The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian recipes with a side helping of food politics

sourdough bread


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Over these strange past few weeks I have returned to bread baking, something I have done episodically for years, but which I am now doing routinely.

I create my sourdough loaves and rolls using a sourdough starter, along with flour, salt and water. My bread has no other ingredients. It takes a long time to ferment and prove until it is ready to go into the oven – typically around 24 hours – but my patience is always rewarded by a beautifully textured and tasty loaf.

By contrast, 80% of the bread we eat here in the UK is produced using a much faster process called the Chorleywood Method. The Chorleywood process takes just three and a half hours from putting the ingredients together until the baked loaf is sliced and packaged.

This faster processing time is achieved by adding fractionated fat (typically derived from palm oil) to the flour, along with ascorbic acid, soya flour, emulsifiers, enzymes (to encourage the dough to hold more gas) and an assortment of other additives, then mixing them all together at high speed.

The Chorleywood process also requires much more yeast than traditional bread baking, in order to create a spongier texture.

After mixing, the bread is cut into portions and left to “prove” rapidly – typically for only around ten minutes – before being shaped, allowed to prove for a further 45 minutes and then baked for around 20 minutes.

The flour used to make bread this way is milled at a high temperature to break up its starches. This helps speed up the breadmaking process but also reduces the nutritional value of the bread itself. To compensate for this, most manufacturers add vitamins to the flour to replace those that have been milled out.

Since the Chorleywood method became widely adopted in the 1960s, the UK has seen a huge increase in wheat intolerance, gluten intolerance, yeast intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome.

The emphasis throughout the Chorleywood process is on speed, not quality.

No wonder mass produced British bread is regarded with such disdain by our continental neighbours.

So this is a recipe for a quality artisan-style bread.

I was hesitant about including my recipe as I do not consider myself to be as skilled or knowledgeable as other bloggers on the subject of bread baking. However, after I posted a photograph of some freshly baked sourdough loaves on Instagram a few weeks back I received several requests to share my recipe.

So here it is. It sets out a process I have honed and developed over time, one which consistently delivers bread with great texture and taste. Loaves made this way last for days, and also freeze well.

The process may appear dauntingly long, but taking time to do it properly is the whole point. Plus, you are free to do other things while you wait for the yeast and the gluten to work their magic during the proving stages. And, once you get into the rhythm of baking your own bread, much of it will become second nature.

spelt and rye sourdough loaf

Ingredients
700 g strong plain organic bread flour
100 g organic wholemeal flour
15 g sea salt
400 grams tepid fresh water

for the levain
sourdough starter
plain organic bread flour
tepid water

Method

1. The night before baking your bread, make a “levain” by taking your sourdough starter from the fridge and weighing it. Add an equivalent weight each of flour and of water. Mix well to combine. Leave in a bowl overnight for 12-14 hours at room temperature, covered with a clean tea towel or cling film.

2. The following morning your levain should have an active, bubbly appearance. Take 420 g of this levain for your bread. Of the rest, some needs to go back in the fridge to be used as your sourdough starter for next time. Any remaining levain can be used to make delicious sourdough pizza bases, muffins, crumpets or biscuits (possible future recipes on the blog: watch this space).

3. Place this 420 g of levain in a bowl with the plain and wholemeal flours, the sea salt and 400 ml of tepid water. Bring this mixture together and then knead it, either in a food processor, using a dough hook, or by hand. I use both, starting off with five minutes in the processor and then working the dough by hand, to allow me to get a “feel” for when the dough is ready. To knead by hand, firmly push the dough away from you with the heel of one hand, then fold it back over the top towards you and repeat. Avoid adding too much extra flour during the kneading process as this will make your bread heavy and affect the way it rises in the oven.

4. As it is kneaded, the gluten in the flour begins to add structure and bounce to the dough. Developing the structure through kneading is the key to your bread holding its shape later in the baking process. When it is ready, your dough will feel like a slightly deflated ball beneath your palm. If you think your dough is at this stage, try the “windowpane test“: using both hands hold the dough up by one edge and let gravity stretch it. If patches of the dough near the top become translucent without the dough breaking, then it’s ready. If instead the dough begins to tear, it requires more kneading. For me, this is one of the most crucial parts to get right. Don’t worry about “over-kneading” your dough. Your arms will feel like they are about to drop off well before then!

5. Gently shape your kneaded dough into a ball, place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film or a tea towel (I use – and re-use – elasticated plastic hair cover nets for this purpose). Leave the dough for 3 to 4 hours to roughly double in size. The amount of time needed for this stage will depend on the ambient room temperature. On warmer days I put my bowl of dough on a table or bench in the garden to gently speed up this stage of the process.

6. When the dough has risen sufficiently, tip it out onto a lightly floured surface. Use the tips of your fingers to push down and shape it into a rough square, pushing out any larger air pockets as you do. Take one corner of the dough square and stretch it outwards, then fold that corner back into the middle. Now take a piece of dough next to this and do the same thing, stretching and folding back into the centre. Continue doing this, working your way several times around the dough, until you can feel it has a lovely strong elasticity.

7. Halve the dough and shape each half into a ball. Do this by using the edges of your palms to turn the dough while also gently tucking the edges underneath. Place each ball, smooth side down, into a well-floured proving basket (if you do not have one use a lightly oiled and then well-floured bowl. Constraining the dough in this way will encourage it to expand upwards rather than outwards. Dust the top of the dough well with flour. Cover the proving basket or bowl as before and leave for a further 3 hours or so until the dough has just risen over the edges of the container.

8. Preheat your oven to 230°C (450°F, gas mark 8). Place a baking stone or one or two flat metal trays in the oven. This will be very hot by the time the bread goes onto it, encouraging it to rise well in the initial stage of baking. Place an empty deep roasting dish in the bottom of your oven. When the oven has reached the desired temperature, pour a litre of water into the roasting tray at the bottom of the oven. This will create steam, which also helps the bread to rise and form a good crust.

9. I use a baking paddle to transfer the bread to the oven, but another flat tray will do a similar job. Place a square of baking parchment onto the paddle or tray, then tip your proving basket upside down onto the parchment and gently ease the bread out. Cut lines into the top of bread, using a lame or very sharp knife. This will create deliberate “weak spots” in the bread, so that it will not crack randomly in the oven. Slide the bread, still on the parchment, into the oven. Bake for 30 minutes or until the bread is beautifully brown and crusty, and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack.

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Categories: dairy free, vegan, vegetarian

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23 replies

  1. Great recipe. I’ve been making our bread for years and mostly sourdough for the last eight years. This loaf looks amazing.

  2. I too, have been making bread again after an hiatus of a few years. But the virus lock down has prompted many of us to return to a simpler way of life – and let’s hope we never return to normal. “Normal” is what caused all this in the first place.
    Anyway, my oven broke right at the beginning of lock down and won’t be fixed until this is over, so I had a problem about baking. Answer, Use the slow cooker. I place the dough in a small bowl and wrap it in a towel and then put it in the slow cooker. When the dough has risen I turn the cooker on. It isn’t quite the same but it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

    • I completely agree with you John. Here in the UK some people are physically returning to work, but there is, rightly, much apprehension and mistrust of the government. I really hope people have had sufficient time to think about the kind of world world they want on the other side of this pandemic.

      As for dealing with your bread baking challenges, I am impressed by your resourcefulness!
      Steve

  3. After many many failed attempts (I appear to be the hand of bread doom), I’m hoping to bake tomorrow – will let you know how I go – very interested in making a good pizza base with spare levain. I finally appear to be able to keep a starter going at least…

    • Hi Kate. I’m keeping everything crossed for you for tomorrow! I think the successful starter is a positive omen! Steve🙂

      • So, two questions – one is should I knead in the bowl – apols if that’s blindingly obvious? And two, roughly how long to knead it to window pane stretch? I’m nearly an hour into kneading, still not there, and the enjoyment is ebbing fast, even though it is resembling what I think it should look like… thank you! 😀

  4. Also, because it’s taking me so long to knead it to the right place, it’s becoming a bit tacky again, I presume because my hands are warm? My left arm will be like Popeye at this rate!

    • Well, they’re in – gotta love a bit of trial an error science!

      • Hi Kate. So sorry for not spotting your comments earlier.

        No, you shouldn’t be kneading in the bowl but on a flat board or work surface. I work my dough in the mixer for five minutes (a full five minutes), then by hand for about another 10-15. It certainly shouldn’t need an hour, but I guess doing it for that long won’t hurt the dough and is cheaper than a gym membership!

        Let me know how it comes out. Steve

  5. Ha – they’re out – and not looking awful! Don’t apologise – I’m all about experiential learning, and these are the closest to a proper sourdough loaf I’ve ever got – I’m optimistic – will post pics on your FB page (BrightonBelle) 😉

  6. Steve, so you start your kneading in a mixer? Is the dough not too sticky? I am going to try your recipe next time. Thanks for posting.

    • Hi Dina.

      I use a mixer at the start simply out of personal preference, just to bring all the ingredients together and start off the kneading process. You can do it all by hand if you prefer.

      The dough is wet and sticky to begin with. This is because the gluten, which gives the dough its elastic, stretchy quality, needs to be built up through the process of kneading. This takes time, and it’s important to resist the temptation to keep adding extra flour at the wet and sticky phase because this will impair the ability of the loaf to rise fully in the oven.

      Good luck, and do let me know how you get on. Steve 🙂

  7. Thank you for posting this. I am looking forward to you having time to put your recipe for sourdough crumpets on!

  8. This loaf of bread looks awesome, can’t wait to read more of your recipes 😀

  9. Lovely post, The Circus Gardener. The Chorleywood method hardly makes for pleasant reading but thank you for exposing it as the root cause of what is passed off as bread in much of the British Isles! Your loaf is clearly in a different league 🙂

  10. This bread looks fab! Definitely inspired me to have a go myself. Great blog by the way, so glad I found it 🙂 x

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