This post has been graciously provided by our occasional commenter, the ever handsome, suave and debonair Mr Doug Butts. (All opinions are his alone, except for where he bangs on about how great Bread is…that I agree with 100%)
Prep time: 2 years then 7 to 24 hours
Cook: 20 minutes
Serves: 6 (or one if you leave them to cool in plain sight near the butter)
Bread flour – 500g / 1lb 1.6oz (17.6 oz) / 4 cups / 0.00000289% of a blue whale
Warm water – 375ml / 12.6 fl oz / 1.5 cups / 0.00015% of an Olympic swimming pool
Sourdough starter – 100g / 3.5 oz / ½ cup / 1 blackbird
Salt – 20g / 1 tablespoon / 60 pinches / 120 smidgens. Useful smidgen to pinch calculator:
Firstly, you will need some sourdough starter/mother dough. Mine is named Vorloc and was born on 1st December 2018. She is a voracious beast who requires half a cup of flour every day, otherwise she becomes uncooperative and covers herself in a layer of foul looking liquid.
It is possible to keep sourdough starter in the fridge and only feed it once a week but then you must remember to take it out and feed it well before considering using it in a recipe, so I just keep her in a kitchen cupboard and try to remember to feed her every day. Making a sourdough starter is probably the subject of a whole blog post but is pretty simple really. Horrifically the air around you is filled with floating bits of yeast and bacteria. So just leave some flour and water open to the air for a few hours and then put it in a jar and after a week you should have a sourdough starter.
Levain and let die:
Proper bakers seem to make a ‘levain’ before making sourdough bread. A levain is simply flour, water and a bit of sourdough starter left to ferment for a number of hours prior to using in the recipe. My sourdough starter is also a mixture of flour and water and sourdough starter left to ferment, so I use my starter directly from the jar, without making a levain first. I think levains might be for if you want to use so much in a recipe that it would use all of your starter, or you want to change the flour mix from the one you feed to your starter.
Possibly the most critical part of sourdough baking is making sure you have an active starter. I had a number of failures before starting to feed the starter every day. It’s no good keeping the starter barely alive and then giving it a good feed the day before baking. You can test if the starter is active by seeing if a blob of it will float in water but it’s easier just to see that it is filled with bubbles.
Time to measure out the ingredients. I can’t stress enough how important getting the measurements right are when making bread. If the recipe calls for 100g of starter then match that.
Next 350ml of warm water. How warm? I just put my fingers in and if it hurts then I add some cold. No doubt there is a perfect temperature specified by a French baker who owns a very tall white hat but I don’t know what it is. Mix the starter and the water together. I like to leave the bowl on the scales while I do it, to see if they can cope trying to weigh rapidly spinning liquid (they can’t). Next 500g of strong bread flour. Sometimes I feel healthy and substitute 50g of it for wholemeal but not normally with baguettes. I always go for the strongest bread flour I can find because it makes the job easier. I want the gluten strands to just pop into existence without me having to do any kneading.
You can of course experiment with different flours for different flavours, being aware that you might have toincrease the amount of water for more thirsty flours. I stay away from Rye flour though after a few experiments resulted in a crazy sticky dough that was no fun at all to work with.
Next step is to cover the bowl and leave it for 45 minutes. Personally, I like to use a plastic shopping bag with a clip. They are reusable and air-tight (if you pick the right bag). I’m not smug enough to own proofing bags. Talking of smugness, you can call this stage ‘autolysing’, which essentially means letting the flour soak up the water and start forming gluten. It isn’t really autolysing because the yeast is already in there, so really the bulk fermentation has already started but don’t tell the San Francisco artisan bakers. Some people will mix the flour and water together long before adding the starter, sometimes even the night before. I didn’t notice any improvement to the bread when I tried that.
If you have somewhere warm to leave the dough, that will speed up the process a lot. It being a cold day today and improvements in boiler insulation make airing cupboards a thing of the past, I put mine near the heating but not right next to it. If it is a sunny day, leaving your dough in full sun can get the bread made in six or seven hours. Today though it’s more like 24 hours.
The word ‘baguette’ means ‘wand’ in French. If you read Harry Potter in French, he regularly gets his baguette out to ward off evil forces.
After 45 minutes add another 25ml of warm water into which you have dissolved 20g of salt. Salt and yeast don’t like each other at all but you need the salt in there for flavour. I like to think the first 45 minutes gives the yeast a bit of a head start before the salt gets involved. How you mix in the new water is up to you but you are probably going to get messy hands. I like to fold in the water like a gentle kneading until the dough becomes sticky.
Turning the dough is an alternative to kneading the dough. It stretches the dough to develop gluten. It’s lazy I suppose but I don’t like kneading. If the dough is warm then turn it once every thirty minutes four times. If it is colder then you’ll have to allow more time in between each fold. Four hours should be the limit though for the bulk fermentation. You should be able to tell when the dough is ready for the next fold because it will have relaxed fully from the last fold and look a bit fluffy.
There are many different ways to ‘turn’ the dough. I just wet my hand first because that stops the dough from sticking, then slide my hand under a quarter of the dough and lift it up to stretch it, then fold it over the top. Then rotate the bowl and do the next quarter of the dough. You should be gentle to avoid knocking out all of the bubbles but rough enough to create gluten strands. Then I return the dough to its bag and leave it to relax with some gentle music.
After being turned four times and then relaxing a final time the bulk fermentation is over and it is time to shape the dough for the final rise. The main purpose of this stage is to get your dough into the right shape but also have a tight skin on the dough, which stops it just slowly flowing into a flat shape. You can develop a tight skin by tucking the dough in underneath itself and the top goes tight. You can also slide the dough over a slightly sticky surface which grabs the underneath and causes the top to tighten. There are plenty of videos on YouTube for shaping bread. The important things are to be fairly gentle, so as not to knock out the air and don’t use too much flour to stop it sticking, you don’t want to ruin your flour/water balance at this point by adding loads of flour.
This recipe is for three baguettes so split your dough into three with a dough scraper. Shaping baguettes is done by forming a sausage shape and then pinching the dough between thumb and first two fingers, at base of the sausage on the side closest to you, stretching it away from the dough and then folding it over the sausage and pressing it down on the far sideto keep it in place. Then repeat that for the full length of the sausage. Then tuck under the ends to neaten it up.
I use whatever I can find that is the right length and round to form a place that the dough can rise but still be supported on both sides. Then cover that support with a clean tea towel and flour the towel to stop the dough sticking. You can use normal flour but I find rice flour is perfect (finely ground rice flour, the coarser stuff like semolina doesn’t work at all well). It doesn’t get absorbed by the dough and seems to form a goodbarrier between the tea towel and the dough.
Now the dough needs to be left for the final rise before being baked. I go back to my trusty shopping bags but no doubt you could probably just use another tea towel. The final rise canbe left for many hours with sourdough. The longer you leave it, the more sourdough taste you’ll get in the bread. Often, I leave my dough overnight in the fridge. If it is a warm day and you are in a hurry you can probably bake it after two or three hours. As it is cold, I’m going to leave my dough in an unheated part of the house overnight. The dough can be baked once it passes the poke test. Put a pinch of flour in one place on the dough and poke it with your finger. If the dough bounces back fully then it’s too soon. If the dough bounces back halfway then it is ready, if it just sits there then you’ve left it too long.
Can I make sourdough bread if I don’t have a beard?
Yes, of course, strange question
Do you have a beard?
It’s unrelated but yes
Is baking sourdough bread only for hipsters?
No, it’s for everyone who has the time and money to keep a starter alive and spend a full day making breadthat is a tiny bit nicer than shop-bought
Do you sometimes wear vintage clothing and eat avocado and drink tiny expensive coffees?
This interview is over
I’ve had some great results baking loaves in a Dutch oven/cast iron pot with a lid. That surrounds the dough with its own steam for the first half of the baking. Not really suitable for baguettes that only just fit in my oven. I don’t have a pizza stone but some people swear by them. Pre-heat the oven for enough time for everything to get nice and hot, twenty minutes or more. I turn my oven up full (250°C, 480°F, Gas Mark 9). Yes, that is pretty hot but baker’s ovens get hotter than that.
Move your dough carefully to a baking tray and then score the dough by slicing the top of it with a very sharp blade. That encourages the bread to split in the places you cut, rather than just anywhere the expanding dough chooses during baking.
If you have a steam injection oven then I am jealous and hope that your bread burns. I turn on the kettle a few minutes before putting in the bread and immediately after the bread has gone in pour boiling water into a tray on the bottom shelf. It does wonderful things to the crust and is probably good for the skin on my face, which gets a superheated blast of steam every single time. After ten minutes of baking, turn the ovendown to 200°C, 392°F, Gas Mark 6. Then after another ten minutes, turn the oven off. Some people swear by leaving the oven door open a crack and letting the bread cool down with the oven over the next half an hour. I do tend to do that but I’m not sure if it actually improves the crust. If you pull out one of the baguettes after a minute or so, you should hear it quietly cracking as it shrinks a bit and the hard crust cracks.
At this point you should hide the bread in a secret place, if you live with other people and they have no restraint. Not bad for sandwiches and makes really nice bruschetta. Sourdough tends to keep better than other breads, for several days and can also be frozen, if it makes it that long.
Thank you Mr Butts, weirdly wonderful as usual 🙂