Food in Slow Motion, Episode One – Sourdough

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.

Photo 16-03-2020, 18 13 22The 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

Day 1
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.

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.

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Patience (and all these steps) will allow the starter to do its job and create the characteristic sourdough bubbles and crisp crust.

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.

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The dough looks a bit splat at the bench rest stage

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.


This is a banneton. They leave a nice spiral on the loaf, but I haven’t bought them as they are quite expensive and you don’t really need them.

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

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My bread crock (Dutch oven)

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

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Nestling in the crock fresh out of the oven

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.




Reading – what’s in it for me?

library in the sky image

For those of us addicted to reading we know exactly how enjoyable it is, but in an increasingly busy world it is often hard to make time for it, so why should we bother? There is no doubt that reading improves literacy levels, and higher literacy levels allow people to gain better educational results, and in turn get better jobs, but is that enough of an incentive to make people want to read? Despite the evidence about the benefits of reading we still see reports in the news about falling national literacy levels and the decline in reading. The Reading Agency decided that in order to tackle this it was time to look beyond literacy levels and consider the wider personal benefits of reading for pleasure*.

The Reading Agency received generous funding from the Peter Sowerby Foundation for a collaborative project to develop a reading outcomes framework. The main aim of the project was to collate and summarise the findings of the most robust studies that related to non-literacy outcomes of reading for pleasure or empowerment*. A steering group was formed from the collaborative organisations and the report (conducted by BOP Consulting) was compiled. As Vice President of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) I was invited to be part of the steering group, and I am delighted to now be able to share this report.

The report: The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, contains a powerful and undeniable message – reading is good for you.

The report confirms that people who read for pleasure benefit from a huge range of wider outcomes including increased empathy, alleviation or reduction in the symptoms of depression and dementia, as well as an improved sense of wellbeing. People who read for pleasure also have a higher sense of social inclusion, a greater tolerance and awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, and better communication skills. When we looked at the impact of reading for pleasure on people with increased health needs or issues, we found that people who were reading for pleasure demonstrated better health literacy, and were more able to cope with, and access, information related to their conditions. People who read for pleasure also showed lower levels of general anxiety.

For children and young people the evidence obviously demonstrated that children who read for pleasure had higher levels of educational attainment, but what is most interesting is how it improves the overall quality of their lives. Children and young people who read demonstrate significantly enhanced emotional vocabulary. In short, the young people who read like themselves better and cope with life better. They are more likely to use positive mental self -imagery and generally used more positive vocabulary in both their work and their lives.

This shows us that reading for pleasure is an important way of helping us to tackle issues such as social isolation, teenage depression, negative self-image, and social and educational disengagement. Reading for pleasure can make an isolated and depressed young person feel better about who they are and can make them more confident about the importance of their unique role in the world.

What can we do?
A key finding of the report is that extensive studies show that enjoyment of reading is a prerequisite for all these positive outcomes: people who choose to read, and enjoy doing so in their spare time, are more likely to reap all of these wider benefits. Negative attitudes towards reading for pleasure therefore have a much wider negative impact, and it’s essential that we create a far more positive attitude towards reading. We can throw out the “haven’t got time” and “reading is a waste of time” comments because we can clearly see that if you are reading for pleasure you are doing something that will improve the long-term quality of your life and your health.

It is worth noting that this process has to be about reading that is a free and voluntary choice. This is distinctly separate from learning how to read, and it is not the same as reading that is undertaken for study or educational purposes. In order to benefit from the wider outcomes of reading for pleasure we need to focus only on one word – pleasure. At school a focus should remain on uncritical free voluntary choice reading. Children and young people should be able to read freely from a wide range of material. They should be able to choose whatever format and style of reading material they want without feeling that it is yet another lesson or form of study. To facilitate this it is simply not enough to only have reading schemes and reading lessons, pupils of all ages require access to a well stocked school library and this will give them a better chance of becoming lifelong readers. To nurture a reading for pleasure environment all children should have access to someone who can help them to navigate the maze of books and reading in a positive way – logic dictates that this should be a school librarian.

Reading is good for you, and is something that we should all do at every stage in our lives in order to benefit personally. This should start at the cradle with reading aloud and sharing stories, and should move through our lives as pastime that is perceived as enjoyable. Reading is habit forming, and the children of readers read and are more likely to accept books and reading into their lives. We cannot expect our future adults to become readers if the only books they know are those on the reading scheme.

It doesn’t have to be expensive (remember, librarians are there to help you for free), and it doesn’t have to be great works of worthy literature. The evidence shows that all that matters is that people are reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction in any form, and that they are reading it simply because they want to. No discrimination was made about the type of reading material, or the format – all reading is good reading as long as you are doing it because you have chosen to. We need to throw out the false idea that reading is an elitist or snobby pastime that is only for the idle, and that only “good” books matter – this is simply not true.

We are bombarded with health messages that we should be acting upon, but this report shows that reading for pleasure is the simplest and most enjoyable way to gain a significant number of long-term health benefits.

So stop feeling guilty! When you’re reading you’re not wasting time, you’re working on your long-term health.
The message is simple – pick up a book, and feel better!

Dawn Finch
Vice President CILIP
CWIG Committee
Children’s author and school library consultant.

Links and the technical stuff…..
The full Literature Review document can be downloaded from the Reading Agency’s website and it contains a full bibliography of all of the research used. Please share and quote the report and use #readingforpleasure to keep the conversation going.

The Reading Agency worked in collaboration with the following organisations: Arts Council England, Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians, Book Trust, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Education Endowment Foundation, National Literacy Trust, Publishers Association, Scottish Library and Information Council, Society of Authors and the Society of Chief Librarians.
The report was compiled by BOP Consulting with funding from the Peter Sowerby Foundation 

* For the purposes of the report the phrases “reading for pleasure” and “recreational reading” are used interchangeably within the body of the document. We defined this as “non-goal orientated transactions with texts as a way to spend time, and for entertainment.”
The term “reading for empowerment” is (for the purposes of this report) defined as “transactions with texts as a means of self-cultivation and self-development beyond literacy”. For example reading non-fiction material such as craft or self-help books.
Both terms were used to define reading for pleasure and empowerment in all formats and media.

Full link URL –

The image used is licensed CCO public domain but courtesy credit due to bonnybbx, creator on Pixabay. Please always credit creators.