Course Notes: Robin Van Creveld shares his sourdough secrets

Community Chef Robin Van Creveld is an expert in real bread. In these course notes accompanying his Simple Sourdough demonstration at the OctoberFeast 2016 FEAST & Food School, Robin shares  his recipe for 50/50 Sourdough and a lot more essential advice. Read on and go wild…

The Sourdough Adventure

Sourdough refers to dough or batter which is fermented by naturally occurring wild yeast. These yeasts and lactic acid bacteria are present in most grain-based flours. Our ancestors have made bread this way since ancient times and the simple technologies, yeasts and bacteria have not changed much.

One uses a sourdough starter or “mother” in place of or in addition to baker’s yeast. Sourdough breads have the added benefit of being very flavoursome and highly digestible. The long fermentation needed to make sourdough bread also reduces phytate levels in the flour. Phytates reduce our body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients and improves mineral bioavailability.

Sourdough breads are often more open textured and have generally have a chewy crumb. They also go stale less quickly than conventional breads.

Dough made with sourdough starter is often a bit stickier than conventional yeasted breads. This is partially to do with hydration but more to do with a chemical reaction catalysed by the sourdough enzymes which break down of the gliadin part of gluten. Don’t be put off, just use light dustings of flour, little and often when forming the breads.

Because of the longer fermentation and proving times, sourdough bread benefits from being proved with external structural support in the form of bread tins or proving baskets.

A sourdough baking system requires a little more pre-planning in that the “mother” or starter needs to be refreshed 4 – 12 hours before you can effectively use it as a leavening agent. Because of the longer fermentation and proving times, sourdough lends itself to an overnight production system – i.e. you can mix the dough before bed and bake the bread in the morning.

People who make sourdough bread will generally be able to send a little starter your way to get you up and baking, but if you want to do things from scratch, it is simple to get a “mother” sourdough going and, with a little care and attention, very easy to keep her alive and productive.

Getting your “Mother” started:

This process takes 4 – 5 days and will result in a sprightly “mother” starter or leaven – all mixing should be done by hand as it encourages the cultivation of wild yeasts.

Day 1: Mix 50g of strong wholemeal wheat 50g of warm (40’c) spring water by hand to make dough (Tap water is chlorinated and hence does not encourage the growth of microorganisms) Cover with a muslin and keep in a warm space (25 -30’) like an airing cupboard for 24 hours.

Day 2: Mix day one’s batter with 50g more of flour and 50g warm spring water. Mix well, cover with the muslin and return to the warm place.

Day 3 and 4 – You should start to see a little action in your dough now, some bubbles starting to form and a slightly sour smell developing. Add flour and water as per day 2, mix, cover and return to the warmth.

Day 5: Things should really be happening now, more bubbles and a distinct sour smell. If nothing has happened, add no extra flour or water, but allow the mixture to ferment for an extra 24 hours. If there is still no action, start again with a different brand of flour. This is what is generally known as a starter, leaven or “mother” and with her by your side, you are ready to start the process of making naturally leavened bread. You can bake with this straight away or place store in the fridge in a container with a tight fitting lid. The hydration percentage of this starter is 100%.

Keeping “Mum”:

In the fridge, the starter goes dormant and can stay that way for a good amount of time – I’ve kept a starter refrigerated for over a year and managed to easily revive and bake with her in 24 hours. Having said that, regular refreshing of the starter will help it to stay fruity and active.

Refreshing “Mum”:

The first thing you will need to do before making sourdough bread is to refresh your Mother and make what is known as a production dough or leaven. This means adding extra water and flour which both provides extra fermentable sugar for the culture to feed on and also introduces new wild yeasts to the starter. You will need to make this production dough each time you want to bake.

For a wheat production: add 50g of mother starter to 100g of wholemeal flour and 100g of water. Mix well and allow it to ferment in a warm environment for 4 – 6 hours before use. This can be used as it is or for better results use it to make a pre ferment. Make sure that you don’t use all of this production dough in your bread and return 50g back to the Mother starter.

For a Rye Production: add 50g of mother starter to 100g of rye flour and 150g of water. Mix well and allow it to ferment in a warm environment for 4 – 8 hours before use. This can be used as it is or for better results use it to make a pre-ferment. Make sure that you don’t use all of this production dough in your bread and return 50g back to the Mother starter.

RECIPE: Sourdough 50:50

This recipe is loosely based on a French Country Bread – Pain De Campagne, you can use the same basic formula and adjust the percentage of white and wholemeal flours to suit.

Makes 2 large or 4 small loaves

400g wholemeal flour

600g strong white flour

600ml warm water

200g refreshed whole wheat starter (100% hydration)

15g salt

Stage 1: Refresh your starter

You are aiming for a 100% h2o starter which means equal amounts of flour to water. Portion off 50g of “mother” starter and feed it with 100g of flour and 100ml of water. Cover with a cloth and allow this to ferment in a warm environment for up to 6 hours. Your starter should be bubbly and smell alcoholically sweet and fruity. Put 50g of the refreshed starter back with your “mother”

Stage 2: Making your dough

Mix the ingredients together really well to form dough and allow it to rest for 10 minutes before attempting to knead it. Return the remaining starter to your mother sourdough. Turn this onto a dusted surface and knead with vigour for about 5 minutes. The dough should be loose and sticky so try not to add too much flour. A dough scraper is very handy at this time. It will tighten up – have faith and trust in the process.

Stage 3: Fermentation

Return your dough to a bowl, cover and place in a warm space, (22 – 27’c) to ferment for a minimum of two hours – a longer ferment is preferable – up to 12 hours in a cool environment.

During the ferment, you should aim to stretch and fold your dough twice. This improves the structure of the dough and boosts fermentation. Do the first fold after 2 hours and then again an hour later. To do this, oil your surface and gently ease out the dough. Stretch it out as long and wide as you can without tearing the dough and fold it over in three layers. Gather the dough back into a ball and return to the warm environment.

Stage 4: Proving

When your dough has doubled in size, scale at 900g for a large or 500g for small loaves. Ball these up and form into a shape of your choice and place onto oiled bread tins or linen lined bread basket or. Sourdough can be less tensile than yeasted dough’s which is why people often proof sourdough breads in tins or baskets. Prove in a warm place until doubled in size. With an active starter, in a warm environment, this should take about 2 hours.

Stage 5: Baking

Preheat the oven to its hottest setting. If using a basket for rising, turn the bread carefully out onto an oiled tray. Dust the top of the loaf with flour and cut a few slashes across the top of the bread and place into the oven. Bake hot for 10 minutes and then turn the heat down to 200’c. Bake for a further 25 minutes for small or 35 for large loaves. Cool completely before slicing.

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