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Keep calm and make sourdough

“Sourdough is for losers!” I exploded, almost cleaning everything off the worktop with the swipe of a balled fist.

There was a throbbing in my temple, my left eye was twitching  as if dancing to a deep house track and a new anger had erupted in  my innards. I was veritably trembling with rage. The dog sauntered by and I nearly lashed out at him. “G’wan you, ya hairy bugger. What-are-you-luckin-at?!” I could feel my face burning but the hound’s forlorn look only made my guts twist with guilt.

My sourdough had failed, dear reader. After 24 hours of intensive care and attention, the loaf exited the oven as flat as a pancake. Where had I gone wrong? The words of the bearded man in the video tutorial came back to haunt me. “Don’t be afraid to fail. It’s all part of the sourdough journey.”

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I seethed. “G’wan you too, ya hairy bugger.”

If this was going to be the way of things: Feeding and kneading and proving and shaping and watching and proving some more only for the bread to come out like a huge, unconsecrated communion wafer, I wanted no part of it.

Maybe it was a nub of pure thran-ness attached to my soul but against my better judgement, I hoked out the recipe and re-read the whole convoluted palaver. Then I read it again, scratching my head and rubbing my twitchy eye. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand where I’d gone wrong. Every part of the process had been, as far as I could tell, perfect. But still the evidence of the flat flan mocked me. “The proof is in the pudding, loser,” it seemed to say.

Sawing off a slice

Thran-ness abounding, I returned to the bearded man in the tutorial. “Even if your bread doesn’t rise very well, it’ll still be delicious,” he suggested.

Seriously? Sure why didn’t you say that before, ya hairy bugger.

Acutely aware that I was supposed to let the bread sit, un-opened until it was cold (sourdough continues to cook when it exists the oven), I unsheathed my big bread knife and started sawing. My thinking was: This loaf was as far away from perfect as it was possible to be so I was hardly going to put it up for sale. I needed – NEEDED – to know if it was going to prove in any way edible.

Sawing off a slice, which admittedly looked bubbly enough inside, almost foccacia-like, I slathered on some soft butter and bit in without delay.

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“Sourdough ith fa winnas!” I mumbled around a mouthful of delicious, buttery sourdough bread. And I was a winner.

Not a crumb of that first loaf went to the bin. After it went stale and beyond the reach of sandwiches, I toasted what remained. And then at the very end, I made croutons from the last un-sliced heel. Whilst it wasn’t exactly magnificent, it was nonetheless, pretty tasty and after all the work that had gone into its creation, I savoured it all the more.

Like so many other amateur cooks and bakers, I used this past lockdown to embark on the sourdough journey. After that first botched loaf which was eaten nonetheless, I have gradually come to know the road to and from the sourdough destination. Each of the subsequent loaves have been better than the last and to date, me and my sourdough starter can knock out the perfect loaf with only a day’s notice. We make traditional loaves, foccacia, baguettes, rolls and even pizzas and I can honestly say I’ve never been more in love with bread.

Jackpot of a loaf

Regular readers of this garbled mess will know I cook and eat A LOT. I try and take joy and satisfaction from simple things like a salted tomato or a soft-boiled egg with a knob of butter. But from my experience with sourdough baking, there is little to compare with the satisfaction of cracking open the oven to be met with a well risen, glistening jackpot of a loaf. Actually, one of my new favourite sounds is the cracking a loaf makes when I set it onto a cooling rack. It’s like the snap, crackle and pop of rice krispies only much more wholesome and beautiful.

It’s as if all the effort, patience, timing and caring for the sourdough starter and the subsequent doughs translates into the flavour of the bread and ultimately, my enjoyment.

To be fair, baking a sourdough loaf is no small task; the shortest span of time I’ve managed to make one is over the course of one day, proving in the morning and baking in the evening. But part of the point with sourdough is that it takes time and that time also imparts flavour into the final product. Nothing can be rushed. Nothing can be forced. But everything is to be gained.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling of opening the oven for my second loaf and seeing it fully risen and majestic. I may or may not have danced a little jig and now, it’s one of my best cooking memories.

At this stage (if anyone is still reading), you might be thinking: “Don’t know about sourdough, hi. Sure I’d have to make the starter from scratch and that would be a whole hanlin too.”

Well, actually, you don’t.

When I was gearing up for making a sourdough starter in the beginning I had to buy a few bits of equipment online. But, you know if you’ve searched for something and the website says, ‘customers who bought this also bought that’…

Well, I was buying a proving basket and was suddenly offered a sourdough starter.

Ready to starter

Costing little more than six bucks, I purchased a starter from freshlyfermented.co.uk and to boot, it’s over 100 years old and comes from Fairbanks in Alaska. That old saying about the older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune, also translates to sourdough starters apparently. So in my case, if Freshly Fermented are to be believed, I’m making breads with starter cultures which are over a century old. Whether that is the case or not, the resultant breads are fantastic. As I write this, I’ve another loaf in the oven, having gifted yesterday’s to my brother on account of his birthday.

I can’t wait to see if it will have risen; to hear the snap, crackle and pop as it cools; to saw it down the middle to check the crumb; to take that first bite with as little embellishment as a dod of butter.

I can’t wait.

ADDENDUM

As this week’s instalment is so obviously lacking in a recipe, I will follow up this sourdough rant with a number of recipes in future weeks.

Sourdough is for winners!

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