Tag Archives: bread

Every day sourdough baking

A gratuitous picture of a loaf of sourdough, baked this morning

I get asked, a lot, if sourdough bread is hard to make. I am tempted to say “really hard” to make myself look clever but the truth is, it isn’t.

Sourdough seems uniquely complicated amongst bread baking. I don’t know if it’s purposely shrouded in mystery. I know that it took me about two years to finally get down to it, to be brave enough to try, as it seemed magical and mystical. It is, but it isn’t difficult. The hardest thing about sourdough baking is being mentally ready.

Because once you have a good starter going, sourdough baking is almost bomb proof.

I bake sourdough about three times a week. Mostly I bake this bread, which is half wholemeal and half white.

Although I only bake half of the amount in that recipe, so 500g of flour, 200g levain (starter), 333g of water and I’ve got the salt down to just one teaspoon.

I divide the dough up to prove over two baton shaped bannetons so I have bread for two bakes. The bread in the picture above was proved in one of those bannetons.

It’s easy. The hard bit with sourdough, in terms of faff, has always been the starting off of it. Once I’ve weighed it out and refreshed the starter I know I need to be relatively close for the first three kneads (ten mins apart) and not too far for the one that requires a 30 minute rest. But after that I can do the school run or go out or do whatever. If I know I’m not going to be back in time – be really ages – then I put it in the fridge, and when I get back, simply bring it back to room temperature and take up where I left off.

You could never do that with bread with commercial yeast, because the yeast would get exhausted.

I’ve had a sourdough loaf going over three days.

Various people have said to me that they want to try sourdough baking. Instead of abstemious resolutions that make you feel miserable (isn’t January miserable enough?) try a resolution that will make you feel really good. With a good loaf you always have a meal. And when everyone else is out panic buying because it might snow, you can be smug knowing that with your starter, some flour, water and salt you can turn those tins of stock-piled baked beans into something really glorious.


Aerial view before going into the oven

Schiacciata means squashed in Italian, and this is a recipe for a sort of foccaccia bread with grapes squashed into it. It’s not a sourdough recipe, you don’t need a bread maker. It’s really very simple. I have had this recipe for ages, cut out from an Italian magazine and converted into English stuff.

It’s an odd bread though. People often say to me things like “oh God I couldn’t make my own bread I’d just spend all day eating it”. Well, I don’t spend all day eating bread. I think this is largely because sourdough (what I usually make every day) is delicious, but satisfying. Even though it’s a sum of parts of water, flour and salt, the way it’s made makes it far more satisfying than bread made with commercial yeast plus those same parts. My partner makes a foccacia that is so addictive I am as bloated as a puffer fish by the end of a meal as I carry on eating it well after my stomach is stretched to fullness.

This is an odd bread, however, because what would you eat it with? Well cheese is an obvious one. A salty cheese especially I think (actually, almost any after-dinner type cheese, I just really wanted to write the words ‘salty cheese’). And I think it would be perfectly wonderful with Parma ham. Whatever you have it with, it makes for a very attractive centre piece, would make a lovely present, is easy and quick to make but really needs to be eaten within a day of making it. It’s lovely warm, but not too hot, from the oven. And it’s very hard to resist, so don’t make this if you’ve just gone on a diet (loathsome word). You won’t get a big, airy crumb. This is altogether a more cakey bread.

So, this is what you need:

1tsp of dried, fast acting yeast (I use Dove’s)
1tbsp of caster sugar
80ml extra virgin olive oil
Fresh rosemary sprigs, I dunno, like about five or six
200 strong white bread flour
200-300g red or black seedless grapes, washed and dried, all off the stems.
a generous half a teaspoon of salt

You can easily double up or treble the recipe. I double it usually and make it in a big rectangular tin. But really, that gives you enough for a dinner party and you don’t really want that unless you are actually having a dinner party. And as this bread doesn’t keep I’d keep the quantities modest until such time as you know you’ll be feeding the five thousand.

This is what you do:

Chop up the rosemary sprigs (take the leaves off the stems) until you have very finely chopped bits, about a tablespoon’s worth. Put in the olive oil in a pan and warm very gently through for a few minutes. Then take it off the heat and let it cool and infuse. You want it to be back down to kinda blood temperature, honestly as long as it’s not boiling hot you can’t go wrong.

Whilst that’s happening, mix the yeast in 90ml of warm water and a scant tsp of the caster sugar (more like half really, kinda like a pinch). Whisk gently and leave for 10 mins until frothy. Maybe longer, but it will have frothed and puffed up a bit.

Now add the flour and salt to a bowl, make a well in the middle and then the yeast mixture and half the rosemary oil. Mix together roughly with your hands until you’ve got it mostly together. Leave, covered, for about 8-10 mins.

Turn out onto an oiled board and knead for about ten seconds. Leave for 8-10 mins.

Turn it out onto an oiled board again and knead for about ten seconds. It should be all nice and smooth now. If not then do it one more time. If it looks good and smooth, cover with a bowl and leave to rise at room temperature for 1-2 hours. Sorry not to be more accurate, but it depends on your room temperature. Until it’s doubled in size. As a guide, my kitchen was at 22C and it took about 90 mins.

When you feel it’s ready, oil a suitable oven proof dish – you can use a round cake tin (23/24cm) or a rectangular one. You need something with sides really as you’re going to be brushing it with a lot of oil and you want to keep the oil in the dough, not escaping out onto a baking tray. I sort of squash the bread in, and over about 10 – 15 mins (so the dough is nice and relaxed) I push it out to the sides of the tin so it fills it. You want a thin layer of dough, not thin-crust pizza thin, but about 1-2cm thick.

Now squash the grapes in. I say squash but don’t break them, kinda push them in. Brush the bread with the remaining oil. yes it will see like a lot. Now scatter over some more rosemary, sprinkle over some caster sugar (not loads) and set aside for about half an hour, covered with cling film or a very wrung out damp teatowel.

In the meantime preheat the oven to 250 (or as high as it will go if not as high as that). Bake for about 10-12 mins, then turn down to 220 for a further ten mins or so. It’s done when it’s golden brown.

Cooked and heavily nibbled by someone.

Number of the beast bread

I love this loaf

We do love white sourdough in our house, but there’s only so much white flour stuff you can (should) eat. I like the Mill loaf but that’s not sourdoughy enough for us. What I wanted was something very similar to the bread I get in Italy that’s not white, not wholemeal but suitably tangy and ‘paysan’ as we call it.

I think this loaf is it, although the more I make it the more I’ve realised that it really improves from a very long proving time, it doesn’t like being too cold and the dough should be fairly wet and sticky, so you need to be brave whilst kneading and use oil and not add any more flour. There can be a dramatic difference – better crumb, better flavour – between a loaf that’s been proved over ‘just’ 12 hours and one that’s had 24hrs plus. If the prove is too (relatively speaking) short, the bread becomes a bit too ‘wholesome’. It’s a difficult bread in that respect, to get right. 

This is what you do to make two loaves.

You take 

400g white leaven
666g cold water (number of the beast, hence the name)
500g white flour
500g wholemeal/other flour
3tsp salt (I’m experimenting with cutting this down).

You mix the leaven with the water, add the flours and salt and mix to a messy dough. 
Rest for 10 mins, then, a la Dan Lepard, knead lightly. 
Rest 10 minutes then knead lightly (I knead for twelve counts). 
Rest for 10 minutes then knead lightly. Rest for 30 minutes then knead lightly. 
Rest for 1 hour then knead lightly. 
Rest for 1 hour then knead lightly. 
Rest for 1 hour then knead lightly. 
Rest for two hours, then knead lightly and shape and place into two bannetons (I use a 1kilo round and a 600g baton). 
Rest in fridge overnight for a good twelve hours or more. I’ve rested it for up to 72 hours
Preheat oven to 220 with one baking tray on a high shelf, one underneath. When up to temperature turn loaf out of the banneton, slash with a bread knife and put in the oven. Whilst oven still open, turn ice cubes onto the bottom tray. Close oven and turn the temperature up to 250C and cook for 15 mins. Lower temperature to 220 for further 15 minutes.

Arkansas bread

I have a habit of not being able to say certain words correctly. Often I’ve said a word the same way for years, in the privacy of my head, but no-one knows I can’t pronounce it properly.  It’s rarely a problem unless I have to suddenly say that word out loud and can’t get away from it and then people start pointing and laughing. And because of this, I often get words mixed up.

It started with ‘calzolaio’ and ‘colazione’. When I was a little girl, and in Italy with my Daddie (I feel compelled to point out that my parents are still together, my mother was just back home in central London, this wasn’t a ‘summer with the estranged parent kinda thing), I remember seeing a sign saying ‘calzolaio’ (cobblers, shoe-menders). The next day I said to my father “I’ve found a place we can go to for breakfast (colazione).” You can guess the rest.

Like a lot of stupid people, I used to pronounce ‘Arkansas’ just as it looks ‘Ar-Kan-sas’, instead of Ar-kan-saw. In my head, I still do.  I’m not related to George Bush, I promise.

What has any of this to do with bread?

In the search for more sourdough recipes, I recently bought Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters. Loads of people, far more experienced bakers than I, rave about this book. So I in no way mean to detract from that. The fact that I didn’t get on with it – I didn’t – is entirely due to my own failings.

It’s a big book with almost no photographs. I need pictures to help me with the words where food is concerned. Where almost anything is concerned. The way Whitley makes his sourdough is also different from the way Dan Lepard makes his. I can see how people would think sourdough is even more complicated than it is after reading Bread Matters. I just couldn’t get my head round it and I almost ended up crying.

Anyway, in it was, and I’m imagining still is, a recipe for Arkatena bread. Which I immediately, and persistently read as Ar-kan-sas bread,  hence the name of this post. I fancied the look of it because it contains gram (chickpea) flour, which I had in and wanted to find a use for. But I could see instantly that I’d never be able to follow the recipe for it, so before I threw myself down and started kicking my feet into the wooden floor, I decided to bloody well vary the recipe to suit myself.

This is what I did.

I used 300g white levain starter

to this I added

50g gram flour
50g wholemeal flour
300g white bread flour
7g sea salt, ground up in a pestle and mortar
300g cold water

I mixed the starter up with the water, then added the flours and salt and then kneaded it for 10-15 seconds at a time, resting it for 10 mins. Then kneading it for 10-15 seconds and resting it for another ten minutes, then kneading it for 10-15 seconds and resting it for another ten minutes then repeating but this time resting it for

30 mins
1 hour
1 hour
1 hour

Then I shaped it and put it in a banneton to prove overnight at 4 degrees. Then I cooked it at 220 for 20 mins or so.

It was probably the most ‘worthy’ loaf I’ve ever made, in other words it was quite dense. And it smelled very ‘yeasty’ despite me not adding any yeast. It would be very, very good with some soup or cheese and chutney. I’m not sure I’d like it for sandwiches.

The Arkansas bread as I’ve named it, with a big cross slash to celebrate the forthcoming visit of the Pope.  Yeh right.
The crumb. Pretty impressive save, me thinks.

A step by step guide to sourdough

I thought it’d be useful to do an entry with a step by step guide to sourdough.

Not, I will add quickly, because I am any sort of expert. But because I know a few people who are interested in ‘getting into’ sourdough and have been asking me questions about it, so I thought they might find it useful. But also there’s nothing like someone who has just learned how to do something to explain it back to you. I know that I had a few questions when I first started (which was only a few months ago!) so this is really to help those that are even greener beginners than I.

Hopefully, you will have got yourself a copy of Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf, which is the book that got me on this incredibly exciting (je jeste pas) journey into artisan bread-making. You will have your starter, which is explained in great detail in his book. And you will know the basics of what you’re doing. I’m not including a recipe here as this is really just to show you what to do regardless of which recipe you follow.

The equipment that I use and find useful:

A large stainless steel bowl, actually two.
A clean, baby muslin
A little whisk that I picked up from somewhere (Bakery Bits does a similar one here)
A dough scraper
A fork

You’ll need

Flour – according to recipe
Cold water – according to recipe
Salt – I use Maldon sea salt ground in a mortar and pestle – according to recipe

All Dan’s recipes ask for X g of starter. It took me a while to work out that if I didn’t have the actual amount in my starter jar, it didn’t matter. I could pour in what I had (not all of it! you always keep some starter to make more out from it), and then top it up with water and flour. But if you do this – i.e. feed the starter in a bowl to make more of it – you’ll need to leave it for a few hours before it’s ready.

For example. Let’s say the recipe calls for 500g of starter. If you have that to spare in your jar, great. Spoon it in to a bowl. But what about if you don’t really have that to spare?

After a while you will get to know roughly how much starter you have in your starter jar in the fridge. For example, I pretty much know I always have 200g of starter to spare, but I’m pushing it to get to 250g and I would never have a spare 500g in the jar.

So I get my bowl, put it on the scales and, for white leaven I measure out 100% of flour to 80% water (for a rye starter it’s more like 100% floor to 90% water). So for example, I’d put in 150g of flour to 120g water, which weighs 350g on the scales. I then top that up with 150g of  actual starter from my jar.

It sounds complicated, and sometimes the calculations do cause me to stare into space and bite my lip and ssssh my children if they try to talk to me, but you do get your head round it.

The easier way I remember it is that the ratio equates to:

100g flour to 80g water or,
125g flour to 100g water or,
150g flour to 120g of water, and I use those three formula calculationy things to muddle me along.

If you’re using starter that’s all straight from the starter jar, you can go straight onto ‘first dough’.

If not then you you now mix up the starter with a fork or a whisk or a spoon until it’s all incorporated (it will be quite thick). Leave it for a few hours until it’s looser looking, more relaxed, with some bubbles. If you imagine that when you first mixed it up it was a bit uptight, top button done up, now it’s slipped into a pair of velvet slippers and a smoking jacket and is having an evening smoke.

Remember to refresh your starter in the jar. I use 125g flour/100g of water or 100g flour/80g of water depending on how much space is in the  jar.

First dough

I call this first dough, just cos. It’s when you add the other ingredients to the starter, which will be


according to the recipe that you’re following. You add it all in and mix it around. The dough will look ‘scrapy’, with bits sticking out maybe.

Do not panic. Do not try to mix the dough until it’s smooth. You will be there all day and start to cry. Believe that great things can happen.

This is a white sourdough dough after the very first mix. Looks pretty unruly huh?

Let the dough rest for ten minutes; all of Dan’s sourdough recipes ask for rests of


then it can vary to another 1hr or 2hrs. You’ll need to see the recipe but once you’ve gone past the first 2/3  stages it’s pretty much all of a muchness with a tiny knead and then a rest of X amount of time.

So, first rest of ten minutes. I just let it rest in the bowl I mixed it up in. The bowl will have scraps of dough around it and every time EVERY TIME, my partner says “can’t you scrape them up into the dough”.

And the answer is: no. It doesn’t work like that. So you’ll have a ball of scruffy looking dough, kinda dry looking (DO NOT be tempted to add more water), in a bowl with bits all over it. See the picture above.

Cover it with a dishcloth and bite your nails nervously. Set the timer for ten minutes.

In the meantime, oil a surface. I use sunflower oil and recommend you do too. Dan recommends olive oil, too, but he’s probably richer than you or I. Sunflower oil is just fine. I use a big, big chopping board so that I can move my dough around the kitchen. Remember sourdough bread takes hours to make, so unless you are sure you can remain at the same work station unmolested, or don’t mind clearing up after yourself each time, use a board. I also find a dough scraper invaluable. I got mine from Ikea, it’s stainless steel, it’s great. I use it when I go back to the dough after each rest to pick the dough up with and move it around. I also oil the board before each knead. Oil works great and doesn’t alter the integrity of the dough. If you add flour or water, I found, you can get into a big sticky mess. Use oil, be brave.

After ten minutes, turn the dough out onto the board and start to knead gently. I do 12 kneads, sort of turning the dough in on itself, and around. Amazingly, you will see the dough start to get smoother. Don’t panic if you’ve still got some bits that don’t seem to quite adhere, and it’s not yet as smooth as it could be, although by this stage you should have a dough with promise.

This is the same dough as above, but after its rest of ten minutes and its first knead. Big difference isn’t there?

Now: either oil a bowl and put the dough in it, covering it with a cloth (I use the baby muslins for this, but a dishcloth would do fine, obviously you don’t need to have had a baby and have baby muslins to do this FFS) or put the dough on the surface you just kneaded it on and cover it with an oiled bowl.

If you have lots of large stainless steel bowls, like I do, then lucky you. You don’t need to wash up just yet. Otherwise you’ll need to wash up the doughy-bowl, dry it, oil it and put it to use.

Set the timer for un’altre ten minutes.

This is the same white sourdough dough, after its third lot of ten minute rises.

At each stage the dough will have relaxed a little and started to grown. At first, when you’re only leaving it for 10 or 30 mins, you won’t notice it so much. But when you get to the longer proving times, you’ll see how it stretches out and relaxes. When you first get back to the dough you’ll also feel  how it’s softer and starts to stiffen up as you knead it.

Don’t be tempted to knead it more than 10-15 seconds.

Et voila le dough after the first one hour rise. You can see bubbles on the surface yes? Good sign.
After the second, 1hr rise. The dough is bigger, more relaxed, smoother. A bit like me after Christmas.
Here it is after its 2hr rise. Just before it’s shaped and put into a banneton for its overnight sleep.

I should point out that the bread-heads always say that if it’s warm (like a hot sunny day or just if your kitchen is warm) then you might be able to leave your bread for less time, say 40 minutes instead of an hour. I’ve never bothered with this particularly and always do what time suits me. Equally, if you leave the bread for longer than ten minutes (or 30mins or an hour or whatever rest you’re on), cos the phone goes, or Corrie is on, it doesn’t matter either. Obviously you can’t completely take the piss, but sourdough is a bit like a very loving/drunk parent/partner: it is very forgiving.

When you’ve done your resting and kneading for the last time, you shape it into a ball, let it rest for ten minutes and then shape it into the final shape you want and put it to prove in a lined bowl or banneton for the last rise of whatever the recipe says (usually about 4hrs or so). I always do the final prove (prove = rise) in the fridge, cos that’s what works for me. I leave it for 10-36hrs for white dough, and up to 72 hours for wholemeal/rye etc. I haven’t experimented with longer than that  yet.

These are my little loaves after ten hours in the fridge. They don’t look massively risen, but comparatively, they are. I wanted two smaller baton shapes. Had I put all the dough in one basket it would have been up to the top by this stage.

In the morning this is what I do: I preheat the oven to 220C. I put in two baking trays, the one I will bake the bread on goes on the top shelf. The tray I will put the ice cubes on will go on the bottom shelf. Don’t use your best tray for the ice cubes.

When the oven is up to temperature, fill a glass with ice cubes and get your polenta ready. Take out the top baking tray – the one that will receive the bread – and dust it with polenta. You can’t put the polenta on before this (i.e. at the time of first putting the tray in the oven) or it will burn.

Turn the bread out onto the polenta. This is where the linen lined bannetons really come into their own, because it makes the process easy.

These are the loaves, turned out onto a polenta dusted tray and slashed.

Don’t be afraid to slash the loaves. Even if they look like they’re collapsing a bit when you do it. They will recover in the oven. Use a bread knife: be confident and slash the dough deeply, the deeper you slash the more room the bread has to rise in the oven. Try to cut, rather than push: in other words let the knife do the work, not you pushing down. I do about four slashes for a 600g baton shape. Experiment with what works for you.

When you’ve slashed, put the bread into the oven, and just before shutting the door, pour the ice cubes onto the bottom tray. They will fizz and steam. That’s good. That steam will keep the bread moist. If you have a water sprayer, you should also spray the top of the bread. This is important because once the crust has hardened, the bread can no longer rise, so the longer you can leave it before the crust hardens, the more chance you have of ‘oven spring’ – the bread making that final push upwards in the oven.

Things that really make a difference:

Slashing – your bread won’t be so aerated without it.
Ice cubes –  you won’t get such a good crust or so much rise.
Preheated baking tray – you won’t get such a good crust or such a good rise.
Polenta – you can do without it, but it produces a really professional finish, even if it is only on the bottom.

The finished product

That’s it!

Starting to experiment pt2: potato bread with a 36hr prove

Because we had guests coming for Sunday lunch, I decided to make a double batch of potato bread on Saturday. I had an inkling it would be good, because the dough was really frisky: I could barely contain it on the chopping board I use to knead my dough. It was so alive there was no way I could knead it and leave it on the board, covered with a large stainless steel bowl, as I normally do, because it would have pushed right out from the bowl.  So instead I had to put it back into the bowl, and cover it with a tea towel whilst it rested.

I also discovered that it’s so much easier to fold dough, in the fancy way they tell you to (basically folding the dough into three, so take one third of it, fold it into the centre and then the other side, fold in on top) with so much dough. It was really easy to fold in this way, although not easy to keep in any sort of shape. I practically had to pour it into the bannetons.

I cooked one lot in a 1k round on the Sunday but the other I left in a 600g banneton (in the fridge at 4C) til this morning. It had risen hugely and spread out lots on the baking tray the moment I turned it out. I slashed it four times and it looked very collapsed, but I’m used to that with long-prove breads now and hoped it would revive in the oven. It did.

Instead of what I usually do, which is put it in the oven at the highest temperature and then turning it down, I’ve been experimenting with putting the bread in the oven at 220C for the first 8-10 mins, then putting it up higher to 250C, then back down. This is what I did this time.

The bread rose beautifully, had a great crust (heavier and darker than the one I did for Sunday lunch, probably cos of the shape) and OMG it tastes divine. The longer prove has definitely improved the flavour.

I’d go as far as to say it’s very probably the best tasting bread I’ve ever made. I will try to photograph the crumb later (if there is any left), it’s really good. Not overproved (as I feared), kinda waxy, very white. And so moist.