Best sourdough bread recipe ever
Sourdough bread has a bit of a cult following at the moment. It’s tangy, complex flavour and crunchy chewy crust make it some of the yummiest bread around but I think part of what makes it so sort after is that it is the antithesis of convenience food. Making sourdough bread at home doesn’t fit well into our modern lives. It’s fickle, messy and time consuming but like most things that take effort and time to master the results are worth it. If you’re new to sour dough bread the yeast used in most modern bread recipes is replaced with a starter that your grow at home.
I’ve been writing this post in my head for months but what has inspired me to finally get it written is making the best and simplest loaf of sourdough bread I’ve ever made. However as my title suggests it has been a journey to get there and I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learnt along the way to hopefully get you to the goal of making great sourdough bread a little quicker.
My first attempt at a sourdough starter was a dismal failure. Not only did I never get an actual loaf of bread made, I’m pretty sure I also created some kind of toxic concoction that would not have done you any good to ingest. It had that pinky/purple hue they all warn you about in the recipes and it smelt BAD!
So what went wrong the first time?
Firstly I think the starter recipe I used first time was too complicated. It contained yoghurt and yeast plus water and flour. Just more ingredients, more chance of it going wrong. Also the dairy element I think made the chance of it going bad more likely.
Secondly I don’t think I approached it with the right mindset. The recipe I used came from a fantastic book which I had tried almost every recipe and they’d been winners. I think I just wanted to try the next recipe and didn’t realise the commitment and dedication sourdough bread making requires. Growing a sourdough starter is a bit like taking on a new pet. Somewhere between cat and seamonkey in it’s level of commitment. In the first couple of weeks it’s more like a newborn baby requiring regular feeding and you have to organise your life around it. Having two small children at the time this was probably just one commitment too many for me a the time.
Second time lucky
Fast forward a few years and all the stars aligned for me to give it another go. What inspired me this time was watching Michael Pollan’s excellent mini series Cooked. In this program Michael Pollan explores how cooking transforms food and shapes our world. The episode titled Air focuses mainly around bread and gluten. This history of this staple of humanity and how recent industrialisation of the bread making process has taken this simple product defined as containing, flour, water, yeast and salt, to containing a list of additives a mile long. He questions whether this change is contributing to the rise of gluten intolerance in western society.
Two things about this episode fascinated me.
1 the discovery of the wild yeasts that eventually resulted in leavened bread. He describes the possible scenario of some ancient human leaving a bowl of wheat porridge out on the table on a warm day long enough for the wild yeasts in the air to begin to grow and multiply. How magical it must have seemed to see that bowl of porridge begin to bubble and grow. This is the closest we’ve ever come to true alchemy. Flour and water transforming to this living growing dough that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. That when cooked transforms to some of the most simply delicious food we ever eat.
2 my sister-in-law has chosen a gluten free diet for health reasons. She was one of my biggest home made bread fans and I also wondered if that was true if there is something in the short cutting of modern bread making that makes it less digestible to people today. There is suggestions that the long fermentation process of sourdough bread making breaks down the gluten making it easier for those with gluten intolerance to digest. However this part I haven’t proven and wouldn’t suggest trying unless your intolerance is only mild.
So this time I had the right motivation. I wanted to replicate the most simple and primal bread making experience and see if with just flour and water I could make my own bread. I’ve got to admit there is a wee tad ‘doomsday prepper’ in my personality. Maybe it’s growing up in the shadow of the cold war but I always feel better when ever I acquire another essential survival skill. If the zombie apocalypse comes I’ll be in high demand.
Another thing I did right this time was give myself time. I took on growing the sourdough starter over the school holidays. I had two weeks on minimal commitments. This is also something that you can do with your kids as a cool science experiment so a good school holiday activity.
I found this very simple recipe for a sourdough starter plus a lot of great tips and step-by-step instructions on the King Arthur flour website. Following their instructions I successfully grew a healthy vigorous starter and made my first loaf of sourdough bread with no added yeast what so ever! It was such a triumphant day, such a sense of accomplishment. I tried a bunch of recipes, both from the King Arthur site and from around the web. I’ll include links to the most successful ones at the bottom of the page. However the business of life took over and my starter got relegated to the fridge and once weekly feedings. Most of the time I was too busy to make bread from the discard so it got chucked down he sink, which seemed a real shame.
We’re currently on another round of saving a budgeting so reinsured to save a little money I thought I’d better start making my own bread again. I had another hunt around the web for a new sourdough bread recipe to try. This time my aim was as simple as possible with a timing that fit well into the daily routine. For those of you unfamiliar with sourdough bread proving the dough takes a lot longer than with added yeast. It’s not uncommon for a recipe to take days to prove. Usually there’s not a lot of hands on time – just a lot of waiting. So you have to plan ahead and you have to time everything backwards so you start your process with enough time to finish at a useful part of the day. When I found this recipe on the BBC good food website I thought I was onto a winner. There were a couple of things I really liked about it. It was simple just starter, flour, honey, salt and water. It used a lot of starter and it fit well with using the discarded starter after feeding so there was no waste. It had a 6-8 hour second proving time which fits perfectly into either a work day or over night. Simply shape and forget. However my first couple of attempts were a bit disappointing. It definitely wasn’t as good as the King Arthur recipe but because of the convenience I stuck with it.
Then I decided to put my mad scientist hat on and experiment. Problems I had found with the recipe were it had a course crumb texture, it didn’t seem to raise much in the oven and was generally just a bit ho-hum in taste. Rereading the recipe I realised I hadn’t been giving my starter long enough to come back to life after being refrigerated. Also I felt though the second raising time length was convienient it seemed too long. I looked like the dough had risen and collapsed in that time so I needed to shorten that. Also to improve the crumb I thought I’d try to add a small amount of gluten flour – obviously if you’re trying to cut your gluten you’d omit this but it with the other changes seems to have made a dramatic difference.
- 300gms sourdough starter.
- 220mls warm water
- 1tbsp honey
- 1tsp salt
- 2tbsp gluten flour (optional)
- 500gms high grade or bread flour.
- The day before you want to make your bread take your starter out of the fridge (if that’s where you are keeping it) Reserve your 4oz and feed. Take the remainder and feed with 4oz warm water and 4oz flour. After a couple of hours put your reserved, feed starter back in the fridge and leave the starter that you are going to use to make the bread on the bench in a warmish place, loosely covered until the next day.
- If you want to eat your bread for lunch start as early in the morning is you can. Dissolve your starter which will now be hungry again in the warm water. Add the honey and salt and mix. Add the flour and gluten flour and either by hand or with the dough hook of a stand mixer kneed for about 10 minutes. Add more flour or water to get a soft but not sticky dough if necessary.
- Cover and leave the dough for 2 – 3 hours. The dough should have risen slightly but may not have done too much.
- Knock down and shape into one large round.
- Put a clean tea towel into a bowl or proving basket (got to get me one of these) dust liberally with flour and put the shaped dough smooth round side down, seem side up in the bowl.
- Oil some cling film and cover. Put in a warm place to rise for 2-3 hours.
- Heat the oven to 220c about an hour before you want to eat your bread. Put a large shallow pan filled with water in the bottom of the oven to create steam.
- When the oven is hot enough invert your dough gently onto a baking tray after removing the cling film!
- With a very sharp knife cut three deep slits in the top of the dough. This will not only give your loaf that traditional sough dough look but it helps the dough underneath expand without being constrained by the skin of the risen dough.
- Place in the oven for 40mins.
- Bread is cooked when it sounds hollow to tap.