Sunday, 16 October 2011

Baking Bread for Blog Action Day 2011

Today is the foodie blog action day and I want to share with you my love for bread-making in general and sourdough bread in particular as my contribution to the international food discussion. Baking bread is one of my new found joys. I've been making soda breads for years but have recently been trying my hand at yeast breads and even more exciting, sourdough bread with my own home grown starter. I love the whole process involved in preparing a loaf - the patience that's required, the little idiosyncrasies that each different loaf seems to possess and of course the smell of freshly baked bread. Is there anything better than that first crusty slice, still warm from the oven,  lathered in real butter oozing, from the warmth? If there is I'm not sure what it is. So anyway, here's my blog on sourdough bread. I've been putting it off for a while as it's a complicated one but  the results that come from it are so fantastic I think it's worth the effort.

If you have no interest in bread making you may want to skip this. Be warned, it's going to get technical. If however you're teetering on the edge and you quite like the idea of that fresh baked loaf coming out of the oven, or you want to be able to truly impress your friends by saying 'What, this? This perfectly formed loaf of deliciousness? Oh I just whipped that up this morning' (well, maybe not in those self important words, but that's what you'll be thinking), if you're on the brink of being a bread baker then read on. Once you go sour, you'll never look back!

Ok, so first off. This is not for the faint hearted...or the impatient. 1st step. You've got to make your sourdough starter. This takes about ten days. But once it's made you have it and you can keep feeding and using it as long as it stays alive. Which it will do if you keep feeding it. Confused yet? Read on.

The starter - what it's all about

For the starter you need 100g of strong bread flour (half and half wholemeal and white - he wholemeal helps the yeast get going) and warm water. That's it. If you like you can also use a piece of fruit on the first day to help get the yeast going. Add a small piece of ripe rhubarb, apple, or I used a strawberry, to the mix. Discard once the starter starts bubbling.

First off mix the 100g of flour with enough warm water in a large bowl until you have a paint like consistency. Mix it well trying to incorporate some air into it. Cover with cling film and leave in a warmish place for the fermentation to start. This will vary depending on the conditions but you should see signs of yeast bubbles by the next day.

For the next 7-10 days you need to feed your starter. So it goes like this. 

Day one: make the starter as above
Day two: add 100g more flour and enough water to achieve paint like consistency - cover with cling, keep in a draught free place
Day three: discard half of the mix and replace with 100g flour and enough water to achieve paint like consistency - cover with cling, keep in a draught free place
Day four-ten: as above
After ten days your starter should be starting to smell fruity. This is when you know it's ready to use.

I keep mine in the fridge and feed it with a little flour and water every 5 days or so (discarding some and replenishing it). I then replenish it after I use it for baking with a good big feed. It seems to last really well in this way. I must confess to having neglected it for anything up to three weeks, but once I start feeding it and paying it a bit of attention again it seems to come back to life fine. I change the container every so often to avoid any spoiling. 

Hugh Fernely Whittingstall, who's fantastic recipe this is, recommends keeping it as a stiff dough in the fridge if you are not going to be using it on a regular basis. Achieve this by adding more flour but not water. My starter is kept in a fairly thick liquid form and it seems to be working fine that way so far. He also says it's suitable for freezing if you are not going to use it for a long while, and it will reactivate on thawing. 

Now you have your starter you can make bread. But be warned, you need patience for this bit too.

Just add water

There are three stages to this process:
  1. making the sponge
  2. making the dough
  3. prooving the dough
  4. sorry, four stages - baking the bread!
To make the sponge you need to take about 100ml of your starter and mix it with 250g of strong flour. (You can use any flour really, as long as it's strong. I've been trying Spelt lately and I'm sure as hell going to be trying this Kamut wheat flour! But white or wholemeal is fine, or indeed a mix which I also quite like.) Add 275 ml of warm water, not hot, warm. Mix, cover with cling film and leave in a draught free place. I like to do this stage before bed, then in the morning it's ready to make the dough but regardless when you do it it needs several hours to get going. It's ready when it's good and bubbly. You can replenish your leftover starter with more flour and water to be used again next time. ( Bad blogger. I haven't taken a photo of this, but use your imagination. It looks like floury, sloppy mess.)

The next stage is the dough. I make this first thing in the morning when the sponge has had all night to get excited. Flour the surface that you are going to use to knead your dough. Also have a jug of warm water nearby in case you need it, your hands will be messy in a minute. To your sponge add 300g of your flour of choice, a tablespoon of olive oil and 10g salt. Mix together with your hands. The consistency should be a bit wet. If the dough is too tight add a little water to loosen it. If you're experimenting with different flours this may alter the consistency of your dough, also your starter may be slightly different in consistency from time to time so this might change things too. Use your instinct and trust it!
Knead the dough on the floured surface for ten minutes until it is smooth. Again you have to use your instincts here. Practice will tell you when it's ready. If it's tight and breaking when you're kneading it it might need some more water.  Try and develop your own kneading technique. This is a good start -  hold the dough lightly with the heel of one hand and use the other to stretch it out away from you, then fold it back in on itself, rotate it and repeat. It's tiring but keep going. You'll have great arms if you make enough loaves.
When it's done, knead it into a ball and transfer it to and oiled, shallow dish and cover with oiled cling film. Leave to proove for several hours until it has double in size. (To knead it into a ball you need to fold the edge of the dough into the middle, give it a turn, fold the edge into the middle, turn it, fold it etc until you have a tight ball shape. Me being a bad blogger, I have not taken a picture of this being done. I will rectify this upon baking my next loaf and post it to help explain!)

When it's doubled in size, sometime in the evening if you're following my time plan, you now have to shape it and give it the final prooving. To do this you first need to knock it back. Essentially this means knocking all the air out of it. You can do this by punching it with your knuckles. Then turn it out onto your floured surface again and shape it. Do this by giving it a light kneading and forming into a ball as above. Dust your shallow bowl with flour and place your dough upside down in the dish. Cover with oiled cling and leave to proove.

Poor thing's had all the air knocked out of it.
That's it, upside down and ready for it's last proove!

At least an hour and a half later, or again when it's doubled in size it's ready to bake
Preheat the oven to it's hottest temperature. Place a deep baking tray filled with water on the bottom of the over to create some steam. Preheat your baking tray for the bread. When the oven's ready, flour the hot tray and turn the bread out onto it. It'll now be right side up. Make some incisions on the top of the loaf, either with a knife or scissors. Don't be shy, you want the bread to open up here so you can go quite deep. Bake for 15 minutes in the hot oven then reduce the heat to gas mark 6/200C and bake for another 25-30 minutes. When it's done the loaf should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cool for at least 20 minutes before diving in.

Ready to go in the oven

Try and wait for it to cool down before diving in with the knife!

So that's it. It gives a really lovely tangy loaf and I love that you don't have to mess around with powdered or fresh yeast. Although you have to be organised, I have to say I love the whole process and the fact that it takes days makes it all the more exciting when it finally comes out of the oven. It keeps very well too and makes delicious toast.


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