I was actually quite surprised when I checked back and discovered that the last time I wrote anything about Sourdough baking was back in March 2018. A whole ten months back. I know time flies, but this is ridiculous.
And so, a brief recap. Back toward the end of 2017, I managed to tick another bucket list item by doing a sourdough workshop in Fumbally, Dublin with Shane Palmer, who is the main-man behind Sceal bakery in Dublin, and a big supplier to the Dublin restaurant scene. It was fairly mind-blowing, and got me on track to try making sourdough regularly. Practice makes perfect, and I set myself a target of getting to 100 loaves and seeing how I would improve ‘along the way’. The good news is that on 1 December 2018 I baked loaves 101 & 102 (yeah, I know this is sad, but I like numbers) and the even better news was that those two loaves were the absolute best I have made so far. And that made me very happy indeed.
In between, what happened? I acquired quite a lot of added bits and pieces of equipment along the way, (like the above, which is called a Lame) and as I had been extra good in 2018, Santa Claus brought me a dough mixer for Christmas (still to come out of the box, but I expect great things). I also benefited from a few people who had no idea ‘what to get the man who has everything’ and plumped for Sourdough Baking books. But the big injection of pace in 2018 was going on a ‘second level’ one-day Sourdough baking course at Riot Rye Eco-village bread school in Cloughjordan on the Tipperary/Offaly border. There, Joe Fitzmaurice took me and a small number of (mostly male) fellow enthusiasts through a full-on, hands-filled day about the ins and outs of Sourdough baking. He also answered many questions, helped identify what we were, individually, doing wrong, and generally gave us a massive boost in confidence.
And so, armed with bubbling enthusiasm and some new techniques, I rushed back to my oven and began to produce much better loaves. To the relief of my neighbours and friends who had – I suspect – suffered through my learning curve and acted as my guinea pigs – you can’t eat that much bread on your own, so I give away a fair proportion of what I produce – it’s called ‘spreading the gospel’.
And so (I hear you ask) what were the main lessons of ‘the first hundred loaves’ – both good and bad? Here’s a brief list…
- You can’t expect the Sourdough to work at your pace. You have to work at the pace IT dictates in terms of how the gluten and structure of the dough develops. When it’s ready to bake, it has to go in the oven, whether it’s convenient for you or not. There are ways you can retard the growth – mostly, it seems, by putting it in the fridge – but beyond that, when it’s ready, it’s ready. And so you literally have a to plan out a bake over 2 and maybe 3 days. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but for consistent results, this (for me) is now the number one rule. The dough drives the process.
- Quality (fresh-ground) flour and correct temperatures will mean that the cycle can be telescoped. Basically if it’s left to ‘prove’ for too long, the dough more or less ‘eats itself’. The white flour leaven/mother/active yeast culture should float if it’s ready to use – you try a teaspoon of it in a glass of water. And pray. A starter made with Rye flour wont necessarily float, so you have to go by the bubbles in it to judge it’s ready. I use bottles still (obviously) water for making my initial leaven – my impression is that the Fluoride in tap water might not be great.
- Bake in a really HOT over – like 240 degree fan.
- I also moved away from using cast iron saucepans (pre heated) to dome-type pyrex dishes, which means I can control temperature better and burn my hands a lot less (this is important, believe me). It also helps with moisture in the oven – the micro-climate is better. I ‘mist’ the inside of the pyrex dome before I bake – which may or may not help, I’m not sure.
- Use a thermometer to test internal bread temperature at the end. If it’s 96 degrees or better, it’s probably cooked inside, and you are just working now on browning the crust.
- Instagram is a great place to find fellow Sourdough enthusiasts and recipes – use the hashtag ‘sourdough’ and you get some amazing results. It’s a bit addictive…
- Once your initial mix of the dough is done, you test that the gluten is developed by stretching and holding up a thin piece to the light – it should be translucent. This is called the windowpane test. Also at this stage (about 10 minutes of kneading) the dough sort of creates ‘webs’ across your fingers.
- It’s nearly impossible to bake sourdough without making a mess, but you do get less hassle from your nearest and dearest if you clean up as you go along. Wire pot-scrubs are good for cleaning wooden chopping boards, and your dough-covered fingers too. You never have too many tea-towels, but a) they are cheap and b) you can hide the ones that you destroy along the way and put them into the bin. And if you end up with a tea-towel that has lots of dough stuck to it, you can pick a lot of it off if you put the tea towel in a deep freeze for a while.
The last thing I learned over the year is that making Sourdough is addictive. It’s really complicated in one sense, and (fairly) easy in another. The number of variables is mind-blowing, from flours to mixes, climate, temperature, time spent developing gluten, water quality, oven temperature, elapsed time etc. But that’s what makes every bake an adventure (no, really) and adds to the excitement. You just don’t really know what’s going to happen. And if there is anything to beat a still-warm slab of crusty sourdough with melting butter and slice of mature cheddar on it, well I’d like to hear about it. Now on to the next hundred loaves….