I started baking my own bread back in 2004. I’d just come back to Australia after 4 years in the Middle East. I’d learnt to enjoy many meals eaten with flat bread. It is almost impossible to buy fresh flat bread in Australia, it is all long life bread. This bread has to be heated before being eaten as it tastes so stale, not to mention the added chemicals to give it the long life.
So I taught myself how to make flat bread. I always used commercial yeast then. It was a few more years before I started experimenting with sour dough, it took a while ( a long while) to perfect the technique. Now it is second nature and I am able to adapt any bread recipe to my sour dough. So if you are starting out, don’t be disillusioned if it doesn’t work out first time around. Persevere and it will become second nature to you as well.
I am not going to go into how to make the starter culture. Your bread will be much more successful if you are able to obtain the culture from someone. If starting from scratch, be prepared that it will be a number of bakes before your bread rises really well.
Making the Sponge
Take your starter culture and mix it with 2 cups of whole grain flour* and 2 cups of water. Leave this until it is foaming. This will take at least 4 hours. I usually do this step just before going to bed and make the dough first thing in the morning.
*This is the best place to use rye flour if you are interested in this. I just use whole wheat.
Making the Dough
First step – take some of the sponge and put it in a jar for the next bake. This is vitally important. I have lost count of how many times I have given people starter and they tell me they made a beautiful loaf of bread and forgot to leave starter for the next bake. Could they have some more from me? Sigh
See starter tips at the end of this post.
Now that you have safely secured the starter for the next time you bake, lets make bread.
To the sponge, add 4 cups of flour and 2 teaspoons of salt. I usually use 2 cups of whole wheat and 2 cups of white wheat. Bring the ingredients together with a large wooden spoon and then use your hands to knead the dough until all the flour is incorporated. Often a little more flour is required here so the dough is not sticky. If your bowl is large enough, you can knead inside the bowl or turn it out onto a floured bench. Knead until the dough feels uniform and smooth.
Flour your bowl and place the ball of dough in, covered with a damp cloth and leave to rise (prove). This is weather dependant and will take longer in cool weather. As I do this first thing in the morning, it is usually risen by about lunch time.
I have seen it written in many places that leaving your dough to prove for 3 days helps the culture to digest the gluten in the flour. If you want to do this, you ought to put the dough in the fridge covered with plastic or a wax wrap.
Making the Bread
Now that your dough has fully risen to at least twice its original size, punch it down.
If you have forgotten to leave starter for next time, this is your last chance to take a ball of dough to keep your starter going. See below for more starter tips.
Now shape the dough into your preferred bread shape. You can use the dough to make bread for a bread tin, leave it as a large round cob, make bread rolls, roll it out to make flat breads, or pizza bases.
Leave the dough in the bread tins until risen to at least double in size again. They are now ready to go in the oven.
Preheat oven to 210C. Place loaves in middle of oven. Bake for 10 minutes. Turn oven down to 190C and bake further 30-40 minutes.
Leave in tins for 5 minutes before turning out onto wire racks to cool.
Once cool, I slice my loaves so they can be frozen. It is easier for my household to take a few slices out of the freezer as we need them. This saves us having lots of stale bread around. Your household may eat it all fast enough! I heard one woman say she had to time the bread coming out of the oven for after dinner when everyone was full to be sure there was any left for breakfast time!
The easiest way to keep the starter going is to remember to take some out at the Sponge stage. If you forget, you can still use a ball of dough and place it in a jar under some water. This is mixed in at your next baking time to form the starter and then used to make the sponge.
I have found that mixing one cup of flour with my sponge and then putting some in a jar for next time ensures my starter has a little bit of extra food to keep it going until next time. I only bake bread once a week or sometimes its 2 weeks. I pour a little bit of water over the back of my wooden spoon into the jar to create a little air lock on top of the starter to prevent unwanted mould growth.