Monday, April 21, 2014

Sourdough Studies

Bread and Nutella is one of my eldest's favourite snacks, and he eats a couple of large sarnies every day for lunch. Luckily for him he has an extremely efficient digestive system and is pretty active because he should be nothing but wobbly bits the amount of Nutella he eats. I stopped buying it for a time to try and wean him off it, even tried making my own raw version which was a disaster.

I try to offset some of the damage by baking almost whole-wheat bread or wheat and spelt, which he devours. Then, in January I decided I'd start a sourdough starter to make sourdough bread. Sourdough bread is available here and goes by the name pain au levain. Unfortunately, it's quite costly and I really wanted to suss out the technique.

Why bother? Well, there are numerous health benefits to eating sourdough bread over normal bread. It increases beneficial lactic acid which helps break down phytates which inhibit absorption of the vitamins and minerals in the flour. It is easier to digest because the fermentation of the dough predigests the starches in the flour. It breaks down the protein gluten into amino acids, making it more digestible. It stays fresh longer because it produces its own acetic acid - no need for chemical preservatives, and has a low GI index so doesn't cause undesirable spikes in insulin.

All good reasons to make my own bread. The only problem is that it takes time, and trying to fit bread-making into working full time has been causing me a bit of a headache.

I made my first attempt last weekend. I took the sourdough starter out of the fridge let it come to room temperature, then added it to flour, water and salt. I kneaded for about 5 minutes, let it rise for 24 hours in the bowl, then emptied it onto the baking sheet and baked it for 45 minutes. This is what I got:
First ever sourdough loaf... destined for the blender...
It was a few centimetres high, dense, and as hard as nails. After fighting it with the bread-knife, I gave up and put it in the blender to make tasty breadcrumbs.

It should have looked something like this:
I have a long way to go to make this...
Undeterred, because there's an art to making sourdough and getting it right takes time and experimentation, I tried again this weekend. First though, I emailed the experts at because I wanted to know where I'd gone wrong. I got a reply the next day and found out that I had probably not kneaded the dough for long enough, and my sourdough starter needed pre-feeding if it had come out of the fridge.

I watched a video on their site and discovered that:
1. I needed to feed the starter three times over a period of 18 hours if it had come out of the fridge.
2. I had to knead the dough for 20 minutes.
3. I needed a thermometer to know when the bread was baked - 98°C or 210°F (cue trip to Carrouf).

Armed with this information, I fed my starter three times, made the dough and kneaded it for 20 minutes. Then I cut the dough in two and place each loaf on a baking tray to rise free-style. Mine rose horizontally.

I left it overnight which was too long because the next morning, it had spread so far, it had cracked and split. No need to make extra cuts, then... Into the oven they went, and barely rose any more so came out after half an hour (and 98°C) almost the same height as when they went in.

They looked better though:

Second attempt - still on the flat side

They tasted very good too. I made a horizontal open sandwich with olive oil, garlic rubbed on the cut side and tomatoes. My son also made a horizontal sarnie, with ham and salad and said it was okay but he preferred the normal bread. My quest is not over yet. He had really liked the pain au levain I got from the baker's down the road, so I'm determined to keep trying... I bought a silicon bread tin yesterday to make a more loaf-shaped loaf. No room to spread in one those, that'll show it...

You can do a number of things with flat sourdough bread - sarnies, panini, and this, which I'm making tonight - stuffed sourdough bread. You make cuts across the bread making sure not to cut all the way through, then stuff the cuts with cheese - I bought a large goats' cheese pelardon from the market yesterday. Combine butter (or olive oil), green onion (or normal), garlic and poppy seeds together and pour over the bread. Sprinkle with grated cheese (like gruyère) and bake wrapped in foil for 15 mins. Uncover and bake for another 10 mins.

We'll need those sourdough digestive capabilities after that!


  1. Gosh, that sounds good, Sarah. I've always chickened out of trying sourdough, though I love to eat it. Inspired by your example I really must have a go when we get back to Wales. Good luck with the next attempt.

    1. Thanks Perpetua. It's my latest project. I don't think I'll ever get it looking like the baker's one though as bakers' ovens can do things like spray steam over the bread to produce that crusty crust that domestic ovens can't. Having a bread stone helps too apparently. I just use the oven tray.

  2. I admire your persistence and dedication to the cause, and hope you succeed in your quest for perfection. You seem to have made progress already.

    1. Thanks Susie, I have indeed. Still a long way to go though. My starter is a spelt one and I think I'll convert it into ordinary wheat to see if that makes a difference. I'd really like to get that lovely crispy crust and stretchy inside.

  3. Ah, the joy of making bread. I used to do it, and the key was to knead it like mad and let it rest a few hours. It takes time. Apparently, it also depends on the quality of the flour...But it never looks as good as on the pictures anyway...

    1. I will have another go, and have another reference site to help me get it right(er). I'm impressed that you made your own sourdough, do you no longer have the time, or is it a question of getting the right flour?

  4. Not a huge fan of sourdough, though would be open to any bread that you've baked with your own fair hands! Im sure Nutella and your bread is a thousands times more healthy than any of the sugary stuff my kids eat. I should introduce them to this European alternative

    1. I stopped buying sugary snacks some time ago, so he has no option now but bread. I would prefer him to eat it with something like hummus but of course, that is in the realm of fantasy. :)

      I normally make the bread in my bread machine so it takes little effort and is ready at lunch time if I put it on after breakfast. I've also started cooking ham joints for him to have as ham in his sarnies at lunch time so I can stop buying ham with nitrites (and chorizo which he loves!).

  5. If I was only allowed to eat one carb for the rest of my life, I'd choose bread. I bloody love it and have experimented like you with various home made varieties over the years. Never tried sourdough but have made plenty by hand, even though I have a bread-making machine. I guess you could use it as a pizza base as well, but your cheesy recipe sounds delicious!

    1. It makes a fantastic pizza dough with little effort, and only 30 mins rest. The cheesy recipe was very tasty but a tad heavy.

      I'm like you, I love bread. I especially love toast, and sarnies. Mmmm. :)


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