Some sour to balance the sweet

The River Cottage Handbook Number 3: Bread by Daniel Stevens has been the biggest influence on my kitchen life this year.  I bought my copy at the beginning of the year, seeking a book that would explain all the steps of bread-making, as well as introduce me to the mysterious art of the sourdough.  The first 70 pages are all about the steps of bread-making, starting with why he started to bake his own bread, to explaining the role of each ingredient and a detailed description of each of the steps of bread-making.  This may sound like a book about bread, rather than a recipe book, and I suppose it is, but that’s what makes it such a gem, and worth of its handbook title.

I’d tried making bread before from recipes in magazines and cookbooks, and as good as those publications are, they’re never going to give you bread that is a true rival to what you buy.  And I’m afraid I am presuming you buy good bread when I say that. Snobbish, foodie, elitist, I don’t care what you call it. I grew up eating sliced mass-produced bread – mostly white, turning browner and grainier in the mid-nineties – from supermarkets.  Everyone did. I don’t even remember my friends with slightly richer parents buying much different. And I continued buying it when I moved out and could choose my own food. My default loaf was Warburton’s Multigrain – what I felt was better bread, being non-white and well, multi-grained, but it was still mass-produced, standard bread.

But when I started cooking more, it seemed more people were writing about what was in food (or maybe I just started reading it), and nudging me away from the bread I’d always eaten, towards expensive bread, bread a person had touched, that only had a few ingredients which you could buy in a normal shop. Bread that went stale and hard when you forgot it was in& the breadbin, not soft and mouldy.  The image that sticks with me was someone, somewhere taking a slice of regular sliced bread and squashing it hard with their fist, and revealing the ball of sticky dough that they then invited me to imagine sitting in my stomach and moving through my gut.   I think that was the final straw, and I started shelling out for rustic, handmade loaves, at probably about 2 pounds a pop.  And very tasty they were too, mainly from my local bakery Euphorium.
But the River Cottage Handbook changed that.  Those first 70 pages comforted me as well as educatting me; they showed me why past loaves had been like bricks (I didn’t let it rise, deflate and finally prove them anywhere near long enough) and the passion he clearly has for baking sang out from the pages.  How could I not give it a go? I started with the malted and brown loaves, and with such clear instructions, produced some pretty decent bread, that thanks to his easy-to-follow pictures illustrating how to shape loaves, even looked professional.  I even got the confidence to attempt notoriously difficult (in beginner terms) white bread, and was not disappointed, with a soft crumb and lovely crust.

First of many late-night sourdough sponges
Proving inside a black bin bag – the key to excellent fermentation
And then there was sourdough.  Oh sourdough.  I wish I could say I remember my first slice of sourdough, but I did fall for it hard in San Francisco back in 2007 and from then, sought it out whenever I could.  But sourdough starters, they were things of legends, living, breathing vats of magic, handed down from generation to generation.  Some of my cookbooks alluded to them, even gave recipes for starting one, but the ingredients list was so long and let’s be honest, kind of weird looking (raisins? Apple juice? Milk? Flour? In the SAME BOWL?!) and long detailed descriptions of feeding them: how often (often), what (a formula of weights and volumes that seemed very scientific).  Even the River Cottage Handbook’s 3 page instructions, as easy as they read now, seemed too challenging for me.  Something to aim for when I’d mastered more commercially yeasted breads, and since I was still perfecting those.  So no, the Euphorium organic granary continued to dominate my breadbin, supplemented by the occasional home-baked offering.
Fast-forward to April this year: a lunchtime where I had won the race to grab G2, and which that day featured this article by Phil Daoust.  A sourdough starter could be easy?  Really?  This was bordering on heresy, surely.  But I ripped the page out (um, yeah, sorry colleagues, I do that with recipes sometimes) and it sat, folded up on a shelf in the kitchen for a couple of weeks, the sight of it catching my eye and gently nudging me towards a tub, some flour, and some water.  I mean, how hard could it be?  And honestly, for the price of a bag of organic rye flour, I wouldn’t lose any sleep if I screwed it up.
And do you know, it worked.  I nurtured it, but not obsessively, for a few weeks, and then baked with it.  And it worked.  Maybe not as impressive as I’d secretly hoped, but certainly tasty bread.
And I’ve continued to nurture it. It mainly lives in the fridge and I bring it out a few days before I’m going to bake at the weekend, feeding it up a bit each day and letting it get bubbly and very sour-smelling.  Weeks where I’ve not been baking at the weekend it has got a bit run-down and I did think I’d killed it once, but no, those little guys are tough.  Sometimes it’s turned a bit pink, or grey, or had a funny looking skin form on top, but when in doubt, I chuck about half of it down the sink, and add about a tablespoon (or more) or flour, and enough water to make a paste and it’s fine.

Sourdough dough is a lot wetter than regular bread dough
Two loaves ready to prove
Just look at the bubbles!
Proving sourdough’s not difficult (groan!)
My first sourdough loaves

But as I challenged myself more with recipes, and experimented more widely, the thought of making my own bread came back. Those few early attempts at “the easiest white loaf you’ll ever make!” had been disappointing, and Matt had even taken over as chief baker for a while. I wasn’t interested, feeling the resulting bread wasn’t worth the effort. The only exception was Irish sodabread which is just the simplest and tastiest thing you can do with flour, yogurt and baking soda, and became a weekend favourite. (Dan Lepard’s oaty soda bread and Richard Corrigan’s Irish recipes are absolute winners, but I’m sure you can’t go wrong with any recipe you come across.)

Wholemeal sourdough
White sourdough

I use it to make proper sourdough when I’ve got the time to do it justice, or I add a slug into the mix when I’m using regular dried yeast. As an aside, I tried using  fresh yeast, but the results were terrible. I feel I know where I stand with dried yeast, and perversely, with the bubbling monster I’ve created.
And yes, I mainly bake with it at weekends.  I’ve tried HFW’s River Cottage Everyday slow-rise-overnight-in-the-fridge method and I just can’t get it to work.  So I’ve stuck pretty much with Daniel Stevens and his sourdough/River Cottage sourdough recipes, but started using Dan Lepard’s method of 10 second knead/10 minute rest for 30 minutes in place fo a 15 minute knead to no ill effect.
I won’t be too modest, the results have mostly be been amazing.  Better than some loaves I’ve bought, as good as many.  Some have been less than perfect, but the troubleshooting guide has helped me work out where I went wrong.  And if I’m honest, 9 times out of 10, it’s because I haven’t paid attention to what I’m doing, usually leaving too long between rises/deflations, or not letting it prove long enough (or thinking I’d set the oven timer to switch off after 40 minutes, but doing it wrong and baking the bread for about 7 hours.  Not so tasty, that one.).  But each time I learn more, and the bread mainly comes out right.  And I feel like I’m only beginning with bread-baking with lots more to experiment with and learn.

I was raving about the pivotal sourdough starter guide to my friend Lyndal, and she was keen to give it a go, so that ripped out piece of G2 travelled back with her to Melbourne and the last I heard, her starter was bubbling along nicely.  And I’m going to keep spreading the sour word.  Try it, you won’t regret it, and the bread will be some of the tastiest you’ll ever eat.

I make bread most weekends, and so won’t bore you posting about it each week.  But I think I’ll drop a bready musing in every now and again when I pull off a particularly tasty number, or make a huge cock-up that shouldn’t be repeated, cos they’re fun too right?!  And I’ve just bought Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf, which seems to be revered by bread-makers everywhere, and I feel ready to try. (Dan also has an excellent website and supportive forum, and I have The Handmade Loaf one bookmarked in anticipation).  Mr Stevens has given me the basic skills and I feel like I can move on to previously more intimidating books, with their talk of raisins and percentages. Gulp.

Today’s bread: regular wholemeal with dried yeast and a slug of sourdough starter.

If you want to bake your own bread I cannot recommend The River Cottage Handbook enough.  And if you don’t think you’re ready quite yet, I’ll post enough pictures here that you’ll give in one day…and that will be the happiest day your tummy has seen in a long time, I promise.

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