A lit­tle-bit-of-spelt sour­dough

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In last month’s The Lowdown I ex­plained how to make a sour­dough starter from scratch – so, to get up to date, look back at the October issue of O or on­line at Omagazine. com. Now we’re go­ing to turn that starter into beau­ti­ful bread. Hope­fully your starter is rar­ing to go and you’ve got pats of salted but­ter on ice – let’s make bread!


This loaf is one of my favourites to bake. Spelt is an an­cient grain that has been cul­ti­vated since around 5,000 BC but over time has been re­placed by high-yield­ing ‘strong’ wheat va­ri­eties. Spelt con­tains less gluten but has a much stronger flavour and is more nu­tri­tious than nor­mal wheat.


• a big bowl

• a set of dig­i­tal scales

• a dough scraper

• a ban­neton or prov­ing bas­ket (avail­able from sour­dough.co.uk or ama­zon.co.uk)

• a sharp pair of scis­sors/knife/lame (a blade for scor­ing the loaf)

• a cast-iron pot with a lid


Mix­ing some starter, flour and wa­ter to­gether, with a spoon or by hand, cre­ates a ‘young levain’ and sim­ply in­volves tak­ing some of the old, strong starter – that is likely very sour – to start work­ing on a new batch of flour and wa­ter. This utilises the strong colony of yeast and re­tains a lit­tle bit of its sour­ness while still keep­ing the nat­u­ral sweet flavour of the flour. My ba­sic recipe is:

starter 40g strong white bread flour 15g rye flour 15g wa­ter 30ml, warm to the touch

Once com­bined, leave at room tem­per­a­ture, cov­ered with a clean tea towel. Do this the night be­fore you want to make your bread, so that in the morn­ing the levain is beau­ti­fully frothy and at full strength.

At this point it’s well worth feed­ing your re­main­ing starter, too, as you’ve likely re­duced it sub­stan­tially to make the levain.


This is when the magic of sour­dough hap­pens. The shaggy, lumpy dough – which is cre­ated by com­bin­ing the in­gre­di­ents to the right – will soon be­come a smooth, shiny, stretchy, buoy­ant mass. Again, time and pa­tience are key. This is the high­est-main­te­nance part of bak­ing sour­dough: you need to nur­ture and en­cour­age the dough with your hands. Hav­ing said that, sour­dough is known as a ‘no-knead’ bread – when left to fer­ment, the dough’s gluten bonds will align them­selves. levain 100g wa­ter 380ml, warm to the touch strong white bread flour 400g whole­wheat spelt flour 100g fine sea salt 12g

Start by putting the levain into a large mix­ing bowl and then pour in the warm wa­ter. Mix well with your fin­gers to dis­trib­ute the levain, then add the flours and mix re­ally well with your hands. You will learn most about the dif­fer­ent stages of your bread by get­ting your hands on the dough. Even pro­fes­sional

bakers who mix dough in 50kg dough mix­ers, reach in and touch, stretch and feel the dough. Open up your fin­gers and use your hands like whisks to re­ally mix the flour, levain and wa­ter to­gether well.

Leave this to rest for be­tween 20 min­utes and 1 hour, cov­er­ing the bowl with a clean tea towel. This stage is called the au­tol­yse and comes from the Greek for ‘self-di­ges­tion’. This is why sour­dough doesn’t have to be kneaded, as the gluten struc­ture forms it­self here, do­ing all of the hard work. If you’re par­tic­u­larly short on time, even a 15-minute rest will make a dif­fer­ence.

Tip in the salt (ad­ding it af­ter the au­tol­yse en­sures the dough de­vel­ops bet­ter elas­tic­ity) and, with wet hands, mix the dough re­ally well. Break­ing the gluten bonds now will al­low them to re­form even stronger.

The next step is called the bulk fer­men­ta­tion. Leave the dough cov­ered with the tea towel and, ev­ery 45 min­utes, ‘stretch and fold’ the dough (as shown in the pho­tos above). Wet your hands, take one side of the dough, stretch it up (be­ing care­ful not to tear the dough) and fold it over on top of it­self. Turn the bowl 90 de­grees and re­peat, do­ing this six to eight times. The dough will ‘tighten’ and be­come less slack. Re­peat this ev­ery 45 min­utes for 3-4 hours (so 4-5 times in to­tal). Ev­ery time the dough is turned it should have more air bub­bles and also, to­ward the end, feel no­tice­ably lighter.

Next is the bench rest. This is when the dough can be en­cour­aged into a reg­u­lar shape, cre­at­ing ten­sion so that it has the strength to stay ‘bread shaped’ when baked, as op­posed to flat­ten­ing into a pan­cake.

Flour a clean work­sur­face re­ally well and tip out the dough. Us­ing a dough scraper, fold the dough up and over on it­self, sim­i­lar to the stretch and fold method but just fold­ing this time. Do this 4-6 times, and again the dough will tighten and hold its shape bet­ter. Add more flour to the work­sur­face if the bread is stick­ing.

The dough should be rel­a­tively round now, so leave it to rest for 10-15 min­utes – ex­pect it to flat­ten a lit­tle.


Start by flour­ing the ban­neton or prov­ing bas­ket. In this method I use a cold-prov­ing tech­nique, which means putting the loaf into the fridge overnight or for sev­eral hours. This in­creases flavour, as the acid pro­duc­tion is still hap­pen­ing but with lit­tle gas pro­duc­tion, mean­ing a more sta­ble loaf. The cold will also make the loaf set its shape in the ban­neton, giv­ing a head­start for a beau­ti­ful plump loaf once baked.

Flour the top of the loaf, then flip it out up­side-down onto a work­sur­face. Lightly shape the loaf into a rough rec­tan­gle and fold the edge fur­thest from you up and over the mid­dle. Do the same with the left-hand edge, the right-hand edge and the edge near­est to you. Work quite quickly to keep the shape of the loaf. Lift up and put straight back into the ban­neton, folds fac­ing up, and into the fridge to chill. Again, if you’re short on time, just 1 hour will help the dough keep its shape bet­ter.


Heat the oven to as hot as it will go and put a lid­ded cast-iron pot in while it heats, for around 45 min­utes. This will help to recre­ate the conditions of a baker’s oven. In the first part of cook­ing, bread needs steam be­cause a moist en­vi­ron­ment means bread will rise to

its fullest and pre­vents the crust from form­ing on the loaf, so it can keep ris­ing. Cook­ing the bread in­side a lid­ded cast-iron pot for the first part of cook­ing traps the nat­u­rally pro­duced steam.

The faster the loaf comes out of its ban­neton, is scored and in the oven, the bet­ter. So get your­self well pre­pared by hav­ing a clean chop­ping board or cake slider (in bak­ing terms this is called a peel) in front of you, so you can score the loaf on this and then care­fully slide it into the pot.

Also have your scis­sors/knife/lame (blade) close to hand. The rea­son to score a loaf is to di­rect it where and how to rise. As the gasses ex­pand in­side the loaf, they will tear the outer struc­ture – with­out scor­ing, the loaf will of­ten tear on the side or near the bot­tom, which will ruin its look.

Have a good pair of oven gloves and a bowl of po­lenta to hand. Scat­ter­ing po­lenta on the chop­ping board al­lows the loaf to slide off eas­ily into the pot.

When fully heated, re­move the pot from the oven and take off the lid. Turn the oven down to 260C/fan 240C/gas 9. Re­move the loaf from the fridge and scat­ter po­lenta all over the chop­ping board, the bot­tom of the pot and the loaf. Turn the loaf out onto the chop­ping board (it may take a lit­tle coax­ing) and score the top – I of­ten just cut a square. Slide the loaf into the pot, put the lid on and re­turn to the oven for 20 min­utes.

Re­move the pot from the oven and take off the lid. Re­turn to the oven with­out the lid for an­other 20 min­utes. Re­move from the oven again and tip out on to a wire rack to cool. Then en­joy your de­li­cious cre­ation, slathered with but­ter.

Bread bak­ing is a hugely re­ward­ing pro­cess, but it can be quite un­for­giv­ing. Even as a pro­fes­sional baker, bak­ing 250 sour­dough loaves in a day, it can be un­pre­dictable – there are many vari­ables and fac­tors that can in­flu­ence a loaf. If your loaves aren’t as good as you’d hoped, keep try­ing. The more you bake, the more suc­cess you will have. Once you’ve baked the loaf of your dreams, har­ness­ing the power of flour, wa­ter and salt, you’ll be hooked, just like me.

Shap­ing the dough to go in the ban­neton Stretch­ing and fold­ing will strengthen the dough – you’ll need to do this 4-5 times

The fin­ished spelt loaf

All the in­gre­di­ents and equip­ment you need to get bak­ing

This shaggy, lumpy dough will be­come a smooth, stretchy dough

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