Sunday, 27 July 2014

Sour Dough Rules

To all my peers and tutors at Ballymaloe, I am happy to say that one of the first things I did on arrival home in Kiev was to start my new batch of Sour Dough starter.

Everyone else may be wondering what I’m talking about.  Let me tell you….

People have been eating bread in various forms for thousands of years.  30, 000 years.  The first breads were simply a mix of flour and water which was rested and then heat applied.  Breads like this still exist today around the world today such as the Indian ‘roti’. 

Now imagine this, 1, 500 years ago in Egypt, a baker leaves some of this flour and water mix overnight in a bowl.  The next day they notice small bubbles on the top but decide to use it anyway adding more flour and water to make that day’s bread.  That bread is just a little lighter and tastier than the previous.  They have prepared the first ‘leavened’ or risen bread.

So what happened here? 

There are bacteria all around us.  Natural yeast lives in the air, this yeast got into the dough the baker left overnight and started feeding on the natural sugars in the flour.  As it fed on the sugars it gave off carbon dioxide and lactic acid.  The carbon dioxide caused the bread to rise and the lactic acid gave it more taste, a slightly sour taste.  Hence, ‘Sour Dough’.

The flour and water mix is what we call the ‘starter’.

As the starter is left for longer and ‘fed’ more water and flour it becomes stronger, has greater leavening ability and develops more taste.    

This technique of making bread was used for centuries around Europe and developed in America around the time of the Gold Rush.  Rumour has it that today, some bakeries in San Francisco are using starters from this period over 150 years later.

A starter has to be fed regularly and looked after.  It’s a labour of love and some people talk about their starter as one of their children.  It’s not quick to do, it requires patience and experimentation.  So, why bother making Sour Dough bread?

The answer is it tastes amazing.  Once you have made your own loaf of Sour Dough you will compare all other breads to it.  More than that, it puts us in touch with an ancient art and helps us understand the real artisan skills of the baker. It is retaking control of the food we eat and moving another step away from the mass produced and banal supermarket culture of ‘quick and easy’ over quality.  How can we not have time for that?

Researching how to create a starter I have read a wide variety of different methods and recipes. 

This one worked for me.


I must credit The Ballymaloe Cookery school at this point as the proportions have been developed by them over many years.  Thank you Ballymaloe!

Take a large non metallic bowl or jar.  Yeast doesn’t like metal.  Put it on a set of electric scales and add 50g of strong flour or ‘baker’s flour’. 

Add 50g of good quality water such as bottled mineral water or well water.  Don’t use tap water as the chlorine will not be good for the starter.

Give this a good mix with a wooden spoon to a paste. 

Cover this with cling film and leave for 24 hours at room temperature.   

Two important points here…

  1. 100% hydration.  You need to have the exact same weight of flour and water.
  2. Leave it at room temperature.  Not in the fridge yet and don’t add extra heat such as leaving it next to the radiator.

I repeated this process every day for 6 days. 

  • Return to the scales
  • 50g of flour
  • 50g of water.
  • Mix
  • Cover

As the yeast feeds it gives off bubbles which you can see on the top of the starter.  It also gives off a lovely yeasty, beery and sourish smell.  Not to everyone’s taste but I love it. 

My starter on Day 5

It’s important to get to know when your starter is at its most active.  Quite simply, when you feed your starter and it is eating the sugars in the flour it is active.  When it has fed on the sugars it becomes quieter and settles down.  It becomes dormant.  It reactivates again when you feed it.  This means that you can leave your starter in the fridge for weeks at a time and simply reactivate it by feeding. 

When you come to make your loaf of bread you need to use the starter at its ‘active’ stage not dormant, another reason to know your starter’s activity pattern.  This naturally changes in different environments depending on temperature and humidity especially. 

Time to begin the loaf.

Day 1

Put 230g of starter into another bowl and add 120g of water and 120g of flour.  Mix, cover and leave overnight. 

Day 2

In the morning add another 120g of water, 120g of flour, mix and cover.  2 – 4 hours later it should be bubbly and ready.  This is called the ‘Sponge’. 

You are looking for the time when the yeast is active or ‘feeding’ on the sugar in the flour.  This is when you will get the best bread. When it has fed on the sugars it becomes more dormant and you won’t get the best from your starter. 

To test if it is ready put a teaspoon of the starter into a bowl of water.  If it floats, it’s ready.

The next kneading stage can be done by hand or in a decent mixer with a dough hook.  I used the mixer as it was available at the cookery school.

Put the bowl from the mixer onto your scales.


340g of your sponge
200g of water

Mix together well.  Then add…

20g      rye flour
5g        fresh wheat germ
70g      malted or granary flour
230g    strong white flour
10g      salt

Mixer with dough hook

The rye, wheat germ and granary are there for flavour and these quantities are Ballymaloe’s.  If you don’t have them you can replace the same quantity with strong white flour instead or develop a combination yourself.

Put the dough hook into the mix and turn it on to just bring the dough together.  Then allow to rest for up to an hour if you can but at least 30 minutes. 

Then turn on the mixer at its lowest setting to begin with.  It is possible to ‘break’ the gluten at this stage if you mix too vigorously so start very slowly and increase the speed gradually.

It is ready when the dough comes away cleanly attached to the hook and there is nothing left on the sides of the bowl.  This should be around 8 to 10 minutes but it could be longer.

This can be done by hand kneading – Just add 100g of water at the start and gradually incorporate the rest little by little while kneading.  Dipping your hands in the water is a good way.

Put the dough into a bowl, cover and leave to rise until doubled in size.  This could take 6 – 8 hours. I put mine in the fridge and left it overnight.

Put your dough onto your work surface.  Don’t flour it!

Fold over the dough as if you are closing a book to trap some air.  Leave it.  Do this 3 or 4 times every 15 minutes so it has rested for about an hour. 

Line a bread basket with a well floured tea towel.

Shape your dough into a ball, put into the tea towel lined basket, put this into a plastic bag and return to the fridge, preferably overnight.

Finally, pre heat your oven as high as you can get it – preferably 250 degrees C.  If using a fan assisted reduce to 230 degrees.

Take the dough out of the fridge and let it rest for 20 minutes.  

Turn it gently onto a floured baking tray.  Very gently score three lines on the top to aid an even rise.  Just use the weight of the knife and don’t score too deeply.

10 minutes at 250 degrees C then reduce to 230
10 minutes at 230 degrees C then reduce to 200
20 minutes at 200 degrees C

Ovens vary greatly.  You may need more time in the final stage.  Your bread is ready when it sounds hollow when you give it a firm tap.  It should also feel ‘light for its size’. 

Once again, thanks to Ballymaloe for all the inside information on Sour Dough!

I’ll keep you posted on how the first batch from my Ukrainian starter works out.

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