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How to Raise a Loaf – and fall in in love with sourdough

I have to confess that in spite of having been on a short bread making course, and having a grandfather who was a master baker, I am really not very good at making bread. But I am getting better and I am desperate to improve.

What was I eating?

Learning to make decent bread has been partly fuelled by necessity. I was getting more and more concerned that the bread I bought from a supermarket or shop was staying ‘fresh’ for so long. How can something made simply from flour, yeast and water still be ok a week or two later? The list of ingredients on bread wrappers began to worry me more and more – they read like a chemistry set, and one which I don’t understand. What was I eating!

When visiting family in San Francisco we always ate the local sourdough loaves from the baker down the road.

I fell in love with sourdough bread. For one thing with its airy texture and chewy crust it was delicious, for another if left – not that it ever was – it went stale quickly. In other words it was proper bread.

Can I cope with sourdough starters?

Back in the UK, and several years later, I began to realise that sourdough bread was gaining in popularity. I toyed with the idea of making my own but the prospect of having to cope with a ‘starter’ didn’t really fit into my way of life, and how did I cope with a living starter when I wanted a different type of loaf, or was away on holiday.

But luckily Roly Allen has come into my life – well, at least I have read his excellent book –‘How to Raise a Loaf – and fall in love with sourdough’.

What do I need?

To be honest I haven’t started baking yet – but it is imminent. In this period of Covid-19 self- isolation I am loathe to ask the wonderful neighbours who help with shopping to spend longer in a supermarket than they need. But they have assured me that a packet of raisins and a tub of natural organic yoghurt is no problem – I have everything else I need in the larder.

Roly is quietly and calmly taking me through the whole process. I only need a clean jam jar (I have loads of them), some salt, water and flour suitable for bread making, but I do need to get hold of some natural yoghurt, and those raisins.

The raisins – 10 to be precise – will introduce natural wild yeasts, and the natural yoghurt will introduce natural lactobacteria (which is also really good for us). I simply mix everything all together, put it in the jam jar and sit back and let nature wave its magic wand.

Natural ingredients work together

Next day I add a measure of water and flour. On day 3 I should begin to see tiny bubbles forming, more water and flour is needed. On day 4 there should be plenty of bubbles – time to remove the raisins and add more water and flour. By day 5 I shall be nearly there – in fact I could actually almost start baking. Some of my starter is ready to be added to the final flour and water which is required for my loaf.

Roly tells me that there is no magic wand – it is actually the combination of biology and chemistry as the ingredients work together which make the starter. I love the way he explains what is happening and why.

To knead or fold?

He discusses the merits of kneading dough compared to folding dough; what equipment is required; the basic recipe – which usefully is fully illustrated at each stage of the proceedings. Further on in the book he discusses things like the different types of starter – vegan, chocolate, rye, and different types of flour. There’s a useful couple of Trouble Shooting pages; and there are suggestions for different sourdough recipes – they look quite delicious.

So now to bake

And I now know that I do not have to spend every day for the rest of my life nurturing the starter and keeping it alive. It will be quite happy sitting unattended in the fridge – even, evidently, for a few years.

My plan now is to ask my neighbours to do my extra shopping please. I want to start raising my own loaf.

How to Raise a Loaf – and fall in love with sourdough. Roly Allen. ISBN: 978-1-78627-578-3. Paperback. £12.99.
Laurence King Publishing laurenceking.com.

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