June 10, 2017 — Bake

Surbiton Sourdough

  • Several days for the starter, One day for the loaf.
  • 8 PEOPLE
  • hard

Both Pete and Mrs WDC go crazy for my wholemeal, oat and sunflower loaf and my Surbiton sourdough. I'm teaching Mrs WDC how to make this loaf. So here is the full recipe.

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What you need

Wholewheat strong organic bread flour

White wheat strong organic bread flour

8g. salt




A plastic scraper

2 x 1lb loaf tins


Dad's Recipe Tales

Alas, we do not live in San Fransisco. We live in Surbiton. So the sourdough bread we make will taste like Surbiton sourdough, not San Francisco sourdough. Sourdough is formed from the natural and wild yeasts and bacteria present in flour and in the air of the local environment. On reflection, I’m much happier that my bread tastes of Surbiton than San Fransisco.

There are good reasons to make sourdough. It restores our faith in the natural way of the world. Flour and water is all you need (and salt). It tastes good, it keeps well, it’s easy on the digestion and nutritionally beneficial. Harold McGee explains the science behind some of these characteristics in his book, On Food and Cooking, ‘…the bacteria somehow delay starch retrogradation and staling, and the acids they produce make the bread resistant to spoilage microbes; so the sourdough breads are especially flavourful and keep well.’

We also know that sourdough is easier to digest and that it has many health benefits, though McGee is silent on the science of these attributes. What he does state, is that sourdough is difficult. It makes sense to assume that though the process may be wonderfully natural, it can also be unpredictable and unstable. It’s all to do with the way the yeasts and bacteria develop and behave during leavening and baking. First, the bacterial will outnumber the yeasts and can diminish the yeast ability to produce gas. Secondly, the acid conditions and bacteria can weaken the gluten in the dough, making it dense. He recommends managing acid levels by keeping the starter less liquid, keeping it cool, aerating it and refreshing it often.  Limiting the bacterial protein-digesting enzymes can be achieved by adding a full amounts of salt during the dough making process.

So, if we find that making our own sourdough is not as easy as some might have us believe, we can feel reassured by McGee that there is probably a good scientific reason to our travails. My advice, when it come to baking anything is that you need practice – only by baking something again and again can you get a feel for what is happening and have any chance to make an informed judgement to improve the bake. This reality is at its most evident when making bread. I don’t believe anybody will be fully aware and in control of what they are doing unless they have made at least 10-15 loaves. Until then, don’t even think of being critical of your results. You’re still learning…

How Dad Cooked It

Although, I have made many loaves of bread, I have not made enough sourdough to develop my own recipe. The following is based on Andrew Whitley’s book: Do sourdough. Slow bread for busy lives.

Whitley’s processes are long and slow, he uses a lot of wholewheat flour and his dough is quite wet – all can be off putting – but persevere. The longer proving times develops flavour and the wetter dough provides greater expansion for wholewheat flours – and quite rightly wholewheat bread is healthier. Wholewheat flours make more efficient sourdough starters.

Important notes: Water is from a bottle of still mineral water, it should be warm (35C – about blood temperature, i.e. it should feel neither hot nor cold when you dip your finger into it). Flour is always strong organic bread flour. Do not leave traces of detergent when cleaning equipment or hands.  Leaving somewhere warm for proving starter and dough requires temperatures of 25C – 30C. These are temperatures of a very hot summer day. During hot weather leave in warm room, in winter use the airing cupboard. If the temperatures cannot be attained it may take longer for the starter/dough to develop. Makes one large (2lb) or two small (1lb each) loaves. I find smaller loves are more practical – we keep one in the freezer, so the loaves are always fresh.

  1. Make a wholewheat starter. Use a large glass or plastic container, one big enough that you can get your hand inside. Clean it well, but be careful not to leave traces of detergent. Rinse with still mineral water. DAY ONE: Add 50g of wholewheat flour and 50g water, stir with fingers. See note above. Leave somewhere warm. DAY TWO: repeat amounts used on day one. DAY THREE: Add 50g wholewheat flour and 25g water. DAY FOUR: Add 100g wholewheat flour and 50g water. DAY FIVE: Starter is ready to use. It should be visibly risen with odd air pockets and smell quite sour (‘pleasantly fruity with notes of beer and vinegar’). Store in fridge if not using.
  2. Refreshing a starter. If your starter does not appear to be working or is looking a little sad for itself it can be revived by refreshing. It is a good idea to do this if your starter has not been used for a while. Stir up the old starter. Leave 100g in the jar. Add 200g water and stir to dissolve. Add 100g wholewheat flour and stir. Leave for 24 hours.
  3. Production sourdough. This is the dough that holds the yeast and will make the rest of the bread rise. It needs to be made before the final dough. This is the first of two stages before baking – both take about 5 hours to achieve in ideal conditions. Bring the starter to room temperature, stir and mix 150g of the starter in a bowl with 120g of water. Stir to dissolve. Add 100g wholewheat flour and 100g white flour.  Knead on a surface to mix until just smooth. Put in a bowl and cover with a plastic bag. Place somewhere warm (see notes). It should have doubled in size when ready.
  4. Final dough. Make a SOAKER. This is an utterly simple but completely brilliant part of the process. It develops the gluten i.e. elasticity, without kneading – and can be seen as a method in many recipes (see especially making non-leavened flat breads). Add 8g salt and 300g water to a bowl. Add 100g wholewheat flour, and 300g white flour. Stir and mix for a minute until combined. Cover with a plastic bag. Put somewhere warm for 1-2 hours. Knead the SOAKER. Tip the soaker onto a smooth surface and lubricate with water (yes, not flour or oil…) knead for 5 minutes, use a scraper to catch any sticking dough. Make the bread dough. Measure 300g from the production sourdough. Add the remaining to the starter (thus continuing the refreshing process and keeping the starter alive). Add to the kneaded soaker and knead to mix for 5 minutes. This may take much longer as it is very difficult to work with. Keep at it, stretching with the heel of the hand and folding over 90 degrees and stretching again. As you get into a rhythm the dough will soften up and become easier to work, it also tends to be less sticky, so resist adding flour at this stage. However, do lubricate with water if necessary.
  5. Shape, put into tins and final prove. Cover and rest the dough for 5 minutes to relax. Oil two 1 lb loaf tins. (Use tins for your first 5 loaves or so – then venture into using baskets. The tins are much easier to work with whilst learning about the dough. Put rested dough onto a floured work surface and divide into two equal portions with a scraper. Using a cutting action into the bottom of each half of dough, form a smooth ball. Keep adding flour to your hands and work quickly and boldly to make round ball. turning the dough as you go. Let the ball become elongated by cupping the sides of the dough and working it so it will lift easily off the working surface. Then put the dough carefully in a tin. It may feel like pouring into the tin as the dough is very soft. Cover each in a plastic bag, such that there is no danger of the dough touching the plastic. Keep somewhere warm for 5 hours or so (see notes above).
  6. The imponderable variables. Bread making and especially proving is notoriously difficult to predict and control. I have found that the final dough will quite happily prove overnight with an additional 2-3 hours (or more) in a warm kitchen. When the dough has doubled in size it is ready for the oven. Do not worry if it takes longer than imagined – the bread will still be fine. NB: do handle the bread carefully, do not knock it or alter the ambient temperature or air pressure. It is a very delicate and fragile transformation and needs to be cossetted with a stable environment, gentle hands and kind and patient mind.
  7. Bake the bread. Preheat the oven to 230C, Gas 8. (Place a shelf in the top third of the oven and put an oven tray in a shelf a couple rungs below (the edge of the tray in line with the front edge of the shelf). Boil the kettle. Place both loaves on the top shelf and immediately pour a cup or two of water into the oven tray. Close the door quickly but gently. Bake for 10 minutes – then reduce the heat to 180C, gas 4. Bake for a further 20 minutes. Take the loaves out of the oven and knock out from their tins. Put back into the oven and bake for a further 5-10 minutes. Check to ensure the bottom has a firm crust and very hollow sound when knocked with the fingers. Cool on a wire rack. Phew! How cool is that – made our own sourdough bread…
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