My first attempt at making pain d’epi – also known as wheat stalk bread – resembled the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Fortunately, it was delicious.
Book: The Larousse Book of Bread.
My first attempt at making pain d’epi – also known as wheat stalk bread – resembled the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Fortunately, it was delicious.
Book: The Larousse Book of Bread.
Much as I enjoy impressing people with homemade bread, here’s the secret: it’s easy. It’s not like tempering chocolate or even like folding flour into egg whites (urgh, stressful). It’s a bunch of very simple techniques that have been used for over 4000 years – long before we had an understanding of the science behind it.
Still, there is a lot of complicated advice about sourdough out there. Will some of these tips and tricks make your bread better, your starter start faster, your crust crustier? Sure. But for now let’s get to the essentials.
If you haven’t baked bread before, one thing that’s an adjustment from cake baking or even most savoury cooking is that recipes often can’t give precise timescales. Dough develops at different speeds under different temperature and humidity conditions, especially sourdough, so it’s better to pay attention to what it’s doing than the clock. Prod it, poke it, peer at it, pretend you’re living in a prehistoric era and don’t have a clock.
First off, why should I bother making sourdough bread? Isn’t it a bit of a faff?
Because there’s nothing like turning white powder into food to make you feel like a hyper-competent earth mother/father/parent. But, yes, it’s a bit of a faff. If faff-free deliciousness is what you’re after, then head over to, say, Dusty Knuckle or any other sourdough bakery you can get to. Dense, chewy, crusty, and with a hint of a tang, if you can stomach the price tag, you’ll end up with a loaf very different from a Hovis medium sliced white.
It’s a matter of chemistry. Almost all supermarket bread in Britain is made using the Chorleywood bread process, or its equivalent. The process is a technological marvel of sorts. Invented in the 60s, it uses high-speed mixers and additives to radically cut down the time it takes to make a loaf. At the time, it also saved the UK from the necessity of importing much of its wheat flour because it allows lower protein flours to be used. Since then, however, it’s been fingered for all sorts of accusations, mostly of being bland and fluffy and not the best thing since anything really. Plenty of people also say it gives them digestion problems.
Okay, so how do you make sourdough? How’s it different from using a packet of yeast?
Well, any bread you make at home will knock the socks off what you can buy in the supermarket, and the advantage of dried yeast is that you can have a loaf on the table in a couple of hours. There are recipes all over the internet – here’s one example from BBC GoodFood.
Sourdough or otherwise, all yeasted breads work in the same way. Yeast is a fungus that breaks down some carbohydrates in the dough and releases carbon dioxide in the process, causing the dough to rise. Dried yeast contains a single variety of the fungus that activates when it hits the dough, and acts at a fast and predictable speed.
Sourdough works in exactly the same way except that instead of adding the yeast in powder form, you add a piece of ‘starter’ dough that has naturally-occurring yeasts living inside it. These yeasts will multiply through your dough, gobbling carbohydrates as they go. As you can imagine, this process takes longer than the efficient fungus-on-steroids you get in a packet – six hours at least as opposed to two or three. The slower fermentation gives sourdough bread the chance to develop its distinctive and delicious flavour. Despite the name, it’s not necessarily sour, but you can give it a sour tang by really stretching out the process over a day or so.
At room temperature, yeast is a hungry beast and the starter will need you to feed it its own weight in flour and water every 12 hours (as with everything sourdough-related, this depends on temperature; it may be more like every 24 hours in winter). But pop it in the fridge and it’ll sit there quite happily until you’re ready to bake with it again. The usual advice is then that you need to take the starter out once a week or so, discard half of it and feed the rest of it up with fresh flour and water. This may be true if you want to keep it in tiptop condition. However, I’ve let mine sit in the fridge untouched for up to a year and it’s survived fine – a bit manky and weird-looking at first, but right as rain after a couple of days’ feeding at room temperature.
There’s a recipe at the bottom of this post for baking a white sourdough loaf, so you can see how it works in practice. It’s based off the quantities given here.
Right, so just like a normal bread recipe except it takes longer. Where do I get this starter from?
The simplest way is to get some off a friend, or order it online. But cultivating your own is more fun. Wild yeast is already present in the flour, and all you need to do is create the right conditions for it to thrive in.
Cultivate a Sourdough Starter
These instructions are based on Bake with Mike‘s post, so check his site out for more detail.
1. Mix together 50g wholemeal flour and 50ml water. Leave the mix in a container and cover it loosely – your aim is to keep stray bugs out but not completely seal it (Mike suggests using a shower cap). Wait until bubbles appear. This will take 12-24 hours. If the mix shows no sign of life after 36 hours, throw it out and start again.
2. Add another 50g of flour and 50ml water. Wait another 12-24 hours until the starter gets bubbly again. The activity you’re seeing here is mostly bacteria rather than yeast, so it may be a bit stinky at this point. Discard half of the mixture this time, and add 50g flour and 50 ml water.
3. Repeat the step above every 12 hours. After 3-5 days, you should be getting a starter that bubbles up nicely during the 12-hour period. At this point, you might want to switch to plain flour rather than wholemeal, as wholemeal flour will keep introducing funky new microorganisms and you’ve already got the ones you want. It’s normal for the emerging starter to go through a bad-smelling phase or a lifeless phase, so keep feeding it every 12 hours and persist with this for a couple of days before giving up. The flour at the start contained a whole menagerie of different bacteria and fungi and what you’re seeing is them all fighting it out for supremacy.
4. Keep the feedings up for at least a week. Your starter is ready to bake with only after seven days, and by now it should reliably double in volume between feedings. There’s a good example of what a lively starter looks like below. Don’t use it sooner than this as it’ll be unstable and may contain dodgy bacteria.
5. Bake your first loaf, and don’t forget to pull off a little of the dough to save in the fridge for next time. This first loaf may not have the finest rise you’ve ever seen; your starter is still new and a little wobbly, and it’ll keep getting better as you use it.
Photo: James Box
Wait, why do I throw out all that starter? Isn’t that wasteful?
Yes, you are throwing out some flour-and-water mix, but… it’s not starter yet. Instead it’s a mixture of flour and water that has ever-increasing amounts of yeast in it, but isn’t yet strong enough to raise a loaf of bread. It’s still got too many random not-useful bacteria. And because yeast is so hungry, you need to add its own weight in fresh flour every 12 hours. If you don’t keep binning half, you’ll double the mixture every 12 hours and pretty soon it will be insanely huge and take over your entire house. The least wasteful thing to do is keep the emerging starter mix as small as you can.
This is all very well, but sourdough bread takes over seven hours from start to end, and I’m out at work all day.
The great thing about sourdough is that the dough is pretty tolerant of being left in the fridge for a while, so you can use that to fit it around your schedule, or as a back-up if your bread’s taking longer than expected and you need to head out. Here’s what I do during the working week:
8am: Pull the starter out of the fridge, and add fresh flour and water to activate it. (This is assuming the starter has been used fairly recently and hasn’t been sitting there for a year.)
7pm: Make the dough. Leave it on the counter for the first rise.
10pm-ish: Shape the dough and pop it in a proving basket, aka tea towel-lined colander. Put the dough in the fridge, where the second rise will take place slowly overnight.
8am: Take the bread out and bake it.
And, yes, this has technically taken 2 days, but it’s only about 15 minutes of actual time.
A Sourdough Bread Recipe
200g active starter
700g plain flour or bread flour
1. 12 hours before you want to bake, take 100g starter out of the fridge, and feed it with 100g flour and 100ml water.
2. Save 100g of starter for next time, then mix the other 200g in with the rest of the ingredients to form a dough. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. This takes around 10 minutes by hand. If you have a Kenwood mixer, use setting 2 with the kneading hook.
3. Pop the dough back in the bowl, cover it and leave it at room temperature for 2-3 hours or until it has risen and feels pillowy, like a waterbed (no squishing or snoozing allowed). If it still feels dense when you prod it, check it again in half an hour.
4. Prepare a colander by lining it with a tea towel sprinkled with plenty of flour. Something like rye flour or rice flour works best to stop the bread sticking, otherwise whatever you have to hand.
5. Scrape the dough out onto a floured or oiled surface and fold all the corners into the middle a couple of times until the skin of the dough is feeling tight around the bottom. Pop it into the colander, seams facing upwards. Flour the top thoroughly, then loosely cover it with a wrap.
6. Leave the dough for another 2-3 hours at room temperature. You can tell when the dough is ready to bake by poking it gently with a finger. If the dough springs straight back, give it a bit longer. If the dough doesn’t spring back at all, it’s over-proved. You’re looking for the point where your finger leaves an indentation that springs back slowly.
7. Preheat your oven to 250°C or as hot as it goes. Pop an old baking tray that you don’t mind getting rusty in the bottom of the oven, below the rack that the bread will bake on. When you’re ready to bake, flip the dough upside down onto a parchment-lined baking tray, and gently peel off the tea towel. Then, using a sharp knife, score the top about half an inch deep. You can make pretty patterns if that floats your boat.
8. Pour a little boiling water into the old baking tray, standing well back and using baking gloves in case of spattering. This is to create steam. Then put the bread in the oven for half an hour or so. Wait until the crust is a deep brown before taking it out. A slightly blackened crust won’t do it any harm either. Cool the loaf on a wire rack, and resist the temptation to cut into the bread before it’s fully cooled.
None of these photos are of my bread. Sadly.
Flour, water, yeast, an oven. That’s all you need to make bread. Okay, you will also find a colander and a tea towel handy for proving it, but that’s really everything, I promise.
I’m back at this long-dormant blog. And the experience has inevitably landed me back in 2013 in spirit. Oh, 2013. The year in which I was so broke that despite baking over 50 loaves, I bought zero equipment and about three recipe books. 100 Loaves of Solitude is a record of the sunny high points of that year: eating smoked mackerel and Frisian rye on the beach, carting still-warm loaves off to picnics, and welcoming in 2014 in a tiny seaside cabin in the middle of nowhere.
All I’m saying is that being skint or making questionable life choices is no barrier to baking excellent bread. Impatience or inattentiveness, on the other hand? Those will sink the loaf.
And that is what happened with Bread 35, Egyptian Aish Merahrah. This one intrigued me, because it’s a sourdough flatbread made from maize flour and fenugreek eaten in rural Egypt. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has the following recipe:
1kg maize flour
50g ground fenugreek seeds
dough from previous batch
Aish merahra (aish merahrah), a maize and fenugreek bread widely consumed in Egypt, is usually prepared locally in village homes. It is similar to markouk, a Lebanese bread. The loaves are flat and wide, about 50cm in diameter.
A soft dough is prepared from maize flour, fenugreek seeds, salt and water. The dough rises overnight using some of the dough from a previous batch. The dough is shaped into loaves of about 25cm in diameter by 5mm thick. It is then spun to full size by an intricate motion of both arms.
The loaves are baked in a clay oven heated by wood fire. This bread does not stale easily and can be stored 1 to 2 weeks in covered metal containers.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find the UN recipe before making this. Instead, I winged it by trying to adapt this recipe into a sourdough.
Looks okay, doesn’t it? Well, it tasted horrible: dry, dense, overly thick and with a gluey texture that summed up all the worst ways working with maize flour can go wrong.
I have questions now, though. 50g is a lot of fenugreek, for a start. How many flatbreads does that recipe make? Exactly how tricky is this “intricate motion of both arms”? If I get hold of some maize flour, I’d love to give this one another try, although it won’t be the 50cm flying saucer specified.
Onwards! To the much more successful Bread 36, Neapolitan pizza. I used The Perfect Loaf’s recipe for this. I didn’t have any 00 flour and my diastatic malt was best before 2015 and resembled a block of cement, so I decided to give it a miss. I also ignored the folds during bulk fermentation that The Perfect Loaf specified and did all the kneading up front. Yes, this is a lot of amendments; I’d rather bake something I’ll actually get around to than faff around for weeks trying to find 00 flour (as it happened I stumbled on some the very next day in The Grocery on Kingsland Road).
Besides, I ended up with something delicious: chewy, a little charred, with a nice crumb. It lacked the blackened base and unexpected bubbles you’ll get from an actual pizza oven but it was a good step above Asda Extra Special, whose swathes of film and polystrene I’m trying to avoid.
Speaking of which, I also had a go at fully making up a pizza then shoving it into the freezer raw between sheets of baking paper. (Because I know what I’m like when I’m tired and doing toppings is not on the agenda.) Five days later, it achieved about half of the rise of fresh version but was still a perfectly respectable pizza. I don’t know what the results would have been if I’d left it for longer – perhaps the rise would have suffered further.
I baked this gluten-free pizza base on the same evening for my husband and he said it was the best pizza he’d ever had. Which probably says more about the quality of Pizza Express’s offering than anything else. But it’s very satisfying to bake knowing that your homemade version will top literally anything money can buy. More gluten-free recipes coming soon!
I decided to bake this rather exciting pain aux pommes recipe from Ortiz’s The Village Baker, which you can find paraphrased here. You start by fermenting cut pieces of apple together for 8-10 days until it’s smelling strongly tangy and alcoholic.
It was all going swimmingly until the night before I was due to bake. My apple had fermented nicely in the heat without even producing any mould to scrape off. Then I came back from a night out rather tipsy and tired and followed what I thought ought to be the recipe rather than the actual recipe.
With pain aux pommes, the leavening agent is meant to be the apple itself. Ortiz adds a package of dried yeast later, but I suspect that’s one of his additions. He’s rather apt to present what was originally a 100% rye sourdough, for instance, and then say, “Hey, I added some wheat flour and 2 tsps yeast to make it easier.”
Anyway, I added a dollop of my existing starter to the newly-made apple one instead, creating a delicious soup of yeast fungi and taking the recipe totally off-piste. After that, the consistency was all different and I made lots of other changes: no yeast, less water added later, followed normal sourdough process rather than his apple starter build method, baked it as a single loaf rather four batards.
It turned out quite nicely:
I would like to try bread risen purely with an apple starter in future, but I still enjoyed my sourdough hybrid approach and I suspect the variety of starter you use doesn’t make a whole load of difference in the end.
This bread is very moist, almost a little on the claggy side, and feels like a whole meal in itself with the large chunks of apple (a nightmare to knead with, let me tell you). The flavour was less apple-y than I was expecting, more like a hearty country wheat loaf with an element of rye.
I’d like to try this again with the following changes:
1. Cut apple into very small pieces, possibly reduce quantity a bit. 1/2 inch pieces are still quite big enough to feel slimy and that’s not good.
2. Less water. My version retained more liquid than Ortiz’s so not his fault, but this dough was too wet. By half a cup, perhaps?
3. Add dry cider instead of water, cut the malt extract to compensate. If I’m going to bother fermenting apple for days and kneading in those pesky apple pieces, the bread has to taste of apple in the end.
4. I’d like to play around with the % of the rye. And how would it work combined with a recipe like Pierre Nury’s rustic light rye?