My Sourdough Sob Story

You could say they left me feeling sour and cost me loads of dough. Until recently, my attempts at making sourdough bread have been fairly disastrous. Look:

Image of failed sourdough loaf next to a picture of the real thing

Nothing like the picture

I might just as well have chucked kilos of flour straight in the bin and saved myself a lot of heartache. And bellyache.

My first loaves were so leaden I could have put them in a cannon and fired them, preferably at the people who seem to make a living by putting conflicting advice out there on the arcane art of sourdough bread making.

Image of a cannon

My first few batches made perfect ammunition

It’s a confusing world, Planet Sourdough. There seem to be as many recipes as there are bakers – and I don’t just mean flavour variations but radically different ways of making the stuff.

If you are a successful sourdough baker, move right along. Otherwise, try not to do as I did.

I began with a starter which was much too sloppy, which meant my dough ended up too sticky and hard to work. And impossible to turn out of a proving basket. Flop.

I put loaves in the fridge to prove overnight – apparently a bad idea as a domestic fridge is too cold. Flop.

Leaving them overnight to prove was another no-no. The yeasts ate all of the available sugars in the mix and then ran out of food, meaning the loaves rose – and fell. No coming back from there. Flop.

Nope – not gravy

I had some success last year but got discouraged when I left my sister in law in charge of the kitchen while we were on holiday and she chucked out my starter thinking it was rancid gravy.

Understandable – it had separated into two gruesome-looking layers and didn’t smell too good. According to my new sourdough guru, that’s the dreaded “hooch”. Flop.

It is salvageable but (I now know) it’s a situation best avoided by feeding your starter culture regularly.

Image of sourdough starter culture

A well-fed Mother should double in size

Ah yes, starter cultures. Otherwise known as Mothers. No bad language please, this is a family site.

Let me give you One Big Piece of Advice if you’re a sourdough novice. Get thee to a bakery and do a breadmaking course, or get an experienced friend to show you the ropes.

Books and websites are all very well but there’s no substitute for seeing exactly what consistency a starter should be and watching an expert going through the various stages involved in sourdough bread making.

It’s not rocket science – but it is microbiology. You don’t need a degree to make a sourdough loaf but it helps to have a basic understanding of how the little mothers work.

Basically a wild yeast and some friendly bacteria get together and work as a team, known as a pair, gobbling up the sugars in the flour you feed them and creating that special sourdough taste. If you want the real science stuff, you can find more details on numerous websites.

Image of unimpressed cat with failed sourdough loaf

A leaden early effort – enough to make a cat laugh

Anyway, it gets complicated because there’s no general agreement on the water-to-flour ratio when you’re first making your starter. Some bakers like them runny, others stiff enough to use as wallpaper paste.

This is where I’m bringing my new guru back into the conversation.  Chris Brennan is a self-taught artisan baker who, with his daughter, runs the award-winning Pump Street Bakery in Orford in Suffolk.

I attended a talk he gave at our annual county food-fest and he kindly agreed to let me visit his bakehouse for a closer look at how he works his magic.

Image of Chris Brennan of Pump Street Bakery

Chris Brennan of Pump Street Bakery

Chris, who’s from Jamaica via Canada, worked for IBM for 30 years before retiring to Suffolk.

Despairing of the quality of British bread, he began baking his own. Then he took his loaves to the local country market, selling out every Saturday.

Before he knew where he was he’d embarked on a whole new career, opening Pump Street Bakery three years ago.

Image of Pump Street Bakery's Orford shop

Pump Street Bakery’s Orford shop

Now he has two shops, 16 full-time staff, he runs bread making courses and he has also embarked on making single estate chocolate. (I can feel a whole new post coming on but we’re here to talk about sourdough.)

“It’s simple,” says Chris.

Hang on, Chris, you’re making me feel a bit simple myself after all my abject failures.

“Ah, it’s simple, but I didn’t say it was easy. There are so many variables that if you don’t control the variables the whole process can get out of control.”

By that I think he means the type of flour you use (rye or wholemeal have more sugars so give the starter a better feed), precise measurements, the temperature of the water you use to mix the dough (body heat), the temperature it rises at – those sort of things.

You can listen to a short interview with Chris here or just read on:

Chris recommends using a starter with 100% hydration – that means the same amount of flour as water, by weight.

You can either beg some starter from your friendly local artisan baker (hands up, you’ve got me) or make it from scratch (have a look at the websites listed further along).

Look after your starter and it’ll look after you.

Chris says: “You have to divide sourdough into three things … one is the starter maintenance.

“So you need to keep your starter in a nice healthy way – nothing to do with baking bread, just maintain this little pool of creatures.

“Once you’ve done that  then the next thing is how to get those happy, healthy creatures into making bread for you …  and what sort of approach do you take to pre-ferment to get really active, healthy and happy creatures into the dough.

“And after that the dough and proofing is easy and straightforward.”

Image of bakers at work

Pump Street bakers Andrew O’Farrell and David Bailey shape the loaves

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? By the way, his starter’s got a name. He calls it William.

I think he even takes it on holiday with him. It should probably have a pet passport.

For anyone new to sourdough bread making I should perhaps explain that after you’ve established your starter and before you make your loaf, you make what’s called a pre-ferment or a sponge.

This is some of the starter mixed with a small proportion of flour and water. You leave it to rise for 8-10 hours and use it in your final dough mix in place of bakers’ yeast.

Image of pre-ferment rising

The pre-ferment after rising for 10 hours

Meanwhile you keep back 20g of starter, mix it with 50g each in weight of flour and water, and put it aside for use in your next batch of bread.

It’s okay to keep your starter in the fridge but it’s a good idea to take it out and feed it before you want to make your next pre-ferment.

Image of sourdough loaves proving

Sourdough loaves proving

For copyright reasons I can’t share Chris’s recipes with you here but he recommends the following websites as a mine of useful information, including how to get a starter culture going, how to maintain it and how to make sourdough: Wild Yeast Blog and Weekend Bakery.

Since I’ve been following Chris’s methods my sourdough has risen to comparatively dizzy heights of success. I road-tested it on my Canadian-born friend Debra, who virtually lives on the stuff, and got her seal of approval. (No Canadian/seal jokes please. She’s an animal lover.)

Image of sliced sourdough loaf

My first fairly successful loaf

So, Chris Brennan, artisan baker of this county, I take my hat off to you. You’ll make a baker of me yet. Probably.

Image of loaves on a bakery shelf

.. and some of Chris’s. Still something to aim for.

13 thoughts on “My Sourdough Sob Story

      • Well, it’s definitely a ‘he’ and so, given the alarming moulds that grow on it from time to time, perhaps ‘E-Colin’ would be suitable 😉

      • Well, he looks like a cheese and smells like a cheese. Think I’ll leave him until Christmas; he’ll be six months old which for a cheddar is long enough that he might be half decent (and statistically, virtually impossible to kill anyone due to the acidity levels…apparently…)

  1. That’s a lot of flops in one post. Love it. I also love sourdough. I will continue to buy it occasionally. I could not face having that stuff growing all over the kitchen!

  2. I have started dabbling in this sourdough business (and as you know my track record with any kind of starter cultures is not good). My Italian friend gave me some of her starter which I have named Lazarus as despite leaving it unfed in the fridge for four weeks it came back to life magnificently. Last night I prepared the sponge. Today is baking day. Wish me luck… 😉

    • Fingers crossed you have more success than me! I expect Lazaras will pick up his b(r)e(a)d and walk. I still have my starter in the fridge and it’s remarkably resilient.

  3. Pingback: Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival | Mrs Portly's Kitchen

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