Sourdough – A Rising Phoenix Of The Bread World

A sourdough loaf on a white plate, laid on a blue and white check tablecloth.
Sourdough bread. Photo by Jacques2017 c/p Pixabay.

If you can imagine a bread heaven it might just be the smell of freshly baked sourdough that epitomises all that is great and good. Nothing quite beats it in the morning and with its soft, slight acid tasting texture offers everything who eulogise about bread. Mind you, it is not the cheapest bread in the world because it takes a long time to produce. This is on account of the fermentation that is needed to prove the dough.

The bread itself probably began when the ancients mistakenly left out dough which would normally be used for flat breads. A forgotten batch perhaps. The dough, left in a damp place may have started to bubble, possibly even produce a slightly off-nose.  Even if it was ‘fermenting’ like other foods that has been left lying around putrifying, this one was baked. We can imagine the surprise when those people of old tried it and thought – this is rather nice ! I imagine it wasn’t articulated very well – the delight in the flavour and so on, but it was a technique which turned flat bread makers into producers of the first leavened bread.

The main difference between a sourdough and any other leavened bread is that fermentation relies on the presence of natural yeasts and lactobacilli.  This fermenting bread is often known as the leaven. We might also know it as the sourdough mother, the biga The microorganisms are present in the air and as soon as they find a medium to grow in immediately begin to grow.

Like a beer fermentation, the yeasts produce carbon dioxide as they gobble up the sugars in the dough mix. That carbon dioxide is essential for creating the rise and lift. The bread expands until there comes a point where it is baked, preserving all that goodness.  It’s also the mark of authenticity. Added yeasts and bacteria do not cut it – it must be a dough mix which is left exposed, preferably in a slightly damp environment and almost to the elements. I’ve heard it said by our baker in Coleford that a North wind is the reason why he has a sourdough fit for kings and a South wind for – well whatever.

Don’t forget the Lactobacilli. They too have their critical role in the production of this bread. The flavours of sourdough are complex because they produce such a range of acids which contribute to the slight vinegary bite in the bread. Lactic acid, which is produced by all lactobacilli is the key tangy flavour here. There is also a small amount of alcohol produced which may explain why for some it is not a foodstuff that satisfies their religious ideals. I also just forgot the Acetobacters. These create the vinegar notes through acetic acid. The balance between the various organisms makes for one complex fermentation mix. It also explains the great variations that are possible in sourdough flavour. Whatever the case, that subtlety of flavour and its variability adds to the mystery of the bread. It also helps connoisseurs distinguish the top bake from the also rans.

The fermentation itself is spontaneous but it can only work if the temperature is at room. Anything below 12 C and the fermentation gets stuck. The dough must have the right starches and carbohydrates for the sugars to be available as an energy source for the microbes. Sourdough fermentations can take up to a week to produce the appropriately risen dough. What you do see however as it starts to bubble in its container is a dough that looks somewhat like glue paste. This goo needs to be fed on a regular basis. Extra flour, some water, even sugar is necessary. It can also expand to such an extent that it flows over its container. Many bakers just split the leaven up to create separate loaves or have it as some sort of pitching bread for the next batch.

Only in France

France probably and rightfully considers itself the home of well baked sourdough. It is after all the source of the chef or levain. The method produces the famous pain de campagne and those wonderful sourdough baguettes which you seek out in French markets.

Having said that there is a bakery in cider county – Herefordshire which scooped its three stars at The Great Taste Awards 2018 for a remarkable spelt and honey sourdough loaf. The ingredients are pure Hereford. A loaf that needs three days to produce relying on a blend of organic white and whole wheat spelt flour, spring water from the Malvern Hills, some honey (only from the county I imagine), some toasted sunflower seeds and a small amount of sea salt. This is the bread of Peter Cooks Bread Ltd which are based in Bishops Frome. It not only looks good, it has a signature flavour only possible from this bakery.

Whatever the case and however you get your sourdough, just remember that it is a craft product. Every baker has their own take on the bread. Think of this when you are spreading some butter or a thin veil of jam. Just savour it as it is before slavering whatever slaart is needed.

Making A Sourdough

Vanessa Kimbell is a life long devotee of the sourdough bake. In her cookery books there is one recipe which deserves reference. In her opinion, she describes it as a real sense of achievement to bake the first sourdough.

Ingredients

  • 200g organic stoneground wholegrain flour
  • 200g filtered water

The fermenting ‘mother’ is fed daily with 100g each of organic wholegrain flour and filtered water. The filtered water should be relatively warm – about 25 to 28 C. is good for this type of fermentation. Yeast like to start budding and dividing at this temperature.

Method

A large glass or stoneware jar is used top contain the flour and water mix. This whole is whisked well so that air can get into the mixture. It is covered with a damp tea towel which also needs to be clean. Leave in a warm place for 24 hours. keep away from other fermenting foods which could cross-contaminate the mixture. Beer and cheese are classic culprits of badly fermenting sourdoughs.

The following day, 200g of the mixture is removed and thrown away. Add 100g each of fresh flour and water. Leave again for between 12 and 24 hours. Keep this process going for a minimum of 1.5 weeks and upto 2 weeks. The ferment should really start to bubble and effervesce.

The float test is the best way to check the dough is ready for baking. Here, organic white flour rather than wholegrain is dded for the next two consecutive feeds. It appears to encourage further yeast activity. The whole is left for a further 8 hours. The float test involves dropping  a small amount of the start into a glass of water and, yes you will have guessed, if it floats it is ready to be used.

That starter is a valuable for subsequent bakes. It should be transferred to a clean, sterile jar or earthenware vase and kept covered but not airtight. Store in the fridge at 5C as this slows the fermentation right down and keeps the yeast in their what is termed pre-plateaux phase.

Refresh the batch every two weeks by removing from the fridge and mixing in a daily-feed of flour and water as before. Cover and leave in a warm place for 6 to 8 hours until bubbling returns. Keep in the fridge. 

The starter culture produces about 6 loaves of 50g each to make the leaven. It will need 100g of each ingredient to refresh the starter and keep the sourdough going.

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