Making sourdough bread

At the moment we've been lucky to be able to buy some bread flour, but I have been struggling to get hold of yeast to bake bread.  Whilst I do have a bit left, I thought it was a good time to experiment with making sourdough so we aren't reliant on getting more yeast to bake bread.  My son and I have previously talked about how yeast makes bread rise and have baked bread together several times, but as I've never made a sourdough before we've never talked about how it's different.  I thought now was as good a time as any to give it a go...

Mixing yoghurt and milk

You make sourdough bread by growing bacteria and yeast in a starter culture which you then add to the other ingredients in place of baker's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). There are different ways of making starters and all end up with a culture of different - and largely unknown - combinations of naturally occurring yeast and bacteria.  I decided to go with a method which gives the starter a bit of a helping hand by introducing some lactobacilli (bacteria which convert sugars to lactic acid, which gives sourdough a sour flavour) from live natural yoghurt.

Sourdough starter

My son and I combined 85ml semi skimmed milk (microwaved on full power for 20 seconds - the warmth helps the bacteria and yeast from the air get growing faster) and 40g of full fat natural yoghurt. We covered it with a tea towel and left it overnight.  We also had a chat about why we were doing it, and how we were growing some bacteria (and yeast as there are spores in the air which will grow if they find their way into the starter) which would make carbon dioxide as they grew, and would therefore help our bread rise like the dried yeast we usually use.

Sourdough pizza in progress

On day 2, we added 60g of strong white flour.  Having had a bit of an incident with the tea towel sinking into the bowl the previous day, we covered it with cling film and left it for 2 days.  On day 4, we added 20ml milk, 50ml water and 90g strong white flour and left it covered overnight.

Making his pizza smiley face

On day 5, it still wasn't showing many signs of bubbling and my son was getting a bit disinterested.  I decided to experiment and took 150g out and put it in a new bowl and we added 50g strong white flour and 50ml water and put it, with a cover over, on a sunny windowsill where we thought it might be warmer.  We left the rest in the original bowl and in the original location (in our kitchen, which isn't very warm overnight).


On day 6, my son was excited to see that the bowl on the windowsill was bubbling.  We agreed that it needed a name as it was alive... after much deliberation, and most of my suggestions being dismissed, he settled on Herbert.  The other bowl still wasn't showing many signs of life, but we added 50g strong white flour and 50ml water just in case.  Most instructions for starters involve discarding some at the point Herbert had reached, but I couldn't bring myself to throw any away.  Even though it wasn't quite as vigorously bubbling as would be ideal, I decided we could make sourdough pizzas for dinner, and if they didn't rise much we'd just say they were thin and crispy!  We used the recipe below, weighed the amount of Herbert that was left (by subtracting the weight of an empty identical bowl from Herbert and his bowl) and added equal amounts of water and strong white flour before putting him back on his sunny windowsill.

Herbert and bread in progress

It's fair to say that the pizza dough didn't rise much, although there were definitely some air bubbles in there.  We mixed 150g starter (i.e. Herbert), 125ml warm water, 250g strong white flour, a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil then kneaded it.  After 45 minutes, I divided it to make two adult-sized pizzas and one child sized one.  My 3 year old then made a smiley face pizza for his dinner (which was a winner as we used red pepper for the smile and he usually refuses to eat pepper, but he actually ate the smile and then declared that he now likes pepper!).  We baked at 180°C for 12 minutes.

Sourdough bread

On day 7, we made a loaf of sourdough bread.  We didn't let it rise quite as long as most recipes suggest as we were a bit slow to get going with it, but it did turn out very nice.  My son was keen to see the air bubbles inside once it had baked to make sure Herbert had worked.  The recipe we used had the same quantities of starter, warm water and strong white flour and salt as the pizza dough (although no oil), but with 7g of brown sugar added.  We kneaded it, then left it to prove for 2.5 hours.  As the small boy was busy playing, I knocked it back and shaped it and put it back into the bowl for a second prove.  After 1.5 hours (ideally I think you'd leave it longer at this stage) I put it on a greased tray in the oven and baked at 180°C with a tray of water on the bottom shelf for 35 minutes.

We fed Herbert (weighing and adding equal amounts of water and strong white flour as before).  My son likes the idea he's hungry and thirsty, and he has to take care of him.  We're going to keep the culture of bacteria and yeast growing, but freeze a bit so if we forget to feed it, or there are any accidents (it's already had a near miss with being tipped all over the floor) we can start again more quickly.  In the interests of not wasting flour, we'll keep Herbert in the fridge if we don't have any plans to make sourdough bread in the next day or two rather than having to discard any.  I think we probably need to feed him daily if he's on the sunny windowsill, but if it goes cold again, every other day may be fine.  In the fridge the internet suggests we need to feed the starter once every 5 or so days.