Bread part 1 – sourdough

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sourdough 009This is a long post, so pour yourself a cup of tea or a glass of wine and read it when you’re in a relaxed frame of mind.

I love good bread. If I had to live mostly on perfect freshly baked bread and butter I wouldn’t be too sad. (Plus maybe some ripe tomatoes and pears, and some parmesan and Tudge’s smoked bacon as well) And baking has always been at the centre of what we do in my cafes. Every working day since 1989 we’ve made our own bread for sandwiches, for toast and for eating with soups and salads. Not only that but I know that our original ‘Place Below’ bread recipe has been adopted and adapted by customers, friends and family far and wide.

Since we opened, however, the standard and availability of craft baking has improved immeasurably and certainly I’ve become more picky about what I’m looking for in bread. So it was with both excitement and a little trepidation that I decided that it was time to develop and improve our bread. And we’ve now started selling our new breads to take home – already in Hereford and I hope before too long in Cambridge.

We now make a delicious organic white sourdough and at the same time we’ve improved the recipe for our brown bread. And we to continue to make our original Italian-style olive oil rolls and baps. I’ll come to our new brown bread recipe in a future post, but here’s a gentle introduction to the beautiful world of sourdough.


As all visitors to our house over the last year or so will know, I’ve been obsessing about sourdough for some time. I’ve found it’s taken a bit of time to become familiar with the processes involved so whilst there’s no single bit of it which is difficult you’re likely to find that your 10th batch is better than your first. Don’t be impatient – it’s really worth getting it right.

In addition to many conversations with other bakers (thank you to Dean at All Saints, Annabelle Mottram, Damien Lorentzen and Peter Cook amongst others) the book that I and many other sourdough novices have found helpful and clear is Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf. Unsurprisingly it’s also a subject that has generated a vast number of discussion groups and blogs on the web, many of which are generous and helpful.

Nurturing your starter

Sourdough breads are made using a natural leaven in place of either fresh or dried yeast. A mixture of flour and water (and sometimes additional yeast-friendly things such as grapeskins) is left at room temperature where it attracts and becomes a feeding-ground for yeasts which naturally occur in the air everywhere. This mixture is then fed in a controlled way to promote the growth and activity of these natural yeasts until you have a fully developed and lively starter.

However, rather than start from scratch I did what I would recommend any sourdough novice does, and got some already fully developed starter from a friend. Mine came from Annabelle Mottram and she got it in turn from her son-in-law Damien Lorentzen of the short-lived but stunningly good Lorentzen’s bakery in Hereford. It’s a descendent of this starter which we’re now using at Café @ All Saints in Hereford and which I’ll be bringing over to Cambridge before long.

(If any Herefordian readers of this want to get a bit of starter from us to start your own home sourdough going then just give us a day’s warning and we’ll give you a bit to get started with.)

So once you’ve got a bit of starter you need to feed it to keep it lively. If you’re making bread daily then it’s an easy and routine process as you simply feed your starter daily just after you’ve made your bread. If you’re just making an occasional or weekly batch then it’s slightly more complicated. The sourdough starter will keep happily for many weeks in the fridge but if it’s been in the fridge for a while then you want to give it 3 days of being fed daily at room temperature before making a loaf with it. A creamy bubbly look and a (to me) delicious yoghurty aroma are the signs of a lively starter that’s ready to use.

You only need a tiny bit of starter (50g is plenty) to get your own sourdough setup going but to keep it simple I’ll assume that you’ve been given 100g of starter. Although many sourdough recipes suggest feeding with equal weights of water and flour I’ve found that a slightly higher proportion of flour including a small amount of rye flour, improves the taste of the bread. Apparently the bacteria that produce acetic acid are happier in a slightly drier environment. Also you should aim to add at least four times the weight of ‘food’ to starter. So, starting with a lively present of 100g starter from a friend your starter-feeding and bread-making routine might look like this:

Day 1

Note: both liquids as well as solids are weighed rather than measured by volume – this makes life much easier especially if you’ve invested in a decent set up electronic scales.

100g starter
200g strong white flour
40g wholegrain fye flour
200g water at room temperature

Stir everything together and leave in container with a lid on for 24 hours at room temperature. This produces 540g of starter. All being well at the end of 24 hours you will have a creamy bubbly gunge.

Day 2

Remove 380g of starter for making 2 x 900g loaves (see below) and then proceed as for day 1

Your loaves will then prove overnight in the fridge and be ready for baking on day 3

Day 3

Bake the loaves which have proved overnight.

If you are baking daily you will then make the next batch of dough and once again feed the starter. Continue this process for the rest of your life donating excess bread and starter to friends and family at every opportunity.

Making the bread

sourdough 006I’m going to assume that you’ve got a Kenwood Chef, KitchenAid or similar type of mixer. It can also be done by hand, but I’m trying to keep things (relatively) simple.

Most professional craft bakers that make sourdough bread prove the loaves in special baskets (‘bannetons’) and then when the loaves are ready to bake transfer them direct to the oven floor. However, I’m a former accountant and I like my loaves orderly and loaf-shaped which is both easier and creates the correct shaped slices for sandwiches, sandwich boxes and toast. The other difference is that that if you bake directly on the oven floor you tend to get big bubbles in the dough where it ‘springs’ upwards on initial contact with the hot oven floor. You may like this effect or you may feel (as I usually do) that holes are simply things that let butter and jam go to waste.

makes 2 x 900g loaves

Use traditional 2lb loaf tins. Quite a lot of modern tins are designed for 1kg of dough – if you’re using one of these you’ll need to increase the quantities accordingly.

900g strong white flour
550g lukewarm water
380g starter
20g salt

  1. The afternoon before you want the bread baked (i.e. day 2 in the notes above), mix the flour and water together (but don’t knead) and leave for 20 mins to ‘autolyze’. This improves the texture of the final loaf – Google it if you’re interested in the science.
  2. Add the salt and knead briefly to roughly distribute it, then add the starter and mix again fairly briefly until fully incorporated.  The reason for adding the salt and starter separately is that salt kills the natural yeasts in the starter. Leave for 30 mins at room temperature and then knead on a slow speed for 5 minutes.
  3. Leave for one more hour at room temperature then knead on slow for another 5 minutes.
  4. Oil the tins. Weigh the dough out to the correct sized blobs. Shape the dough and put in the tins. It’s a very wet dough and it takes a while to get used to shaping it – I find a metal dough scraper a useful tool. Leave in tins in the fridge overnight to prove. By the morning the dough should be bulging promisingly above the top of the tins (but this will depend on the temperature of your kitchen and your fridge as well as the liveliness of your starter). If the loaves have not risen enough then take them out of the fridge and continue to prove for an hour or two until they have risen sufficiently.
  5. Bake at 220C for 40 mins until a deep golden brown on the outside and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom. If the crust looks too dark for your taste then bake for only 10 mins at 220C and then reduce to 200C for the a further 30 minutes.
  6. Try to be patient one last time and allow to cool before eating.

I think this creates a stunningly good loaf. A delicious flavour and a wonderful chewy texture. If you’re like me you’ll find that normal bread no longer quite cuts the mustard. A dangerous development, a bit like getting to like old claret, but not quite so expensive.