They say that sourdough is the mother of all breads. Honestly, I have to agree. For a long time I was baking my bread using fresh commercial yeast that you can buy from any regular supermarket. But I was never truly satisfied with the end product. The crumb was always dry and floury like the loaf had been overcooked, and despite trying out various experiments to make our oven steamy, I could never achieve a crisp, golden crust. There had to be another way…

Thanks to Alessia I started out on a different path. She mailed me a link to a short film advertising a new book called Tartine Bread by a guy named Chad Robertson. I’d heard of sourdough before but never actually tried it, so this little film was a big eye opener. Shortly after I received the book for my birthday. And as they say, the rest is history.

Before I actually began trying out the basic country loaf recipe in the book I must have read the intro and methods maybe 3 or 4 times just to get a bit of an understanding. First thing that surprised me was the lengthy process that’s involved. I knew about proving time, only with the commercial yeast I’d been accustomed to this was usually 2 or 3 hours tops, not in excess of 12 hours. But I’ve since learnt that a slow rise and fermentation is essential for flavour, easy digestion and keeping qualities. The book talks also about hydration. Looking back I understand why my old loafs were so dry. The percentage of water to flour was just not enough. Now I always ensure that my dough has 70-75% hydration. That means for every kilo of flour I must add 700g-750g of water. Because this bread takes just under an hour to fully cook in my oven I need this amount of water so as to retain a nice moist crumb. Believe it or not a proper ciabatta dough has 80% hydration. Such a wet dough can be intimidating, beware! 

So what defines sourdough? For me it’s a loaf made using natural yeast, which the Italian’s call Pasta Madre or Mother yeast. Probably 3 or 4 years ago I started my own culture by mixing equal quantities of bread flour, whole meal and water in a small transparent container and just left it for a week uncovered to really mature and begin to take on strong aromas. Before making a leaven I’d have to dilute it otherwise the starter would be too ripe, resulting in an overly sour loaf. This happened to me once. I was half way through a sandwich and the bottom crust had a very strong after taste, a bit like whisky. 

I don’t bake bread every day, but I do every week. I will feed my starter at around 9 o clock in the morning, and because of the temperature of my house I know I’m good for the next 7 hours to go and do something else. Then around 16.00 (there is no set time, you have to read your dough), I’ll mix the dough, adding sesame seeds, linseeds, sunflower seeds, and leave to ferment for another 4 hours or so, turning at regular intervals to work the gluten and develop tension. 

When the dough is all puffy and aerated and increased in volume I know it’s time to get it on the bench, de-gas, and roughly shape. Then I leave it to rest under a tea towel for 30 minutes to an hour. Then I shape it properly, dragging the dough across the bench in an attempt to create a tight ball. Easier said than done. Once I’m happy I drop them in my make-shift floured baskets lined with cloth held in place with an elastic band and put them in the fridge overnight. The French call this process retard ing the dough, you gain more flavour this way. In an artisan bakery you might find a specific storage unit solely for this purpose. Because of the decreased temperature your dough can ferment for longer without becoming over ripe. 

The next morning I bake the loaves one at a time inside a cast iron pot with a lid on for the first 30 minutes, then I remove it for the last half of the bake. I always slash the tops with a razor for maximum rise. Baking in the pot solves my steam and moisture issue, and I always end up with a beautiful crispy caramelised crust.

Thanks Alessia for such an awesome birthday gift.

And thanks Chad for sharing all your secrets.

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