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Monday, May 18, 2020

Fred Bread: Learning to Make Sourdough

There’s stacks on the internet on how to make sourdough; this article references some of the better resources, gives my tips and cheats on doing it without all the equipment, and hints at the history of the rivalry between me and my sister Ange in the kitchen.  The whole thing started when I sent her a cartoon from the New Yorker, where a woman with a sourdough loaf is in front of the Wicked Witch’s mirror from Snow White, which tells her:
“Your sourdough smells great, it is true.  But there is a better baker here than you.”
My sister’s riposte?  Giving me my own starter, like a Slovakian wedding curse; i.e. giving the bride a crystal ornament she’ll have to keep on display and dust for the rest of her life.
So, let’s get dusting!

 Ange sent me two video tutorials with the starter.  An attractive, expert lady baker with tattooed forearms coaches a young millennial who keeps saying “interesting”; the videos were about how to get the starter going and keep it alive, and then how to make the dough, each one half an hour long, and full of advice.  It’s the kind of thing to make a cynic shout “millennial” and “hipster”, before chiming in a “get f****d” for good measure.
That being said, bread does taste good, a whole religion has made it central to their practice (… Christianity; sharing bread, and a prayer for bread that is its most holy).  With the isolation lifestyle that’s been thrust upon us, if you can dodge having to go to the shops for an extra day or two by baking your own bread, then you’re on a winner.  N’est pas?

Bread Types
Not to bore you, but let’s talk basics.  There are two basic types of bread;
·       unlevened – which is your middle eastern varieties, flat breads;
·       levened breads (risen) which fall into:
o   “yeast breads” (your traditional white high tin loaf, cobb, etc.) - If you’re pressed for time, make this bread.  It seems like a pain having to knead something for ten minutes, getting enormous forearms like some cartoon baker, but you’re in and out on the whole process in a mere three or four hours; and
o   the “artisanal” (that hipster word, which basically means traditional and hand-made by an expert in the craft) sourdough, where instead of one type of dried yeast, there’s a range of wild yeasts in your starter as well as bacteria that works with the yeasts to break down something or other to make it more digestible – it involves no kneading, but ages of stretching and folding and letting it have a think about it and relax.

It’s Slow
The first night I baked sourdough, I spent hours and hours getting together my first loaf of sourdough, and then about one in the morning I went to bed, safe in the knowledge I’d be baking bread around midday the next day!!
Baking sourdough is a combination of ancient baking practices and high science.  There are exacting variables, but the whole concept is similar to brewing; getting yeast to eat food and grow, creating gas to get caught in the stretchy dough and rise, with a sour taste from multiple yeasts and the helpful bacteria. 

The Starter
My sister gave me some of hers in a jar, and told me the starter is more likely to survive if you give it a name. You have to keep feeding the starter to keep it alive.  She hasn’t named hers but suggested I call mine Kit Junior; which seemed to suggest I might have a yeast infection.  Instead I opted to give my starter the name “Fred”.  So the loaves I’m making are now officially Fred Bread.
Take the starter out of the fridge the day you’re making dough, throwing out half and feeding the other half, leaving it four hours before you start – to get it all frothy and going.
You feed the starter to activate it, and as I added flour to feed it the first time, my hand brushed the scales and something went wrong, wiping how much I’d put in.  So I guessed, and added the right amount of water, and it was too thin; i.e. it didn’t expand to two or three times its size, but it did bubble and smell like sourdough starter (sour and yeasty).
I re-fed Fred, after the sloppy starter debacle, and the consistency came good.  Later I heard this hissing.  “What’s that?” I thought.  Then there was a farting noise, and Fred had spurted all over the bench; apparently you need to rest the lid on the jar and not shut it, because gas is produced, but it was good to see Fred making a comeback.  I stuck him straight in the fridge, perhaps to come back out for a feed tomorrow, though I don’t think we’ll be needing any bread for another couple of days.

Dough Making
The Mix
·       1000 gm flour
·       800 gm/ml water (you can go drier, like 70% hydration instead of 80%; i.e. 700 ml): NB no chlorine in the water as it hurts the starter – give it a filter then let it sit in a jug for a bit, you might see gas bubbles come out which is the chlorine going out (or the bubbles from the pour!!).  ;)
·       150 gm activated starter
·       15 gm sea salt (not iodised)

The Process – for those working from home or close to a kitchen
·       Pull some starter to make your dough out in the morning, feed the starter.
·       Mix the flour with water before adding the starter and yeast; let rest for at least an hour to let the gluten chains form.
·       Mix the starter and salt into the furry, sticky dough by folding with your hand.
·       Spend the afternoon stretching and folding the thing (every half an hour or so) – see video.  About four hours.
·       Form the loaf, let it rest; then do the final shape.
·       Put the dough in its proving baskets overnight; cloth cover (tea towel).
·       THEN cook the bread the next day (turn out, dust, slice with a sharp blade/razor).

It’s not like you’re busy the whole time.  It’s more about you get a tap on the shoulder to do one minute of work every hour or so.  But it is sloooow.

About the first thing to disappear from all the store shelves in the panic hoarding was flour, and though it’s probably back on the shelves now, “bakers bread” flour is harder to come by – it is “harder”, and hence allows the production of  longer chains of gluten.
Ange uses a mix of rye flour with her bakers flour, and uses a mix of rice flour and normal flour to stop the bread sticking to the proving baskets, and a trick this lady had on the tutorial was – just before you bake it in your dutch oven – to put flour on the top, then get a razor blade and cut a slice for it to split down (otherwise it will do it anyway, just not so prettily, at its weakest point) and then she does a series of nicks in it in a pattern to make it look like a sheaf of wheat.

The first pass
It was a bit light on the heat by me, and came out tasting and looking like the best sourdough loaf you ever had from the supermarket; just not quite crisp and rustic as one of those top bakers, but still pretty good.

On the second take
I did a slightly different process – mixing the flour with water first and allowing it to sit for a while to allow the gluten chains to form before adding the starter – and then when I made the mix (and saw what the one on screen looked like from a video tutorial) thought “this is too dry”, so added a bit more water and then made it too wet!).  It was like trying to wrestle a really sloppy water balloon in the end into its resting bowls, and it all oozed as I stuck it onto the baking paper before dropping it into the dutch oven.
The result?  Surprisingly, still very good bread that’s better than anything you can buy down here (on the Bass Coast), but because the loaf was a bit flatter I just called it ciabatta.  Oh, and the second loaf from the same batch, which I allowed to prove even longer– letting it sit on the bench for an extra four or five hours – actually rose a whole lot more.

Third Time’s the Charm
So with experience comes adroitness; as a passing note I’ve just made my third batch and think I’ve nearly cracked it (the lead photo for this article).  Using a mix of plain bakers flour and about 10% spelt, I let this batch prove even longer, left it in the fridge longer too.  I’ve got a spare loaf in the fridge and will probably bake that one on Wednesday, so I’ll be interested to see what forty eight hours in the fridge does to it, but I don’t think it will ruin it.  These things are robust-ish; they’ll make bread, it’s just a matter of how high you set the bar.  Don’t hurry them, let them relax out of the fridge and warm up, and let them rip.

This article would not be complete if I didn’t make a few notes on equipment, and how you can do this at home without spending money, except on flour.

Dutch Oven
You need to “steam bake”: for the first twenty minutes, and the easiest way to do this is start the loaf in a “ductch oven”.  Prrpt!  Excuse me, Sir Les.
I’m killing our fake Le Creuset (not from the farts, incidentally).  Our original, real-deal, old Creuset – a French brand of enamelled baking dish which are quite expensive – I killed by doing a number of casseroles that I burnt to the bottom, and then cleaned by boiling water with bicarb soda in it, stripping the enamel.  Oh yes, and by using abrasive pads to scrub.  Whatever, you can buy these cheap arsed Chinese knock offs from Aldi, and we have one, but the handle on the lid broke once when it fell off a bench.  So I chucked the genuine article but kept the handle and put it on the knock off Chinois pot.
Long story short (I don’t think), when baking sourdough you have to have a terrifically hot oven – about 250 ºc + – and heat your “dutch oven” before popping your bread in.  Once baking’s underway, give it twenty minutes to “steam cook”, and then you remove the lid and give it another twenty minutes to brown the crust.  Last but not least once finished you then turn off the oven and leave the door open a crack to let the crust crisp up as the last stage for a final twenty minutes.
Whatever, my red Creusset-wannabe comes out black when that hot from the oven – like the red colour has changed.  And the enamel inside is rooted.  The experts use these solid matt black ones that are thicker cast iron, but apparently transfer the heat a bit strongly through the base of the bread and can cause you to burn it a bit.  Whatever, I’ve decided that I’m not even going to worry about it and have a sacrificial pot for the bread.  Anyway, there’s a sale of cast iron cookware at Aldi this weekend, including solid metal handled thick numbers for only $30.

In the video you’ll see our instructors use dough scrapers and bench scrapers – one plastic and curved, the other steel – neither of which I had and were speciality equipment.  Instead, I used a soft scraper for a mixer to ease the bread out of the bowl, and for the metal blade work I used the trusty Barbie Mate™.  Not as good as the real deal, but good enough to get you through the night.

Proving Baskets
Proving baskets were a revelation; I had the historical scales fall from my eyes.  Remember those cheap straw baskets you used to get bread in, in the seventies, with a napkin on the bottom or even a cloth liner?  Yeah, them.  “Bread baskets”.  I feel like such a muppet not realising that they weren’t just for serving bread, but for proving the stuff too. I threw all of my old baskets away in about 1990.
Doh!  I mean “dough”.
So instead I put my dough lightly coated in flour into a floured tea towel in a wooden bowl (include rice flour for the dusting, as it helps it to stop sticking to the basket/cloth – thanks Ange!).

These video-blogs were highly instructive.  Be prepared for tattoos and American hipsters, but you have got admit they all seem like quite nice people, and perhaps sourdough is becoming the new rock and roll (you’ll see what I mean).

How To Make The Best Sourdough Bread | Dear Test Kitchen

15 Mistakes Most Beginner Sourdough Bakers Make

And of course, if you wanna know what’s happening in Melbourne’s happening northern suburbs (our version of Brooklyn), dig it at the Coburg Sourdoughers.

Bon appétit!