It may have come to your attention that I like baking. And bread.
So way back before the start of this blog, last summer in fact, I enrolled myself in a sourdough making course. A six-hour day in Hampton, in a house with the most amazing kitchen garden you could imagine and a homemade cave of an oven in the backyard.
Some things the tutor made clear: bread is bread, and this is bread - the real thing. No need to give it special names. Bread won't make you fat if you don't eat lots of it loaded with dense fuel, eg hot with butter and honey (he kept saying this). Bread is made of flour, water and salt; anything else and it is a specialty bread, so if you go adding oil, that's fine, but he'd call it oil bread. The bread we witnessed the making of in the class was from sticky dough - had been allowed to rise for too long because of circumstances - so got specialised into cheese bread (haloumi and mint, perfect!).
Our tutor was a man who is not a fan of the new culture we have where everything is fast/instant. I think it was for this reason that he so detested the idea of hot bread, fresh bread that we all seem obsessed with. It was interesting to question the value of freshness. Making bread the real way is something you would do every week or two.. and if you really like it fresh, you could easily make a few loaves at a time (you end up with enough starter to do this) and freeze them. I liked his philosophy. If I were a hermit, I would join the slow food movement.
Sourdough - as we all kept calling it, even being informed that it's just bread - seems to be the way they made risen bread before instant yeast came along. Leave dough for a few days, it turns sour. Voila, sour dough.
But there is more to it than that. Many of the other people in the class had tried to make sourdough before and found that it was far too sour and dense, hardly rising at all.
Here is the basic understanding I got:
Dough ferments - yeast forms from bacteria (very mysterious) - needs fuel - fed flour, it grows. It takes feeding to keep growing, like any living thing, otherwise it just gets sourer and sourer. So when you feed it (dissolve it a bit in water and a bit of salt, add flour, make into dough again) the sour taste is diluted and the yeast in it has fuel to multiply.
That's basically all you have to do. Of course there are details and the best way to learn is by experiment, and I've been dabbling lately.
How To: Start with a paste of water, a little bit of salt, and flour; the thicker the better, and leave it (covered). When bubbles rise to the surface or it grows noticeably, add some water, mush around to dissolve a bit, and knead/mix in more flour. Repeat. The more flour, the more it will grow. When it has risen for a day or two it may smell like nail polish remover... that's normal.
As our tutor said, if your original paste/dough is thin enough that bubbles rise to the surface that's fine for the first time, but after that make it stiff. This didn't mean much to me until I experimented, not only with the texture of the dough but the length of time I left it and the gooeyness of the resulting hungry dough. The moral of the story was make it stiff, which I think you get when you do it.
When you and your dough are ready to make loaves, a quarter is a good amount of starter to make up the final dough. Knead it a lot. Leave covered until the surface cracks or the dough has doubled in size. If this doesn't happen after about 8 hours, I'd recommend chucking it on a tray/in a tin, letting it try to grow for an hour or two and cooking it anyway. That's what I did with my last loaf and it was bread's answer to my favourite very dense and moist Irish tea cake. But it was delicious!
Finding somewhere relatively warm for the dough to rise is the hardest part. My last loaf I probably didn't feed enough when I fed it, and definitely suffered a lack of warmth, because my house hasn't been more than 17 degrees (celsius) since May. After I had shaped the loaf I was so frustrated that I set the oven really low and turned it on and off for a couple of hours and it worked, but obviously you can't do that for days with all the feeding and breeding of the dough. This lot is living above the microwave and going very well so far - the question is, what happens when it gets too big for the space?