It’s all about the (sour)dough

Published on 21 June 2019 in ,

About a month or so I was in the kitchen looking at a recipe book for bread, because I was feeling a little bored.

Like many families I am sure, we go through a lot of bread. And ours is all made at home. About five or six loaves a week get baked and eaten in our house. You know those recipes that require stale bread? Well, they never get done in our house as there’s never any stale bread. It all gets eaten.

But I was feeling in a bit of a rut. I was making the same few loaves all the time. Usually a half white/half wholemeal loaf. Sometimes one with oats in. Maybe some seeds. But that was it. I wanted to do something different.

And that’s when I decided to do it.

I made a sourdough starter.

Sourdough’s all the rage these days. From craft bakeries, to crumpets made by Warburtons, everyone’s trying to get in on the sourdough craze. But it’s actually a bread style with history. Lots of it. Sourdough is the oldest form of leavened bread (i.e. bread made with yeast, that is left to rise) known to humankind. They made sourdough bread in ancient Egypt. That’s how old it is.

The principles of sourdough are simple though. You bake your bread using a “starter”. At its core, it’s a mixture of flour and water that you leave on your worktop in your kitchen for a few days. It begins to ferment. And once it does, you can use it to bake bread.

Now there are many ways to make sourdough starters. Some just rely on the natural yeasts that are in the air. Others kickstart the whole process with a bit of commercial yeast. This isn’t a food blog so I’m not going to give you recipes, or go into the detail. If you want to give it a go, there’s lots of websites out there that will take you through it. But once it is going, the concept’s the same. You use part of the starter to bake your next loaf. Then you add some more flour and more water to what is left (a process known as feeding), leave it to ferment for a little bit, and then it’s ready to make another loaf for you.

Kept well, these things can last for years. Decades. I once worked with a guy whose mum had kept the same starter going since the 1950s. I’m not sure mine will last quite that long. I’ve made sourdough in the past, and the starters always seemed to start dying out. Whether I didn’t feed them enough (a starter is a living organism, and like any living organism you have to feed it), or whether it was something else, I don’t know. But I decided it was worth another shot.

Why? Because I love the slightly tangy, sour flavour that sourdough brings. And I love the fact that sat in my kitchen now is a jar that is a living thing in my kitchen that helps make food for me. I love it so much that since I made the starter, I’ve barely used the tin of bread yeast that’s in my kitchen cupboard. Almost every loaf I’ve made has been made with the sourdough starter.

That might sound like a lot of work. Five or six loaves a week? Well I’ll let you into a secret. I do them in a breadmaker. Lots of people will tell you this isn’t possible. That sourdough is unpredictable, and that breadmakers can’t cope with it because – by their nature – they have a fixed programme. But I’m managing quite well thanks. I had one loaf, early on, that was duff, but the rest have worked out well. It’s just been a case of tweaking the recipe to make it work.

Using the breadmaker makes things simpler and easier. And it may help my sourdough starter last longer. When I last made sourdough, I was making bread by hand and baking something like once a week, or even once a fortnight. Maybe the starter was getting hungry or something. That’s not a problem now as the starter’s getting fed – and used – several times a week. It’s getting all the food I need.

I do have one concern though. So there may well be a time when I go back to commercial yeast. When I give up on the starter. And that is winter. See, I usually put my breadmaker on overnight so there’s fresh bread for the morning. And my kitchen can get cold overnight when my bread is usually being made courtesy of the breadmaker’s timer. That’s when I worry about my starter, as when it’s cold, they go to sleep. Essentially, they hibernate. And a hibernating sourdough starter doesn’t make for soft, well risen bread.

But winter is several months away. That gives me time to think about the problem, and whether there’s a solution or not. Maybe it’s as simple as changing my baking schedule so the bread is baked during the day (which in itself may be easier said than done!) But in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the wonderful tangy taste of some sourdough bread made fresh in my kitchen.

Yum, and indeed yum.