The following is an excerpt from How to Raise a Loaf, by Roly Allen, a guide to all things sourdough. As this book reveals, you don’t need to be an expert baker to make your own sourdough at home (as more people may be doing now); though once you’re hooked, you may want to get fancy. How to Raise a Loaf makes the key techniques of traditional baking easy to understand, with step-by-step photo instructions and a simple overview of the magical processes that turn wild yeasts into a living baker’s starter, and a bowl of flour into a glowing crusty loaf. The book publishes May 26, and is available for pre-order.
The loaf lifestyle
What is sourdough, and why does everyone love it so much?
Maybe the best way to understand the current popularity of sourdough is to look at the ingredients label on the bagged loaf of sliced bread that you will find in a supermarket. The list of chemicals may make you suspicious. Why does bread, which everyone knows is made of flour, yeast and water, and which people have been making for thousands of years, need to contain glyceryl monostearate, glyceryl distearate and calcium propionate? What is the function of the diacetyltartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides? How, exactly, does one ‘improve’ flour?
Sourdough bread is different. A plain loaf will have only four ingredients: flour, water, salt and starter. And yet the flavour is infinitely richer and more satisfying than the chemically inflated, factory-baked, fluffy white loaves that nowadays we have come to accept. But plain white sourdough is only the beginning of the story: it welcomes all kinds of tasty additions, including olives, nuts, seeds, grains, cheese, fruit and berries. The basic sourdough formula also works wonders with alternative flours such as wholemeal, spelt or rye — each with its own distinctive taste. A hunk of sourdough, whatever flour has gone into it, will release a host of mouth-watering flavours, sweet, sour and savoury, as you chew it. Small wonder that many, faced with a choice between industrially produced or artisanal breads, will gladly pay two or three times more for a loaf of the real thing.
So much for the flavour. Another big part of sourdough’s appeal is the positive effect it can have on your digestion — and therefore your whole sense of well-being. More and more people are discovering that industrially baked bread — which is induced to rise chemically, in a matter of minutes, rather than biologically, over hours — can be hard to digest, and many find that it causes them to feel bloated, tired and achy. Sourdough, on the other hand, is the product of a long, lively relationship between the flour and billions of bacteria and yeast cells. The resulting bread seems to be a better foodstuff for our gut microbiome in several ways: it is a prebiotic, encouraging the beneficial bacteria, and stimulating the walls of the gut, too. Biologists, doctors and nutritionists are making new discoveries about the importance of our intestinal tract all the time, and everything we learn about the complicated processes that keep us alive suggests that sourdough is a better choice than factory-made bread.
Yet another reason to love the sourdough loaf is the positive effect that the process of baking has on your mental wellbeing. It’s simple enough for anyone to master, but it does demand time, and the way this forces you not to rush, and to let go of the impulse to control, is good for your head. Patience, care and attention are rewarded; a little work transforms the simplest ingredients into a golden, crusty loaf; and sourdough breadmaking is the antithesis of our overheated social media age.
Bread baking, I’ve learned myself, is a good thing to do if you are feeling under any kind of pressure. Always a keen cook, I got into sourdough only when a stressful period at home and work turned into an even more stressful period of divorce and unemployment; time hung heavy on my hands, anxiety was a constant companion, and pressure seemed to rise every day — until I resolved to cross something off the bucket list and ‘bake interesting bread’. The relief of immersing myself in a creative process, of surrendering control to the yeast, of being attentive, without worry or anxiety — and at the end of the day, having made something delicious to eat — was life-saving. With music on in the background, and no goal in mind other than the loaf you’re working on, it is easy to slip into a state of mental ‘flow’, when you don’t notice time passing, your worries slip away, and mind and body become deeply relaxed. When times are bad, this mental and emotional reset is better than anything.
Even if the rest of your life is in good order, the joy of making something wholesome, nutritious and (with practice) beautiful with your own hands is priceless, and one that is easily shared. A loaf of bread is sharing food par excellence — and the only thing more satisfying than the first bite into a crust that you’ve baked yourself, is the glow of watching your friends or family take their first bites.
This book, therefore, isn’t just here to help you have a healthier digestion. In putting together these simple methods and recipes, and presenting them as clearly as possible, my hope is that you will approach this ancient art without fear. Celebrate your successes, learn from your failures, become familiar with the feeling of dough between your fingers, and within a short time you will be confidently baking and coming up with your own takes on this amazingly simple, infinitely variable, food.
Basic starter method
A day-by-day guide to creating your own culture
You can’t make sourdough bread without a starter, and starters inevitably take a few days to come to life. This delay seems to deter many aspiring first-time bakers, but it shouldn’t. Once you have got a starter up and running you can keep it in hibernation in the fridge, and then bake at your own convenience. So let’s get started!
What is a starter?
A starter is a living thing — or more precisely, a collection of several billion living things, swimming in a mixture of their food and their by-products. Yeast is the star of the show: a single-celled fungus that eats carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and turns them into carbon dioxide gas and alcohol. (Unbaked dough is slightly alcoholic, but bread isn’t, as the alcohol is driven out of the loaf by the high temperature of the oven.) Cohabiting with these busily eating (and farting) yeast cells is a rich mixture of bacteria, mostly lactobacteria. This family has hundreds of members that share a very useful property: when they eat carbs, they produce lactic acid. This quickly makes their home too acidic for other bacteria to live in, and as most lactobacteria are either harmless to humans or actively beneficial, they offer an excellent way to preserve food. If you have ever enjoyed yoghurt, kefir, cheese, kimchi, soy sauce or pickles, or bought a premium ‘probiotic’ product, you’ve been enjoying the benefits of lactobacteria. They, even more than the wild yeasts, are the crucial difference between sourdough bread and the factory-baked loaf you’ll find in the supermarket.
Where do starters come from?
So, how do you throw this amazing microbial party? There are almost as many methods as there are sourdough bakers, but they all work by introducing wild yeasts and lactobacteria to a nutritious mixture of flour and water. As both yeasts and lactobacteria are present in the air we breathe (and in flour, too), it’s possible to make this introduction just by leaving a mixture of flour and water out in your home, keeping it warm, and waiting for nature to take its course. This is unpredictable, and you run the risk of other bacteria stealing in and spoiling the show, so the method we will follow uses raisins, an excellent natural source of wild yeasts, and live yoghurt, an excellent natural source of lactobacteria, to get your starter going.
Note that timing, with yeast and bacteria alike, depends on temperature: if you have a warm kitchen, or an airing cupboard, everything will happen much more quickly than if the ambient temperature is on the cool side. If you’re making this starter in a heatwave, you may run a day ahead of schedule; if it’s cold, you may have to wait a day or so longer. Don’t worry — unless you live in a fridge, you will get there in the end.
What you need to make your starter
The ingredients and equipment you need to get going (but don’t worry, you’ve probably got them all already).
You will need:
- A jam jar or preserving jar (for your starter to live in)
- Ten raisins (to introduce natural wild yeasts)
- A tablespoon of organic natural yoghurt (to introduce natural lactobacteria)
- Strong white bread flour — preferably organic (better for your yeast and bacteria to eat)
- Water (to introduce all of these parts to each other)
- A sieve or strainer (to remove the raisins after they’ve done their bit)
If you’ve got all that to hand, you’re ready to create your own starter — which will in turn become the foundation of your first loaf of bread.
Take a clean jam jar or preserving jar, at least 500ml in capacity. Mix the yoghurt and 50ml of water in the jar, then add 25g of the flour and mix that in. Finally, add the raisins. Put the lid loosely on top of the jar (not sealing it) and leave it in a warm place.
Tip: Set a daily alarm on your mobile phone so you remember to check in with the starter at about the same time each day.
Open the jar and give it a good sniff to see if you can detect any scent of alcohol vapour being given off by the yeast. No worries if not, but if you do have these smells, you’re already on your way. Whether or not you can smell anything, add 50ml of water and another 25g of flour, stir, cover loosely, and put the jar back into its warm place.
All being well, you will today see tiny, pinhole-sized bubbles on the surface of the mixture and smell something — sour, sweet, volatile — that will confirm that your starter is springing into life. Don’t worry if you don’t, though, especially if the room is on the cool side. Add 100ml of water and 50g of flour and stir well. Cover loosely and return the jar to its warm place.
By now you should see and smell clear evidence of fermentation in the mix. It may be full of bubbles — a good sign — and you may get a sour odor (not unpleasant — similar to the smell of natural yoghurt) when you sniff. You may even get a slight whiff of alcohol. In any case, the raisins will have done their job of introducing the wild yeasts to the mixture, so it’s time to get them out. Add 100ml of water, stir, and strain the runny mixture through a sieve and into a jug. Tip the mix back into its jar, add 100g of flour, stir, cover loosely and return to the warm place.
By this point it should be clear that your mixture is completely alive, with plenty of foamy bubbles. It’s full of healthy, active yeasts and a rich mixture of lactobacteria, but it needs thickening up in order to become manageable. If you want to use it today, add about 50g of flour, mix thoroughly and leave it for a couple of hours before you bake. Otherwise, discard about three-quarters of the mixture, add 100ml of water and 100g of flour to what’s left, and stir well to make a thick paste. About eight hours later you should have about 300g of vigorous starter — more than enough for your first loaf. Turn to page 32 to get going. If you don’t want to bake today, don’t worry — just park the starter in your fridge until you do.
Excerpted from How To Raise a Loaf by Roly Allen Copyright © 2020 by Roly Allen. Excerpted by permission of Laurence King Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.