Sour-dough breads have long been common outside Britain, particularly Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Germany. The process is akin to that of making yoghurt from milk in that the flour is partially “digested” by the sour-dough culture and this is claimed by some to make it easier for us to digest and better for you. Some people who have problems eating conventional yeast breads find this acceptable. We love the distinctive flavour although for some it is an acquired taste. You can use wheat or rye flour, but it does particularly bring out the best qualities of rye, especially if you add a little caraway seed.
- 500g wholemeal rye or wheat flour
- 1/2 tsp salt (adjust to your preference)
- up to 300 ml warm water (about 45°C )
- 1 tablespoon sour-dough culture
- 1 or 2 teaspoon caraway (or any other seed of your choice)
Mix about 200g of the flour thoroughly with the sourdough culture and enough water (about 200ml) to make a thick paste – about the consistency of peanut butter. I add the caraway at this stage to give more time for the flavour to get out. Cover and set in a warm place – about 30°C. An airing cupboard is often ideal, a conservatory might do if not too hot; we use a low power electric plant propagator. After 7 to 10 hours the mixture should have doubled in volume and have bubbles of gas in it. This is affectionately called “the Sponge”. Now add the rest of the flour, the salt and enough water to mix into a very soft wet dough. Use a plastic spatula as it will usually be too sticky to knead by hand, especially if you are using rye, but it should just leave the bowl clean. The dough should be very well mixed by repeated folding and then placed in a baking pan with enough space for it to double. Again keep it warm and covered as it rises, and after a further 4 to 6 hours it should have risen well, still retaining a slightly domed top. Bake in a preheated oven at 200°C for about 60 minutes. Allow to cool and then turn out onto a grid for an hour. Sourdough bread is quite moist and is often better eaten the day after it is baked. It keeps well and is particularly good with marmalade, cheese and chutney, pate, or cold meat with just a little mustard.
You can adjust the flavour of the final loaf by varying the proportions of the flour you add for the first and second rises, and by the length of time you rise them. In general, adding less of the flour for the first mix or shortening rise times will make it less acid, but it may become heavier or more sticky – you must experiment and develop your own style to suit your own taste. Over time your sour-dough culture will adapt to your particular way and your bread will get better and better.
The sour-dough culture
There is a secretive and carefully preserved mystique to these cultures, a bit like the recipes for Trappist beers! Sour-dough cultures are a bit like cheese cultures or wine yeasts in that they are probably ingrained in the fabric of the bakery they live at and are as individual and as carefully nurtured. Your culture will develop with you and become unique and individual – quite a friend in fact! You could buy a culture (there are many to choose between claiming varied flavours). You can get one from a friend or beg one from a baker whose bread you like. Or you can make your own: don’t let anyone tell you it is complicated. Here’s how to make yours …
Mix a tablespoon of flour (I keep separate cultures for rye and wheat) with enough water to make a thick slurry. Cover just to keep dust out and keep it warm. Every day for 5 days you must “feed” it with a spoonful of flour and enough water stirred in to maintain the consistency. During this time it will develop various smells, ending in a pleasantly vinegary and bubbling culture. Use some of this as the starter for your bread, give some to a friend, and feed the rest so that there will be enough for the next loaf. Keep this warm for a few hours then store in the fridge. You can keep it there unfed for many days and use it directly, feeding the remnant each time before returning it to the fridge. I have even found old cultures untouched for 6 months in the back of the fridge and, having discarded the layer of green/yellow mould, regenerated it quite successfully by careful feeding!