Making sourdough bread

Flaxseed wholemeal sourdough

Sourdough bread sounds complicated to make but in fact it is quite easy once a few steps are understood and mastered. I make sourdough bread every week and I find it easier to make than regular bread. The active time and effort required is actually less than going to a supermarket and buying bread. And it works out to be much cheaper. Before explaining the procedure for making sourdough I think it will be useful to understand different ‘components’ of sourdough.

Yeast is a living organism. Sourdough bread uses wild yeast as opposed to instant, fresh or other yeast used for making regular bread. Unlike regular yeast, wild yeast works much slower so it takes longer for sourdough bread to proof (rise).

Wild yeast that is captured in dough is called sourdough starter. A sourdough starter is like regular yeast, it needs to be added to dough for the bread to rise. 

Catching Wild Yeast
Wild yeast is in the atmosphere, on fruits and vegetables, pretty much everything I suppose. Catching wild yeast is a bit like fishing, you put bait (food) on the line and throw it in the water hoping that a hungry fish finds it. In a similar way a mixture of flour and water is food for yeast. If you leave this mixture sitting around it should attract some wild yeast. Fishing and catching wild yeast are also similar in the sense that you can catch them soon, after a while or not catch any. It depends on luck and a number of other factors.

Feeding Wild Yeast
Since yeast is a living organism it needs to be fed regularly otherwise it will starve to death. As the temperature drops the yeast starts to become less active and eventually become inactive, in other words it hibernates. Once the temperature rises the yeast comes out of hibernation and becomes active again. When the temperature exceeds 60C/140F the yeast will die. Hence the reason when working with yeast you should never use water or other liquids that are hot.

If you store your wild yeast in a cooler environment such as in the refrigerator you only need to feed it once a week. If you leave it at room temperature you may need to feed it everyday. If you freeze it, you don’t need to feed it of course. I have never frozen yeast so I don’t know how well they come back to life when defrosted.

On some occasions I left my sourdough starter in the refrigerator unfed for more than a week and they survived. They are a tough bunch I guess.

Life of a Sourdough Starter
If you regularly feed your sourdough starter it can be kept forever. There are bakeries that use sourdough starter that is hundreds of years old. My sourdough is a few months old. So you only need to make the sourdough starter once if you look after it.

By the way there is a Sourdough Hotel in Sweden. If you are going on holiday and no one will be feeding your sourdough you can leave it at the ‘hotel’ and they will look after it. It is a living thing after all, like your pet!

Here is a photo of my sourdough starter:

Sourdough starter
 You can see bubbles. In the photo it is difficult to see a layer of clear liquid (alcohol) on top of the starter.

I have read that sourdough starter can be dried and stored like other yeast. I have not tried this yet.

Procedure for Making Sourdough Bread 
Making Sourdough Starter 
The first step is to make the sourdough starter. Here are the steps:
1. Wash a glass jar with warm water and detergent to sterilize it. I used a small pickled herring jar, any glass jar will work. You can use a big jar if you want.
2. Mix together an equal amount of flour and water. The amount does not matter. Try perhaps 1 tablespoon flour and 1 tablespoon water. 
3. Put the flour water mixture in the jar, cover the jar with a cloth and leave it at a warm place somewhere in your house.
4. After 24 hours mix together an equal amount of flour and water (1 tablespoon each) and add to the mixture that is already in the jar. 
5. Keep repeating the above step every 24 hours until you see the mixture getting slightly frothy with a slight sour aroma. When this happens congratulations, your flour water mixture has turned into sourdough starter. It can take 3-7 days. If nothing happens after 7 days, perhaps something has gone wrong. Try again from start
6. Store your sourdough starter in the refrigerator unless you plan to make sourdough bread everyday, in which case leave it outside.
7. Sometimes you will smell and notice a thin layer of alcohol on top of the starter. Don’t be alarmed, it is normal. Just mix the sourdough and it will be fine. However do not drink it. I have never tried and I don’t plan to.

Making Sponge
1. Once you have the sourdough starter to make bread you need to first make a sponge. It sounds complicated but it is not. And from here my instructions get a bit vague because I never measure anything when making sourdough bread.
2. Make a runny dough with flour and water, similar to a sourdough starter. It does not matter whether the dough is too runny (like light cream) or less runny (like thick cream). I use about 2 cups of flour. 
3. Take some of the sourdough starter (2-3 tablespoons perhaps) and add this to the dough that you just made. You can also add sugar or syrup to the sponge. Sugar or syrup makes the yeast work harder. I have tried with and without it. I didn’t notice much difference so I don’t add sugar or syrup.
4. At this stage you can add flavourings, seeds, nuts, other types of flours etc but do not add salt at this stage. Salt inhibits yeast growth and activity
5. Cover this sponge and leave it to proof for many hours, minimum 3-4 hours. I usually make sponge before going to bed and its ready the next morning. The reason for this step is to allow the wild yeast in the sourdough starter to multiply. You will notice small bubbles in the sponge. 
6. Since you took some of the sourdough starter from your jar it needs to be replenished and the wild yeast needs to be fed. Add water/flour mixture and return to the refrigerator.

Making Dough and Proofing
1. To the sponge that was sitting overnight (or for many hours) add salt, other flavourings (unless you added it earlier) and enough flour to form the dough that has the consistency required for making bread. 
2. Mix the dough. You don’t need to knead the dough. Since the dough will be proofing for many hours again the gluten forms anyway. I usually mix the dough with a spoon and that’s it. 
3. Cover this dough with a wet tea towel and leave aside for several hours (proofing) until the dough doubles in size. I usually make the dough in the morning and it is ready for baking in the afternoon. In warmer temperatures less proofing time is required. Some bakeries proof the dough for up to 18 hours in humid cool conditions with temperature around 16-18C (60-65F). The longer it proofs the more developed the taste gets. 
4. I always make enough dough to last me for about a week and I keep the dough in the refrigerator and bake what I need. Keeping in the refrigerator really helps to develop the flavor and improve the texture. It also means I only need to make the sponge and bread dough once a week and I can have freshly baked bread everyday, or many times during the day if I wanted. You may notice a slight alcohol aroma after a few days. Don’t be alarmed. It will evaporate when baked. 

1. Place the dough in the bread tin or on the tray for free-form bread.
2. Make slits/cuts across to allow the gas inside to escape and help in even rising 
3. Bake at 220 degrees until the bread is done. I can’t tell you how long it takes, it depends on how high the dough is. I wait until the crust hardens and you hear a hollow sound when you tap the bottom of the loaf.

I have made sourdough with rolled oats, flax seeds, wheat flakes, rye flour and chili. You can add anything that you prefer. I usually add flavours etc during the ‘Making Sponge’ stage. You can also add it during the ‘Making Dough and Proofing’ stage. It does not really matter.

Summary of Procedures for Making Bread
Here is a short summary of the procedures for making sourdough bread:
1. make sourdough starter (you only need to do this once)
2. Make a runny dough and add few tablespoons of sourdough starter. This step should take a few minutes only
3. Add flavorings, other flours but do not add salt. Leave it for many hours, such as overnight
4. Add salt, flavorings and other flours (unless you already added it) and enough flour to make a bread dough. You don’t need to knead. This step should take a few minutes only
5. Let the dough sit (proof) for many hours until it doubles in size
6. Bake 

As you can see the total active time required is not much. However it takes hours for proofing. You can time it so that it proofs while you are sleeping. In this way you don’t need to sit and wait.

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