Once you’ve got your starter, making a loaf of sourdough bread is dead easy. My standard loaf is adapted from Dan Lepard’s recipe for white leaven bread in The Handmade Loaf.
Transfer 200g of lively starter to a big bowl and add to it 325g of warm-ish water. Combine the two with a spoon or a whisk and then add the flour. The recipe calls for 500g of strong white flour, which makes a fine loaf. However, you can happily experiment with different flours. Stealing an idea from another standard sourdough recipe (in Richard Bertinet’s Crust), I often substitute some of the white flour with spelt flour (say, 425g white and 75g spelt). This makes a slightly darker, more characterful loaf.
So, add your flour and, at the same time, 1½ tsp sea salt. Give it all a good mix and start to form it together into a dough. You might need to add a bit more water or flour to get the right consistency. As ever, what is right for you, in the conditions you’re working in, is moot and it’s hard to make generalisations. You need a looser, wetter dough than most people are used to, so you are looking for something that does stick annoyingly to your hands and the work surface (for that reason, little plastic scrapers are strongly recommended). However, there’s always a limit to it – you still have to knead it and so there has to be scope to manipulate the stuff. Most people tell you to avoid adding more flour but sometimes you just have to, or it’s impossible to work with.
In the various guides to bread-making, people always give their tips and their ‘do’s and ‘don’t's. These can add up to a baffling and restrictive code for how you might operate when you make your bread, and they can really take the fun and spontaneity out of it. I’m sure a lot of the things I do would be frowned upon, but they seem to work and I’m therefore loathe to try to fix them. However, I’ve found two techniques in particular that are well worth taking seriously when it comes to the often arduous task of kneading.
Firstly, Richard Bertinet has a method which mercifully gets you away from the exhausting heel-of-the-hand-based pummelling of the dough that many of us have grown up to think is (k)needed. It’s hard to describe it so you should maybe just get either get one of his books – Dough or Crust – or, given that there are videos of it online, just google ‘Bertinet kneading method’. He manages to use his thumbs and fingertips to flick the dough deftly over on itself in a frankly quite stylish movement that really is very effective. In no time, you’ll find yourself with the kind of smooth, elastic dough you’re looking for. It’s still a bit tiring, obviously, but you don’t feel quite so bruised and battered afterwards.
Secondly, Dan Lepard helpfully points out that there’s no sense in bashing away at a dough continually when the proteins you’re working on carry on doing their thing regardless of whether or not you’re actively kneading. In other words, if you give a dough a bit of a knead and then leave it a few minutes, when you come back to it you’ll find that it’s much easier to work with – it has actually gained in elasticity since the last time you touched it. You still have to do the kneading thing – that’s what traps air inside the dough – but the proteins that form the cellular structure needed to hold gas inside the dough respond best to alternating spells of rest and manipulation. Mr Lepard writes out a detailed schedule of resting and kneading for you for most recipes, but you can be a bit more maverick than that and allow yourself to multi-task as you knead. So, give it a knead for a minute, do a bit of washing up, then come back to the dough and knead again for another couple of minutes, then make a cup of tea, knead again, and so on. It’s magic – it works amazingly well.
Once you’ve got a nice bit of dough, flour it up and leave it in a warm place. I’ve got a little lined basket (a ‘panneton’, no less) for mine but you can just as easily use a floured or oiled mixing bowl with a tea towel over the top. They say this bit takes an hour but, frankly, I’ve left it overnight in this condition and it doesn’t seem to matter. Next, you take it out and stretch it. Don’t expect it to have expanded much – everything is so much slower in the world of sourdough that you don’t tend to get that revelation of your dough having ‘doubled in size’. Stretch it out on a lightly floured surface, and then wrap it back up again, folding the corners into the centre a couple of times and then working back into a ball. Flour it again and stick it back in whatever container you’re using to prove it.
How much time you need here is pretty infinitely expandable, in my experience. It is possible to over-do it, in which case it collapses back in on itself a bit like a dying star (too much Brian Cox there), but generally the longer you can leave it, the better. I think overnight is ideal but I’ve left them up to 24 hours before and that seems to work fine still. Transfer your loaf to a floured tray, slash the top with a sharp knife (for artistic effect and to facilitate expansion) and then bake it in a hot oven. Start as hot as you can and then lower the temperature to somewhere around 180-200 degrees C after five minutes. It helps if you can spray a bit of water into the oven just as you close it, creating a damper atmosphere for the first phase of baking.
It should need around 35-40 minutes, but you’ll find you have to open up the oven and test it a few times to be sure, lifting it up and tapping its bottom in the time-honoured fashion, listening for the hollow sound you’re after. A bit of colour is nice, but don’t let it burn on the top. Flouring the top of the loaf before baking can help to avoid this but, even then, I find I often have to shove a bit of kitchen foil over the top to stop it burning while it has its last five to ten minutes in the oven.
And that’s that. The bread you get is, as always, best eaten fresh. It will keep for about a week (bread with a higher water content tends to keep longer) although probably needs to be toasted from day three onwards which, for sourdough, is no bad thing anyway.
Once you’re proudly munching your sourdough, it’s worth reflecting that you’ve truly made yourself a part of the honourable continuum of bread-making. All bread would have been made this way until the last couple of centuries. You’ve done justice to the traditional ways: you’re no slave to the yeast, you don’t rely on strange packets of dried ‘fast-acting’ stuff. You are master or mistress of the loaves. Here’s to the inner baker in all of us!