by Mick Walker
11 months ago
Sourdough Bread making in a nutshell
I have been baking bread for most of my adult life – with varying degrees of success!
I don’t ever remember eating much, if any, white bread (even growing up 60 years ago!) and I certainly prefer wholemeal.
Making bread with yeast requires four ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast. The process involves mixing them all together (in appropriate proportions) and kneading as much as possible until the dough reaches a satisfactory texture. The dough is then left to rise before being ‘knocked back’ and put in a baking tin and allowed to rise for a second time. When it has risen successfully, it is then baked.
A good texture of loaf is gained with an active yeast producing plenty of carbon dioxide and a good development of gluten within the dough. I was always under the impression that the kneading is crucial to develop the gluten.
In general, a good texture is easier to obtain with white flour than wholemeal. I have experimented with many different types of flour, but generally obtained my best results with a mixture of wholemeal and ‘strong’ white flour.
Making good sourdough bread requires a somewhat different approach.
Michael Pollan’s book ‘Cooked’ includes an excellent account of how he first mastered the art of sourdough bread baking.
Overview and Preparation
Initially, you have to create a ‘starter’ – which is added to the dough in place of yeast. Basically, the starter is a mixture of flour and water which has been left to ferment and establish active colonies of natural bacteria and yeast.
There is nothing mystical about making the starter. In a suitable container, add some flour. The amount is not critical – maybe a couple of tablespoons. Add water and mix till the consistency is like batter. Some suggest adding something like a couple of grapes, so the yeast on their skins can contribute. Leave for about 24 hours. At this stage, it probably won’t be bubbling actively – but discard about half and add some more flour and water to maintain a similar consistency. Repeat for 3 or 4 days, at the end of which you should find your starter to be beginning to bubble.
I bake a sourdough loaf once or twice a week and between bakes I keep my starter in the fridge – the one I have going at the moment is several months old and is very active!
Critical to the final texture of the loaf is the development of gluten.
The raw flour does not contain gluten, but rather two proteins, gliadin and glutenin. When mixed with water, these molecules combine to create the gluten. The relative proportions of gliadin and glutenin determine the degree of extensibility and elasticity in the dough.
Different flours produces different amounts of gluten. White flour has had the bran and germ removed leaving just the endosperm – as a result white flour has proportionally more protein than wholemeal and so produces more gluten.
Many people will use a combination of strong white and wholemeal. I only use wholemeal. There are various flours described simply as ‘Wholmeal’ – these are derived from the most widely grown species of wheat, Triticum aestivum. Other related varieties include Spelt, Einkorn, Emmer and Khorasan. Rye is not a wheat, but another closely related species of grass.
Using only wholemeal flour tends to produce a rather ‘heavier’ loaf. I find that generic wholemeal wheat flour or spelt work very well, either by themselves or in combination with other flours which produce different textures and flavours.
When making sourdough, I do not knead at all. I tend to start the process in the late afternoon (around 4.30 pm)
The following works very well :
- To make one loaf, put 4 cups of flour in a bowl (approx. 500g) and add just less than two cups of water (approx. 400g). Mix them together using a plastic spatula. At this point, the mixture may be a little wet, but that’s fine and more flour can be added later. Cover the bowl and leave for about 1 hour. During this time, the flour ‘autolyses’ and the gluten begins to form.
- After an hour, add salt (depending on taste, approx 12 – 15g) and about 120 g of your starter.
Fold this in with the spatula.
- After approx 45 minutes, use the spatula to stretch the dough and fold it back in on itself. Repeat this another 3 times at approx 45 minute intervals.
- Place the dough in the fridge and leave overnight. It seems to work fine if left out of the fridge. At the warmer temperature, the dough will rise more overnight.
- In the morning, take the dough out of the fridge and let it warm up for 2 – 3 hours.
- If the dough is still rather wet, fold in some more flour at this stage, until the dough is suitable to handle.
- Place the dough on a board and stretch it out.
Here, I am still adding flour to get the right texture.
- Stretch the flour out sideways, then fold in towards the centre.
- Roll up the dough to form a ball, then place in a bowl lined with a flour dusted cloth (you can buy special rattan baskets for this, called banettons).
- Leave for an hour or two, then turn out onto some baking parchment and score through the surface. This allows the loaf to expand when in the oven – known as ‘oven spring’. The scores can be in different patterns.
- The loaf is then best baked in a ‘Dutch Oven’ – essentially some sort of cast iron pot with a lid. This helps to retain the moisture. If baking in an open oven, place a tray of water at the bottom of the oven to create some steam.
- Bake for about 40 minutes at 220oC – then remove the lid and bake for a further 10 – 15 minutes at 200OC.
About the Author
Mick is an Oxford educated Biologist, who has recently retired from a career in education.
In addition to teaching, he has, for many years, been a senior examiner with Cambridge Assessment. At present, he is mostly involved with international A Level Biology examinations.
In terms of diet, he has not eaten meat for approaching 40 years and has now been fully plant based for around 6 years.
As a keen cyclist, the decision to become 100% plant based was inspired by the reading of ‘Eat and Run’ by Scott Jurek, an American ultra-marathon runner.
During this time, he has studied closely the increasing evidence for the benefits of a Whole Food Plant Based diet – benefits which he himself has experienced in terms of fuelling his cycling well into his 60s!
For more about the work he does then please do visit his website at http://www.vegancyclist.co.uk
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