Sourdough is one of the oldest and most simple forms of bread. It was baked before the days of sachet yeast and processed flour. It is a sturdy, robust bread that is utterly delicious when baked properly. Sourdough gets its name from the slightly sour note on the palate, which comes the fermented natural yeast.
This bread uses only three ingredients; flour, water and salt. “Where’s the yeast,” you may ask. All unprocessed flour has natural yeast in it, and sourdough uses a process of fermentation to harvest this yeast. To make sourdough, you’ll first need to create a yeast culture using wholemeal brown flour and water.
This culture is then mixed with strong flour and water to make the dough for the bread. The process is highly rewarding when your first loaf comes out with a crispy golden crust that traps the air pockets inside the loaf. Here are step-by-step instructions for making your own sourdough.
How to make the yeast culture for sourdough
The yeast culture will take one week to prepare. You need to feed it every day and keep it in a warm environment. Once you have the culture prepared, you can keep it alive for many years by feeding it – some bakers have had yeast culture passed down for generations.
For the culture, you’ll need a clean glass jar (about one litre). It needs to be washed with hot water and placed in an oven to dry, to kill off any bacteria – this is important. The jar needs to be completely sterile so that the yeast can grow without having to compete with other bacteria. Use only wholemeal brown flour for the culture – stoneground is better. If the flour is bleached or processed, the natural yeast will have been killed.
- Day one – Mix 50g of wholemeal brown flour with 50ml of tap water in the jar. Cover with a loose lid (don’t ever tighten the lid) and leave overnight.
- Day two – Add another 50g brown flour and 50ml water to the culture.
- Day three – Remove 100g of culture from the jar (pour it down a drain). Feed remaining culture with 100g brown flour and 100ml water.
- Day four – Remove 150g of culture. Feed remaining culture with 100g brown flour and 100ml water. By now you should start to see some bubbles and the culture should start to smell like vinegar. If not, keep going – the yeast will eventually grow.
- Day five – Remove 200g of culture. Feed rest with 150g flour and 150ml water.
- Day six onwards – Remove 250g of culture. Feed rest with 200g flour and 200ml water. By now the culture should be nice and bubbly and the smell should be rich and yeasty.
Keep feeding your culture and it can last for decades. If you only bake once a week, you can store the culture in a fridge and feed it once a week (the night before you bake). Never freeze the culture as this will kill the yeast. The longest it can go without being fed is about two weeks, in which case you may need to feed it for two or three days before you bake. The yeast is a living organism, so think of it as a pet that needs regular food (flour) and water. Whenever you use some culture, replace the same weight with flour and water (i.e. if you use 160g of culture, put in 160g of flour and 160g of water).
How to bake sourdough bread
Once your yeast culture has been living for seven days, you are ready to bake. This recipe will bake one loaf, but you can double the ingredients to bake two loaves (you should have enough yeast culture to do this). You’ll need the following ingredients:
- 400g strong white flour (must be strong, not regular white flour).
- 230ml lukewarm water
- 160g yeast culture
- 5g salt
- Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl until they just hold together.
- Tip the dough onto a clean surface and start kneading. Roll the dough with the palm of your hand and hook it back using your fingers. Keep rotating the dough while you knead. There is no set time for kneading, everyone kneads differently so keep an eye on the dough. If you hold it up to a window and stretch out the middle, it should hold together without tearing and you should see some light through the dough. If the dough tears and falls apart, it is not yet ready. The dough may seem wet, this is normal – don’t add extra flour as it will happily absorb the flour and become dry.
- Place the dough back into the bowl and let it prove for three hours in a warm room. Cover the bowl with a tea towel. Because sourdough uses natural yeast, the proving process takes much longer.
- After three hours, remove the dough from the bowl and place it onto a clean surface. Stretch the dough out and fold it back into a ball. Roll the dough into a nice round ball and pull it along the surface, between your cupped hands, so that the edges tighten up.
- Place a clean tea towel into a bowl and sprinkle a bit of flour over the tea towel. Place the dough into the tea towel and cover loosely. Leave to prove for another three hours in a warm room. You can also leave the dough in the fridge overnight at this stage until you are ready to bake.
- When ready to bake, take a pyrex bowl with a lid (or any rounded baking pot with a lid) and sprinkle some flour onto the inside of the lid. Flip the dough out of the tea towel onto the lid. Score the top of the dough with a sharp knife. Place the bowl onto the lid, over the dough to form a sealed container. This will help the bread to bake in its own steam.
- Preheat your oven to 230℃. Place the pyrex dish into the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the pyrex bowl, leaving the sourdough and the lid in the oven. Bake for another 25 to 30 minutes, or until the crust is dark brown and crispy.
Baking sourdough is not an exact science, rather it is based on feel and looks. Your first time baking sourdough will be a learning experience, but after a couple of attempts, you will soon perfect the art of baking the world’s oldest form of bread using nothing but flour, water and salt. For more inspiration, check out Irish baker Patrick Ryan’s sourdough masterclass.
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