There are some fantastic books out there on how to make good sourdough bread, but they won’t give you the same story on what the method is or even on the things you should and shouldn’t do. You’ll just have to see which best suits the way you do things. Or, more probably, you might pick one based on which has the best-looking pictures.
I’m going to mention three I’ve found really useful – Bread matters by Andrew Whitley, Crust by Richard Bertinet and The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard. They may not necessarily be the best ones out there but I happen to own them and they also nicely illustrate three contrasting approaches to the topic.
Bertinet’s approach to making sourdough is definitely the quickest and probably the easiest to follow. His kneading method is also well worth adopting, and I’ll cover this in part four. I reckon his book Dough is about the best basic guide to making really interesting bread with fresh yeast. Crust, the follow-up, does the job for sourdough. His real strength comes in methods that involve using a combination of sourdough and fresh yeast – the baguettes he makes this way are really delicious.
While Bertinet is all about being inspired by French baking, Lepard casts his net a little wider. He is strong on areas like breads from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and his method of making a leaven is the one I use most often. He is also a bit more experimental, being a fan of using something more interesting than water as the liquid in the mixture – red wine, cider and cucumber pickle juice all get a look-in
Andrew Whitley really is the purist, the zealot. Bread Matters is much more than a recipe book – it’s a manifesto for how we should change our attitudes to making, buying and eating bread. This is very much the baton (the baguette?) that Michel Roux Jr picked up during his recent television programme about bread in The Great British Food Revival.
If you want to do things properly, and if you care about what you eat from a nutritional perspective, Whitley is definitely your man. Much of the first part of his book is a critique of commercial bread-making methods. It sets out some pretty compelling reasons why sourdough is so much better for you than your average shop-bought loaf. He reserves particular disdain for the apparently dishonest use of various enzymes as additives to change the look, texture, flavour and shelf-life of shop-bought bread. For example, he suggests that gluten intolerance is more to do with reaction to such additives than it is to gluten itself.
Unlike the ‘Lepard process’ I describe in part three, whereby you use your starter directly to make your dough, Whitley sticks with traditional methods and uses an intermediate stage. After making your starter, you use it to create what he calls a ‘production sourdough’, which itself needs to prove. Only then can you use it you create your final dough. As this suggests, his method is comprehensive and quite lengthy – but it does generally work. He also covers starters and breads made from a range of different flours. I find he’s particularly strong on rye breads and I do keep a rye starter going according to his instructions.
Bertinet’s method is a bit of a short-cut. It gets around the need for a starter by getting you straight to the stage of having a dough which you use as your source for wild yeasts (a bit like Whitley’s production sourdough, in fact). This means it is rather less wasteful of flour than other methods and you can get a loaf made a bit quicker. The downside is that the refreshment process is, as a result, a bit more time-consuming. You end up refreshing a sort of stiff dough rather than a liquidy starter, so combining the ingredients is trickier.
What I have found is that you can combine people’s approaches but you need to do it thoughtfully. The fact that they all use a different kind of leaven means that you can’t just substitute, say, Bertinet’s in Whitley’s loaf. It seems to work better if you just stick with one basic method for making your leaven and then plunder specific techniques and combinations of ingredients from others.