Although we went off track a little this summer, we make all (well, nearly all, this is France after all and the boulangerie is only 5min down the road!) our own bread. This autumn sees the return of a favourite of ours, sourdough. This can be the ultimate in thrifty bakery as you only need to buy flour because the yeast comes from the air around you. This also means that everyone’s is slightly different as the mix of microbes in the air varies a great deal place to place, year to year, season to season, even room to room. The principle is exactly the same as shop bought yeast. They use the sugars in the ingredients (flour, sugar, honey etc depending on your recipe) as food and produce carbon dioxide as a waste product which, if you have gluten and have kneaded your dough properly, makes your bread rise. Being wild, the yeast in a sourdough isn’t as controlled as shop bought and produces a whole load of other chemicals as well. Mostly weak acids which account for the sour taste of the bread. Incidentally this is also how Belgian brewers make lambic beers. In Brussels, the Cantillon brewery simply open the windows to start the fermentation of their beer. The resulting beer is amazing, especially after they then age it in barrels with fruit.
So how do you make it? It’s very simple. We use the instructions laid out in the River Cottage Bread book (As with all River Cottage stuff I can’t recommend it enough). Get yourself something to keep it in. We got an earthenware jar from the local charity shop.
Mix 150g flour (wholemeal is best as it contains more food for your new pets) with 250ml warm water, beat it and leave until it bubbles and starts to smell. This will take about a week, depending on conditions. After this put the same flour/water mix in again. This is now a daily/every other day task. Take half your mix and put in your bread recipe instead of yeast. Feed it again with the flour/water mix. Done!
Your bread will take longer to rise but this actually makes it easier to fit in to your daily routine as you can leave it nearly all day to do its thing. A simple method is to knock up a “sponge” the night before. Half your recipes flour, all the liquid and one or two ladles of your sourdough mix. In the morning before work/school etc add the rest of your flour the salt and the extras (fruit, nuts, fat seeds etc) Knead. Leave to rise. Knock back and rise again as many times as you have time for. (At work all day? Leave it somewhere slightly cooler and leave to rise until you get back.) Prove. Bake. Cool. Eat.
Your starter can be added to any recipe containing flour and liquid. We’ve put in pancake batter, scones, cake. Next time we have Yorkshire pudding/toad in the hole it’s going in that too. It’s better if you can leave it for a bit for the yeasts to ferment a bit. We make our pancake batter the night before for example. But if you don’t have time to do this it will still add to the flavour and make your chosen cake/scone/crumble taste better.
You can give a starter to a friend as a present. A couple of ladles of yours in a nice jar with some instructions would make a different pressie for someone.