It's impossible to deny the rush you get from pulling a loaf of homemade bread out of the oven. It's the result of a potent combination of the seductive scent of toasted flour, the sudden burst of steamy warmth as the door opens, and - most of all - the sheer pride of having created something so appetising all by yourself. It's odd, really, that we should get so much satisfaction out of cooking something so simple, something that would have been commonplace in most homes less than a century ago but now has become a rarity in the domestic kitchen, such is the widespread availability of all kinds of ready-to-buy loaves. Bread, for me, is the ultimate harbinger of culinary pride. Nothing else makes me feel as much of a domestic goddess as pulling that steaming loaf from the oven.
Imagine, then, how much this domestic goddess feeling is multiplied when the loaf in question has been approximately seven weeks in the making.
I am talking, of course, about sourdough. The grand. The elusive. The tangy. The chewy. The best-enjoyed-smothered-in-scrambled-duck-eggs-and-smoked-salmon.
Sourdough is the baker's Everest.
If you haven't heard of sourdough - now ubiquitous in certain parts of the country and certain types of restaurants, and a by-word for the nauseatingly foodie middle class (yes, of course I include myself in that categorisation) - where have you been? It's hard to describe this epitome of bready perfection, but you'd know if you'd tried it. It has a very dense, moist crumb, which is chewy and has a distinctive sour tang. As a result, it keeps for ages, which is one way of justifying its often high price tag.
The other way of justifying it is as follows: Oh em gee this bread is bloody gorgeous. Who cares about money?
Perhaps the reason for its high price tag is that sourdough is not a quick and easy process. That distinctive crumb and sour flavour are the result of days, months, often years of fermentation. It's all quite scientific and I am not, but in a nutshell the bread is risen using a Lactobacillus culture rather than cultured yeast. The lactic acid in this gives it its sour flavour.
To make a sourdough loaf, first you need a sourdough 'starter'. This is a mixture of - usually - flour and water, though recipes vary, often including an acidic component like orange juice, pineapple juice or rhubarb. This is mixed together and left in a warm place, and every day half must be thrown away and replaced with fresh flour and liquid, which is called 'feeding'. Eventually - it can take days or weeks - wild yeast starts to grow in the mixture, and it will develop a lovely fermenting smell a bit like beer. When it doubles in volume between 'feedings', it's strong enough to raise bread and can be used to bake.
I still don't quite understand the chemistry or biology behind it, but it's kind of magical. You end up with something that can raise a huge loaf of bread, grown pretty much from nothing. Therein lies the satisfaction component.
What's also amazing is that when you use sourdough starter to make bread, you only use some of it. The rest you feed with more flour and water, and reserve for your next loaf. Which means that you can hear of some starters that are decades old, and that all the loaves you will ever bake are related, spawned from the same sourdough 'mother'. It's nature at its simplest and most incredible; and also its tastiest.
Sourdough for me has positive connotations that don't simply relate to its taste. I used to work for a chef who made the most incredible sourdough bread I've ever tasted; he introduced me to its addictive crackly crust and chewy crumb, and I never looked back. When I would start waitressing shifts after school, he'd make me sourdough toast and I'd eat it slathered with butter and sea salt and find myself in food heaven. I would watch him use this giant industrial bread mixer to knead the dough for the many loaves he'd make and sell in the restaurant, and marvel that each loaf got its own individual cloth-lined basket to rise in. I'd hear customer after customer oohing and aahing over the gorgeous, gorgeous bread, and we'd often have a waiting list because the loaves were so popular.
I was also wildly in love with that chef. But let's not focus on that. The bread was also great.
I began my sourdough starter at the end of February, using a recipe from this wonderful bread forum. I used orange juice as my liquid - the acid helps to get the yeast growing, as they prefer a more acidic pH - and rye flour instead of plain flour, as this apparently helps the yeast to grow too. I put this alchemical combination in a little plastic box and gave it the airing cupboard for its home. I fed it religiously every day, stirring it lovingly and silently urging it to turn into beautiful bread as soon as it felt ready.
I became the kind of ridiculous individual who goes on holiday and forgets to remind her mum to feed the fish, but leaves detailed instructions for feeding the sourdough starter.
After a few days it began to bubble and smell very yeasty, but then it seemed to die.
Alas. I was devastated. Where had I gone wrong? I was frantically posting in the forum trying to figure out what to do next. Fortunately, it turns out this is very common. There will be good growth for the first few days, but that isn't actually yeast - just bacteria common in fermentation. The mixture seems to die but will perk up after a while - mine took about a week and a half, during which time I nearly threw it all away and gave up, figuring that I just wasn't good enough to climb this baker's Everest and that I'd stick to buying my sourdough from a bakery.
How foolish I was. Fortunately, I persevered. There was then another issue - my starter had come back to life and was bubbly, but I was told it would need to double in size between feedings before it could raise any bread. It wasn't doing this at all. I was then told that this might be because my starter was too liquid - the bubbles would just burst on the surface instead of providing aeration to raise the mixture. So I added a little less water and voila - starter doubling in size between feedings!
It all sounds fairly simple when I talk about it now, but it was quite a stressful process. Being new to the whole thing, I had no idea what was causing the various states of my starter or how to change them. I came close to giving up on several occasions, convinced that this paltry mixture of water and flour that was smelling weirdly like banana was clearly just mulch, not a starter, and that I was not cut out for this crazy process.
So this is a lesson, dear readers. Never give up. Because if you do, you'll never experience the sheer euphoria of unveiling something like this from the oven. Even if it has been seven weeks in the making.
For my first sourdough loaf, I used an amalgam of various recipes from the internet - a risky thing to do, as bread is such an exact scientific process, but I couldn't find one that really made sense or fitted in with my schedule.
A word on schedule. This is not a quick process. From mixing the dough to taking the loaf from the oven, you're looking at about twelve hours, depending on how quickly your dough rises and if you can put it in a warm place to do so. However, the beauty of this recipe is that there's hardly any hands-on time. If you have a mixer with a dough hook, you don't even have to get your hands very dirty. All it requires is one quick knead to combine the ingredients, another to add the salt, then you leave it for four hours. Then there's a quick folding of the dough (all of 30 seconds work), an hour's resting, another folding, more resting, a final folding, and then the dough is ready to prove for the final time, into a lovely loaf shape. This takes about four hours. Baking takes all of 40 minutes.
So actually, you can mix the dough in the morning, go out and do whatever, come back at lunchtime to fold it, then do your other two foldings as and when you can over the afternoon, then leave it for the late afternoon and early evening to rise. It'll be baked and ready in time for dinner.
But what's even better is that, once the loaf is risen and ready to bake, you can just put it in the fridge until you want to bake it. So if you want it for breakfast or lunch the next day, do all your work at the weekend or your day off, and bake it when you have time. This refrigeration helps to intensify the sour flavour, too. Incidentally, the longer you leave a sourdough starter, the more the flavour improves. If mine tastes this good at seven weeks old, I can't wait to continue baking with it.
I hope that doesn't sound too complicated, because it isn't. The great thing about sourdough is that it's quite forgiving - because it takes so much longer to rise than commercial yeast, an hour or so either way won't ruin your bread. So if you have to rush out and delay your second folding or lengthen your proving time by an hour or so, it shouldn't matter.
Incidentally, get a bread proving basket. Not only are they the best idea ever, but they'll make you feel like a pro. I got given one for my birthday by a friend who clearly knows me very very well. It's a little oval basket lined with grey, dimpled cloth. If you leave your sourdough to rise just as it is, naked on a baking sheet, it'll flatten and spread out, which isn't what we want. Instead, tuck your ball of floured dough inside its little basket and watch as it rises into a perfectly formed oval loaf, which can then be gently tipped out onto a baking sheet and immediately put in the oven before it loses its shape. Honestly, I get so much joy out of seeing my little loaf tucked up in its basket, tentatively peeking over the top, and blossoming into a full-bodied wonder.
Once you've got a successful sourdough starter (and this forum is really great for getting started, especially if you need to ask questions of the other members, who are immensely helpful), you'll be set up for life. Because once the starter is at the stage where it can double in size between feedings, you can keep it in the fridge and just feed it weekly, instead of having to worry about doing it every day (it's not a pet, after all - we don't like to eat our pets). When you want to bake with it, remove it from the fridge, feed it, then leave it for 12 hours or so, then feed it again, so there's enough for the recipe and for a bit left over to make other loaves. You might need to do this second feeding in two installments if one isn't enough - space them out 6-12 hours apart. When the starter has risen and is very bubbly, it's ready to bake with and you can proceed with the recipe below.
I hope that doesn't sound complicated. It probably does, but once you get the hang of it it's a piece of cake. Or a piece of bread. I'm very new to this whole thing, but it seems to be starting to make sense now, and once you've actually baked a loaf all the mystery will disappear, to be replaced with only joy.
It's so easy, but the results are utterly spectacular. I've made this loaf twice now, and each time I've taken it from the oven I can't quite believe it's mine. It looks like the poshest of artisan bakery sourdough loaves, the kind you get in fancy restaurants to dip into fruity olive oil. The crispy crust and tangy, dense crumb I could eat for weeks and not get bored. Better still, it keeps for ages and makes absolutely fabulous toast. Toast with jam, toast with butter, toast with scrambled eggs, toast with melted goat's cheese and marinated artichokes, toast with mozzarella and parma ham...the possibilities are endless. Just make sure the bread is sliced thickly so you can appreciate all of its tangy, chewy goodness.
Give sourdough a go. Or just look at these pictures and be so impressed with my skill and ingenuity. Because I really am.
Have you ever tried to venture into the weird, wonderful and occasionally frustrating world of sourdough? How did you find it?
Homemade sourdough bread (makes one large loaf):
200g sourdough starter*
500g strong white bread flour
300ml tepid water
2 tsp salt
I use an electric mixer with a dough hook to make my sourdough, but you can try it by hand. Put the starter, flour and water in the mixer and use the hook to combine, for about a minute. Leave for 10 minutes, then add the salt and knead in using the dough hook (or your hands) for a couple of minutes.
Put in a floured bowl and cover with a cloth, then leave in a warm place (the airing cupboard is ideal) for about four hours or until the dough has doubled in size.
Place the dough on a floured work surface and spread out into a rectangle shape. Fold the right side over to the middle, then fold the left side over that - like folding a letter to go into one of those thin envelopes. Give the dough a quarter-turn clockwise and repeat, flattening it out and folding it again.
Put the dough, seam side down, back in its bowl, cover and put back in the warm place. Leave for an hour or so, then repeat the folding. Leave for another hour or so, then fold again. This helps get air into the dough which results in those lovely bubbles in the crumb.
After this third folding, place the dough - seam side down - into a clean, well-floured bowl, or a floured bread proving basket if you're lucky enough to have one. Put in the warm place for about 4 hours, or until it has doubled in size and risen to form a nice loaf shape.
Pre-heat the oven to 220C/210C fan oven. Place an empty oven tray in the bottom of the oven and get a jug of water ready. When the oven has heated up, get a baking sheet and very carefully tip your dough out of the bowl onto the sheet. Don't do this too roughly or the dough will collapse a bit and you'll lose all the lovely bubbles. Using a very sharp knife, make slashes in the top of the dough in a square shape.
Put it in the oven, and as you do so pour the jug of water onto the empty baking tray to create steam - this helps give it a lovely chewy crust. Quickly shut the door and bake for 20 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 190C/180C fan oven and bake for another 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack.
*To get your starter ready for baking, have it at room temperature and feed it as you normally would - you probably won't have 200g at this stage. Then, around 12 hours later, feed it again to increase the quantity. After another 6-12 hours, feed it again (if you have enough by now, skip this second feeding). You should now have enough for the recipe, plus some left over for your next loaf. When it has risen and is very bubbly, it's ready to bake with.