Sourdough Bread

These last few weeks I have been keeping a pet at home. It requires attention every day, and feeding regularly. It definitely smells. But that’s where the comparison stops, as this pet certainly isn’t fluffy, and doesn’t greet you looking for food when you get home at the end of the day. No, I’ve been keeping a sourdough starter, which we have taken to calling “Saccy”, after the latin name for yeast, Saccaromyces cerevisiae.

Sourdough starters are used, unsurprisingly, to make sourdough bread. My first experience of proper sourdough bread was on a windy pier in San Francisco, where we had one of the famous Boudin Bros. sourdough rolls hollowed out and filled with clam chowder. After eating the steaming hot clam chowder, we tore apart the bread, now soaked in creamy soup, and finished that off too. I found I wasn’t particularly a fan of the sour taste- something that puts a lot of people off sourdough bread- but the texture was fantastic. Another feature of sourdough bread, the idea of having a starter in the fridge that matures, and that you keep developing as you make more and more bread, really appealed too. So recently, as I have been getting more confident with making breads, I thought I would give making sourdough bread a go.

Sourdough Starter on Day 1. Just a lump of watery flour at this point.

Sourdough Starter on Day 1. Just a lump of watery flour at this point.

The interesting thing about sourdough starters is that they don’t contain any yeast- at least any added yeast. You simply take whatever yeasts are floating around in the air when you are making the starter, and by having plenty of flour available for growth, you’ve got a fermentation going. But the yeast isn’t all you get in the air. You also get some bacteria, and it’s these bacteria which produce acid, which makes the bread sour. The bacteria also prevent spoiling and reduce the speed at which the bread becomes stale, and before the industrialisation of baking, these were desirable features to have in bread. But these bacteria do have to be taken into account while cooking. According to Harold McGee’s McGee on Food and Cooking:

Because growing microbes consume nutrients rapidly, and produce acid and other growth-inhibiting substances, starters need to be divided and refreshed regularly, two or more times per day. Adding new water and flour dilutes the accumulated acids and other growth inhibitors, and provides a fresh supply of food. Aerating the starter- whisking a liquid one, or kneading a doughy one, supplies the oxygen that yeasts require to build cell membranes for new cells. The more frequently a starter is divided and refreshed, the better the yeasts will be able to grow, and the more leavening power the starter will have. (McGee on Food and Cooking, p545).

For logistical reasons, I can’t divide a starter two or more times a day, but if you are able to, you should get a better quality product. Here’s how I made my starter, based on a recipe from The Forgotten Skills of Cooking.

Sourdough Starter on Day 3. Starting to get some action, and definitely smelling yoghurty.

Sourdough Starter on Day 3. Starting to get some action, and definitely smelling yoghurty.

How to make a sourdough starter
Day 1: In a large bowl (1.5 litres was fine for me), put 50g strong white bread flour and 50g tepid water, give a good stir, cover, and leave for 24hrs.
Days 2-6: Add to the starter 50g strong white bread flour and 50g tepid water, give a good stir, cover, and leave for 24hrs.

According to McGee, the yeasts grow optimally at 20-25ºC, whereas the bacteria grow optimally in a warmer environment, at 30-35ºC. For this reason, you don’t have to worry about keeping the starter any warmer than room temperature. This also applies to the dough, so the usual rules of sticking the dough somewhere warm to rise or prove don’t apply.

Once you’ve got the starter, you can begin to make the actual bread. Because of the acids present, sourdoughs are not particularly good risers, even when you give them ideal growing conditions. Consequently the rising times are very long, days in some cases, so make sure you are organised before trying to make some of this bread. Similarly, don’t expect the same kind of lift in the oven that you get from normal bread- my loaf ended up rather flatter than I expected. Again, because of the acid, sourdough loaves are often slightly saltier, as this limits the bacterial growth and helps tighten the gluten networks. Otherwise, making sourdough bread is very similar to making regular bread.

Sourdough Starter on Day 6. More yeasty than yoghurty aromas, very bubbly. Ready to go.

Sourdough Starter on Day 6. More yeasty than yoghurty aromas, very bubbly. Ready to go.

Despite it being my first attempt, I got pretty reasonable results. As I said, the dough was quite flat, but I wouldn’t say it was dense, as my first attempts at regular bread were. I made my starter our of strong white bread flour, but different types of flours will give you starters that work in slightly different ways, so it might be that I try a spelt starter, for example. But I guess these are all things I can begin to explore once as my starter matures, and as I start to understand the chemistry going on.

Sourdough bread

This recipe is adapted from one in The Forgotten Skills of Cooking. I made one large loaf with these quantities. Reminder: the rising and proving times are long, so make sure you are organised before you try to make a loaf.

1 sourdough starter, as described above
600ml tepid water
1.15kg strong white bread flour
2 tbsp rye flour

1. Make the starter. See above.
2. Make the foam. Add 225g of flour and 225g water to the starter. Mix well, then cover and leave overnight. The next morning, add 225g flour and 225g water, mix well, and leave for 5-6 hours. When this is done, take out 450g to be your starter for the next loaf (you can refrigerate this for around two weeks).
3. Make the dough. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Knead (ideally in an electric mixer) for 6 minutes. Cover and leave for around 6-8 hours until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back the air, shape into loaves or baguettes as desired, then dust generously with flour. Cover and put in the fridge overnight.
4. Make the bread. Return the dough to room temperature and leave for around an hour. Preheat the oven to 230ºC. Bake for 35 minutes, leaving to cool on a wire rack when the bread is done.

The finished loaf. Great toasted.

The finished loaf. Great toasted.


Does using different flour make a difference?

Flour is something we use everyday in cooking. There are so many types of flour available in supermarkets, too. When cooking, I always want to produce the best food I can, but you can only go as far as your ingredients will take you. So, in cooking, which flour is best for which food? Is it worth paying more for more expensive flours? How much do you “lose” for using the wrong type of flour? I don’t have a lot of experience with flours, so I decided to find out.

The main consideration in flour is gluten. Gluten is a complicated mix of wheat proteins that don’t dissolve in water. When wetted, though, the proteins can change their shape, forming and breaking bonds with each other. The gluten network changes its shape under pressure, reverts back to the original shape once the pressure is removed. This means when yeast produces carbon dioxide, the walls of the dough don’t break, important for bread-making. Similarly, this elasticity relaxes with time, keeping the dough taut. This network of dough and air gives the bread its texture: lightest, high-rising, chewy bread from high-gluten flour, as opposed to denser, crumbier bread from lower-gluten flour. So for some applications, you want lots of gluten, for others, you don’t:

Not all baked goods benefit from a strong, elastic gluten. It’s desirable in yeasted breads, bagels, and in puff pastry; but it gives an undesirable toughness to other forms of pastry, to raised cakes, griddle cakes, and cookies. For tender preparations, bakers intentionally limit the development of gluten (McGee on Food and Cooking, p523).

For bread, where we want the gluten network to develop, will be affected significantly by different types of flour:

“Bread flours” are milled from high-protein wheats, require a long kneading period to develop their strong gluten, and produce well-raised loaves with a distinctive, slightly eggy flavour and chewy texture. Lower-protein “all-purpose” flours give breads with a lower maximum volume, more neutral flavour, and less chewy texture, while flours from soft durum wheat with weak gluten proteins make denser loaves with a tender, cake-like crumb (McGee on Food and Cooking, p535).

Cakes on the other hand, don’t want the gluten network to develop, so we would expect softer flours to actually perform better:

A cake’s structure is created mainly by flour starch and by egg protein. The tender, melt-in-the-mouth texture comes from gas bubbles, which subdivide the batter into fragile sheets, and from the sugar and fat, which interfere with gluten formation and egg protein coagulation, and interrupt the network of gelated starch (McGee on Food and Cooking, p554).

So to test out which how different flours fared for different baking purposes, and how this theory turned out in practice, I got 5 varieties of flour, and then made some bread, and some cake. I usually make bread for everyday consumption, so price does factor in choice of flour considerably, but every now and then I would like to be able to make something a bit more exciting. Cakes I make much less often. Typically cakes are made to be eaten by others- birthday cakes, tea and cake, for example. So when I do make a cake, I want it to be good, so I’ll probably pay for better ingredients if I can. But just understanding how different types of flour worked, and what the end results were, was interesting in itself. The five varieties of flour tested were: Mcdougall’s Self Raising Supreme Sponge Flour (£1.78/kg), Tesco Everyday Value Self Raising Flour (£0.35/kg), Tesco Plain Flour (£0.60/kg), Tesco Strong White Bread Flour (£0.40/kg), and Allinson Strong White Bread Flour (£0.67/kg).

For reference, according to McGee on Food and Cooking, I would expect the bread flours to have protein contents of 12-13%, the all-purpose flours protein contents of 7-10%, and the cake flour 7-8% protein content. This is just part of the story though, there will be a lot of differences in milling methods and how the flours are processed, which contributes to the final product.

When making the case, I tried as much as possible to be scientific, although since I did not want to be overrun with cupcakes, I only made small quantities, and so relative measurement errors will have been higher. The recipe was as simple as I could think of: flour, butter, sugar, and eggs, so that any effects of different flours would be more easily seen. The cupcakes came out as follows:

Cupcake 1: Supreme Sponge Flour
Definitely the lightest and fluffiest in texture. Also, interestingly, this one came out the most bright, a very appealing yellow. The butter flavour had integrated really well into the flour, and there wasn’t a fatty taste leftover.

Cupcake 2: Everyday Value Flour
Crunchy, and with an uneven distribution of texture- the butter and egg seemed to have sunk to the bottom and not integrated properly with the flour. Poor development of flavours.

Cupcake 3: Plain Flour
Quite reasonable, the best of the rest. A little crispy, meally, and dry. I got more floury flavours coming through, so thought this one was the bread flour.

Cupcake 4: Bread Flour
Good crispiness on top, a little meally, but an uneventful cupcake. Very similar to the plain flour, hard to tell apart.

After we made the cupcakes, my resident cupcake enthusiast and I swapped the order around and tried to guess which was which. The only one we both got correct was the supreme sponge flour cupcake- significantly better than the others, it wasn’t really close. I thought the everyday value flour was easy too, having a significantly poorer quality texture. Neither of us could tell the plain flour and bread flour cupcakes apart, though. Conclusion: it’s probably worth paying the extra for supreme sponge flour, and don’t use cheap flour.

For the bread, I was more interested in the differences between different types of bread flour, but also how plain flour fared. It was particularly difficult to be scientific here, as I could not knead all the bread at once, so some batches had 15-20 minutes more rising time than others. As with the cupcakes, the bread recipe was as simple as can be, flour, water, salt, yeast. The rolls came out as follows:

Roll 1: Supreme Sponge Flour
A very white roll. Hardly rose at all. Bad aftertaste from the baking powder, but otherwise pleasant taste. Smooth texture, but very dense.

Roll 2: Everyday Value Flour
Less dense, and crusty. Tasted poor, with the bad aftertaste from the baking powder. A little meally. Didn’t rise a lot.

Roll 3: Plain Flour
Very crusty, dry, and dense. Neutral flavour. Didn’t rise a lot

Roll 4: Tesco Bread Flour
Good texture, nice leathery crust, risen considerably more. Nice bready taste.

Roll 5: Hovis Bread Flour
Very similar to the Tesco bread flour, no discernible differences.

Overall the results were pretty clear: you need a flour with high gluten content to make a good bread. The plain and everyday flours rose poorly, and, worse of the lot, the supreme sponge flour barely rose at all. Using different flour makes a big difference, so definitely buy some bread flour here. Within the bread flours, I didn’t notice any difference in the finished product, so the difference in price is what will drive my purchase here. Perhaps the Tesco bread flour is unexpectedly good. Conclusion: buy bread flour, it seems that the difference in gluten is more important than flour quality, as the theory suggests.

A fun afternoon’s baking, but I am pleased with the results. Of course, there are a lot of other things going on with flour than gluten, but it’s a start to understanding flours. It’s worth having confidence in the ingredients you use, and understanding properly what processes like kneading will do to the finished product. If you understand these, you’ll help get the cooking right, and food will taste better, which is really what it is about.

Gravadlax and Rye Bread

Gravadlax is something I have wanted to try for a while. I love the taste and texture of smoked salmon, but unless somebody I know buys a smoking house, or I disable all the smoke alarms in the house, I’m not making smoked salmon at home anytime soon. Consequently, gravadlax, as cured salmon, provides a nice compromise, with a similar texture and depth of flavour to smoked salmon.

I went to Denmark recently, where preserved fish is a cultural phenomenon, so I had plenty of fish while I was there. On return I wanted to try to cook a few bits of Nordic cuisine myself, so I felt it was time to try making gravadlax myself. Particularly, I wanted to create a ‘smørrebrød’, the Danish open sandwich (see picture below). Seen everywhere in Denmark, the open sandwich is a slice of (usually rye) bread, topped with egg, prawn, ham, steak, etc.- whatever leftovers you have from last night’s dinner. I thought I could combine making of the gravalax and having a go at some rye bread, to then assembling them into my own open sandwich.

Gravadlax (laks is Danish for salmon) is created by mildly curing salmon. The fish is covered by a spice mix of salt and sugar, which is absorbed into the fish over a period of time, and draws moisture from the fish. The curing process here is not one that will preserve the salmon for long, but just enough to allow flavour to develop, and a slight fermentation. The environment created is undesirable for bacteria, with acid and salt, which is why the fish is preserved for a short while. There is a huge amount of dill used- the recipe I have calls for 300g- but it’s only flavouring in the dish. If you are using dill from a garden, make sure you wash it properly, as bacteria from the dirt can get in. I really like the dill flavour, though, and it really works with the salmon, so don’t worry about it.

To finish off the smørrebrød, there was the mustard and dill sauce (see below) and egg from a friend’s chickens, but most importantly, there is the rye bread. In Denmark I had a lot of rye bread- not usually my favourite, given how dry it is. But the flavour and texture of the Danish rye bread makes you see why it is such a big deal over there- I heard it said that each man has his own opinions on rye bread, and that arguments can form over different styles. So on the way back, I had to pick up some rye flour to try some myself. As it turns out, the basic version is very easy to make. The flour does not have a lot of gluten in it, so does not rise very well, not surprising when you consider how heavy rye bread is. Consequently, once you have mixed the ingredients together, there is not much left to do. The heavy bread the rye flour made provided a solid base for the smørrebrød, and a background for the flavours, so to speak.

But what surprised me most is how straightforward this all was to make. The gravadlax is very easy to do at home; it is almost the same as marinading the salmon in spices and dill. Similarly, the rye bread was the least difficult bread I’ve made, as it doesn’t need much managing to get to rise the correct amount. Overall, given it can be prepared in advance, if you are organised gravadlax, or the whole open sandwich, will make a very fun dinner party starter.


I used an entire side of salmon here, knowing that the leftovers would make delicious sandwiches. However, I ended up cutting them up into fillets anyway, so you could just use a couple of fillets instead. The quantities are for a whole side, scale down if you want less gravadlax. The recipe is taken from The Scandinavian Kitchen.

1 side salmon (skin on, ideally)
300g dill, chopped
4tsp course sea salt
2tsp sugar
2tsp ground black pepper

1. Make the gravadlax.  Mix the salt, sugar, and pepper together. Chop the salmon into fillets. In a large tray (big enough to put all the salmon in), spread half of the dill on the bottom of the dish. Place the fish on top, then cover with the spice mix, then the rest of the dill. Cover with cling film, and put something heavy on top (I used books). Leave for 48 hours in the fridge, turning once if possible (I didn’t).
2. Create the slices. Take the gravalax out of the dill/spice mix, and scrape it off. Using a filleting knife, cut into slices.

Mustard and Dill Sauce

This is the traditional accompaniment. I found it a little hot and overwhelming (partly because I got hold of some nice mustard), but the flavours worked together well.

100ml Dijon mustard
50ml double cream
50g dill
1tsp cider vinegar
4tsp dark brown sugar

1. Make the sauce. Just mix all the ingredients together!

Simple Rye Bread

The recipe is adapted from one from The River Cottage Bread Handbook. I brought rye flour back from Denmark, I am not sure about its availability in the UK.

500g rye flour
300ml warm water
1.5tsp salt
1.5tsp dried active yeast
20ml olive oil

1. Make the dough. Mix all the ingredients together. Knead for 5 minutes, or 3 minutes in an electric mixer. Put to rise in a warm place for around 90 minutes.
2. Bake the bread. Heat the oven to 200ºC. Wait until it is up to temperature, then cook the bread for 35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

‘Chuck Norris’ Breakfast Banana Bread

I have a problem with breakfast.

I’ve essentially eaten muesli for breakfast over the past sixteen years, and it’s got to a point where I don’t want to see another bowl of it. No more. Too many early mornings have been spent forcing the stuff down before the rowing outing or cycle into the office, just trying to make sure I am not hungry again at 10am. It’s just not fun to eat anymore. Long overdue for a replacement, but so far the contenders are not faring well.

Porridge seemed like an obvious choice, but it is more time and effort than I feel is reasonable at that hour of the morning, especially when you count the inevitable cleaning of the microwave when the porridge has gone everywhere. Weetabix just turns into a soggy mulch. Granola is too expensive to adopt long-term. Shreddies, and most other cereals, won’t keep hunger locked up until lunch. Toast has worked pretty well as an interim solution, but “toast for breakfast every morning” somehow doesn’t feel like the solution I’ve been looking for. So, I went back to the drawing board.

What I really wanted was a cross between a cereal bar, bread, and cake- something I could just grab a slice of and enjoy with coffee. Figuring that it should have fruit as a major component, I started off with a simple recipe for banana bread, and by gradually making changes to make it more cereal bar-like, I ended up with was has been affectionately named ‘Chuck Norris Bread’. It ticks all the breakfast boxes: filling, quick, tasty, healthy(ish), and not too expensive.

Chuck Norris might eat knuckle sandwiches for lunch, but this is surely what he eats for breakfast.

‘Chuck Norris’ Breakfast Banana Bread

Packed with nuts, seeds, and fruit, this is sure to keep you going until lunch.

For the bread:
100g butter
140g dark brown sugar
225g wholemeal flour
1 egg
2 tsp baking powder
6 ripe bananas

100g walnut pieces
75g linseed
50g poppy seeds
75g pumpkin seeds
100g prunes
100g rolled porridge oats
1tsp cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 160° (fan) and grease a 1kg loaf tin.
2. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar, then mix in the egg, flour, and baking powder until you have a smooth batter.
3. Add the “extras”, and mix until they are distributed evenly in the mixture. Pour the mixture into the loaf tin.
4. Cook for approximately 50 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. In my experience, if kept refrigerated, the loaf will keep for about a week.