Sourdough
Columns 23 April 2020

How I learnt to bake the (almost) perfect sourdough

Food writer Fiona Beckett had never felt the need to compete with master bakers – not least because her late husband was one of them. But now, alone in lockdown, the time had come for a poignant epiphany

Words by Fiona Beckett

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Right now, it seems as if everyone is baking the perfect sourdough loaf. Until two weeks ago, I wasn’t among them. That might come as a surprise, given that I’ve been a professional food writer for over 25 years with 20 cookery books to my name, but frankly there was no need.

My late husband was the baker in the family. Having read practically every book on the subject, Trevor could turn out perfect loaves at will. His legendary sourdough ciabatta rolls were made with iced water, and left to rise overnight in the fridge, a technique he’d picked up – or so he told me – from a Parisian baker. You can see why I didn’t try to compete.

Even after Trevor died four and a half years ago, life in Bristol, which must have one of the best collections of artisan bakers in the country, meant it was as easy to pick up a pukka sourdough loaf as it was to buy a pint of (organic, of course) milk. Until a month ago, that is, when normal life was put on hold.

Fiona Beckett
Fiona Beckett

Sourdough is feted because it’s the ultimate natural bread, with no added yeasts or other ‘improvers’. The slow development of the starter and lengthy fermentation process also develops a real depth of flavour which is much admired by bread geeks like me. It’s also a great ‘keeper’ and doesn’t go stale for days.

So, having time on my hands, it seemed the ideal moment to break my sourdough duck. And when a kindly doctor neighbour offered me some of his starter, I needed no further convincing. When I picked it up, it looked healthy enough so I blithely left it hanging around for 24 hours. Big mistake. Lesson no 1: starters are like hungry teenagers – you have to constantly feed them (with flour and water, which is at least cheaper than a teenager). I battled with it for several days while it emitted only the occasional burp. I was on the verge of giving up when a chef friend reassured me ‘Stick at it. It’ll come good.’ And suddenly it did, bubbling away.

Sourdough
Beckett's sourdough takes shape

The second pivotal moment came when I was chatting, not to a pro, but to a member of my website team. Monica also happens to be an experienced amateur baker and had adapted a method which not only involved no kneading, but baking the loaf in a cast iron pot in a super-hot oven. It was a strategy I was happy to adopt as, unlike most bakers, I’ve never been too keen on the kneading bit. Rather than instilling zen-like serenity, I always felt it was likely to provoke anxiety that you weren’t doing it right.

Turns out that instead of kneading, you simply lift and fold the rather sloppy dough over every 30 minutes for a period of a couple of hours (and no, that doesn’t fit in well with normal working life but fortunately ­– or unfortunately – life isn’t normal at the moment).

Sourdough

But it’s the baking in a cast iron pot – which you can also do with a conventionally yeasted dough – that is the game changer. Basically it replicates the high temperatures of a commercial oven. After just 20 minutes, the rise was impressive. In another 20 I had a spectacularly golden loaf.

I must admit that at this stage I was overcome with an urge to share. Not the bread – just my achievement. I posted the loaf on social media and sent photos on WhatsApp to practically everyone I know, basking in their praise. I can’t remember when I’ve been as thrilled with anything I’ve made.

Sourdough

Of course there’s room for improvement. I’ve just baked loaf number three which was, inexplicably, much trickier to handle. I’m still trying to work out whether it was because I used rye instead of wholemeal to improve the sourdough flavour, added too much water (my digital scales are misbehaving) or that my Aga temperature had mysteriously dropped overnight (it took 10 minutes longer to bake). But apparently it’s normal for sourdough to behave differently every time; this is what causes such widespread sourdough anxiety. The doctor and I have scheduled a socially distanced doorstep summit to compare techniques.

There are also a few downsides you should be aware of. Eating too much bread for a start. The continual hunt for flour, which is now as scarce as hand sanitiser and loo rolls. Oh, and the endless washing up. Sourdough is appallingly claggy and sticks to everything – including your keyboard if you’re not careful.

Contemplating my perfect (to me) loaf, I found myself wondering what my husband would have made of it. Would he have been proud, or secretly a bit miffed that I’d strayed onto his territory? He doesn’t have to worry – I have yet to master ciabatta rolls…

You can follow Monica’s recipe in the step-by-step guide she has just published on her website Eat Sleep Wild, price £3 (which for a lifetime of perfect bread is a bargain).

For Fiona’s lockdown recipes and food-and-wine matches, go to www.matchingfoodandwine.com.

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