Sourdough Diaries

Posted by Richard Loffhagen on 28 May 2016

Ok, just a disclaimer: This isn't the blog post of a sourdough expert who's been baking this deliciousness for years and has it mastered, nor is it the blog of an enthusiastic amateur that has stumbled into the realm of the sourdough and got it right first time, but more a roll call of the mistakes I make along the way, and subsequent learnings. 

What sort of person am I? A little creative (which means I've spent my life trying new things, and usually given up when they turn out harder than I thought), impatient (what the hell are you doing making sourdough?) and an exuberant over-sharer when things do go right!

I remember travelling to the United States in my much younger days and trying sourdough for the first time. Not that I remember the exact moment, but it's one of those memories that you colour in the edges as you get older, so that now I could tell you about the day, the shop, the weather, virtually all a lie! What's not a lie is the taste, a bread like I'd never tasted before. This memory was filed where all good memories go for many years, until I caught a series of excellent radio interviews on RNZ National, hosted by Simon Morton, which ran for several weeks. I'd recommend listening to this entire series, it's about 2 hours in total, before starting. So, that's what I did ..........

Like everybody like me, who has to jump into something like this immediately, I jumped into this immediately. I went online, found Neville Chun (who was Simon's mentor during this series) on Trademe (user name 'nchun') and ordered some of his dried sourdough starter. While I was at it I bought a couple of his bannetons, and he kindly added in a little sachet of diastatic malt, and also a couple of no-knead bread recipes that I still use today, albeit with a couple of tweaks. I couldn't wait to get started, so without thinking too much about timing or committments (and my committment) I started my very first starter. Within a week it was sitting, forgotten, in my fridge. When I eventually remembered to check on it, it had over-flowed, a major clean-up ensued, and I punished it by throwing it away, and filing the experience as just another one of my follies (I could list the others ... perhaps later).

Right, that was a year ago, and since then we've been buying a sourdough loaf or two at various farmers' markets every week. ENOUGH! Time to give it another go. This time I decided to make my own starter, and it couldn't have been easier. Flour, water, mix, cover, leave (day 1), then feed daily for 4 days and you have yourself a beautiful, vinegary, bubbly, live starter. Now this is exciting. I decided to bake on Saturday morning, so made a pre-ferment as per Neville's instuctions, on Friday night. Up early on Saturday morning, and tested the pre-frement by dropping it in water, and hoping that it floats, and ........ it didn't. As this was my first time, I was unsure whether it was because it needed more time, or less. Giving it less time was obviously not an option, so I gave it more. Every half hour it was tested, but every time it dropped to the bottom of the cup. Right, throw it away and start again, or box on and use it? I chose option two, but decided to add a little yeast to the dry ingredients to counteract the pre-ferment's lack of rising ability, and secondly it was the first day of  Winter, and not very warm in the house.

I followed Neville's spreadsheet for 2 x 1kg loaves (his spreadsheet is easy to follow and scaleable), and all went well during the various stages. Now I'm ready to bake. Unfortunately, it's now about 6pm, and about 8 hours after I would've liked hot bread coming out of the oven, but that didn't matter first time around. I only had one banneton at home, so I just floured a couple of tea towels and laid them in appropriate size bowls. I had divided the dough into 3 reasonably equal parts, and baked them, one at a time in my dutch oven. I'll try a loaf one day not in a dutch oven to see the results and publish the difference. How did they turn out?