Sourdough, from the beginning

When you have made sourdough bread you have returned to the dark ages, when bread makers were feeling their way, and strange things happened to the pile of dough in the corner of the cave; the only machines were their arms, and the bread tasted different every time it came out of the coals.

It’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that bread is nothing more than a liquid (usually water), flour, salt, and yeast (and there is plenty of this wild micro-organism hanging around in the air we breath). Sourdough bread relies on its environment, the air that it breathes, for its flavour and structure. You can give it a kick-start on its journey, but once you start, you’re there for the long haul. Treat it like a pet, and you’ll get to love it.

Don’t think of it as time-consuming. Treat it as a hobby. No matter how busy you are, once you get into the routine, you should be able to mix your dough in the morning, allow it to rise all through the day, shape it in the evening, allow it to prove as you sleep, and bake it while you shower the next morning. And so it goes.


½ teaspoon dried yeast

½ cup water, at room temperature

enough unbleached white flour to bring the above to a sticky mess — If the end result is too solid, add a little more water. You will need about a cup of flour.


1 cup water, at room temperature

1 teaspoon salt

enough flour to bring the starter, the water and the salt to a firm yet sticky, not dry, not wet dough


Mix the yeast into the water, and add the flour, stirring, beating with a wooden spoon until it has come together smoothly. In the beginning, flour and water were left to their own devices to create yeast, but it does take more time than we have got. My mother talks about making yeast with potatoes during the war. That is going a bit far these days. Set aside, covered, in a warm place, for the rest of the day and night.


The starter should be smelling strongly of yeast, should have a spongy, creamy, cratered look. Taste it. It will have a certain sourness. Set aside half for tomorrow, ‘feeding’ it with a little more flour and water until the new is as smooth as was the old. This will be the next day’s ‘starter’.


You can do all this in a mixer, but I prefer to do things by hand until I can do them backwards. So add the water to the remaining starter, stirring until it is well broken up. Add the salt and toss in the flour.


Mix it all together in a bowl until it gathers into a ball. Be tough with it — all you have to concern yourself with is its consistency. It must be firm, but not dry; sticky, but not wet. You’ll get to know exactly the right consistency, and then it will be like riding a bike.


Now knead it any way you like. With your palm, your elbows, your nose, your feet. Just knead it until it really feels strong. You are working in pockets of air by the process of compressing and folding and bringing the gluten into orderly lines, untangling the inner mess that occurs when the water meets the flour. The gluten is happy when the dough gets stiff, is harder to work, and takes on a smooth, almost glistening surface, something like a baby’s botty. Work it into a ball.


Rising time. Leave the dough covered, in a warm place, to rise. It will take most of the day. For this dough, the longer the rise the better.


The dough should have doubled, filled with carbon dioxide, and produced lovely yeasty smells, some time around darkness. If you leave it too long, never fear, just punch it down and start again. You can re-knead at any time. If all is well, punch it down, knead it briefly (it will be easier this time), shape it, and put it in the tin in which you will bake. Again it will be smooth, glistening. Place in a warmish spot, uncovered (a flavoursome crust is formed), and leave overnight to rise.


Heat the oven to 210°C as soon as you wake. Toss the bread in and bake for about 30 minutes. The bread is done when it sounds hollow to the tap.


Before you shower, start the process again with the starter you kept aside (from step 2 above). Don’t be tense. You won’t be late for work. On the way to the office, think of the smells you experienced, the potential creativity you have in your hands, and think of your starter as a friend of mine does. ‘It’s like the cat,’ he once said. ‘You can’t help caring for it, wondering whether it’s happy, has had enough to eat and drink, and whether it’s growing.’