I’ve been a baker for 15 years and the reality is: sometimes my sourdough is a rip-roaring success and other times I shape the loaf, turn my back and the next time I look at it, it’s almost a puddle.
Now I have almost every expert book ever written on sourdough, plus another 10+ with sourdough recipes in them. And despite the fact that I have many customers happily buying my bread, I still have never really felt as though I’ve nailed it.
The problem I find with many expert books is that, in detailing their vast knowledge, the authors seem to confuse me. And the more books I look at, the more confused I get!
The recipes just look complicated. I’ve read about beginning a starter (which I’ve done rather well), I’ve read about making the dough (that I have also achieved with some success).
What I want is a recipe in simple English that I can read quickly and follow easily.
The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard is one of my very favourite books – I also have Short & Sweet. Dan’s a bit of a hero of mine. So, when I saw an ad for his course at the Cookery School on Little Portland Street, I immediately reserved a place, even though it meant I would no longer be able to claim that I’m an entirely self-taught baker!
We arrived to find the starter ready for us to use. The pot of bubbly flour and water had been refreshed (or fed) the day before by throwing half of it away and topping it up again with flour and water (in equal parts) and leaving it to ferment.
Dan says that if you do this often enough you can’t fail to attract the yeast you require, as a bag of flour is bound to contain some of the right bacteria.
All we had to do was to mix the starter with tepid water – and I was delighted to get my hands in. We followed Dan’s lead as well as his instructions, adding flour, a little yeast (as we didn’t have time to wait for it to prove), and at varying stages we added salt, and flavourings to make three loaves – a basic white sourdough loaf, focaccia and a dill and turmeric loaf.
The most important thing that Dan taught us was how to fold the dough. I tended to try and shape my dough in the same way that I do regular yeasted bread. But sourdough is so much softer that this seems to almost impossible. The key, according to Dan, is to get some olive oil on your hands and then literally fold the dough: you fold it over itself and make a quarter turn and fold it again. Do this at regular intervals during the proving process and then leave the dough to develop before it hits the oven.
Blimey – if I’d known all those years ago that all I had to do was to STOP trying to knead the dough but rather to FOLD it, I fancy I may have nailed sourdough some time ago.
The morning was full on – learning, mixing, folding, bringing the doughs together. The afternoon was way more relaxed and, as our bread cooked, we had loads of time to ask questions. It was brilliant to get to know Dan and his husband David, who greeted us wearing a sling, although that didn’t seem to stop him!
At the end of the day, I came away with my loaves, a bag full of goodies (including a bread scraper and some lovely Shipton Mill white flour), instructions on how to construct a loaf, from making your starter through to how to shape it and a warm and fluffy feeling at having met my hero. He really was a cracking chap – it was a constructive day and I learnt loads.