The Sourdough Diaries

Sour Dough Starter

I accidentally spent a few hours online reading about the World Bread Awards. They actually have an amateur baker category. As someone who has baked bread approximately once in their life (and it was flatbread), this is unreasonably exciting. The guy who won it owns a technology company, so I’m not going to let my lack of bread baking experience put me off. (Two of our local bakeries also got a nod in the professional categories: the Da Barra bakery at Grampound Road scooped a gold for their baguette tradition, as well as two silvers and two bronzes and the Little Bakehouse at Downgate won a bronze award.) Reading about the awards is a little bit like watching the Great British Bake Off; it makes me want to master all the skills I usually dismiss as time consuming and dull so that I can enter.

This sudden desire to bake award winning bread arrives on the back of an article I read on the Guardian website a few weeks ago about sourdough starters and how difficult they are. Bizarrely, this only made me want to try making one. I am not necessarily a person who thinks practically about challenges; I am a terrible knitter, but I’m knitting a jumper; I am not a bread baker, but obviously I should tackle sourdough first. After all, the bonsai tree I bought back in April is still alive: it survived the great drought of late August when I went on holiday and is generally forgiving when I forget about it for a few days. Surely sourdough isn’t more temperamental than a bonsai tree.

I had a quick look around the internet, but actually settled on the sourdough starter recipe from the Bread Revolution book by Duncan Glendinning and Patrick Ryan of the Thoughtful Bread Co. My Mum uses their recipes all the time and they always turn out beautifully, so I felt it was a reasonable guarantee of success. They have a bakery in Bath which I’d desperately like to visit and they also have a cookery school! Their recipe uses live yoghurt and milk, but you can also use grapes or tomatoes or rhubarbs – you basically need something to get the fermentation going in the starter. Apparently the starter takes about a week to be ready to cook with, but it can take longer than that to bake really good sourdough with it. Legend has it that there are starters that are over 100 years old, but there’s nothing in the Guinness Book of Records about it so I’m not sure how much I believe them. The starter can also be used to bake one of my absolute favorite foods (pancakes) as well as tortillas and crackers. So all I have to do is look after it for a week. I’ll update the diaries through the week, so you can keep up to date with how it’s going.

Day 1 of the Sourdough Diaries

The initial starter mix should not have been difficult. I measured out the TWO ingredients and David took beautiful photographs (of yoghurt and milk, how is that even possible?). All we then had to do was warm the milk slightly. This was a disaster.

The first pan got hot a bit faster than we expected so we decided to abandon it and start again.

David then guesstimated the milk volume. I am a measurer. I don’t guess measurements, I use a jug. I have a deep suspicion that David’s guesstimating may be the death of my starter.

We then forgot about the second pan and overheated it again. David then completely abandoned guesstimating and starts adding cold milk to get the right temperature.

So we had a pan of perfect temperature milk of completely unknown volume, and proceeded to add a completely random amount to the yoghurt. I’m not sure we started well.

It looks appalling, though as I understand it, this is normal. It needs a name.

Day 2 of the Sourdough Diaries

Nameless sourdough starter requires flour. Somebody has suggested calling it ‘Burp’, but I’m not sure I can have something called Burp living in my kitchen. Any suggestions? Turns out that all the bread flour in my house has seeds in it. I briefly considered using self raising flour or seedy flour, but it didn’t sound like a good idea. To the Co-operative!

Floury yoghurty milk doesn’t look too lumpy. I was supposed to stir evenly, and I used a whisk – same thing, right?

Just realized that it was supposed to have thickened before I added flour. Have no recollection of what consistency the yoghurty milk was. In the current arctic conditions I suspect that room temperature is most likely to be found in the airing cupboard. It has to be left for two days. Have set a reminder on my phone.

Day 4 of the Sourdough Diaries

It’s supposed to smell pleasantly sour. I’ve no idea what that means, but my Mum assures me that it does. This must be a good sign. I wouldn’t exactly describe it as full of bubbles, but there’s obviously some action going on there, so I am not too worried.

It needs a bit of feeding, and I manage to make it through that without disaster. It’s a pain to mix up, but dough always is.

Back to the airing cupboard for a couple of days.

I received a very worried sounding text from David about the possibility of the jar exploding, so I’m not sealing it completely. An explosion of starter in the airing cupboard (where we store sheets and towels) would be something I would never hear the end of.

Day 5 of the Sourdough Diaries

Theoretically it’s now ready to be baked with. Not sure I’m emotionally ready for it. Shut it back in the cupboard.

Day 6 of the Sourdough Diaries

I realised that if I do not bake with the starter, I will have no idea when to feed it because the book says to feed it after baking with it.

At 8PM at night I decide it is time for sourdough. I stick with the Bread Revolution book, because it has served me well thus far and it also has an overnight proving guide, so I might be in bed before 3AM. The recipe seems okay, but I do have to knead it by hand (after the sad demise of our stand mixer) and it is incredibly sticky. If anyone has ever confidently achieved the windowpane effect, can they let me know, because I don’t think I’ve ever been really sure of it in any bread I’ve made? However, I convince myself the windowpane effect has been achieved and set it to prove.

My proving method, which tends to be quite effective, is to put the heating on. I then balance my bowl of dough on a stool, which is stood on a basket, so that the bowl is suspended just slightly above the radiator in my kitchen. Luckily, my dogs have not yet figured out that dough is edible, so I don’t have to worry about them interfering with it.

When it had theoretically finished proving, I wasn’t sure it had actually risen at all. I shaped it and put it into loaf tins (my recipe said proving baskets, but they aren’t a thing in my house) and then put it in the fridge and go to bed!

Day 7 of the Sourdough Diaries

I want sourdough for breakfast, but this would necessitate getting up at an ungodly hour to get it out of the fridge. I decide that it will be late breakfast instead. The fridge doesn’t seem to have done the dough any harm and as the oven has to go on I initiate proving method number 2. Proving method number 2 is the product of having a four oven oven – you can put an oven on and all the other ovens become instant proving ovens. After the requisite 40 minutes, it looks very sad in the tins. I give it another 40 minutes and even though it still looks sad my patience runs out and I put it in the oven. Fortunately, when it’s in the oven it does rise a bit, so I don’t end up with two pancakes in loaf tins.

I over bake it a little, because our oven is pretty fierce but I always forget when cooking stuff. It works okay, because it’s meant to have a pretty serious crust on it. IT TASTES GOOD! I think it might be a sourdough triumph. Though, as I’ve never had anyone else’s, it might not actually taste like sourdough…

(You can see a very amateur picture (taken by me) of my sourdough here)

Day 8 of the Sourdough Diaries

I was kind of intending to leave the diaries there, but there is something I absolutely have to share.

The starter has a name. After feeding it yesterday, it responded by vomiting all over the side. My Mum told me that “Mount Etna had erupted” and I kind of like it! Etna it is.