Some people say there is no great mystery to making sourdough. All it requires is patience and practice. I beg to differ. Strongly. Sourdough making is an art. And one that is not for the faint-hearted. Despite consuming unhealthy proportions of it, the world of bread making has seemed like a losing, and at times frightening, game. I am the anti-Christ of patience so toddling off to the patisserie as though I live amongst the trendy throng of Saint Germain Parisian aristocrats seems a perfectly viable and far more timely option for my daily loaf. But I decided to conquer my fears (and lack of patience) and signed up for the Bourke Street Bakery sourdough masterclass.
Genesis: The mothership
Our instructor Paul Giddings spends the next four hours debunking the myths of bread making. First things first. Bread requires a starter. Find a clean large jar. Paul suggests we plop in a few tablespoons of organic flour (rye if your feeling fancy) and enough warm water to make a thickish paste to form the mother or starter. Cover it with a tea towel and leave it well alone for a few days. Stirring occasionally if you feel up to it. Channel thoughts of science experiments and feeding a pet.
I do exactly as I am told. Nothing. I leave it for a few extra days. Still nothing. All I have for my commitment is one sad-assed and now manky jar, that truly smells like ass. I call in a friend currently enrolled in breadmaking. He looks at my starter, looks at me (completely deadpan) and tells me to put it in the bin and start again. And perhaps this time, to screw the jar lid on tight. So I kiss my mother good-bye and start again. And this time, around the end of day 2, the party starts. Albeit quietly. My ‘levain chef’ as it is known, bubbles, grows, changes and smells. I’m nervous – anything with these kinds of attributes generally comes from some kind of dank, protracted, subterranean environment – how else does it develop that heady, pungent aroma? This thing, this yeast, it’s the most furtive of ingredients, thriving in the unlikeliest of places and wreaking havoc with my olfactory powers. I kind of like it.
Development: Feeding the starter and finding a Gremlin
Evidently I need to feed my ‘levain chef’ – with the stringent feeding schedule of a small child –three times every 24 hours. A quick consultation with my notes from Paul’s class tells me to discard most of the mixture and replace it with fresh flour and water before leaving it for a day at room temperature to “puff”. I’m no hoarder, but seriously Paul, what was the point if all I do is throw it out? Does he realize what it took for life to occur? For each feed I am to take 100g of starter mix, add 100g flour and 100ml water, stir well and return to my jar. The premise behind throwing most of it out is the starter should be doubling in size with every feed – and who needs their kitchen to be over run with fermenting flour juice.
I do as I’m told and replace the majority of the mixture, leaving it at room temperature and repeating this process before it smells brightly acidic and begins to bubble easily. It smells like a fart in a lift. A small one. Around day 9, when my darling was going through a particularly angsty and virile stage, it built a head of steam that blew the lid clean off my damn jar. It was violent. I am both awed and scared. It’s a monster and it’s alive. At this point I think it’s critical to name my sourdough culture. I call it Stripe, after all it really is like a gremlin and I begin to question whether I should be getting it a Slurpee.
Truth be told, I also start to feel a little bit proud. Ask any mother, it is not easy to bring new life into the world, and well, finally I have made a sourdough starter. After a little bit of TLC, the flour and water have been colonized by wild yeast, which is now eating, breeding and producing carbon dioxide. Fuck me; I think I’ve mastered the secret of creation.
Maintenance: Finding the starter a home
I’m told I should be keeping the starter process going for a month to build a deep flavour although two weeks is enough according to some. I’m beginning to understand the need for a Sourdough Hotel like they have in Stockholm where, for an outrageous daily fee, you can leave your starter to be fed while you are on holiday, or generally trying to maintain a life. I dare to clean out the dark recesses of the fridge to make Stripe a home he can call his own. For long-term maintenance I can ease back to once a week feedings. The end is near.
Maketh the bread
It’s time. My fridge smells faintly of Stripe. I have labored and loved this dam bit of yeasty goodness for far too long. I want, no I need to make bread. I follow my recipe card. Anyone who has ever put their mouth around a loaf of epic bread from Bourke Street knows not to mess with the best. I add some of Stripe to flour and enough water to turn him into a soft dough. I leave it then knead in a wack of salt. I leave it to rise by half, I shape it then leave to rise again. This rising takes longer than I want to talk about. I make a few artful boulangerie style slashes in the top of my loaf and bake at 180C for 30 minutes. I’m convinced its not quite ready – Paul said to give the bread a good tap on the base – a hollow sort of sound should follow. I do this and return it to the oven for another 15 or so minutes. Then Bam. I have my first sourdough.
I baked bread. I slathered it in butter and scratched my gums on its crunchy exterior, and I’d never tasted anything more beautiful. And it was poetic. I am thankful for our bread making ancestors who kept the art of sourdough cultures alive, for their make-do and mend mentality, because it really is true, a well-made sourdough tastes better and lasts longer than pretty much any other type of bread. Baking a loaf of it will change the way you think about food. There is something simple, pure and frugal about a homemade loaf of sourdough with its hardened crust and that soft, spongy interior smelling faintly of athletes foot. It takes husbandry and forward planning and given all of this, it is only right and proper that a certain air of occasion, a certain ceremony, should attend to its use and consumption. Now I have a gift that really will keep on giving (if I remember to feed Stripe). So I’ve come to the conclusion that a proper loaf is truly a thing of beauty. And one that I can make myself.
The Bourke Street Sourdough
440g organic flour
Add the flour to a bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour the starter into the well and begin to add water, a little at a time, incorporating into the flour as you go. With the heal of one hand stretch the dough out, then bring it back over itself a little. Turn the dough slightly and start the same process again. Continue this kneading patter for 8-10 minutes. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film for 2 hours. After the first hour give the dough a ‘ knock back’ then return to the bowl and re-cover for remaining hour and to double in size. Remove from the bowl and cut into 2 pieces, shaping each into a round ball. Cover with a lightly oiled plastic bag and rest for 15-20 minutes. Re-shape into desired shape then place into a floured cloth and cover with a plastic bag for the final prove of 5 hours (15 if you refrigerate overnight).
If you want to try one of the classes (and I recommend you do) visit Bourke St Bakery.