The Knead for Bread

Here at The End of the Avenue, we are a fan of the make-do-and-mend philosophy, and strive for simple living out of choice, rather than necessity. However, due to the recent circumstances we all find ourselves in, where people are panic buying and stocking up on the ‘essentials’, we have been struck by how lucky we are to have a few, (and I mean a few!) skills that perhaps will help us ride out the days ahead with some confidence that if the shop doesn’t have it, then we will get by.

We are lucky to have a garden with chickens for eggs, a milk-man that delivers the milk and a small vegetable plot, and from these we hope to avoid the shops and allow others who need the supplies to access them. We have been amazed that the supermarket bread shelf is empty while the flour aisle is full; surely it should be the other way round? A simple bag of flour and a few other bits and bobs and you have cakes, pies, pasta and our favourite: Bread. Have some people forgotten the simple things? If so, let’s do something about that.

What matters most to us here is that we want to make sure that we are not stripping the shelves bare in the shops, and stopping others getting what they need, as there are some, particularly the elderly, who need the convenience of the supermarket. So, we thought we would do a bit of a skills share and show some of the things we will be doing to help make it through the current situation in the hope that you would join us in our sharing.

We will start with our favourite, and Dave’s obsession for the last few years; Sourdough.

Why sourdough? Well, all you need to make a fresh loaf is flour, water, salt and a trickle of oil, and the shelves of flour and salt are still full at the minute. So let’s get started.

Now may not seem the right time to be welcoming a new member of the family into the household, but to make a sourdough you need to first make a starter, which is a living breathing guest in your home that requires food, comfortable accommodation and a bit of attention from time to time. This starter is the stuff of biblical teaching as the other name for it is leaven, and it does indeed spread through the dough to make it rise. Basically, this is fermented flour that contains wild yeast spores that will make your dough rise, in place of the usual commercial yeast that come hermetically sealed in foil wrappers. This is where the work starts but I promise this is the hardest bit and it gets much easier after the first few days! This is where your new house-guest moves in, so you are going to have to spend the next 7 days making them feel welcome at first.

For your starter you will need: A bowl (glass or ceramic but not metal), a spoon (wooden ideally), and some strong wholemeal flour (it’s healthier for the starter too).

Day 1 - Weigh out 50g of flour into the bowl, and then add 50g of water to the flour and start mixing the two together (if it is a little too stiff add little bit more water). Now, this is the bit where a bit of effort pays off, as you basically beat the thick gloop and walk around the house showing each room to your new guest. It might sound crazy, but the goal here is to trap air and as many wild yeast spores (they are in the air around us all the time) as we can and a stroll around just seems to be a bit more fun than standing still. Once you have been at this for about 10 minutes, put the bowl down in a room at a normal household temperature and cover it loosely with a plastic bag to stop it forming a skin. Now just leave it… job done until tomorrow.

Day 2 – Weigh out 30g of wholemeal flour and 30g of water and add both to the bowl of gloop. Grab your spoon and repeat day 1, but a brief 5 minutes should be enough today. Set it back in the bag in the warm room and you’re done for the day.

Day 3 – Can you see any bubbles forming? Don’t worry if you can’t, they will do soon, we promise. Now this is the bit everyone struggles with, but you need to empty some of the starter out, about half. We need to do this to get rid of some of the old flour that is now just sitting there, but also to make room for more fresh flour to keep food supplies up for the wild yeast. So, in total our starter should weigh 160g, take out 80g of starter and dispose of it (don’t block the sink) and add 40g of fresh wholemeal flour and 40g of water (50/50 mix). Give it a good mix for a couple of minutes and replace the bag and leave it again until the next day.

Days 4, 5, 6 & 7 – Copy day 3 but watch out for the bubbles and make a note of the changing smell. You will need to get used to this smell, as it is a sure sign of when your starter is healthy and when it needs feeding and a bit of a good mixing. Hopefully by now you are starting to develop a fondness for your new guest because they are now here to stay and can last for years. Yes seriously, as many bakers would pass the starter down through the generations. We have perhaps gone too far and given our starter the name of Larry the Leaven, but it is now older than our first born so it at least deserves a name.

Job done for the starter, sort of. The idea now is you use a bit of this in every loaf you make, recording how much you have taken out, and keep topping up with 50/50 mix of flour and water to replace what you have removed. So if I take our 50g to make a loaf I simply replace this with 25g of flour and 25g of water. Now a starter won’t stand neglect for long, it is a living thing after all. We make a loaf a minimum of every other day so we are feeding Larry most days and he happily survives in the cupboard or counter top.

If you want a few days more in between loaves simply keep the starter in the fridge in a loosely sealed container. This does add a little complication as we would recommend that the night before you are to bake your next loaf you take the starter out of the fridge, discard some, and replace it with the 50/50 mix and give it a mix, then leave it to come up to temperature (which should make it really bubbly again) and use this to bake the loaf the next day, replacing the flour and water as described above.

How do I make a loaf?

So the starter is ready to go, now for the real fun. For so many of the books I’ve used there is a general ratio for flour, water, salt and oil but I am not going to get into that as I have found different flours (you can use different types) all need different mixes, so I am going to provide the recipe I use that keeps 4 people happy for a day or two and you will have to have a few experiments to get your brand working for you. I am going to make the recommendation that you should just use strong white flour for your first few attempts, as it is easier to handle, but my loaves are a 50/50 mixture of flours.

You will need:

  • 500g of Strong White Flour (or a 50/50 mixture of strong white and strong wholemeal flour)
  • 10g of salt
  • 2 desert spoons of starter
  • Water to make it up to 350g (see below)

In a large mixing bowl combine the flour and salt with a quick fold.

On a set of scales, put 2 desert spoons of starter into a separate bowl and record the weight, then add water to the same bowl to bring the total weight up to 350g. (So if my starter weighs 40g I will add 310g of water). Mix the flour and water well so it just looks like cloudy white water.

Add the water/starter mix to the flour and salt and start to mix together. If you have a mixer with a dough hook then use this for 8-10 minutes. If not, you will have to get your hands in to ensure all the water and dough is combined and then you will have to tip it out onto your oiled work surface to knead.

Make sure you oil your work surface first as this is going to get messy, but basically knead until it comes together into a smooth silky stretchy dough. Kneading is not an artform, you are basically stretching the dough as best you can and then folding it back onto itself and stretching it again. With enough kneading, what started as a sloppy mess becomes a very stretchy (you should feel tension in the dough) dough that you can shape. Shape it into a large bun shape by folding the edges into the middle, turn it over, and sort of push the sides under the bun shape. This is called a round.

Once it feels silky smooth and has some stretch in it, shape the dough into a round and put the dough into an oiled bowl (a bit of oil rubbed around the bowl is fine), put the bowl into a plastic bag (please keep reusing the bag; I actually use a shower cap) and leave it to rise at room temperature for an hour. After the first hour, it will look like it has done nothing, but take it out, shape the round again, and put it back into the bag and leave it until you are sure it has risen a bit (this can take 4 hours if the starter is working well, or 10 hours if it is a bit sluggish). Then shape it into a round.

Now sourdough takes a while to rise so it needs some support. We use proofing baskets but a 25cm (10 inch) bowl will work well. Line the bowl with some muslin cloth or a clean tea towel and cover it with flour (don’t be shy with the flour). Put the round (seem side up) into the lined and floured bowl, cover with the bag and leave until it has doubled in size (4- 12 hours).

Once doubled in size, turn your oven on to the highest temperature and let it regulate for a good 30 minutes. Heat is everything here, the more intense heat you have the more successful the rise will be. Put some baking trays into he oven, or an ovenproof pan, and let them come up to temperature also. Once everything is ready, you need to have a serrated knife and a cup of water to hand.

Carefully lift the baking tray out of the oven, shutting the oven door quickly, and put them onto a heat proof surface. Carefully tip the dough out of the bowl (support it to ‘drop’ slowly) onto the hot baking tray. Sprinkle/flick/spray some water onto the dough to keep the surface moist for rising and then diagonally cut the top to a depth of roughly 1cm with the knife by dragging it across the surface, don’t worry about being neat, speed is of the essence. Then quickly return it to the oven, throw the remain water onto the oven base (careful it will create a lot of steam) and shut the door as fast as you can.

Set the timer to 10 minutes and leave the oven at its hottest setting. After 10 minutes, turn the temperature down to 1700C and open the oven door for 3 minutes to let lots of heat out. After 3 minutes, close the oven door and set the timer for 30 minutes. Once complete, use a clean dish towel to lift the loaf out, turn it over, tap the bottom of the loaf with a knuckle and it should sound hollow. That’s it you are done, leave it on a wire rack to cool for at least an hour.

Slice it and enjoy.


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