Why Sourdough Won’t Be The Climax of Bread Month

Yes, one of mine

I know, you were expecting Tom Cooks! Bread Month to come to a dramatic conclusion with a sourdough fanfare. I do appreciate that many of you get fairly excited about the stuff. And if we're looking at the economic benefits of home made, making your own really scores here. Assuming you already have your own starter, then your only outlay is for the flour and the power. Wander around Edinburgh bakeries and you can easily be charged between four and five quid for a loaf.

Now I do have my own starter. He's called Tony, and he's now 17 years old. After some early disasters I can now do a pretty decent version (see main picture). Mine, however, has a couple of drawbacks. I very seldom get that lovely open crumb which the best loaves have. Though, looking on the bright side, that means that when you toast it, all the butter doesn't drip through the holes. The second drawback is that it's too delicious, reaching the silver medal place on the podium, second only to the baguette. We're not huge bread eaters - a loaf can last us a week; however, half a fresh sourdough can disappear in an hour, slathered of course with about 1000 calories worth of butter.

A better crumb than my usual

So why am I pulling out, as it were? My aim has been to get more of you baking, not preaching to the converted. My very first effort came after a well meaning friend pressed some starter on me. I had Andrew Whitley's Do Sourdough as my guide. I misunderstood his terminology, confusing starter with production sourdough. The loaf was a disaster. My starter then died, leaving me very discouraged. I don't want the same to happen to you. My breakthrough came when attending a baking course at the excellent Edinburgh School of Food & Wine (ESFW).

To illustrate the potential difficulties, I currently have five recipes in front of me, from Whitley, ESFW and Paul Hollywood, plus a couple from two good friends, both very talented cooks, Liz Baird and Janet Hood. Some of these, not all, contain technical jargon. Can you autolyse, stitch and coil fold? I can do all three, but I didn't learn these from books.

Now decide how much starter you need. All five recipes are for loaves of approximately the same size. Specified quantities vary from 250g (Hollywood) to 72g (ESFW) to a generous tablespoon. 

Or the quantity of water? The Hollywood recipe aside, the amounts range from 240ml to 325ml. Our Paul gives a range between 130ml and 175ml. A 34% margin! That's really helpful for a beginner, Paul. Yet, he's right in that the required amount will vary according to the flour and the texture of the starter. I get it now, but I didn't when I started. I remember once tipping out my banneton on to my baking tray and seeing my loaf slither into the consistency of a soggy mud pie.

How do you cook your loaf? On a stone, in a loaf tin and in a Dutch oven are three options given. At what temperature? The majority favour around 240 - 250˚C, but our Paul starts at just 220˚C, dropping to 200˚C. Andrew Whitley sensibly points out that domestic ovens vary enormously and Janet H is a great enthusiast for tapping on the bottom.

So to conclude. The ability to make sourdough bread is a great tool to have in your arsenal, and Tom Cooks! is all about encouraging everyone to extend their repertoire. If you want to try it for the first time, there are plenty of books out there and, I dare say, plenty of stuff on You Tube too. But do you want my advice? Get some kind soul to teach you or guide your initial efforts. Once you've had the joy of the first successful loaf you'll never look back. And you'll be glad that Tom Cooks! didn't lead you down the path of despair and failure.

I am forever grateful to Liz, Janet and all the others who encouraged me and gave handy helpful tips when I was on my early sourdough journey. Thank you, all.

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