After several attempts I’ve finally cracked the sourdough starter. The bread tastes magnificent and I will never buy yeast again (actually that’s not true, I’ll always keep a bit in the freezer, for those days when I’ve not been not be organised enough to get the sourdough sorted). It really is easy – you just need to be organised about when to take your starter out the fridge (at least a night before you want to bake bread).
So here’s my idiots guide to making a sourdough starter and bread with a sourdough starter.
First off, it’s important that you use flour with some life in it; so regular white flour won’t work as all the living organisms have been processed out of it. Most recipes suggest using rye flour as it’s full of life, but I’ve not managed to track any down in Puglia so on a friend’s recommendations I used bran flour. You can add regular strong white flour later, but to get the starter going it’s best to go for an organic whole grain flour.
There seem to be two preferred options when making a sourdough starter, either start with a fairly large amount of both flour and water and pour half away each day and replace with the same amount until you get a lively and fermented starter or begin with just a couple of tablespoons of flour and water and add a couple more each day until it begins to get lively.
I plumped for the latter as I hate throwing food away, and I’ve got three greedy dogs who, despite protestations, have decided they rather like beery, fermented gloop. Everyday for the next 6 or 7 days add 2 or 3 tablespoons of flour and the same of tepid water. It should resemble a fairly thick batter so add more water if you think it looks too dry and more flour if it’s too watery. I covered mine with a cloth in the warmest room in the house. After three days it should start to bubble and smell quite acrid and after day 4 or 5 you can use regular flour instead of the rye or bran.
After about a week – throw half of the starter away and replace with fresh flour and enough warm water to make a sticky batter. It will look quite inactive and you might think you have killed it but be patient – it comes back to life. Do this every couple of days and the starter should start to smell really sweet and hop-like.
Now it is ready to use. Making bread with sourdough isn’t difficult, in fact it’s easier as there is no real kneading, but, as I mentioned before, you do need to be quite organised as there are a few stages, spaced over 24 or more hours.
First take about half of your hungry starter and pop the rest back in the fridge after feeding it with some more flour and water. To make two loaves use 1 kilo flour, a tablespoon of salt, around 300g of sourdough starter and 600 ml of water.
The day before you want to bake your bread you need to make a sponge – so mix half the flour with the starter in a large bowl, stirring it to make a sticky dough.
Cover with cling film or cloth and leave overnight. The next day the sponge will be full of bubbles. Mix in the rest of the flour, water and salt until you have a soft, sticky dough.
Fold the dough under itself, one corner at a time. You can either leave it until it has doubled in size before shaping into loaves or repeat the folding every hour or so. I did it three times and shaped my two loaves after the third hour. I then dusted a cloth-covered basket into which I laid the loaves, sprinkling semolina flour on the top of them and a clean cloth.
I then left them overnight to rise in my rather cold kitchen but a couple of hours should suffice, or you could leave them in the fridge overnight and warm them up as you get your oven up to temperature. Place loaves on a warmed baking tray, slash the tops and bake at 220-230C for 30-40 minutes.
This is only the third time I’ve made bread using my sourdough starter and it really does taste wonderful. It’s got a lovely crisp crust, the bread is open and moist and it has a wonderfully tangy flavour. I was given some 30-year-old sourdough starter from one of the bakers in town a while back and I’ve also been give some from a neighbour, but the local variation of sourdough is really different to this. Pasta di madre (mother dough) as used in Puglia is much firmer and to make the dough you just add the madre when kneading all your other ingredients. The result seems to be more like regular bread than sourdough bread, but I seem to be converting my neighbours.