I’ve seen lots of social media postings for two things lately: banana bread and sourdough. Who knew people had so many overripe bananas around? I don’t like bananas at all, but I love bread and making my own. So I was intrigued by the sudden surge of posts on sourdough.
At first, though, I wasn’t tempted. Most sourdough starter recipes use an awful lot of flour and I didn’t want to waste any. They direct you to throw half of your starter away every day and feed it more flour and water. If you didn’t, you’d end up with about a half-gallon of starter after a week (the amount of time it usually takes for the starter to mature), and even the recipes for the biggest bread rounds use at most a cup of it.
But after a few days of social distancing, I started to see recipes for small batches of sourdough starter. By small, I mean that you end up with at most one cup of starter, and some make even less. Best of all, the people posting them also made Instagram live videos to show how it all works.
That sounded a lot more reasonable, and manageable. Leftover starter keeps well in the fridge, and you only have to feed it a little flour and water once a week.
(Of course, you can save the discards and make other things with them. There are all sorts of posts for crackers, pancakes, muffins, waffles, etc. And if you want to go that way – and have enough flour and planning energy to make all those things – then by all means go ahead.)
I decided to try the starter method from David Atherton, the 2019 Great British Bake-Off champion. Mainly because he seemed the most relaxed about the whole thing – bread flour, all-purpose, whole wheat, rye, you can use them all, pretty much anything you’ve got on hand. You can see his Instagram posts and short videos @nomadbakerdavid.
Looking around for a bread recipe, I really liked the one by @ellie_croissant. She also writes a blog called The Flour of Love, and her Instagram TV video of her bread process is the best. You can find her recipe here, she also gave me permission to post it below, where I’ve added my notes and a few small changes. You should look at the photos in her post, though. You can really see what’s going on, and I almost never remember to take photos as I go along.
This is not an immediate enterprise. You’ll need a week to make the starter, mostly leaving it alone and letting it ferment. Then you’ll need two days for making the bread. Again, you’re not working all the time, although the bread dough requires more of your attention the first day.
There are about four cups of flour in this bread. It’s mostly white bread flour with a little whole wheat in there. And you’ll use almost no flour shaping the dough, so you won’t
waste any. You can make it entirely by hand or use a stand mixer (which is what I did). Since I make bread often I have a banneton, which is a spiral-pattern rising basket. But you can also let the dough rise in a greased bowl, so no need for anything fancy. The one thing that’s essential is an enameled cast-iron pot with a lid.
I loved the result – the bread is beautiful, tastes great, and has a lovely texture with the kind of big holes you find in artisan bread. Best of all, it worked as described. Seriously, I’d have been more than a little ashamed if I couldn’t get fermentation right, being in the wine business and all… And it’s a link to the past. This is the way bread was made before commercial yeast became available. The best part is that everyone’s sourdough tastes just a little bit different, because we all have different yeasts in the air around us. So, as with wine, you’ve got built-in terroir. Feel free to name your starter after your favorite wine château, or (for that matter) anything you like – it’s your terroir, after all!
Method from David Atherton, on Instagram and Twitter @nomadbakerdavid
This starter requires seven days of sitting around. On day eight you’ll be ready to make bread.
Day 1: Start with a clean jar with a lid that’ll hold at least a pint. Put 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon flour in the jar, along with two tablespoons of lukewarm filtered water (80 – 90 degrees F), and ½ teaspoon of plain yogurt or sour cream (look on the label to make sure it has active cultures) if you have it around. No worries if you don’t. Mix well, put the lid on, and let it sit for 24 hours in a warm-ish place (around 70 degrees F). If you’re leaving it on the counter, put it on a coaster or a potholder – even though the counter is the same temperature as the air in your kitchen, the starter cools off more quickly if it’s in direct contact with the counter.
You can use bread flour, whole wheat, or rye flour depending on what you have. All-purpose flour works too. Organic flour will likely start bubbling faster, but don’t worry if you don’t have it. Atherton also mentions that you can add a couple of organic grapes or raisins to the starter and they’ll help it along quicker. But again, don’t worry if you don’t have them.
Day 2 and 3: Add the same amount of flour and water to the starter and mix well. Don’t add any more yogurt or sour cream. Cover and let stand.
Day 4: If you’re seeing bubbles in your starter, hooray! If not, don’t panic. Sometimes it won’t start bubbling for another day or two. You’ll notice that it may look separated (even on Day 2). This is fine. The warning signs are anything pink – if you see it, throw the starter away, clean the jar well, and start again.
Remove the grapes or raisins if you used them, they’ve added everything they’re going to at this point. If the starter is bubbling, then add half as much flour and water (1 tablespoon water, plus 1 tablespoon and two teaspoons of flour). If it isn’t, then add the same amount of flour as Days 1-3.
Day 5-7: Follow Day 4 again. Your starter should be bubbling by Day 6. At this point if it’s bubbling you’ll notice it really rises up and then falls. All of this is OK. It should smell slightly sour. A little grayish or greenish tinge to the liquid on the top is perfectly fine. Beware of pink stuff, and any foul smell. You may notice that the starter puffs up a lot when you take the lid off the jar — again, perfectly fine.
I have heard some people say that it can take up to 10 days to get a starter going, depending on where you live, what flour you use, and what the temperature is like in your kitchen. So you can continue feeding the starter if it’s not active, but after Day 7 you can use the smaller amount of flour and water from Day 4.
Beginning on Day 8, you’re ready to make bread dough. Congratulations on making the starter! Put any starter you don’t use in the fridge and feed it once a week with the smaller amount of flour and water from Day 4. If you want to use it again, take it out of the fridge, feed it the Day 2-3 amount of flour and water and let it sit overnight. It’ll be ready to use the next day.
And what about if it doesn’t get active but doesn’t spoil? You could start again. Or, in the interest of saving flour you can add some of what you have to another bread recipe that uses yeast. The starter is equal weights of flour and water. I’d use 100 grams of starter, and subtract 50 grams each of flour and water from your bread recipe. The starter will give the bread great flavor even if you’re using commercial yeast.
From @Ellie_Croissant on Instagram, http://theflouroflove.wordpress.com. Reprinted with Ellie’s kind permission, with modifications by me.
108 grams sourdough starter
380 grams lukewarm filtered water
54 grams whole wheat flour
488 grams unbleached bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
A large bowl, or the bowl of a standing mixer [standing mixture instructions in square brackets]
A 4-5 quart enameled cast-iron Dutch oven with a lid
Dough Scrapers – one flexible one to get the dough out of the bowl, and a stiffer one for shaping the dough
A well-floured banneton, or a greased bowl with a diameter slightly smaller than the Dutch oven
A thin bladed serrated knife (for slashing the bread before baking)
.1. Weigh out your starter into your mixing bowl [or the bowl for your mixer]. Pour the lukewarm water into the bowl and use your fingers to vigorously mix the two together, until you have a large bowl of muddy-looking water.
.2. Add your two flours to the bowl and mix until well combined. [If you’re using the mixer, use the paddle and mix on low speed until combined. Clean off the paddle and remove it.] Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave to rest for thirty minutes.
.3. Once the mixture has rested, use your scraper to scoop it out of the bowl, and onto your (clean, unfloured) kitchen worktop. Pour your salt onto the dough and add a tiny splash of water to help it dissolve. Using your hands and the dough scraper, incorporate the salt, and knead your dough for ten minutes. This will feel like a long time, I’d advise putting the radio on- three songs should do it! [For the mixer, sprinkle the salt over the dough and put the dough hook on. Mix on low speed for a minute, then raise the speed to medium and let the mixer knead for about 7 minutes more.]
.4. Once your dough is kneaded, scoop it back into the bowl [or leave it in the mixer bowl], cover with your tea towel, and leave for another thirty minutes.
.5. Now it’s time to ‘turn’ your bread every thirty minutes for three hours (six turns), which is a way of helping the gluten strands stretch out and create structure in the dough. Wet your hands with a little water and use your scraper to scoop the dough into your hands. Let it relax for a second, then fold it in on itself in thirds like a business letter. Rotate the dough a quarter-turn and fold, then rotate the dough and fold again, until you have a slightly tighter ball of dough. Don’t force the folds — you want to be stretching the gluten, not tearing it! Put the dough back in the bowl, cover it with the towel, and let it rest for 30 minutes. Repeat this step over the next few hours; you should feel the dough tightening and becoming less sticky as time progresses.
.6. After your sixth turn, lightly flour your worktop, and place your dough, fold-side up, onto the flour. Press your dough gently into a square shape, allowing any large pockets of air to escape. Pull the top right corner in toward the center line of the dough and press gently to make it stick. Repeat with the left corner, and continue alternately on each side, essentially knitting that side of the dough together to create a tube of dough. The take the end closest to you and roll it away from you onto itself to create a tight roll of bread dough. Leave the dough, seam-side down on the work top covered with your tea towel and leave for another thirty minutes.
.7. The dough will have spread a little as it relaxes, so use your dough scraper to flip it over, so the seam is back on top. ‘Knit’ the two edges into the middle again, once again rolling the dough into a tight ball with the seam underneath. Using your dough scraper again, pick up your ball of dough and flip it into your floured banneton or greased bowl, with the seam on top. (Note: Ellie recommends using gluten-free baking flour for flouring your banneton and the work surface, and it works well because the gf flour doesn’t absorb water like wheat flour does.) Put your banneton or bowl inside a plastic bag and leave to prove for around 12 hours in the fridge. If you’re going to make a round loaf instead of an oval one, you’ll want to pull all four corners in as described. Then pull in the sides in between the corners. Keep going like this until you have a nice smooth round ball of dough.
.8. Take your dough out of the fridge and let it rest for about an hour at room temperature. Then set the oven to 450 degrees F with a rack on the bottom rungs. Whilst it’s coming up to temperature, put your pot with the lid on into the oven to heat up, too.
.9. When the oven is heated, turn your proofed bread out onto a piece of parchment paper. Gently press the paper onto the dough and turn the whole thing over – it should come right out. Dust the top of the dough with flour and use your bread razor or serrated knife to score a cross along the top of the dough that’s about ¾-inch deep and at least half as wide/long as the dough is. Do this gently, you don’t want to press down hard and push out all the bubbles you’ve waited to form. The cross allows the bread to expand as it bakes, and can look pretty too if you’ve time for fancier designs!
.10. Carefully remove the Dutch oven from the oven and take off the lid carefully pop your bread (still on the paper!) into your pot and put the lid on. Shake it gently side-to-side to center the dough in the pot. Cook in the oven for thirty minutes.
.11. After thirty minutes is up, take the lid off your pot and turn the oven down to 425 degrees F. Cook for another thirty minutes.
.12. Remove from the oven and let your lovely new loaf cool on a cooling rack. Try and wait at least an hour before diving in!