Trade Secrets of Messy Baker

I took a few months break from sourdough as its been quite busy with new job and lots of house work. But this weekend I decided that I’ve had enough of shop-bough break and went to wake up my starter to make some decent bread.
The bread I ended up making is a simple Miller Loaf, but as I was making it I realized that I’ve learned a few bread tricks in the last few years and wanted to share them with you lovely folks. Grab a cup of tea and make yourself comfortable, knowing me, it will go on for a while :

-          Keep just one or two starters
When I first started making sourdough I had about four or five different starters in the fridge, every possible flour combinations. They all had their own names and their own tempers – at the end it was a full time job just to keep them all fed and watered, so inevitably I ended up killing most of them :)
Right now I only keep one starter in the fridge – my mother starter – it’s a 100% hydration (1:1 water to flour ratio in grams) white flour, and I convert it to any other flour type and hydration I require for a recipe when I start feeding it

-          “Wash” starters every 6 months
As I mentioned, I keep my mother starter in the fridge and only take a teaspoon or so out when I want to bake. The rest of it sits in the fridge, snoozing away. But as anything, starters get tired and lazy – meaning it takes longer to activate them. To keep your mother starter nice and happy, you need to “wash” every few months, I think the longest I went between washes is nearly a year.
What is a wash? Take a teaspoon of your mother starter, activate it, as described below, and throw the rest of mother starter out. Wash the jar thoroughly and air dry it. Once you have a reasonable amount of fresh live starter, put it in the jar and pop it in the fridge – that’s your new mother starter.
I keep my starter in a small jar – about 300-400ml, and its not even half full.

-          Feed me
When I am “feeding” my starter, I take 1 tsp/Tbsp of mother starter out of the fridge and add equal amount of flour and water – in grams. I normally add 30g of flour and 30ml of water for each feed – once in the morning and once in the evening. I find that, depending on how fresh my mother starter is (see above), it takes about 2-3 days for a starter to wake up, which gives me 200-300g of starter – plenty to make a loaf of bread.
When I do make bread, I normally keep back a tablespoon of starter and carry on feeding it, so I have enough starter to make another loaf in a couple of days time.
I normally bake every 3 days, meaning that I don’t need to dip into my mother starter after the first loaf – I just carry on feeding and baking every 3 days, until I get too busy or get too lazy J

-          Use filtered water
Its only recently I’ve discovered that water does make a difference. I noticed that my starter is activating much faster if I use filtered water rather than tap water. I am sure there is some of scientific explanation for it, but I just know it works :)
I love experimenting with liquids when making sourdough – add following to your liquids to get different flavours :
milk (replace 1/3 of water) with sweet or enriched dough
whey (instead of water) with sweet dough
orange juice (replace 1/3 of water) with rye breads
apple juice or cider (replace 1/3 of water) with wholemeal breads

-          Use good bread flour
I am a big fan of Italian flour – I used to buy massive 25kg bags of it from Shipton Mill. Use it for any softer, sweeter breads, focaccia and ciabatta, panettone and sweet buns, or any breads with fillings
French flour is great for rustic breads, works really well with a bit of rye flour. I like to use French flour when I bake straight breads – just flour, water and salt – no other extras – you can really feel the flavor and the texture of the flour
I buy Canadian Extra Strong flour for bagels, you really need to have the extra strong element to achieve that chewy texture
Spelt flour is a reasonably new discovery for me – replace 10% of your flour with spelt flour and you get a richer, tangier flavor. That’s a tip I got from Mr Ranty Senior and I now always keep a bag of spelt flour in my flour draws.

-          Flour can “go off”
I used to buy great bags of all sorts of flours, wanting to experiment with all the different flavours. At the end I just picked a handful of flours that I liked to work with and stuck with those. I go through quite a bit of white bread flour, and its very forgiving, it will keep for a while. Pay more attention to wholemeal and rye flour – they do tend to “go off” – its not like they are going to go moldy or start to smell or anything, but you will notice that the texture of breads won’t be the same. Try to use it within 2-3 months of opening a bag of wholemeal or rye flour. Some people recommend keeping them in the fridge or even freezer to keep the flours fresh for longer.

-          How much starter?
I get asked this on a regular basis, but there isn’t a straight answer to that – you can use as little as 1 Tbsp if you are making a very slow New York style sourdough or as much as 60-80% (compared to total flour amount) if you are after a faster loaf.
The ratio I normally use :
200g starter
290g water
500g flours
Total water = 390g = 290g + 100g (from starter which is 50:50 flour to water)
Total flour = 600g = 500g + 100g (from starter which is 50:50 flour to water)
So that makes following percentages (everything measures over total flour amount) :
Starter (200g over 600g = 33%)
Water (390 over 600 = 65%)
Flours (100%)

-          Use enough salt
For a while I was so afraid to under-salt the bread that I cut down the salt to just under a teaspoon. In reality salt has to be about 2% (of total flour), so I was under-salting my breads. If a bread hasn’t got enough salt, it won’t bake properly and will have very gummy texture. Over-salt the bread and it won’t rise properly, so you have to be very careful there. I now use 1 ½ tsp of salt (see above calculations) and it works out about the right amount.
Its much easier to under-salt rather than over-salt - over the last 10 years I probably oversalted only 2 or 3 breads

-          Stretching is important
By this I mean doing stretch and fold every half hour for the first two hours of first prove. I used to be religious about it when I first started baking, but over the years got a bit lazier and started skipping this step. And I really noticed that my breads are not as light and not as springy unless I invest the time in doing stretch and fold. Its also interesting to see how a piece of lumpy dough turns into a smooth shiny ball of dough with each stretch.

-          Prove is in the bread
You cannot rush sourdough – that’s a fact! You can slow it down by putting it in the fridge for a few hours – it gives you more flexibility as well as develops richer flavor, but you should never ever try to prove sourdough in a warm place – room temperature or even cooler.
In the first prove you want the dough to double in volume – knock it down, shape it and prove again – anywhere from 2/3 to double the volume again
This is a tricky stage – under-prove your bread and it will rip when it bakes, and you will get thick gummy line at the bottom of the loaf. Over-prove it, and it will go flat as a pancakes and heavy as a piece of brick

-          How Hot?
Again, this will largely depend on the type of the bread you are baking and most importantly your oven. My oven is shiny and new and it super strong – if I am baking from a recipe, I adjust both the temperature and the banking time down, otherwise its gonna burn.
Most of my breads bake at 200C (fan) for 30 minutes. Rich breads go in for 20 mins at 180C (fan). But you know your oven better than I do, just keep checking on the bread (try not to open the door if you can help it), and do the all important tap test – if the bottom of the bread sounds hollow when tapped – its done!

-          And…
As with any bread, make sure that you leave your sourdough to rest for at least a couple of hours before you slice it. I know its very tempting to try a slice of that still warm, crunchy crust beauty of a loaf, but IT WILL RUIN THE FLAVOUR!
As sourdough cools, it develops that unique creamy chewy crump with thick rustic crust – you need to give it time to do its magic, before you can really appreciate true sourdough flavour.
I try to bake late at night, leave it to cool overnight to have a slice of sourdough toast for breakfast. A sign of really good sourdough if it tastes better 1-2 days later, that’s if it lasts that long :)

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, as always – feel free to ask any questions




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