a good place to start is 1:1. In my case, I add around 20g flour and 20g water each night.

I maintain two different starter variants for fun. One is a white starter. In this case, I just add white bakers flour. The second starter contains 50% wholemeal rye flour. The latter is definitely the most active starter – I think this is because the wholemeal flour is better food for the beasties. For example, it is unbleached.

Here are some photos of my starters.

Those jars were used for a month or so. Notice how they have not been contaminated with mould, etc. A simple indication about the health of a starter is its smell. It should smell fruity and sour. If it gets contaminated (e.g. if insects are allowed to get into it), it will quickly smell rotton. An active starter will also produce bubbles like those shown, and will double or triple in volume after feeding.

If you cannot commit to feeding the starter each day, the feeding period can be extended to a couple of times per week by refrigerating the starter. This process is not described here to keep things simple and reliable.

Flour and Malt

Flour

You'll need a strong flour as described in the previous article, wholemeal rye flour, and diastatic malt. The flours that I am currently using are shown below. The Manildra comes from a bakery in Centre Rd Bentleigh, and the rye flour comes from the health shop in North Rd., Ormond.

Diastatic Malt

Australian white flour is relatively low in an enzyme called amylase that helps to break down flour starch into sugars that the yeast can consume. So if you're baking sourdough loaves from predominantly white flour (as is the case for this recipe), you need to help things along by adding diastatic malt. If you don't add the malt, you won't get the same level of rise, and will have smaller bubbles. If you are impatient, just buy some bread improver from a supermarket or health food shop. Bread improvers usually contain diastatic malt but also contain other additives to prolong shelf-life, etc. If you are like me, and prefer to avoid the additional preservatives, you can buy diastatic malt in Australia from here: http://www.basicingredients.com.au/DiastaticMalt.html

Note that even though it sounds exotic, I am told that even a caveman could make diastatic malt – it is really just ground up germinating wheat. I've been meaning to try it myself (since my wife will vouch for my caveman-like traits)...

Building a Poolish

This step should be performed the night before baking, and is done to expand the starter into a sufficient quantity of fermented flour and yeast for the final dough.

Get a big bowl, and add 100g of your starter. Then, add 150g of the same flour used in the starter, and 150g of water. Mix, cover bowl, and leave it out overnight at room temperature. Here's a batch that I made using my 1:1 rye:white mix:

The next morning, your poolish should have behaved just like your starter; i.e. is should have risen, and will have bubbles:

Bulk Fermentation

This stage involves mixing the dough ingredients, and letting it rise. Instead of kneading, the dough is repeatedly rested and folded every 30-45 minutes.

Here's what you'll need:

Pour 286g of water into the poolish after heating the water in the microwave for 50s. Then add 1 tablespoon of salt and one tablespoon of either bread improver or the diastatic malt. Add 514g of white bakers flour. Use a mixer to stir it all up for three minutes.

This dough recipe is 68% hydration, which means that the quotient water/flour is 68%. After first mixed, notice how it has a chunky consistency. Now leave that to rest in the mixer for 15-30 minutes. Give it another quick mix for a minute:

Notice how the dough consistency has changed after this rest period. This first rest is called an autolyse – it lets the flour absorb the water. The next image shows how the gluten has developed; the dough has gone from consistency like porridge to an elastic one:

Let the dough rest again for another 30-45 minutes, and then fold it three times. I use a scraper and wet hands to pick it up

Here's the second fold. Note that only a zen-master can operate a camera while folding...

And this is after three folds:

This folding process strengthens the gluten, and oxygenates the dough. Notice how the dough is shiny and silky – it is important that it does not dry out, so make sure it is covered or in a humid place while it is resting. You don't have to be too fussy about warmth. If you read about artesan baking, people generally aim for a cool and slow rise because this promotes the fermentation that makes the bread taste good. If you want to speed things up, let the dough rise in a warm place like an oven with the light on.

Keep repeating this rest/folding sequence another couple of times. After 2 hours or so, the dough should have doubled or tripled in volume. Towards the end, if it feels like a big marshmallow, you're doing well. The dough should be light and springy. If a light finger-poke does not bounce back, you've let it rise for too long. It is generally better to let the dough underprove than overdo it.

Here's how the dough looks after a couple of hours:

Shaping and Proving

Flour the bench, and cut the dough into four:

Shape them by tucking their edges underneath, and let them rise again for another 45mins to an hour. I think it is important to flip them over before shaping because my bubbles tend to form at the top. I also try not to handle the dough too much for fear of collapsing bubbles. I let mine prove in these racks so that I can put them straight in the oven without further handling.

Baking

After 45 min to an hour of rising, sprinkle semolina on the dough, and slash it with a sharp knife or razor. This isn't just for looks - it allows the dough to rise further once it's in the oven. Put the dough in an oven preheated to 200C. Make sure fan-forced is off. Throw a tray of ice cubes into the oven too. This slows the formation of a crust, and so allows the bread to continue to rise in the the oven.

After around 20 minutes, remove the loaves from the rack, and turn them to promote even cooking. After around 35 mins of total cooking time, they should be ready. Wait until the crust is golden, and they sound hollow when tapped. Resist the urge to cut them for at least 30 minutes because this cooling period is an important part of the cooking process.

Finished Product

The following photos show the outside of the loaves. Here are some things to look for:

Now some shots of the inside. Notice

Here're some more loaves made from the white starter only. Maybe a little too brown? I was fooling with oven settings.

Summary of Procedure

Every night!

Keep a tablespoon of starter only, and add 20g flour and 20g water. You can add more flour water if you want more starter. For example, the recipe below requires 100g of starter.

Friday night:

Mix a poolish in a big bowl, and leave out overnight covered with a plate or gladwrap.

10:00 Saturday morning:

Add the remaining ingredients, and mix for 3 minutes

Fold every 45 minutes.

12:00 Saturday midday:

Cut the dough, place on racks, and allow to rise for 1 hour in a humid place.

12:30 Saturday afternoon:

Turn on oven at 200C.  

13:00 Saturday afternoon:

Slash loaves with very sharp knife.  Throw ice into oven, and bake loaves for 30-35 mins.

20 minutes later, remove racks and rotate loaves to promote even browning.

13:35 Saturday afternoon:

Remove loaves. Allow the loaves to cool for at least 30 mins before sampling.

Epilogue

This is just the beginning! Although there are only a few ingredients, changing ratios, temperatures, and durations will produce markedly different results in taste and texture. In particular, I like to play around with the bakers ratio, because bread like ciabatta for example is very wet.

Here is a table that gives an indication of how to tweak the ratios for different volumes. The recipe described here was made using the lowest aqua row in the table. i.e. it produces 1200g of dough at 68% bakers ratio, and the percentage of poolish in the final dough was 33%. All of these calculations are based on a poolish that is 50% water and 50% flour like the one described in the recipe above.




Another thing to experiment with is the ratio of water in the starter and poolish. If you like the sour taste, feed your starter with a higher ratio of flour, because a dry starter produces more lactic acid. Conversely, a wet starter makes a bread that is more subtle – it is not as recognisable as a sourdough, but is worth the effort because the flour undergoes a long ferment.

Enjoy.

Jason.