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Vanessa Kimbell answers our Sourdough Questions


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Sourdough Special

Many of you know Vanessa as our in house baker for Bakerybits, but she is often referred to as The Queen of Sourdough because day-to-day she teaches domestic bakers to make sourdough at the Sourdough School in Northamptonshire. She has a special interest in bread in relation to health, and is also a regular contributor to the BBC Radio 4 food Programme, and an award-winning author, and writing her third book .. this time on Sourdough! ( at last!)

What do you love about sourdough?

I have a particular interest in sourdough for health. Research is continuing to suggest that slow-fermented bread, made with quality flour is good for us. To my mind there something intuitive about this anyway, working with the natural speed of fermentation with simple ingredients is better than the opposite rather frenzied approach where factory time is far more important than flavour or ingredients. Let’s just take a breath and allow fermentation to happen as the wild yeasts and bacteria see fit, it is less effort all-round. We really like hearing from our enthusiastic customers describing their journey through to sourdough ninja status. Ups and downs but always with passion. To hear that a home baker has managed to avoid buying a single factory-made loaf for a year thanks to us is a highlight of the day.

I am often asked how to get started. Regardless of where they are in their journey, my first answer is always to get the process right.  To being with you need a starter, which you can either make yourself or buy  a good vigorous starter and the best flour that can be afforded, such as that from Stoates. A good book to get started such as the excellent Handmade Loaf by Dn lepard is invaluable.   I  always suggest baking sourdough in a La Cloche along and using a scraper.

These are some of the sourdough questions from customers that have been sent emailed over the last few months:

Q: Hi Vanessa, Sometimes my sourdough loaf has an uneven distribution of holes. The big ones are at the top and the small ones at the bottom. Do you have any idea why? Best wishes Julia Farkas London
A: Hi Julia,There are several reason that you can get uneven distribution of holes in sourdough. One of the most pronounced differences I’ve ever seen was from a lady who brought a loaf to a sourdough clinic that had enormous holes on the top of the loaf and very regular ones on the bottom 2/3. It took me a while to work out why, but it turned out that she was shaping her dough with very wet hands. The top of the loaf was then hydrated to almost 90% in comparison to the rest of the loaf, which was about 68%.Another reason you might find uneven holes is from over-handling the dough. You can work it too hard, so try and be gentle when shaping. I’ve also noticed that taking cold dough from the fridge and leaving it in a warm room for a while can also result in uneven holes, especially in a very warm kitchen. If the outside of the dough warms up so the yeast on the outer edges of the really get going, the interior of the dough will still be cold resulting in an uneven crumb. My advice is to take the dough out of the fridge about 20 minutes before you bake and leave at room temperature. You should get some lovely blistering in the crust too.

 

Q: Hello Vanessa,I have occasionally made my own sourdough starter and successfully used it in my baking, but invariably there has come a point where I forget to keep a bit of the dough back for the next bake. Last December, however, I acquired some starter from a local artisan bakery and have been using it to make bread and nurturing it in-between times ever since. It has worked very well every time, however the bread seems to become more and more sour with each bake; is there anything I can do to make it less sour?Best wishes, Josephine
A: Hi Josephine,Welcome to the world of sourdough. Before I get to the main question, the best way to avoid losing all your starter is not to properly clean out the container you keep it in, leaving a little in there just in case. Overly sour starter is a common problem which is down to your refreshment regime. As the yeasts and the bacteria ferment they produce lactic acid, acetic acid and ethanol, and with time you will get an increasingly sour starter. This is great for flavouring, but to get it back to being sweet and fresh you need to discard all but about 2 tablespoons and refresh your starter in a clean jar using 100g of water and 100g of organic stoneground flour (I like Stoates White). Leave the jar covered on the side in the kitchen for about 8 – 12 hours and you will see that it will be light and bubbly. This is the point at which to return it to the fridge, when it is biologically at its peak.Note: The starter that you discard in doing this is full of flavour. I usually pour this into a second jar which I affectionately refer to as my grand-mère. I use this in pancakes, in yeasted bread, scones, muffins and cakes.You can then use this refreshed and sweetened starter to make your leavens for your sourdough. I usually refresh my starter about every 10 days - 2 weeks and I make about 4 loaves in that time, so 250g of starter is more than enough to keep my family in bread. (Patrick tells me that he gets away with ignoring it in the fridge for 6 weeks and then refreshing it from a couple of tablespoons. Not sure I recommend that but it does show you that starters are pretty hard to kill!)

 

Q: Dear Vanessa,I have a sourdough starter that I have developed myself and kept going for a few months. The flavour is excellent, but it takes a lot of starter to raise 500g of flour in 5-6 hours and using that much starter makes the sourdough flavour too dominant. I have taken to using less sourdough starter and some yeast, but it feels like cheating! How can I encourage my sourdough starter to become more vigorous?RegardsMartyn
A: Hi Martyn,It sounds to me as though you are trying to make your sourdough directly with unrefreshed starter. In a domestic kitchen you only bake once every week or so, which means that your sourdough, when it is left in the fridge for a few days is just not vigorous enough to raise a loaf. I’m guessing that you are making heavy sour loaves, which are in effect under proved. The solution is to use your starter to make a leaven. This cultivates an active colony of yeasts ready to bake with. It’s easy to do this. You take a large tablespoon of your starter and mix it with 50g of water and 50g of flour. Leave it covered on the side in the kitchen for 8 – 10 hours and use this to make your sourdough with. This amount will raise 500g of flour – You can follow my recipe here for the rest of the recipe.If you are still worried that your starter is not lively enough then the other thing you can do is refresh using an organic rye. Rye is brilliant for producing a wonderfully fruity lively starter, and I often use it to pep my starter up every so often.

 

Q: To Vanessa, I love sourdough but the variable timing can be difficult to plan into a busy weekend so I usually use sourdough starter and some dried yeast. I mix half the flour with all of the starter and all the water and leave it overnight. Next day I add the rest of the flour, the dried yeast and the salt.This works well – I vary the blend of flours I use depending on what we fancy eating but….Before Christmas I had several doughs which resolutely refused to rise after the yeast was added. Even after 12 hours there was virtually no rise and I ended up with what seemed to be a rather dense sourdough – with no evidence of active yeast. Very tasty but not exactly what I was after. I wondered if the yeast was faulty and binned it but had the same problem with new yeast. I made a batch with just with yeast and that was fine but I still had the same problem if I used any of the starter.I then wondered about the starter – was the starter “killing” the yeast? The starter was healthy enough, though it was quite acidic on the nose. So I decided to refresh it. I wasted about 90% of it and then built it up again from the tiny amount I reserved. Since then my combined yeast / sourdough dough has worked fine again. So it looks like it was the starter. But it can’t have been to do with the mix of organisms in it – because they must be the same (I didn’t create a completely new starter).So, what’s going on? I wondered if the starter was too acidic and whether that was affecting the yeast?What do you think?Richard
A: Hi Richard,It is hard to judge without seeing the starter, but I’d suggest that as you mention how acidic the starter smelled that yes, perhaps your starter was just too acidic for that particular strain of yeast.Generally commercial yeast does not thrive in the acid environment of a sourdough starter (and they especially do not like high levels of ethanol, which you might find in a very old starter) The variety of wild yeasts that live in harmony with the acid making bacteria in the culture are actually a different type of yeast and include such as Candida milleri, Candida krusei, and Saccharomyces exiguus. They are acid-tolerant yeasts that thrive alongside bacteria such as Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis found in most sourdough starters. Unlike commercial baker's yeast, C. milleri and the other wild yeasts are exceedingly tolerant of the acid that the bacteria produce.What's more, C. milleri doesn't digest maltose (the sugars derived from flour starch). This is unusual for yeast, and lucky for the bacterium. L.Sanfranciscensis, it turns out, can't live without maltose. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Even knowing this I have tried adding commercial yeast to starters , but they have not been successful. I tried for a while to get an osmotollerent yeast going within a sourdough starter, thinking that it would make a great hybrid starter for enriched sourdough. It worked to begin with but it got very tired after a couple of weeks and I binned it, because it was clearly not doing well. I decided that the way to get the best of both words is to add my Grandmère to a yeasted bread.I know you mention how busy you are but if you build up your starter and make a leaven then you really don’t need to add commercial yeast. It only takes a few minutes and makes all the difference to the final loaf. Try making a leaven, as outlined above; I am sure you will get a far better rise.

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