Experimenting with Sourdough

Every sourdough bakery across the land houses a bucket of gently bubbling, slowly fermenting batter made from flour and water. Some bakers call it a culture because much like yoghurt it contains friendly bacteria. I’ve also heard it referred to as sourdough mother or a starter because each and every new loaf is made using some of the original ongoing mix. Whatever you decide to call it, this simple mix is the baker’s supply of fresh wild yeasts. Adding more flour and water every day keeps these yeasts healthy and happy and it also means that the baker never runs out of culture. Bread leavened with a natural culture like this has been made for thousands of years.

Making sourdough involves a series of six or seven short processes with one or two hour interludes. This morning I fed my mother at 9am and again at 11am before going to work, then I left it warming in the sun on a south-facing window ledge. After my shift I checked the starter; it had become bubbly, giving off a sweet fermenting smell.

Starter Starter

I deemed the starter sufficiently active to make bread with, so I put 100g, along with 500g of bread flour, 300g of lukewarm water and 1tsp of salt into the food processor for three minutes, using the dough hook attachment. Alternatively this could be done by hand, mixed in a bowl then kneaded on a work surface. The resulting dough goes into an oiled bowl with clingfilm over the top to keep in the moisture. At 5.30 I put the bowl near the radiator, then I went for a climb.

Just mixed dough Just mixed dough

I got back from the climbing centre aching all over and excited to see how much my dough had risen. I am always slightly awed by the process, after all the only ingredients are flour water and salt. The stringy bits are where the gluten molecules have joined together to form long chains. This network of stretchy protein is then slowly aerated by carbon dioxide; produced as a byproduct when yeasts convert starch into sugar to feed on.

Dough after four hours Dough after four hours

The dough gets stretched over a wiped, oiled table which both stretches the gluten chains and, when carefully folded up again, aerates the dough. Dad stretches each batch of dough twice at Tracebridge Sourdough, but tonight I only had time for the once.

Stretching the dough

Stretching the dough

The dough is folded up and then shaped into a boule as gently as possible; it is important not to knead the dough at this stage. Sourdough is less robust and springy than packet yeasted bread which means that it needs some tlc. At 10pm the boule was ready to go into my swanky silicone bread tin for an hour’s final prove under some oiled cling film. At 11pm I removed the cling and put the dough into an oven preheated to 200 celcius for 40 minutes.

The finished loaf

The finished loaf

Cooling

Cooling

Cross-section

Cross-section

When I peeped through the oven door I found that my dough had grown and developed a beautiful golden crust. It is definitely a long process, but results like this make it worth while!

The Emperor’s new Bread


Sourdough in the oven

Sourdough in the oven

Over a pint in the Fat Cat on Friday, I was told to ‘get off my high horse’ by a friend who had recently read Bread barons on the way out. It made me think how the rise of factory-made bread has banished the artisan baker to the much scorned realm of the middle class. In defence of the artisan baker, who is busy hand-crafting his or her wares as we are tucked up in bed, I would like to set the record straight.

Society has been fooled into demanding the impossible from our bread through an increasing industrialisation of baking and a corresponding distance between the factory-made bread on our supermarket shelves and the age-old traditions of baking.

Even before the dawn of the Chorleywood process, Britain was fast industrialising its bread production. In Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, she describes the factory baking process of 1957; ‘Baking takes place in a 12-sack travelling plate oven, 75 feet long and 8 feet wide and with a capacity of 2,640 loaves an hour’.

In the bread factories of 1957 dough was proofed for at least two hours before being baked. The proofing process in commercially yeasted bread is where one strand of fast acting yeast converts gluten and other carbohydrates into carbon dioxide gas which makes the dough rise. Though the measuring, kneading, shaping and baking were being done by machines, the principles of bread making were the same as those used in small independent bakeries.

Since the Chorleywood process arrived on the scene in 1961, from the mixing of the dough to the final product leaving the oven takes less than 90 minutes. It uses twice the commercial yeast of the methods used in the factories in 1957. The Chorleywood process uses  a mix of chemicals to bully the ingredients into action. While sourdough takes up to 12 hours of proofing, the Chorleywood method uses a fast mixer to speed up the process.

Sourdough Bread

Sourdough bread

Contrast this to the way we have made bread for hundreds of years. The use of sourdough culture in bread makes the bread rise in the same way as commercial yeast, just more slowly. However, the health benefits of using sourdough culture are twofold: firstly, the culture relies on natural air-bourn yeasts, of which there are many different strains. These yeasts are able to break down more carbohydrates in the flour; making the bread easier to digest. Secondly, the presence of naturally occurring bacteria in the culture also means that the bread contains probiotics, which are proven to be good for the health of the stomach.

Rather like a politician who promises great things during the lead up to the election then turns into a tyrant when in power; the Chorleywood process gave Britain the soft white loaf it craved in the post war years. Since then it has reigned unchecked and sales have increased at the same rate as the indifference of the public to the poor quality of the product. We have been fooled by the bread factories of the quality of the ‘boiled wool’ (David, 1977) that passes as bread. All the while we have fooled ourselves as well; ignoring the testimony of our taste buds and the groans of our digestion.

The Chorleywood process accounts for 80% of bread brought in Britain today, but what about that other 20%? With regards to flavour, texture and nutrition, the Chorleywood process today is all together as useless as the day that it was born. The demands of society created the beast, and I believe that if we keep demanding more from our bread then we can slay it once and for all.

Bread barons on the way out

The big British ‘bakers’ such as Hovis and Kingsmill are cutting our bread with crap. I use the term ‘bakers’ loosely because the practice is more like alchemy; in factories across the UK, Hovis mixes flour improvers, preservatives and other E numbers into their dough with little or no regard to the ramifications on the health of the British public. According to the Real Bread Campaign, any ingredient other than flour, water, yeast and salt is ‘by definition, unnecessary’. The Food Standards Agency rules that churned milk and salt are the only ingredients allowed in butter; add anything that doesn’t come from a cow’s udder to a carton of milk and it can no longer legally be called milk. These staples are as pure now as they always have been, so where did British bread go so wrong?

From the customer’s perspective, there is an increasing distance between the way our brains process the food on offer and the way our bodies then process that food. The human body functions best when it receives a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, pulses, grains and lean meant and fish, but the influx of salt, sugar and fat (the fast food trio) into our diet on a daily basis has devastatingly altered our ability to identify what we should be putting into our bodies. Our eating culture has arrived at the point where we are forced to trust the dietary information on the side of a packet instead of trusting our bodies to tell us what they need.

Wholemeal Sourdough Bread

Wholemeal Sourdough Bread

As for where that food is coming from, never has a manufacturer so literally had its fingers in all the pies as Premier Foods, Britain’s biggest food producer. As well as Hovis, brands such as Sharwoods, Oxo and Mr Kipling are owned by this industrial food giant. How is it possible to truly care about the quality of the food you are responsible for when your day is spent in a boardroom desperately trying to manage twenty three different brands and running at a £1Bn deficit all the while? As the recession continues to wrap it’s coils around the country, Premier Foods is showing signs of decline. Michael Clarke, Premier Foods CEO, recently closed two Hovis factories, cutting 900 jobs due to rising wheat prices and falling demand for a product that is increasingly recognised as floppy, tasteless and indigestible.

Sliced bread

Sliced bread made using the Chorleywood process

The deficit that Clarke is trying to reduce indicates that big corporations might not hold the answers to the future success of the British food industry. If half of those 900 newly unemployed bakers find work in small independent bakeries; or even better go on to set up their own bread businesses, it would be a step in the right direction. Small bakeries offer far greater variety than Hovis and, if the principles of the Real Bread Campaign are followed, produce a more nutritional, tastier loaf.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chorlewood process, an innovation that was developed to make a softer loaf that would keep for longer. The process uses twice the yeast of traditional bread and facilitates the production of huge quantities of identical sandwich loaves. This is what the people wanted in the post war years, but now we are demanding both more and fewer from our bread, that is, more quality and fewer ingredients. Chorleywood bread has had its day, the renaisance of artisan bread is at hand.

December at Tracebridge Sourdough

This year I spent the four days leading up to Christmas Eve in Somerset working for my parents’ bakery Tracebridge Sourdough. This was the first time that I have properly shadowed Dad throughout a whole baking day; starting at 6am and finishing at 20.30. Through the windows of the bakery, the daylight hours came and went; but the rain never stopped, and as we rolled and whisked and baked the thought of flooded roads and wet market stalls weighed heavier and heavier on our minds.

On my breaks from mixing, stretching and shaping dough with the head baker, I helped mum weighing out the dried fruit for German Stollen bread and rolling out the 100g pieces of marzipan that get carefully rolled into the centre of each loaf. The rich dough that mum makes bears little resemblance to the first Stollen made in 13th Century Saxony from oil, flour, yeast and water. We have Pope Innocent VIII to thank for that; in 1490 he sent what has become known as the ‘butter letter’ to the Saxon Prince allowing the Saxons to use butter during Lent.

Friday is market day for the bakery. Older brother Tom and I were up at 6 and on the road by 8.15 with a van full of bakery goods and a windscreen covered in condensation. The sky looked heavy with rain, but the deluge held off for most of the day. We are always the last stall to arrive at Minehead Farmer’s Market; due to the produce being baked fresh that morning, and due to the 45 minute drive it takes to get there. On arrival it is a matter of setting up the stall as quickly as possible while serving a steady stream of eager customers at the same time. We smashed the previous record takings for a Friday, having sold everything except for one rye loaf and a few cheddar whirls.

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On the way to Minehead

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Panorama of the market along Minehead High Street

(Ours is the stall with the white flags)

Tracebridge Sourdough price list

Tracebridge Sourdough price list

Christmas Stollen

Saturday allowed us a lie in. 6.30 up in the bakery, making the goats cheese muffins mixture and garnishing each one with pine nuts, basil pesto and more goats cheese! Also making our famous Appley Buns as well as some Christmas cranberry and orange variants; and of course glazing more Stollen! This was for the small market that is developing at Moorish in Wiveliscombe on Saturday mornings. There you can find Will and Caroline Atkinson’s delicious Stawley goats cheese and Biz and Nigel Smith’s farmhouse Touchwood Cider.

When the bread baskets emptied and the flow of customers ceased, we shared a meal to celebrate a successful year of food. Baker, chef, cheese maker cider-maker; looking back on a year of food and drink challenges and looking ahead to the new year and more food innovation to come.