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!

Although heavy on theory, getting sourdough going is surprisingly low-tech in practice. All it really needs is for you to leave flour and water lying around to fester. If you keep adding a bit more flour and water every day, you can easily end up with a viable ‘starter’ or ‘leaven’ – a bubbling source of yeast cells lively enough to make bread within about five or six days. Once you’ve got it going, you keep feeding it with fresh flour and water every three days or so, or you can give it a strategic boost a day or so in advance of making a new loaf.

Man discovered this simple process thousands of years ago and has been making use of it ever since. Today, we’ve managed to make cobbling together a leaven a pretty complicated business: there seem to be as many different methods as there are books about bread-making.

Some writers swear by flour and water alone. Others indulge in a little sneaky baiting of the mixture, leaving things in it that will attract more rapid yeast growth – such as yoghurt and dried fruit. Some people stick to a rye starter which does, admittedly, seem to be the easiest to get going and keep alive. Others branch out into leavens made with other flours. Some get very particular about the conditions, the container and the temperature, others uppity about the water (tap water is frowned upon, although I’ve never found it a problem). Conveniently for most of us, it is also said that you should avoid over-zealous cleaning in the kitchen as this runs the risk of killing off your bacteria.

Although I’ve got starters going by a number of different methods, the one I successfully make most of my bread from is straight from Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf. It has a small amount of rye flour in it, but it’s basically a wheat flour starter and used to make wheat-based bread.

He starts off with 2 tsp rye flour, 2 tsp strong white flour and 50g of water, with 2 tsp currants or raisins and 2 tsp live low-fat yoghurt. You mix all of that up in a covered plastic container and leave in a warm-ish place for 24 hours. The next day, you add 2 more tsp of each of the flours and another 50g water. On day 3, you double the quantities and leave again. On day 4, just when it’s probably starting to look good, you counter-intuitively chuck away three-quarters of it. Add 100g water to what you’ve got left, stir well and then strain the whole lot, removing the manky dried fruit and the flour goo, leaving only the liquid. Add 125g strong white flour to this, stir again and leave another 24 hours.

By day 5, the whole thing should smell pretty ripe and acidic. Again, chuck away three-quarters of it and add 100g water and 125g strong white flour. In another 24 hours, you have a starter you can use to make bread. The rule of thumb after this is to keep on repeating day 5 by adding flour and water – a process known as ‘refreshment’. The ideal proportions seem to be around about 1 part existing starter, 1 part water, 1.25 parts flour.

If you’re canny, you’ll develop a routine whereby you only end up refreshing the starter immediately after taking out the right amount to make a loaf of bread. That way, you won’t have to throw any away. So if, for example, you have around 300g of starter and your recipe asks you to use 200g of it, you’ll end up with about 100g left in the pot, which becomes just over 300g when you next add flour and water, and you’re back to where you started. If you’ve had a break from making a loaf, you’ll probably have to throw some away when you do your next refreshment. Or, you can slow down the whole process by putting it in the fridge, in which case you might only need to refresh the mixture every 7-10 days. If you need to make more than two loaves in a week, you might need to do some forward-planning and adjust the quantities so that you have more ‘left-over’ starter and you add proportionately more flour and water when you refresh it.

It all sounds complicated and I’ve put in quantities as a guide but, as with all of this, you don’t have to be too precious and you can get away with a lot of haphazard management. All you really need to know is that a ‘hit’ of flour and water should get a sluggish starter going again. Even if you follow all the instructions to the letter, sometimes there just won’t be much happening. It’s really all about being sensitive to what a lively and a dormant starter looks and smells like. Never be afraid to throw a lot away and do try to resist building up a big lifeless stock of goo.

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.

Making sourdough might seem like an absurd thing to get into but, if you can get the hang of it, the reward is a regular and cheap supply of really delicious bread. Frankly, who can argue with that? I’ve been inexpertly doing it for a couple of years now and I persevere not only because it tastes great but also because it does become a bit of an obsession. (Like that makes it OK somehow…)

There’ll be four parts to my ramblings about bread, because I can’t think of a more succinct way of doing it. I’ll look a bit at the science of how bread works because I think it’s useful to know about; ponder the question of what the best books are on the subject of sourdough; deal with making a starter or leaven; and, then, in the last part, I might actually say something about making a loaf of bread.

Two things about sourdough tend to be off-putting: it takes a long time from start to finish and it entails having to keep a bizarre yeast culture ‘alive’. I’m not going to say that those things aren’t true because they are, but you just have to embrace the weirdness. You get used to it. Ever wanted a few tubs of pungent fermenting flour and water kicking about the house? Well, now’s your chance.

A sourdough starter is a bit like a cat. It likes to be allowed to settle in a warm place for a while. But you shouldn’t let it get too comfortable: don’t be afraid to chuck it out in the cold every so often. You can even neglect it for long periods of time and revive it when needed (which, although I’m no cat expert, is perhaps where the analogy falls down a little).

Also, it’s educational: making sourdough well is much more about having sensitivity to the science behind the processes you set in place than it is about following instructions. So, it’s good for people who are a bit contrary but quite patient.

Conventionally in bread-making you add yeast to flour and water and, once you’ve left your dough to prove in a warm place, you find that it magically becomes big and aerated, ready to be baked into shape. The yeast cells, activated by water and warmth, have begun to digest the carbohydrates in the flour. Fermentation has taken hold, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol as the sugars break down into simpler molecules. Tiny carbon dioxide bubbles give the loaf its volume and texture, but are only useful if they can remain held within the structure of the dough. This is the function served by kneading: it helps to change the molecular structure of proteins in the flour, creating an intricate lattice that allows the dough to trap gas and then expand during proving and baking.

What makes sourdough different is simply that you use ‘wild yeast’ rather than yeast that you’ve bought in a shop or been given from behind the counter at Asda. Pretty much every foodstuff, including flour, already has some yeast-like bacteria living on it, while anything exposed to the air will pick up other useful beasties over time. These naturally occurring bacteria can be harnessed (again, my cat analogy seems not so appropriate… think about harnessing and saddling up a cat) and used as the leavening agent for your bread. Intriguingly, since the bacteria originate from the flour and from the air, they are locally specific, so you can legitimately claim to be baking from your ‘Deptford culture’ or whatever it might be.

Some of the bacteria are yeasts that act in a similar way to those you get in commercially bought bakers’ yeasts. They help you to ferment a mixture of flour and water. But others, such as lactobacilli, do rather different things and end up being really important in giving sourdough its distinctive taste.

When you use flour and air as your source for wild yeasts, they exist in very low concentrations at first, so this is where you need to give time to let them develop. In warm, wet conditions, yeast not only feeds (bringing about fermentation) but it also reproduces. The trick, then, is to give the naturally occurring yeasts the right conditions to multiply and create a source of cells lively enough to help you make bread.

Cunningly, the longer you leave a dough or any flour and water mixture lying around, the more of a sour taste you get from using it to make bread. While fermentation takes place and the yeast does its thing, the lactobacilli from the flour and the air help to produce acetic and lactic acid. Even in yeast bakery, doughs are often left for a long time to ferment (as a ‘sponge’) in order that some of these acid-producing reactions have time to take place and give the bread more flavour.

Yeast action will be slowed down in an acidic environment so, when you do intend to leave dough to prove for a long time, there is always a balance to be struck between maximising fermentation and yeast reproduction on the one hand, and allowing acid production on the other. Slow proving is often done at lower temperatures – in the fridge even – so that you can manage the balance more carefully and not end up with an overly acidic mixture where yeasts will find it hard to reproduce. Wild yeasts in sourdough starters are usually better suited to surviving in acidic environments than bakers’ yeasts introduced to the mixture.

(To be continued…)

I have to declare an interest, being a DK editor and all, but DK’s Soup Book is pretty great. I’ve had a look at my bank balance and am going to have to subsist on soup and homemade bread for the next few years at this rate.

The maple-roasted carrot and ginger soup is very straightforward, apart from peeling and chopping 2kg of carrots: you just sling them into a roasting tray along with two onions, four garlic cloves, and a hunk of ginger chopped into matchsticks, then mix them up with 2 tbsp sunflower oil and 3 tbsp maple syrup. After roasting them at 220C for 45 minutes–1 hour until tender and stickily golden, they’re blended with 1.5 litres of vegetable stock and served with chopped lovage (or chives if you can’t get lovage, which I couldn’t).

To go with the soup, I’ve made a batch of fougasses: basically a batch of white bread dough cut into interesting shapes (see photo below). I use Richard Bertinet’s basic white bread recipe from Dough (500g white bread flour, 1 tsp dried yeast, 10g salt, and 350ml/g warm water, mixed, kneaded, and rested for an hour), then the fougasses need to bake for around 15 minutes each. You can get six from a batch of dough. I really need to find a new fresh yeast source though, as it makes all the difference and I think the dried yeast I’ve been using has run out of oomph. Either way, you still get the lovely smell of freshly baked bread and a cheap yet slightly impressive soup accompaniment.