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The staff of life

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been getting really into breadmaking. I liked the idea of starting with as few ingredients as possible, and I'd read that slow-rise breads are easier to digest, so rather than using commercial yeast, I spent about a week making a sourdough starter. After spending some time on the Internet and discovering that there are as many ideas about how to do this as there are bakers, I did it this way: I washed out an old plastic jug that fits comfortably in our fridge. I whisked together one cup of organic white flour and one cup of hand-hot water, put the mixture in the jug and left the jug in the warmest spot in my kitchen, by the oven. Then I fed more flour and water (half a cup each) once a day and gave it a good stir. Once it started smelling yeasty and throwing off lots of hooch (a mildly alcoholic liquid that is a by-product of the yeast fermentation), I refrigerated it till I was ready to make bread (that way you don't need to feed it every day, which isn't worth doing unless you're also going to bake every day - otherwise you'll go through flour at a frightening rate). Done! Some starters get really frothy and may double in size between feeds, but mine never did. Some websites will tell you this means the starter hasn't worked, but as it turns out, that's wrong - different yeasts just behave differently, and I found people online with perfectly successful starters that looked exactly like mine.

To make the bread itself, I take the starter out of the fridge at least eight hours before I want to start baking. Half gets poured into another jug and kept for making pancakes. The remaining half stays in the jug and gets a feed of one cup of flour and one cup of water to wake it up. Then I leave it in its spot by the oven and go off to do whatever I need to do with my day.

When I get back, I "proof the sponge": pour the starter into a bowl, feed it again with another cup of flour and another cup of water, cover it and leave it to sit for two to three hours. Meanwhile, I give the jug a good wash and let it dry.

Now I can make the actual bread dough. First, I put the oven on to maximum to heat. ETA: I now also put a bowl of water in the bottom of the oven to keep the air moist, which seems to improve the rise. I remove the bowl at the end of the second rise, before actually baking the bread. Two cups of the sponge go in a larger bowl; the rest goes back in the jug and gets put in the fridge to wait till the next time I need some starter. I add two tablespoons of melted butter, four teaspoons of sugar and two teaspoons of salt to the sponge. Then I mix in three cups of organic strong white flour and knead the mixture till it all comes together. I roll it into a ball and put it aside for a moment while I lightly oil the bottom of the bowl. I put the dough back in the bowl and turn it over a few times so that it gets a light covering of oil to stop the top drying out, cover the bowl with a tea towel, turn off the oven and put the bowl inside, giving the dough a nice warm place to rise. I go away again and do something else for two or three hours - like typing this post! I have a loaf rising right now, but more about that later.

Then I get the dough out, turn the oven back on, knock the dough back by thumping it on a floured table (R says I bully it!), knead again, form it into a vague loaf shape, oil the pan I'm going to bake it in, put the dough in and oil it again, turn the oven back off, put the pan in and leave it for the second rise. (This is a slightly misleading name and could fool people into thinking that their bread hasn't worked - the dough expands all right, but not all of the expansion is necessarily upwards. Sourdough breads often make quite shallow loaves.) This can be between three hours and seven hours, depending on when I want to eat the bread. Finally, I bake the bread for about 40 minutes at 200C. Leave it to cool for a bit, enjoy the smell of bread filling the house, and then eat.

I can't say how much satisfaction I've been getting from this. It's a simple enough process to be quite soothing, but complex enough to give a real sense of achievement - and it has such tangible results. The bread has a lovely tangy taste. Taking sandwiches to work made from bread I created myself gives me a lovely little boost when I go to the fridge at lunchtime, and it tastes better and is probably healthier than commercial bread (much of which is made using a quick-rise process that destroys many of the nutrients). I especially like timing it so that there's fresh, still-warm bread for breakfast, but getting it ready for tea-time works too. Bake twice a week, which looks quite feasible, and I could stop buying commercial bread for myself altogether (I'd still be buying it for the rest of the family, who have sandwiches more often than I do.)

The loaf that's rising in the oven at the moment will probably be the last white one I make for a while. I'm trying out one more tweak to improve the second rise - putting a bowl of water in the oven with the dough - and then I'm going to move on. White is easiest to make, so it's a good one to start with, but I want to start adding wholemeal and rye flours - entirely apart from the benefits of fibre, I was mostly raised on German rye bread, and the bread is one of the things I still miss about Germany. After that, flavours and textures: spices, herbs, oats, seeds. And new ideas for the half of the starter that gets discarded: apparently you can use it to make English muffins, American muffins, bagels, pizza bases and probably more. I can tell I'm going to have a lot of fun with this...

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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 26th, 2009 10:19 pm (UTC)
I've been meaning to do sourdough for a long time now, but I never quite get around to it. It's kinda intimidating at first. Plus I'm lazy. But homemade bread is so amazingly better than store bread. I really should make some more.
Jun. 27th, 2009 07:23 am (UTC)
I think it gets intimidating because of the One True Way-ists. But really, it's not that hard - yeast is virtually indestructible unless you seriously overheat it. It's not that much work, either - it takes a long time, but most of that is time when you're not actively doing anything to it.
Jun. 26th, 2009 11:21 pm (UTC)
You might be interested in this which is my partner's detailed description of his homemade sourdough bread.

Go you!
Jun. 27th, 2009 01:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks! That's interesting - it looks like he uses a much drier starter and sponge than I do.
Jun. 26th, 2009 11:45 pm (UTC)
Re: The staff of life
the bread is one of the things I still miss about Germany

same here. i make my sourdough starter with organic rye, which i am now grinding myself, and it's very yummy.

though i still bake bread mostly in the bread machine; i just not good at timing things otherwise, and making it by hand reminds me too much fof those days when i HAD to do it. i do bake all my own bread. maybe this winter i'll try my hand at some traditional german recipes.

it's great that this is so good for you!
Jun. 27th, 2009 01:46 pm (UTC)
Re: The staff of life
Thank you! Yes, I can imagine having to do it would take a lot of the fun out of it.
Jun. 27th, 2009 01:55 am (UTC)
There is nothing quite so satisfying to me as turning flour and water into bread. I feel connected back in time through generations. Plus, almost everyone loves good bread, so I can give a gift that is economical and gratefully received.
Jun. 27th, 2009 01:47 pm (UTC)
I don't remember anyone in their family making their own bread - though of course far enough back they must have done - so I don't quite get that intergenerational connection from it, but I think I recognise what you mean. I get it from some other chores, like hanging laundry out to dry rather than putting it in the dryer.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )