Bread comes and goes in my estimation. Sometimes, I think flour is just too processed to justify eating everyday, or even most days. But other times, I crave a perfectly done bit of sour, wholemeal toast with some runny marmalade sinking into it, the toast soaking it up like a sponge but staying nice and crisp around the crust. It's hard to say no to a chunk of just-out-of-the-oven pain de campagne, crust talking away, the dough still steaming when the loaf is torn open. Or an ultra thin square slice of Schwartbrotz, spread with tapenade and cucumber...About a year ago, I really got into baking bread, because I wanted to reclaim that staple food. A shocking >80% of bread made in the UK is made by the Chorleywood process, and ultra speedy way of making bread involving relatively massive quantities of yeast, superspeed dough mixing and lots and lots of additives, some of which don't have to be specifically mentioned on the label. Scary? I thought so. That was when I started reading about sourdough, fresh yeast, oven stones, bacteria, bannetones, proving times, bench knives, stone-ground...it was fun. I had sourdough pizza parties. I learnt so much. I sourced fresh yeast from a local delicatessen that made their own bread, and that was fun for a while. Then I got two starters on the go, a rye and then a wheat started from the rye. And I enjoyed some really tasty bread, but I wasn't eating enough to make it often, I got lazy, and my starters died. Eventually I went back to buying supermarket bread, but I didn't eat it very often. Then, a few months back, I belatedly discovered the no-knead bread phenomenon. I bought a Le Creuset pot for my birthday, and used it more for baking bread than anything else. I love no-knead bread, because I hate kneading. I'm impatient, and giving dough a good enough knead meant get the bench really messy, and I hate tidying up a messy kitchen.
If I can't persuade you to try sourdough, at least try the no-knead bread. I haven't tried it with all-wholemeal, but some folks say it works. I used unbleached stoneground white, and subbed about 10% of the flour weight for wholemeal rye. I always had perfect results. At the beginning I followed the suggestion of pre-heating the pot in the oven and then dumping in the loaf, but I changed to putting the loaf in the cold pot and into a cold oven, and giving it an extra 15 minutes. I found this approach gave me more oven spring (the bread got bigger). It's a super hassle-free way of making great bread, and this didn't tie me to making it all the time. Still, I wanted to get back to making something without baker's yeast.
Recently, I started blogging (more of less coinciding with going vegan again). So why not start up another good habit again? Especially when I was reading about all these wonderful fermented foods other bloggers were eating. It was time to get a starter going.
My previous sourdough research pointed me in the direction of one starter: rye. Rye gets going quickly, and you can use it to make a wheat sour, a spelt sour, whatever. A rye sourdough starter keeps for at least twice as long in the fridge, too, which suits my sporadic breadmaking. The timing of a all-rye sourdough bread fits perfectly with my routine, requires no knead (it can't be kneaded, the dough has to be very wet for rye, otherwise the bread is like concrete), and as I can only get wholegrain (dark) rye flour, it's not *too* processed, and you can always add lots of seeds or sprouted wheat, oat or rye grain to the loaf.
To get a rye starter going, add 25g of rye flour to 50g of water. Keep adding to the mix at the same quantities for a couple of days, and keep it somewhere warmish. Eventually it will bubble up and smell pleasantly sour. If it smells really horrible, throw it out and start again. Depending on how many days you've been adding to your sourdough, you will have a lot more than 50g, which is all you need to keep going for bread making. It's good to keep a little more anyway, just in case something happens when you're making bread that kills the starter, or you want to double a recipe or start a wheat sourdough. I also think having extra on the go is good if you're going to bake bread less frequently than say, twice a month, the bigger quantity of sourdough, the chances of the yeast population staying viable. 150g is a good amount. Building up your starter when you're not actively making bread- just add 25g of flour, and 50g of water. Simple. If you've got too much, throw out the extra, or give to a friend (I've never found anyone mad enough to want to take mine off my hands).
Ok. Now you've got your sourdough starter. Getting deeply attached to it is optional. As you will see, you don't need to feed it all the time like a pet. It's just flour and water that bacteria and yeasts have grown in. Realising this and just getting on with making bread will keep you safe from requiring sourdough bereavement counselling.
Russian Rye Bread (adapted from Andrew Whitley's Bread Matters)
50g rye sourdough starter
150g wholemeal (dark) rye flour
300g water at 40 degrees centigrade
Mix all this up into a sloppy dough, and leave to sit, covered and in a warm place, for 12-24 hours. I would do this about 9pm, and leave it until I'm home from work the next day, around 5-5:30pm, that's a rise time of 20-20.5 hours.
When I get in, I make the final dough.
440g production sourdough (the remainder is your starter for the next batch)
330g rye flour
5g sea salt
200g water at 40 degrees centigrade
Optional: 1 cup of seeds and/or grains (I used sunflower and pumpkin seeds, for grains/groats, soak for at least 8 hours, or ideally let them sprout)
Mix everything together and slop the runny dough into a greased bread tin and leave to rise for between 2 and 8 hours, depending on how warm it is. If the dough slightly more than half-filled the tin, it should be at the top when it's ready to be baked. Bake for 50-60 minutes in as hot an oven as you can muster, turning it down by 20 degrees after 15 minutes. If baked as two loaves, it'll take 35-45 minutes. Apparently, it's best to leave rye sourdoughs for a full 24 hours before cutting and eating. I've never waited that long, and it's always been great!
While I still think eating bread daily is not as ideal as eating the whole grain, I think the sourdough method makes bread a far healthier option than quick rise yeasted bread. In fact, it's a completely different thing. The long fermenting process makes the grain much more digestible, and may even make gluten-containing flours tolerable by celiacs and those with gluten intolerance (Di Cagno et al, "Sourdough Bread Made From Wheat and Nontoxic Flours and Started with Selected Lactobacilli Is Tolerated in Celiac Sprue Patients, Applied and Environmental Microbiology: Vol. 70 (February 2004), pp. 1088-1095). I thought this was pretty amazing: none of the 17 celiacs in the study reacted to the wheat-containing sourdough bread.
So, sourdough bread has all the benefits of fermented foods (except there are no live bacteria to enhance your intestinal flora, they don't make it through the oven heat- eat your rye with some sauerkraut to correct this). The most significant benefit of eating sourdough bread over other breads and even over wholegrains is the increased bioavailability of minerals. Phytates in grains normally prevent the absorption of calcium, zinc and magnesium. But the long fermenting process frees the minerals from the phytates. Sprouting does the same, which is why if you do eat plenty of wholegrains and don't eat much bread (we're talking sourdough here), then you should sprout as often as you can. But bread isn't just about health- it's a wonderful comfort food. I can testify to the seedy rye being excellent toasted and slathered in some wonderfully sharp homemade grapefruit marmalade. It's also wonderful with hummus, tapenade, pickles and fermented veggies. For all these reasons, I'm going to make a sourdough loaf about once a week or two. I might also revisit the no-knead method to do a wholegrain wheat sourdough. This will mean I'll end up eating bread at maybe 2 meals a week (the rest will be scoffed by my bread-loving boyfriend), which isn't a huge amount of flour, and it's all whole grain:)