Sourdough is more than baking, it's like keeping a very demanding pet. Luckily it produces something that is beyond bread. Something very special. Made without commercial yeasts, it instead uses a starter that is kept alive to provide a steady supply of wild yeast and delicious flavours.
A large part of the appeal of sourdough is the thought of the starter, passed down for generations, an heirloom. It is true that an old starter is better. This is simply natural selection: the stronger yeasts survive.
A sourdough starter can be bred in many ways, and when we chose to do it, we tried every technique we could find (alt.food.sourdough being a good source) and played them off against each other. A duel to the death, with the fastest-growing starter getting the chance to form the beginning of a long lineage, and to the rest: death down the sink.
Some involved grapes (the bloom on the skin is yeast), some potatoes, and unfortunately we never recorded which starter the winner came from, but choose one we did, and last I heard it was still going strong, 4 years later. Many have gone on for decades. Your best bet is to find someone willing to give you some starter of theirs.
The starter itself is quite a delicate thing; a fine balance between the yeast and the lactic acid that gives the bread its unique flavour. The recipe i give below is the one we developed and used for two years while I worked in the restaurant. It is for absurdly large quantities, but i thought it would be better to keep them as they are, and they can be reduced as needed. The recipe is arranged as a timetable, designed to have the loaves ready for lunch. It relies on them being made every day. You can skip a day or so, but starting sourdough is a big commitment, and you really must keep going, or the precious starter will die.
This is a truly wonderful loaf. A kind of pain de campagne, I guess, with a great crust, a good open texture, and just the right amount of sourness. It goes beautifully toasted with chicken liver or foie gras parfait. Roasted bone marrow is delicious spread on sourdough toast, if you're not squeamish. Serve these with parsley salad, cornichons, caper berries, onion marmalade and other pickles.
Makes 8 x 1350g (3 lb) loaves.
Mix all the ingredients together in a large mixer until glutinous. Replenish the starter with equal parts wholemeal flour and filtered water. Chlorinated water is bad for the starter. Leave this sponge in a warm place until:
Add these ingredients to the sponge, adjusting the amount of water to acheive the right texture and consistency. Knead well in the machine for around 10 - 15 minutes. Transfer to a very large container, cover with cling film, and leave at warm room temparature until:
Line 8 x 2.5 litre containers, such as ice cream tubs, Tupperware, or special bread baskets, with bread cloths. These can be any cloths that are reserved for this only, and not washed. Dust the cloths with semolina to prevent sticking, and give a nice crust. Scale the dough at 1350g / 3 lb, mould them into loaf shapes, and place into the lined containers, folding the cloths loosely over them. Leave in a warm place, and go home / go to bed / go out.
Up bright and early! Heat your oven to 230° C. Put large metal trays, or preferably ceramic baking stones onto the oven shelves. The oven needs to be very humid, so you may inject steam if you have that facility, or just chuck a load of water onto the oven floor.
Take a bread- or pizza-peel, or just a flat tray, and, one by one, turn out the risen loaves onto it and quickly slash to parallel gashes in the loaves with a razor blade or sharp knife. Carefully slide them onto the oven shelves, replacing some of the loast steam before you close the door each time, to maintain the humidity and get the very best crust.
Bake until well browned: around 45 minutes. When a beatifully coloured crust has formed, reduce the heat to 180°C, and leave the oven door ajar. You are trying to reduce the humidity now, to crisp the crust!
When fully done, with a hollow sound when you tap the base of the loaf, remove from the oven with the peel, and allow to cool on racks.
Repeat every day until you die.
Apologies for the commercial bias and vast quantites: it does take a lot of commitment to attempt these wonderful loaves on a domestic scale. Commitment which I sadly lack, although I did make them every day for years.
Mention of cruel things in this wu does not imply ascorbic condones such practices. However tasty they may be.