My first law exam is tomorrow, so naturally I chose this bank holiday weekend to embark on a project I’ve been meaning to do for years; I’ve finally taken the plunge into the weird, nerdy world of sourdough making. A difficult decision, to create life at this stage in my life, but one I feel I’m finally ready for. I don’t know the exact science behind it, I don’t know what ‘hydration’ means, and I don’t have a mix of 5 different flours that supposedly yields the best bread and costs five times as much as an actual loaf from a London bakery.
This, in my opinion, makes me the perfect candidate to write a guide on it. I won’t overcomplicate it with sourdough jargon, I won’t glaze over minor details or rush through instructions because, scoff, it’s all just instinctive really (it’s not. If it was, we’d see beautiful pillowy fossilised sourdough loaves in the Natural History Museum. The cavemen were shit at bread, so you can be too). Most importantly, I won’t pretend it’s a therapeutic process. The rest of this blog post will demonstrate that it’s far from therapeutic. It’s confusing and tense and it bloody better well be worth it because I’ve been sleeping with a jar of fermenting yeast next to my bed for the last three days and soon it’s going to start smelling.
So, into the first of my sourdough guides: day 1-3
If the loaf is the baby, day 1-7 is the conception and incubation of our sourdough. Except instead of your baby simply growing inside you with no required intervention, you have to watch it, stir it, feed it, potentially move it to a hotter/colder place, and watch it. Actually, day 1-7 isn’t the conception, day 1-7 is having a full blown newborn baby to look after. But don’t let that put you off (I just realised I’m meant to be making this process seem simple and easy, the language of birth and childcare is not going to achieve this).
The first stage requires you to make a sourdough starter – a sort of mini-dough that ferments over a week or so, at which point you take a scoop, mix it in with your other bread ingredients, and bake into a loaf. The starter is made from two components; flour (strong wholemeal or stoneground apparently – I used Sainsbury’s strong stoneground white flour) and water (cold). So far, very simple. Mix 50g flour with 70g water, using either a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula (apparently metal spoons can affect the bacteria in your dough), pour into a big container or jar, cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place.
But here is where the panic sets in. How warm is warm? Do I need to leave the lid off? Will it die in an airtight container? will direct sunlight affect it? If it’s too hot or hold how will it communicate to me that it isn’t happy? It’s a dough, does it even know it isn’t living in its optimum environment? Does it have self awareness? I’m in charge of a life (billions of lives, actually) – am I ready for this?
Googling only made my anxieties worse. I was bombarded by contradicting opinions and techniques on various sourdough forums, like Mumsnet but full of weirdos (Breadnet, possibly more popular and definitely more opinionated). People insisting fervently that NO, you DO NOT put the lid on your starter. But wait, yes, do put a lid on your starter – you can’t let external bacteria get in your jar. Brown residue on top of your starter? Pour it away. Wait, no – don’t pour it away, stir it into the mix. Feed it every day, feed it every three days, stir it four times a day (four – do these people bring their jar of yeasty sludge to work with them? Do they have it by their desk like a decorative plant? ‘Excuse the smell, my starter is particularly yeasty today’…).
Adopting the attitude that ‘every child is different’ and so ignoring the Breadnet brigade, I put my starter in a big kilner jar, brought it up to my room (warmest room in the house, not a clue what the actual temperature is but it’s as good as we’ll get), put a King James Bible (it was on my shelf, and I feel now is a good time to find religion) on the lid so that it would remain covered but not sealed, and left it to do its thing.
I should mention now that my start is called Keith – full name Keith Richards. We have high hopes for Keith.
Very little activity. Straight onto Google to find photos of ‘sourdough starter day 2’ for comparison. Luckily, this is normal.
Now comes the feeding. Much like a baby, or indeed any living thing, the starter requires food. Luckily, unlike a baby, it eats what it’s made of – flour and water. A cannibal baby. Mix 50g of the same flour (Breadnet suggested all manner of different flours for feeding compared to flours for starting but I don’t have a pantry to hold my many varieties of flour) with 50g of water to make a slightly thicker mixture than the original, dump into the kilner or container, mix around a bit with your wooden spoon or rubber spatula, put your bible back on and leave.
12 hours later, still no activity. I feel I can relate to those mum’s who relent that their baby won’t latch onto their boob. Is Keith simply not hungry? Is Keith even alive? Was Keith ever alive?
FOAMY. GURGLING. BUBBLES.
He’s alive, he’s feeding, and what’s more, there’s no brown beery residue on the surface, as my guidebook had warned against. Keith is a healthy, young, active starter, and I am a very proud mother. Time to get myself a Breadnet account and start preaching that an open kilner jar with a bible on top right next to your bedside is the only way to go.
Today I’ll be feeding him the same lunch of 50g flour and 50g water, giving him a little stir and leaving him to continue thriving.
What a whirlwind. What a journey. Lesson to be learned from my bread endeavours so far: bread know-it-alls are the culprits of perceived sourdough inaccessibility. Much like parenting a real infant (though I suspect this may be a wild underestimation of what actual parenting consists of) ignore the hoards of Breadnet warriors overcomplicating the mixing of flour and water, and you too can have a thriving three-day-old Keith (actually, this is a wild underestimation of what parenting is. Don’t feed your children a mixture of flour and water, I doubt they’ll thrive like Keith). We’ll see what happens in the next installation of The Sourdough Guide by Someone Who’s Never Made Sourdough, but for now, we’ll end on a high.
That was quite a long post, so I’ll keep today’s recipe short (although the sourdough is technically a recipe, I’ll hold fire on a proper one until I’ve actually made a successful loaf from it). This black rice salad, like most of my recipes, is tweakable depending on what veg lies in your fridge. Make sure you taste your dressing and adjust to your liking – it took me a few times to get the tang and spice that I wanted.
Black rice salad with roasted radishes, charred sugarsnap peas and a hot and sour dressing for 2/3
100g thai black rice (I have no idea if it’s actually 100g because I play by eye, so as much rice as you’d normally make for 2/3)
1 pack of radishes
2 spring onions
1 pack of sugarsnap peas
Handful each of frozen peas, broad beans (shelled) and edamame (shelled), blanched
Handful of mixed seeds and cashew nuts
Handful of mint and coriander leaves, roughly chopped
For the dressing:
1 small hot chilli (or more, to taste)
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp fish sauce
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- Preheat the oven to 180C. Boil the kettle and put your rice on to cook – it should take about 20/25 minutes. Meanwhile, half any particularly large radishes and throw them all into a roasting tin. Drizzle with oil and season with salt and pepper before putting in the oven to roast for 20/25 minutes.
- Heat a frying pan on medium and toast your nuts and seeds until popping and brown. Remove and put into a bowl, before turning up the heat, adding a little oil to the frying pan and adding your sugarsnap peas. Fry until charred on both sides, before tipping into a big bowl, along with the blanched peas, broad beans, edamame, spring onions, mint and coriander.
- Whisk together all the dressing ingredients and adjust to taste.
- When the rice is done (it will still have bite, much like red rice), drain, rinse with more boiling water, drain well again and add to the bowl of veg. Once the radishes are blistered and soft, add them to the bowl, and pour in the dressing. Toss the salad around to mix everything in, before sprinkling the seeds on top.