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Making and looking after a sourdough starter

Making sourdough bread can be incredibly rewarding and the bread can be incredibly delicious. When a loaf goes right you will always want just one more piece of bread for your dinner or one more piece of toast for your breakfast and you will have to force yourself to walk a suitable distance away from the bread board.

Sourdough can also be frustrating. Although, do not let that statement put you off. Part of the pleasure of sourdough is that it presents a challenge. Relax about it, don’t worry if the loaf you have made isn’t perfect, next time it will be better and the next time after that.

There are a number of factors that affect the fermentation of the dough, including the weather – it will react differently on a warm day to a cold day. The biggest factor though will always be the health of your starter and if you can get that right then your loaf will always be good and sometimes it will be great. Again, my advice is to relax about it. It really is very easy, if you have been given a starter then you can keep it in the fridge form the get-go. If you are starting from scratch then it will need your attention for a few minutes twice a day for the first five to ten days, after that it too can live quite happily in the fridge only needing your attention the day before you want to bake.

Three sourdough starters
Three vigorous starters. White at the bottom, wholemeal in the middle and rye at the top.

Starting a sourdough starter:
TIPS:
Use organic flour to get your starter off to the best start. Organic flour will have more yeasts and good bacteria in it than a flour that has been treated with pesticides and fungicides.
Tap water is fine to use, unless you live in an area that has highly chlorinated water. In the UK, our tap water is acceptable to use. If you really want to, you can use spring water, but I have always used tap water.
The yeasts work best when oxygen is freely available to them so stir your starter regularly to give the yeasts an oxygen boost.
You can choose which flour you use in your starter but I would recommend that you start with wholemeal rye flour as this will be the most vigorous. In the photo above I have three different starters, this is only for the purposes of my sourdough courses. You only need to maintain one and you can change it from one flour to another by giving it a refresh. If you wanted to change a rye starter to a white starter then take 1 tablespoon of rye starter and add 100g white flour and 100g water and stir briskly and leave to rise for 6-8 hours. You can then use it or repeat to build up a stronger white starter.
Day 1
In a small pot mix together 25g organic flour (your choice of white, wholemeal or rye) and 25g water. Give it a brisk stir. Cover lightly and keep in a warm place. Not too warm, anything over 55℃ will kill the yeasts, so don’t keep it on the back of a warm oven. Leave it for at least 8 hours or for 24-48 hours, stirring every so often. It may develop a few bubbles, this is unlikely to be the yeasts yet, so don’t worry if these bubbles disappear the next day.

Day 2
Add 25g flour and 25g water and give a brisk stir. Cover lightly and leave again for at least 8 hours and for as long as 48 hours. Stir it a couple of times during this period.

Day 3
Add 25g flour and 25g water and stir. By the end of the day you should have some bubbles appearing. Don’t worry if you haven’t keep persevering. Your starter won’t be ready for use yet and will have an unpleasant smell. 

Day 4 
If your starter is now becoming too large you can discard half of it. Add another 25g flour and 25g water. Stir briskly to incorporate air.  

Day 5
Add 25g flour and 25g water. By the end of this day your starter should now be bubbly and vigorous. It should no longer smell unpleasant, but have a hint of sweetness and a smell like apple cider vinegar. If it is like this you can use it to make your first loaf. If it hasn’t developed the fruity smell and still seems a bit lacklustre with few bubbles then keep giving it a daily dose of 25g flour and 25g water and stirring vigorously a couple of times a day. (My first starter wasn’t ready until day nine). It will take longer if your kitchen is cool, for example.

Once it has developed that pleasant fruity apple cider vinegar smell you need to give it a good boost.  It has spent the last five to ten days being weakened by acidity and enzyme activity so now, to get it ready for making a loaf, add at least three times its weight of flour and water at a hydration rate of 67%. So discard all but 50g of the starter and add 150g of flour and 100g of water. Give it a brisk stir. 

Once it has rested at room temperature for at least six hours it will be ready to use.

How to maintain your starter:
Now you have a mother starter. You can now keep this perpetually.
I keep my starter in a plastic jug with a piece of clingfilm draped over the top. The clingfilm keeps any dust out of the starter. Every couple of weeks I decant the starter into a clean jug so that I avoid having crusty bits of starter up the sides as this is where bad bacteria will be given a helping hand to breed. By using a jug I can better see how well it is rising after each feed. Do not keep in an airtight container. It will build up pressure when fermenting and the pressure will have no way of escaping and the container may explode.

Unless you are using your starter three or four times a week to bake then my advice is to keep it in the fridge most of the time. Once you have an established starter it will happily slow its fermentation down in the fridge and then you can give it a boost to wake it back up the day before you want to bake again. This method reduces waste and minimises the amount of time you have to spend to maintain your starter. If you leave your starter at room temperature you will have to feed it daily to keep it healthy and then you will have to discard half each time you feed it. Discarding so much flour can become frustrating and expensive.

Once you have a healthy, active starter and it has got all vigorous and bubbly then pop it in the fridge. Remember to label it or a family member might throw it away mistaking it for something else. This does not lead to happy family relations!

The day before you want to bake your next loaf bring the starter out of the fridge. My starters have sat happily in the fridge for three weeks or more, so don’t worry if you have been away on holiday or not had time to bake, your starter will wait for you. Have a look at the starter. If there is a black mould sitting on top, this is bad news. You will need to throw it away and start again. If there is a liquid hooch sitting on top (a bit grey and smelling very vinegary) that’s fine, strain it off and discard. Most likely, the starter will have grown a crust or skin. Take a clean spoon and lift this off the top and discard. Underneath you will have a soupy mixture which was the same colour that the starter was when you first put it the fridge. Discard all but a couple of tablespoons. Add 100g flour and 100g water and give it a really brisk stir. Leave at room temperature for 6-8 hours and it should have become bubbly and vigorous. If it still seems lethargic, repeat by discarding all but a couple of tablespoons and adding 100g flour and 100g water. It should double in size. It is then ready to use in a recipe and pop the unused portion (always remember to keep back at least 1 tablespoon) back into the fridge for next time.

I hope this helps demystify the process of starting and maintaining a sourdough starter. If you have any questions please feel free to get in touch.

Ludlow Food Festival Sept 7th, 8th & 9th

If you are wondering what you should do this weekend then I definitely recommend you consider getting to Ludlow for its food festival.  I went along to give a Talk and Tasting last year, and it had been a few years since I last went along and I was amazed at how much there was to see and do.  This year there is a full programme of chefs and food writers on the Wot’s Cooking Stage and the Graeme Kidd Stage. There is the Fire Kitchen Stage, the Talks and Tastings, the Aardark Festival Bookshop talks, coffee masterclasses, Slow Food Taste Workshops, chocolate tastings and so much more.

If you would like to see me, and please, do come along and say hello, I will be in the Bake In Time tent in the Outer Bailey. I will be doing my thing on the Friday (12.30-1.30pm and 3.15-4.00pm), Saturday (12.30-1.30 and 3.15-4.00) and Sunday (12.30-1.30).  I am in a tent with Howard Middleton, Sandy Docherty and  Val Stones, all from the Great British Bake Off, and then me.  I will be trying to fill Rob Swift’s boots for the  three lunch time sessions (get yourselves to his bread stall, Bread2Bake, to stock up), so do come along and give me a wave.

 

Why make your own bread?

The answer to the question ‘Why make your own bread when you can buy it at every supermarket for about 70p a loaf?’ could be answered in many ways.

I could go on about how therapeutic bread making is. It is no coincidence that many organisations helping people that are facing social exclusion or struggling with mental health issues or are  being rehabilitated during or after their prison sentence are using bread making as part (or indeed the very crux) of their strategy. You can read more about this at The Real Bread Campaign. I find the process of bread making very relaxing. It’s not only the physical kneading (which I rarely do as I prefer to stretch and fold my dough in the bowl), but it’s also the fact that it is goal based. You have to keep going back to it, checking it, folding it, shaping it, baking it and then waiting patiently for it to cool. Whatever else might be happening in your day, your bread is there, needing attention, drawing you back to it and requiring your focus, even if for just a few minutes at a time.

I could mention how satisfying it is to feed your family with bread that you have made. I love putting a good loaf on the table and watching people tuck in.  I cannot tell you how satisfying it is to have my children (now in their teen and pre-teen years) eat my bread. For many years they have resented the home made bread and wished that I would buy them a sliced white loaf. Now, finally, they will eat and enjoy my bread, even my sourdough (as long as I tell them that it is white bread), they look at me suspiciously knowing that I am stretching the truth (it’s normally sourdough made with mostly white flour but with wholemeal added in for good measure) but they do, mostly, eat it.

But what I really want to mention is that homemade bread is made up of the ingredients that you choose to use. It has three (sourdough bread) or four (yeasted bread) basic ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast. Then you can choose to add olive oil, butter, eggs, milk, sugar, dried fruit, olives, walnuts, tomatoes, onions, etc, etc.  You can choose the flour.  You can choose flour from your local mill, or a mill that stone grinds it flour, or flour made from a heritage wheat, or organic flour, or wholemeal flour, or seeded flour, or granary flour. You can choose which yeast to use, fresh (100% chemical free), active dried (with emulsifier) or easy bake/instant (with emulsifier and ascorbic acid).

If you do buy a loaf then buy it from a bakery that cares. Ask your baker how long the bread is fermented for? Whether they use pre-ferments? Whether they use natural sourdough starters, fresh yeast or easy bake?  If they can answer your questions, and you like the answers, then buy your bread from there. If they can’t give you an answer then they have probably bought the bread from one of the big factories frozen and ready to bake by them.

If you buy from a supermarket have a look at the label. If it is baked in-store then it might only have the essential allergens noted, as that all labelling law requires. If that’s the case then take a look at their online store. That  can give you a lot more information, depending on the supermarket.  I did that this morning. I looked at one of the UK’s biggest supermarkets’ online grocery store and found their unsliced Crusty White Farmhouse Bread, which they describe as ‘scored and with a light flour dusting for a rustic finish’. This is the bread that you buy from the Bakery shelf and it is baked in-house in their larger stores (that might mean from scratch baking or baked from frozen, depending on the supermarket and the size of the store). Here is the list of ingredients for that particular loaf:

Wheat flour, Water, Yeast, Processing Aid – (Calcium Sulphate, Rapeseed Oil, Water, Soya Oil, Calcium Silicate, Enzymes, Thermally Oxidised Soya Bean Oil interacted with Mono- and Di- glycerides of Fatty Acids, Silicon Dioxide) Salt, Rapeseed Oil, Spirit Vinegar, Emulsifiers (Mono- and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids, Mono- and Di-Acetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Mono and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids), Sugar, Wheat Gluten, Soya Flour, Flavouring, Palm Oil, Flour Treatment Agent (Ascorbic Acid).  

I am not a food scientist (or any kind of scientist) so I don’t understand what most of these more scientific sounding ingredients are, which is rather my point*. If I can eat bread that doesn’t contain unnamed enzymes and Mono- and Di- Acetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Mono-and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids, then I think I will continue to make and eat that bread rather than subject my stomach to this cocktail of scientifically produced food.  *(I have googled some of these ingredients and the details of what I found are at the bottom of this post if you are interested to find out more).

The bread available from the large industrial bakeries is made with efficiency and economics in mind rather than any health or, indeed, taste benefits. It’s made with speed. This means that you don’t benefit from the long fermentation that homemade bread or bread from a good bakery can offer. Proper fermentation increases the digestibility of bread.  Industrially and speedily made bread is harder to digest. They have to add all of these processing aids, enzymes, chemicals and extra gluten to get that soft, well risen loaf because they don’t have the time for that to happen naturally with a good, long fermentation.  Manufactured bread has very little to do with proper bread making and a lot to do with producing a cheap food stuff that has little nutritional value and is difficult to digest. There is an interesting short podcast about industrial bread and the history of the Chorleywood Bread Process on the Eat This Podcast site.

If you really don’t want to make your own bread, or think you don’t have the time, then there is some good bread available out there at local bakeries or that can be purchased online from some of the bigger artisan bakeries and if you do buy supermarket bread then make sure you do some research first. Have a look at their online store and check the list of ingredients.  There are a few offerings out there that don’t have added enzymes, emulsifiers and chemicals.  Whilst I was checking the ingredients of that first loaf described above I checked the other loaves available at the same supermarket and you can buy an Ancient Grain Bloomer that has only natural ingredients listed. It’s more than twice the price of the first loaf, but you get what you pay for.  Beware of their sourdough though, a sourdough loaf should be long fermented and contain only flour, water and salt. Theirs contains Ascorbic Acid and a Non-Declarable Processing Aid (Enzymes). Although some credit must go to them for declaring the non-declarable processing aid, as many others don’t. In fact, in comparison with other supermarkets this one is much more open with their labelling than some of the others. Other online grocery stores do not declare the full list of their ingredients of their freshly baked range, listing only the allergens.

If you choose to buy bread rather than make it at home, then please buy wisely. Do your research, ask what is in it and how it was made. Your stomach will thank you for it.  But my advice is get your hands stuck in and make your own, your stomach and your general well being will thank you for it.

* I googled some of the ingredients and if I am honest it gave me a headache trying to understand what some of these are and how they are produced, but from my very limited layman’s interpretation I have set out what some of them are:

Mono and di-gycerides of fatty acids, also known as E471 are extracted from mostly vegetable oil but sometimes from animal fats hence The Vegan Society warns that vegan and vegetarian consumers should be careful when this is listed in the ingredients. It may also be made from pork fat, so is a consideration for those who for religious or cultural reasons do not eat pork. The oil or fat (normally hydrogenated soybean oil) is heated with glycerol and the mono and di-glycerides are synthesised.  Their purpose in the loaf is to act as an emulsifier and anti-staling. Their addition improves loaf volume and texture. (In a home-made loaf both volume and texture can be obtained with proper gluten development and fermentation and staling is delayed with proper fermentation).

Calcium Sulphate is mined from limestones and added as an anti-caking agent (reducing lumps in the dough when liquid is added), dough strengthener and stablizer.  (Good mixing will get rid of any lumps and proper gluten development and fermentation will strengthen the dough in a home made loaf.)

Calcium Silicate is produced from lime, hydrochloric acid and sodium silicate and is used as an anti-caking agent.

Ascorbic Acid is vitamin C by another name. It improves the loaf volume and texture and reduces the rising time of the loaf.  The vitamin C will not have any nutritional value as it is too small an amount to make a difference to your daily requirement; it is in a less complex form than that found naturally in foods and is mostly baked out.  Ascorbic acid is an ingredient in easy bake/ instant yeast so if you are using this yeast you will also be adding this into your homemade loaf.  If you want to ferment your loaves for a longer time then having ascorbic acid in the mix can cause the loaves to over ferment and the gluten to become too weak. To avoid this use dried active yeast (follow the instructions to hydrate in water before use) or preferably, fresh yeast.

You can find out more about additives in industrially produced bread at The Real Bread Campaign.

The Veg Patch Loaf Project Instalment 7

Well, the wheat ears are ripening. We have had the driest summer since the 1960’s (or so they tell us on the telly) and the parched grass is certainly evidence of that. We watered the wheat sparingly at the beginning of its growth and it hasn’t had a water for a few weeks now. We have been lucky to have had a few rainstorms during a few nights in the last couple of weeks which has just about kept the garden ticking over.

Wheat ears ripening

I am wondering if we will ever get to harvest the wheat though. This dry weather has meant there is very little food for the deer that roam locally and the other night they found our borlotti beans and stripped them off to as far as they could reach.  As soon as I discovered this I reinstated the collie disruption mechanism , now renamed the deer disruption mechanism. I seriously doubt that it will really stop a hungry, marauding deer, but it makes me feel a little more reassured that I might yet harvest enough for a loaf. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Wheat in garden

The wheat on 24th July 2018

Veg Patch Loaf Instalment 5 – the first ear!

Well, exciting news. Richard was checking over the tomatoes this morning and spotted the first ear to emerge. If you look very closely you might spot that the one next to it is about to do the same (this will only work if you squint at it a lot as it is mostly covered by a leaf).

The first ear emerges.

The first ear of wheat emerges, 22 June 2018

This is why I love my job…

komo mill and bread books

The photo above shows the dining table in Veg Patch Kitchen piled with some of the things I love about my job. The list of things I love about this job is long… and includes at the very top these things:

I love meeting new people
I love talking with (and at) people
I love teaching people that it is easy to make bread at home and then hearing from them, that yes it is and that they too are now addicted to making bread
I love feeding people

But as well as these things, teaching people to make bread making feeds my obsessions with reading and research. The books on the table are only a selection of my bread library – I have to keep buying bookshelves.  I have always loved research, the finding out of new things and trying to know everything that there is to know about a subject.  Bread making, whilst it is something that is easy to do at home once you have a grasp of the basics, is also something that you never stop learning about.  You will always have something new happen to your loaf, you will (occasionally) continue to have disasters in the form of frisbee  loaves (they will still taste good though).

My biggest investment in book form was the Raymond Calvel, The Taste of Bread. This is regarded as one of the definitive books on French bread. But, I have to say that if you have read some of the other books on the table (Hamelman and Reinhart, for example) you will already have a firm grasp of Calvel’s theories of bread making and the importance of autolyse (resting time after mixing so that the flour can fully absorb the water) for a good loaf.

There are a couple of books not in this photo that are worth a mention for their influence on my bread making. This journey towards setting up Veg Patch Kitchen would not have happened without Daniel Stevens’ River Cottage Handbook on Bread.  This book with its easy to follow recipes that always work were the inspiration I needed when I was making bricks of bread. James Morton’s Brilliant Bread is another book that I would recommend for those starting out on their bread journey for its interesting recipes that always work.

But if you want to start with sourdough then have a read of Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson and Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast.  These will both guide you through the fundamentals to make a good sourdough loaf.

In amongst the books in the photo above is my Komo grain mill and this item is something that is driving me to do more theoretical and practical research. Using freshly milled grain is different to using flour that was milled several weeks before. The flavour is more pronounced, there has been no time for degradation of the nutrients and, more importantly it mixes differently, it feels different and it responds to fermentation differently. It makes wonderful bread. I am loving the experiments with it and showing the difference between freshly milled flour and bagged flour to my students.

For as long as I remember I have relaxed by reading recipe books. When I was a child it was my mum’s copy of The Dairy Book of Family Cookery that absorbed me, now I have my own copy and my own dinner and tea set of the crockery I fell in love with on page 263 when I was about nine years old (thanks Mum and Dad). I didn’t imagine back then that my love of reading recipe books that would lead to a passion and a career.

 

Ludlow Food Festival

I was invited by Wot’s Cooking to join them on their Talks and Tastings stage at this year’s food festival at Ludlow. The Talks and Tastings was a more intimate affair than the larger chef demo stages, helping the audience to get a bit closer to the action.

The setting couldn’t have been better.

Talks and Tasting stage Ludlow Food Festival

Ludlow Castle is wonderful and if you haven’t visited before and get the chance make sure you take the opportunity. It has wonderful little rooms like this one, which once you pass through that magical door is rather majestic inside. I doubt when it was used as a castle is was quite as majestic as it is now, it was probably poky, smelly, dirty and cold in there, but now, now it is majestic.

Inside were tables and chairs for about thirty people and a small stage up front for the speaker. When I arrived on the Friday I managed to catch some of the talk by the cheese monger from Ludlow Food Centre. He had bought a whole wheel of delicious cheese, which at the end of his interesting talk he used a very large knife to crack open to share samples.

While I waited for my turn on the stage I took a walk around the festival site within the castle walls.  I haven’t been for a few years.  Several years ago I judged the Sausage Trail for a couple of years, but it usually clashes with my eldest daughter’s birthday celebrations so it is a festival we normally miss out on.  I was impressed by how many improvements had taken place.  The flow through the stalls was much better than previous years and there are now several stages of varying sizes where you can take a pew and watch chefs and local food producers doing their thing.  There is certainly plenty to see and do.  I nipped into the Castle tearooms for a quick cup of tea before strolling back to the Talks and Tastings and managed to catch most of the talk by Our Lizzie.  She specialises in teaching vegetarian and vegan food and her quinoa dish sounded delicious, unfortunately I missed out on one of the tasting pots that were handed around.

My talks and tasting was, of course, all about bread making and an attempt to help others catch the bread making bug. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I hope I spread the bread love.

Jon was managing the stage and took this photo of me in action – one day I hope to be photogenic…

Kath Veg Patch Kitchen

Bread basics full day course

If you join us on an all day Bread basics course you will enjoy a whole day devoted to the art of bread making. There will also be plenty of stops for tea or coffee and a delicious lunch too. We normally fit in at least three different breads, including a focaccia, a wholemeal or spelt and a flavoured loaf. I like to tailor each class to the interests of the participants, which is easy to do when there is a maximum of four people in each class.

These are the loaves made on last Saturday’s course. We made spelt loaves using 50% white spelt and 50% wholemeal spelt, a wholemeal loaf with 50% freshly milled Shropshire Soissons grain and 50% stoneground wholemeal from Shipton Mill, a white dough using Shipton Mill Baker’s White which we made into focaccia and a flavoured granary loaf using tomato paste or marmite as the flavour base with 50% white flour, 50% wholemeal and some malted cut rye and Shipton Mill’s Five Seed Blend. selection of loaves made on a bread basics course

A full-day course gives us plenty of time for in-depth conversations about the bread making process and we discuss the use of different yeasts (easy bake, dried active and fresh), the role salt plays in bread making, the consistency of different doughs for a successful loaf, shaping and the importance of getting a good tension when shaping, getting the best out of your oven and lots, lots more.

I love using my Komo grain mill during courses so I can share the flavour impact that freshly milled flour has. I use grain grown in fields in Shropshire and Cheshire.

Komo grain mill

There is a bookshelf crammed with books about breads, so you can browse these over a cup of tea.

Bread library

You take home all of the breads that you have made, a booklet that contains over 20 pages of advice, tips and recipes and a scraper and 10% discount voucher from Bakery Bits.

Booklet and scraper

If you would like to book a place on a future course visit the Ironbridge courses page to see the dates of future courses. I am also very happy to arrange a full-day or evening course for two or more people on a mutually convenient date if there isn’t a date listed that suits you. Feel free to get in touch.

 

Cosford Food Festival Chef Demo stage

The latest festival appearance for Veg Patch Kitchen was at Cosford Food Festival.  I was on the Chef Demo Stage showing the audience how easy it is to make bread at home and sharing my bread making tips. I was with the lovely Wot’s Cooking team again. Here are action shots of me and Mike. I am hoping the expressions show my passion for my subject….

 

I love doing these demonstrations, they are a great chance to share my passion for bread.

My next festival is Ludlow on Friday 8th September. I will be sharing my love of bread at 3pm. I would love it if you came along and said hello.

Kath x