Routines and rituals

I have been baking sourdough bread more-or-less regularly since March 2013. ‘More’ in the first flush of my enthusiasm; ‘less’ when the routine became a chore after a few years; ‘much more’ since the coronavirus pandemic has given my leisure pursuits a more homely focus.

My sourdough culture has survived the vicissitudes of those eight years remarkably well: it remains ever ready and willing to rise to the occasion. This loyal little community of bacteria and yeasts has stuck with me through the lean times (six weeks in the back of the fridge while I was travelling in Europe) and the times of plenty (two loaves a week during the pandemic).

This is my baking routine.

Sunday afternoon: the levain

I retrieve the little sealed bowl of sourdough starter from the fridge. (It has never felt right to me, calling it a ‘mother’. Do I have mummy issues?)

I take a large bowl and weigh out 200g of strong white flour and 200g of stoneground wholemeal. 350ml of water is enough to mix it to a stiff dough. In goes the starter. All of it. No messing around with spoonsful of starter and keeping the rest back: a new starter will be made on baking day from the levain.

The levain (Fr.), or in plain English, ‘leaven’ is a large mass of sourdough culture, It will bubble away busily overnight. Come the morning, it will be ready to pounce eagerly on the bulk dough mix and do the business.

In less colourful terms: the yeasts and bacteria in the levain will consume carbohydrates in the flour for metabolic energy in order to reproduce rapidly. They will produce carbon dioxide and lactic acid as … ahem … byproducts. In the process, the dense dough is turned into a lighter, foamy, somewhat acidic carbohydrate matrix, bound together by viscous, elastic proteins called gluten, and containing bubbles of carbon dioxide.

Sunday evening: the autolyse

My wife retires to bed and I reluctantly haul my sleepy self into the kitchen to measure out the bulk flour for the autolyse. I prepare two mixes:

Wholemeal and rye mix – makes two 1kg loaves
  • 500g strong white flour
  • 300g stoneground wholemeal flour
  • 200g stoneground rye flour
  • Approx. 850ml water
  • Additional ingredients added later in the day; see below
Sweet or savoury mix – makes one 1.5kg loaf
  • 250g strong white flour
  • 250g stoneground wholemeal flour
  • Approx. 400ml water
  • Additional ingredients added later in the day; see below

By premixing the flours into an autolyse (French, from a Greek word meaning ‘self-digestion’). I begin the process of breaking down the carbohydrates in the flour, softening the sharp fragments of bran and preparing the dough to receive and be colonised rapidly by the levain. The result will be a more elastic, workable dough and an even-textured, flavoursome loaf.

The bulk ferment

Monday 6 a.m. I pad barefoot into the kitchen rubbing my bleary eyes and take a look at my levain. It has turned from a gloopy, lumpy, thick gruel (appetising??) to a frothy batter. Exactly what we want. Right now, though, a strong cup of tea is more urgent … Then maybe some banjo practice before going back to bed for snuggles …

Monday 10 a.m. Okay, so I got distracted. But no matter: sourdough bread making isn’t a very time-critical or demanding process. It just requires my periodic attention throughout the day for a number of short, easy tasks. As such, bread making is easy to combine with my writing work and my music. I can even squeeze in an hour’s walk on the beach.

I now make the new starter: half a cup each of white and wholemeal flour, and enough water to mix to a stiff paste. I stir in about three dessert spoonfuls of the levain, cover this new starter and set it aside to get going. When it’s starting to bubble all over, it can go into the fridge until next baking day.

Now for the fun bit. I fold the levain into the two bulk doughs – about half into each bowl. That way, the smaller ‘sweet or savoury mix’ gets a higher ratio of starter. It’s going to need that, later in the day.

The bread mixes are now covered and set aside to ferment. There’s no kneading involved in my sourdough bread making: it’s a very gentle process. I can wash up my big wooden spoon: the rest of the day will be hands-on, so it won’t be needed again.

Monday 11.30 a.m. I pour some tepid water into a small bowl. I’ll need that to wet my hand before handling the dough, which will be very, very, very sticky. 

Holding the bowl with my left hand, I push the fingers of my right hand down under the dough, scooping it upwards and folding it over. I rotate the bowl a quarter turn and repeat the process three or four times. Already I can feel the dough warming up, becoming more elastic and homogenous, starting to spring back when I release it as those gluten chains bind and stretch.

I do the same with the second dough mix, then cover the dough, before washing my sticky hand under the tap. The whole process only takes a couple of minutes.

Monday 1, 2, 3 p.m. Much the same routine, but with each handling, the dough gets smoother and more elastic. At 3 p.m. I sprinkle salt on the dough before folding it. Two teaspoons for the big dough mix and one teaspoon for the smaller, sweet or savoury mix.

Monday, 4 p.m. I get the mixer out and whizz up one of the following mixes:

Savoury: a cup of almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts, a generous chunk of Parmesan or Cheddar

Sweet: a cup of nuts as above, half a cup of chopped dates

The dry mix is folded gently into the ‘sweet or savoury’ dough. Now do you see why that dough has to be lighter? That’s a lot of dry ingredients to incorporate. Both doughs are folded, covered and set aside one last time.

Shaping the loaves

Monday, 5 p.m. I prepare my work surface by dusting liberally with flour, then scoop the dough out of one bowl with a wet hand and plop it on the floured surface. It may come away from the bowl cleanly after a few folds, or I may need to scrape the bowl with my silicone dough knife.

I leave it to sit while I wash and dry my hands and the dough knife. From now on, I’ll be working with floured hands and dough knife, not wet. I dust the top of the glistening, sticky dough lightly with flour to make it easier to work. If I’m making two loaves, I use the dough knife to cut the dough evenly in two, then to flip the ends of the cut pieces over the top of the dough to form two roundish masses. I oil my loaf tins and put them on the work surface, ready to be filled.

Now comes the loaf shaping process. I flour my hands and deftly pull one end of the dough ball, stretching it and folding it over the top of the ball. Then the other end, then one side, then the other, then the four corners. I now have a somewhat elongated parcel of dough, which I flip over to put the seams on the bottom, rocking it slightly with my cupped hands. I  gently place it in the loaf tin, where it has room to expand by about 30% without overflowing. Thus also with the remaining loaves. I’ll check periodically on the rising of the loaves over the next hour to 90 minutes.

Time to wash up. Any surplus flour on the work surface can be scraped together and stored in a sealed container for next time, to be used again as dusting flour.

The rise

Monday, 7 p.m. The loaves are rising well and getting quite close to the tops of the tins; I set my oven to 210˚C. I mix up a teaspoon of salt with a little hot water in a small bowl. If I’m doing a sweet loaf, I may also do a second bowl with water and a teaspoon of honey.

Monday, 7.15 p.m. The oven isn’t quite up to temperature yet, but I might as well get on with scoring and glazing the loaves. I glaze them with the salt water, using a pastry brush, then cut them to about 2 cm depth. Since I don’t have a lame (Fr. ‘blade’, meaning a razor-sharp scoring blade; a normal knife will drag), I use a sharp pizza wheel, which will cut deeply without dragging the delicate skin of the unbaked loaf.

I then sprinkle each loaf with a different seed: pumpkin, sunflower, poppy, fennel, cumin are all good. Today I go with pine nuts, although their high oil content will make them char a little. As I’m doing a cheese and nut loaf, I’ll sprinkle it generously with smoked sweet paprika.

Date and almond loaves get the honey glaze instead, which turns out dark, caramelised and sticky. 

the bake

Monday, 7.20 p.m. A beep announces that the oven is up to temperature. In go the loaves! I set the timer for 25 minutes.

If my timing is really good, dinner is ready: I can dish up, carry our plates into the lounge and settle down with a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine in front of the TV. Who said blokes can’t multitask?

Monday, 7.45 p.m. The loaves are voluptuously swollen and toasted on top. I gingerly remove the hot tins and turn the oven down to 190˚C. I glaze the loaves a second time. This produces an attractive, salty glaze and prevents the tops from burning.

Back go the loaves into the hot oven. I set the timer for 30 minutes, pour another glass of wine for my wife and myself, and retreat to the lounge.

Monday, 8.15 p.m. The timer goes off. Out come the loaves. A rap with my knuckles produces the desired hollow, ‘I’m done’ sound. I turn them out on to the wire cooling racks and stack up the hot, empty tins. The bread smells wonderful. I marvel briefly at the awesomeness of my new loaves (hey, I’ve never claimed to be modest) then retire to the lounge.

The day after

Tuesday 6 a.m. I pad barefoot into the kitchen, ogle my bonny loaves lasciviously before making myself a mug of tea and limbering up on my banjo of choice. It’s a hard life, but someone has to live it …

So, there you have it. A protracted process, but not onerous. It results in enough tasty, nutritious bread to last two greedy people for two weeks. Two loaves go in the freezer, one is chosen for immediate consumption. Usually the cheese or date loaf, because … damn it’s going to taste good, so why wouldn’t we eat it straight away?

I don’t profess to any great competence as a technical bread maker. I don’t obsess over yeast to lactobacillus ratio, dough yield, fermentation temperature, relative humidity or the perfect oven spring. I just use high-quality, minimally processed biodynamic or organic flours with a high protein content, and do what works for me. A proper lame would be nice though …

Be that as it may, I prefer my sourdough cheese-and-nut bread to just about any loaf I’ve ever eaten – other than in Germany, perhaps, where they know a thing or two about good bread.

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