Sourdough – A Learning Curve

Image of early attempt at sourdough

An early attempt which, ahem, looked nothing like the picture

When I first tried my hand at sourdough, I was a one-woman disaster area. I’m a fair hand at most kinds of cooking but the talent for making a decent sourdough eluded me. When I look back at what I wrote less than three years ago I’m embarrassed by my ignorance, although I have to say there are almost as many methods as there are bakers and that doesn’t make it any easier or less confusing for beginners.

I’m one of those ‘a dollop of this and a glug of that’ kind of cooks, which doesn’t sit well with the precision needed for bread-making and baking. You can’t knock up a sourdough loaf at the last minute either, and planning ahead isn’t one of my strong points. Add to that the attention span of a gnat and a consequent failure to feed my sourdough starters, or mothers, and it’s a wonder I haven’t been had up for serial matricide.

By trial and error – and it was something of a trial with numerous errors – I finally got to the point where I could produce a loaf that rose, baked well and tasted pretty good. But I wanted more: a professional finish, more confidence, the skills you learn by baking literally tons of dough over many years. But I wanted it now. The answer, of course, was to learn from a professional.

Image of the E5 Bakehouse

So I booked myself onto a bread-making course at the e5 Bakehouse, an organic, artisanal bakery in Hackney in London. At £120 for a day’s course, including lunch and afternoon tea, it’s remarkably good value. A close friend lives nearby so I have breakfasted (and lunched and dined) on many an e5 loaf over the years and I knew their bread was good.  The icing on the cake, so to speak, was discovering that e5’s founder, Ben Mackinnon, comes from Suffolk.

The e5 Bakehouse has a couple of small mills to stone-grind some of its own flour and a couple of years ago Ben, concerned about the monoculture of the wheat grown commercially on most British farms, bought what he calls ‘a small farm or a large field’ near Coddenham in Suffolk.

The five and a half hectares gives him space to experiment with growing his own organic grains as well as getting some fresh air and getting properly muddy. As a nation, says Ben, “we give a lot of attention to organic vegetables but very little to the wheat that makes our bread. We grew oats and buckwheat successfully in our first year. Last year’s wheat was a failure but this year we’re growing a Danish variety, one which dates from before the widespread use of chemicals.

“Growing our own is a good way to learn about the farming side and the ultimate aim is for all the flour used at the Bakehouse to be British-grown.”

Image of course trainer Ilinca Dianescu

Ilinca tells us how to get to grips with our bread dough

There’s a genuine community feel to the e5 Bakehouse and our tutor on the course was Ilinca Dianescu, who has been with e5 since it began in 2011. She has probably made more loaves than she’s had hot baths and that’s not a reflection on her personal hygiene, merely a way of saying she’s a highly experienced baker.

After a preparatory chat over coffee, she soon had us weighing out the ingredients for four different types of bread: Hackney Wild, which is e5’s signature sourdough, bagels, ciabatta and a 66% rye loaf.

Image of class members weighing out ingredients

E5’s loaves begin with a basic rye flour sourdough starter, which is then fed with the relevant flour – white, rye, wholemeal or a combination – to make a leaven. This is left for anything up to two days for the natural yeasts get to work before the final mix of flour, water and salt is added.

They don’t knead dough in the traditional way but use a stretching and folding method, repeated every 15-30 minutes for up to two and a half hours, depending on the dough they’re making. Finally the loaf is shaped and given its final prove, either free-form or in a proving basket or banneton, before baking.

Image of class members making bagels

Rolling our bagels and no, you don’t spin them on the end of your finger

Some of Ilinca’s tips you will have seen elsewhere: bake on a hot stone or baking tray or in a cast-iron pot at a high heat (230C is the highest setting many domestic ovens will go to) and add as much steam as possible at the start of the bake, either with a spray or by adding a pan of ice cubes to the bottom of the oven.

Others were new to me: the oven should only be steamy for the first 20-25 minutes, so open and close the door to let the steam out for the remainder of the bake; tapping the base of some loaves to check for the classic hollow sound doesn’t work for denser loaves like rye, so use a thermometer probe to ensure the internal temperature is over 95C; use semolina flour to dust your baking peel and stone as the loaf will be less likely to stick.

And finally, when slashing the top of the loaf, use a small serrated knife and hold it almost horizontal to get a clean cut and avoid dragging the uncooked dough. I have never, ever, had that explained to me before and although it’s a tiny detail it makes a big difference to the finished loaf.

Image of some of the breads made by the class

The ciabatta, rye and bagels made by the class

I went home with a huge bag of goodies: a rye loaf, some ciabatta and bagels which we baked at e5, pots of sourdough starters and a proving basket containing my precious Hackney Wild, which went into the fridge overnight before baking the next day. They even threw in a dough scraper for good measure.

I haven’t tried the rye yet although I have plans for it which involve large amounts of smoked salmon. My attempts at ciabatta and bagels turned out remarkably well if a bit misshapen – rolling bagels is ridiculously good fun but I clearly need more practice. The Hackney Wild was so good I’m already onto my second loaf.

If you are new to baking bread or like me, have some experience but want to up your game, this is an excellent course.

Image of Hackney Wild sourdough loaf, sliced

My first Hackney Wild. Inexpert folding produced a hole in the middle but it tasted amazing.

18 thoughts on “Sourdough – A Learning Curve

  1. That sounds like fun – and delicious. I am also a bit of a sourdough klutz and killer. Keeping the starter alive was like having a third child! I like to think I’ll have another go at some point though.

    • I’ve now got four pots of starter in the fridge, Elisabetta’s and three from e5. I’m going to have to find a reliable kennels when we go on holiday. The course is great fun.

      • No you don’t. A friend of mine always takes his ‘mother’ on holiday with him, and says she benefits from the different air and scenery to which she is exposed. But if you and mother can’t bear such intimate holiday arrangements, send her to Yorkshire. We’ll give her a dose of bracing northern air.

      • Haha, I know a baker who does that, too, always makes me chuckle. Maybe I’ll take her to Spain next time we go and see if she comes back with a tan.

  2. Years ago Mum got on the sourdough kick, we had jars of the damn starter going. Made tons of bread but the absolute best were the sourdough english muffins (toasted and then dripping in butter!). I’ll see if she’s got the recipe around somewhere too!

  3. That sounds like a great day – I keep meaning to go on a similar course: there’s always something new to learn and tips to get. It’s great that it’s really fired you up for more sourdough baking. As much as I love it, I have to admit it’s hard to fit into your life (especially when you work full time) but I do a sourdough loaf as often as I can. There are many methods as you’ve said – each baker seems to have their own. Frankly of all I’ve tried Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s is my favourite. You don’t need a pet sitter while you’re away – make the starter really dry and stick it in the coldest part of the fridge: it’ll be more than happy for a week and still easily retrievable after two. Looking forward to seeing more of your loaves! 💕

    • Thanks. I know starters keep, really, except when your house-sitting sister-in-law assumes the hooch-covered glop is gone-off gravy and bins it. I look forward to the day when my loaves look as beautiful as yours. Don’t hold your breath, you’ll go all funny and purple.

  4. Hi Linda, sourdough baking is so rewarding. You were lucky to have the opportunity to get some guidance and starter. I’ve only been baking since Christmas, another blogger sent me some dried starter. I’m amazed how quickly it all came together and how easy it is to make professional looking and tasting loaves. Good luck with it, I look forward to reading more about your bread

    • I’ve been doing it for a couple of years and mine still look weirdly lop-sided! Still, they taste good and I’m looking forward to putting Ilinca’s advice to good use. Thanks for the encouragement. 🙂

    • There are a number of very good courses, including one at Pump Street Bakery in Suffolk and another with Vanessa Kimbell in Northamptonshire. E5 was convenient for me as I could stay with my friend and have a catch-up. Perhaps there’s one closer to home for you?

  5. Reading your opening sentences, Linda, was like reading my own thoughts on baking and bread making. I’m not a precise cook at al. Your taking a course, however, sounds like a great idea. The ones to which you referred may be just a bit too far for me, however, I think I’ll investigate classes a little closer to home. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Thank you, John. I really did find it helpful and my bread has improved enormously as a result. Sometimes there’s no substitute for someone actually showing you how to do something, no matter how many books you read. 🙂

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