My sourdough is unbeatable… just ask the hammer

Empty shelves (Picture: Getty)

Suddenly everyone is talking about sourdough bread. Well, the chattering classes at least, and I’m a fully paid-up member of the chattering-about-bread classes.

People are sharing photographs of their bread on social media, passing on tips and worrying more about their starter than their relationships.

One woman half-jokingly complained on Twitter that her boyfriend had asked her if she would sleep on the sofa so that he could cuddle up to his sourdough starter at night.

A starter, if you’re not similarly obsessed, is a fermented mixture of flour and water that replaces the yeast in sourdough bread.

That woman’s boyfriend might have been pushing his luck, but his theory wasn’t as far out as it sounds. It is said that when German settlers emigrated to the US, they moved through the Wild West carrying their starters near their stomachs. This kept the starter warm and earned the carriers the nickname of “sour bellies”.

American pioneers also used to carry pieces of old dough buried in flour to reactivate when they next needed to bake.

A sour belly is also a cantankerous person, fitting in a way as trying to make sourdough bread can ruin your mood.

Anyone who always makes their own bread now suddenly finds that everyone is at it. Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, bread flour has been almost impossible to find.

A BBC website report on April 9 explained that nearly all bread flour is sold in bulk, straight to bakers and other food producers, leaving around 4% to be bagged up for shops and supermarkets.

When the lockdown started, everyone went baking mad and flour (and yeast) disappeared off the shelves. Both but are still hard to find but I did ‘score’ three bags from our local branch of Thomas the Baker, after a tip-off from my son. A friend followed my passed-on tip-off but returned flourless.

That BBC report featured Wessex mill, which is now working 24-hours a day to keep up with demand.

Making bread is a way of life for me. And struggling to make good sourdough is a source of frustration. You see, my sourdough is unbeatable in the sense of occasionally being very good; and unbeatable in the sense that often if you beat it with a hammer, the hammer might lose the argument.

Dear me, some of those loaves could be used to build at extension on the kitchen.

That’s why I came up with the sourdough cheat’s recipe: the same as any number of pure recipes, but with a pinch of easy-blend yeast. This works every time, makes loaves of burnished brown, and yet isn’t quite right, often a little too light.

That turns me back to the righteous path and the apron of repentance. I go back to the true sourdough, yesterday baking two tasty but poorly risen loaves. Looked at again this morning, the starter appeared thin, too much water, not enough flour, and that may be the problem; it often is.

Baking bread is calming and pure. Or it is to me now. Years ago, when we had three young kids at home, I was a pain in the arse about bread. Days were built around the baking, arrangements altered to accommodate the next stage of preparation, and so on.

Now I am chilled out, as sometimes is the dough. You can start first thing, leave the dough to rise in the fridge for hours, even overnight, and stop being a bread-headed nuisance.

As for baking the perfect sourdough, always the best sort of bread, I shall keep trying. It’s the holy grail of dough.

The flour shortage is a nuisance, even a worry, but a comfortable sort of worry compared to all the others around. And I do love hearing everyone talking about bread. Chances are I will still be doing that long after everyone else has wandered away in search of alternative conversation.

One comment

  1. Thanks for this Julian. I’m also in the sourdough club and have recently been trying again with mixed results. Yes you really do need a very lively starter I’ve (re-)discovered. I am lucky enough to live within a stone’s throw of the Wessex Mill you mention. They have been working so hard making flour they have little or no time to take orders (their shop is shut, I was about the last customer there); theit online system opens at odd intervals and shuts very shortly thereafter. Fortunately the local bakery in town not only uses their flour but stocks retail quantities and I’ve had supplies delivered by them. I’m trying to make sourdough pizzas today.

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