All things considered, 2020 is definitely the year to start thinking about the food you eat, and where it comes from. Ever since I was small I have enjoyed cooking and have found it calming and relaxing. Baking gives me a sense of control over things, and I’m guessing this is particularly important for a lot of us right now.
This brings me to the magic that is the sourdough loaf. Okay, so more chemistry than actual magic but there is something wonderful about the slow process of creating a beautiful artisan loaf from such simple ingredients. Flour, water and a bit of salt – that’s all. I’ve been trying to bake the perfect sourdough loaf for years and recently went on a workshop where I discovered I had been missing one essential ingredient – patience. I’d been rushing through the process and not allowing those friendly little bacteria the chance to do their thing.
The results have been so good that I thought I would pin it down and share my recipe with you. Lots of people have different versions, and when you get used to it you’ll probably find things that you prefer. You need to begin with a healthy sourdough starter. Here’s a recipe to make one, but it’s even better if you can get some from a friend. You do need a good set of weighing scales – no guesswork allowed! This is a no-kneading version (I have a bit of arthritis in my hands so prefer not to knead), but it does take three days.
Trust me, it’s worth it!
Ingredients – makes 2 x 20cm boules
A healthy sourdough starter
800g flour (I like a mix of 600g organic unbleached white and 200g organic rye)
600g room-temp water
Half tablespoon of sea salt
Feed starter in the morning as usual.
Late afternoon/evening refresh 100g of starter with 100g of water and 100g flour. (Levain stage) I use white flour at this stage because rye takes longer to ferment.
Cover and leave overnight at room temp to ferment. It should look nice and bubbly on day 2.
Take 200g of the levain, add 500g room temp water and whisk together. (You can discard the rest of the levain or refresh your main starter with it. That’s what I do.) Always add the water first as it allows an easier mix.
Add 700g flour to the levain and water and mix together. I use my hands to mix because I can feel it’s all mixed in. The dough will feel quite wet and sticky. Best to use unbleached organic flour because it aids fermentation to have flour that’s a bit more alive! I like a mix of 500g strong white and 200g wholemeal at this stage. Rye is good too but needs a bit longer at the final prove (more on that later)
Let the dough sit aside in the bowl for an hour (Autolyse stage) This is when the flour is mixing with the water and the starter is getting going on doing its thing. Be patient and leave a proper hour. If it’s a really hot day, pop the bowl in the fridge.
After the autolyse stage add half tablespoon ground sea salt and mix in with your hand. I like to add it at this stage as it seems to make a better rise. (Tip – Don’t use flour on your hand as that will thicken the mix with raw flour. Use water on your hand instead. It’s much easier to work the dough with a wet hand.) Don’t worry too much about mixing the salt all in because it will be well mixed by the end of the folding stage.
Next is the folding stage. You’ll need to grab a corner of the dough in the bowl and fold it into the middle. Repeat all the way around making about four folds into the centre.
Let it rest for 45 mins, then repeat. You’ll need to do that about six times to make the dough nice and stretchy. That means this stage takes about four and a half to five hours. Lots of people have different opinions about this stage, and you might find you prefer a different number of times. This is the one that I find works to make the loaves you can see in the photos on this blog.
After you’ve done about 6 goes of folding and it’s nice and stretchy, leave it aside in the bowl for another hour and you should notice bubbles forming in the dough. Cover with a lid (I tend to use a clean tea towel topped with a plate) and pop in the fridge overnight.
Yes, a long slow cold-rise is best.
Day 3 – morning
Wet your kitchen surface and with a wet hand gently coax the dough out of the bowl. Divide into two pieces and carefully shape into two balls. Fold the edges under to create a surface tension. Leave it to sit for about 30 mins. This is called the bench rest stage.
After 30 mins the dough will have flattened a bit but that’s okay. Nothing to worry about.
After the bench rest is when I do things like fold in seeds (or chocolate if I’m feeling indulgent).
Prepare 2 clean tea towels (or bannetons if you have them) with lots of flour. I use a gluten-free flour for this stage as it’s a rice mix and doesn’t stick. You want to be pretty heavy with the flour. Line bowls with the floury tea towels. I use standard-sized colanders in place of bowls because I like the size and shape. Bowls need to be about 20cm wide.
Gently shape your dough back into tidy balls (with that surface tension on them again) and plop them top-side down into the floury cloth bowls or bannetons. Dust the wrinkly bottom of the dough with flour. Loosely cover and put in the fridge for the final rise. This will take around 3-6 hours. White flour takes around 3-4 hours, and the heavier the flour the longer it will take. Rye and spelt flours I’d leave for up to 6. You’ll need to leave it for about 6 hours if you’ve folded in other ingredients like seeds or chocolate too.
Day 3 – afternoon
I bake in a lidded terracotta pot (like a Dutch oven – no jokes please) but you can bake on a tray if you don’t have one. Get your oven nice and hot and pre-heat your Dutch oven or tray (around 225 fan). Preheating the oven and your cooking pot is vital. Most of the rise happens in the hot oven. You need that oven proper hot.
Very carefully plop your dough onto a piece of baking paper with the round bottom facing up. Dust with flour (but it might already be floury enough) and then slash it deeply at least twice. If you don’t do that it will burst unpredictably. Best to have it burst where you want it to! You can see the slashes in the photo of the splatted dough on this blog.
Lift the parchment and put it onto a hot baking tray or into your very hot Dutch oven. If you’re baking on a tray (or hot pizza stone) you should put a shallow tray of water in the bottom of your oven to build up some steam. You don’t need that in a Dutch oven as it traps the steam from the bread.
Bake in the Dutch oven for 30 mins covered, and then 10-15 mins uncovered. On a
baking tray for about 40 mins. It should sound hollow when tapped underneath.
Then do the same with the other loaf! I cook one at a time so they can be alone in the oven, they seem to work better that way.
Let them cool on a wire rack and try not to slice until it’s cooled down because you want to keep the steam in so that it makes the inside lovely and moist.
The bread lasts a couple of days, and you can freeze it if you want to bake in advance.
Good luck with your own slow-baking!
Dawn Finch is a writer, baker and allotmenteer with a bit too much time (and flour) on her hands right now.