Sourdough from starter, revisited

Homemade sourdough loaves

Chew carefully

It was a loaf of sourdough that nearly killed me. To be more accurate, it was a piece of strong, chewy rewena paraoa, a Maori potato-based sourdough that saw me off. Is it any wonder I’m obsessed with that bread?

When got addicted to sourdough from a nearby bakery when I lived in New Zealand in 2005. On that particular night my mother and aunt had just arrived for a visit to Christchurch. They had an ulterior motive: they were checking I was still in one piece after a serious run-in with an Auckland courier truck earlier that year that resulted in temporary amnesia, a fractured skull and a broken collarbone. No Skype in those days so the family back in Ireland had to be reassured with regular phonecalls and the beginnings of Bibliocook, an occupational therapy project to help me regain my ability to string words together.

Five months later, when they arrived, I was practically back to normal and planning on taking them on a food-orientated tour of the South Island. That was if I survived the first night’s dinner.

We had Pea and Ham Soup, a selection of cheese from Canterbury Cheesemongers and that rewena bread. Excited to see them, I was, I have to say, talking too much. I bit off a corner of well-buttered bread crust, tried to talk around it while eating and – gulp! – swallowed the entire chunk. It wasn’t a good idea. Taking a breath for the next stream of conversation caused the the unchewed bread to stick fast at the top of my trachea. It wouldn’t go up. It couldn’t go down. Deprived of oxygen, I couldn’t talk and no one noticed what was happening.

While the conversation continued around me (people! I am choking!), I left the dining table and staggered towards the kitchen, black spots floating in front of my eyes. Luckily the Husband copped what was happening, followed me over and, just before I passed out, lifted me off my feet with an almighty Heimlich Maneuver which, fortunately, dislodged the bread immediately.

I’ve treated sourdough with respect ever since.

Homemade sourdough bread

Ready to eat

Sourdough from starter
After my recent bread making lesson at Firehouse Bakery and Bread School, I’ve revisited my sourdough recipe and – hopefully – simplified it a little. The original recipe, adapted from one that I got while studying in Balllymaloe, is here.

Step 1: Making your sourdough starter
What you need:
* Container – a large, wide-mouth container that will hold about 2 litres. I use a large kilner jar. Wash well in warm, soapy water before use.
* Flour – use strong white bread flour. Organic is great but not essential.
* Water – use filtered or spring water if at all possible. Avoid chlorinated tap water – this will kill your starter. If you only have access to chlorinated tap water, fill up a jug and leave it to stand overnight before use. Always use water at room temperature.
* Round or oval baskets x 2 – because sourdough takes AGES to rise, it is notorious for spreading out rather than up. In Ballymaloe I used, and you can buy online, beautifully shaped cane baskets for bread rising. Here at the cottage I just use a couple of regular wicker ones that I picked up in my local pound shop for not more than a couple of euros. Make sure you line them with a well floured flat weave cotton tea towel.
* A little patience…

Day 1
Put 50mls water and 50g bread flour into the jar. Mix well, cover (do not seal the jar) and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 2
Add 50mls water and 50g bread flour to the jar. Mix well, cover (do not seal the jar) and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 3
Add 50mls water and 50g bread flour to the jar. Mix well, cover (do not seal the jar) and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 4
Add 50mls water and 50g bread flour to the jar. Mix well, cover (do not seal the jar) and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 5
Add 50mls water and 50g bread flour to the jar. Mix well, cover (do not seal the jar) and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 6
You will now have approximately 550mls of lively, bubbling, slightly beery-smelling sourdough starter to make your bread. It is most active now so can be used straight away or can also be sealed and stored in the fridge until you want to make bread.

Do not allow your starter to get too warm. If it is too stiff, add a little more water and mix well. It should always smell pleasant and the flavour will become more complex each time you use it. Mine is still working well, even after five years of benign neglect.

Step 2: Making Sourdough Bread I now do this over two days – the first day is feeding the starter, the second actually making the bread.

Day 1: Morning
Begin with your sourdough starter at room temperature, taking it out of the fridge the night before if necessary. Stir in 225mls room temperature water (again, avoid chlorinated water) then add 225g strong white bread flour. Mix well, cover and leave at room temperature.

Day 1: Evening
Your mixture should look bubbly and alive. Add another 225mls room temperature water and 225g strong white bread flour. Mix well, cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 2: Morning
The starter will have expanded in volume and have a frothy layer on top. Transfer 850mls into a large mixing bowl. Put the remainder back into the jar and keep in the fridge for the next batch of bread.

To your mixing bowl, add:

Room temperature water – 100-150mls
Strong white flour – 700g
Wheatgerm – 1 tablespoon
Rye flour – 1 tablespoon

Mix well. I find that the amount of water needed varies each time. Start with 100mls and add more as necessary to make a ragged dough. Cover the bowl with either clingfilm or a damp tea towel for 20 minutes.

Sprinkle 2½ teaspoons of salt (I have forgotten this in the past and it is ESSENTIAL) over the mixture and knead by hand for 15-20 minutes or by machine for approximately 6 minutes – just make sure your mixer is strong enough to take such a large amount or divide it in two. It’s easiest to do it by hand. The dough should be smooth and slightly sticky. Place back into the large bowl, cover again and allow to rise at in a warm place until light, which takes about 3 – 4 hours.

Day 2: Afternoon
Gently knock back the risen dough. Shape into two loaves, dust with flour and put into baskets that have been lined with a well-floured tea towel. Allow to prove for another 3 – 4 hours.

Day 2: Evening
Preheat your oven to 230°C/210°C fanbake/450°F/Gas Mark 8 and fix the shelves so the bread has room to expand. Put a metal baking tray on the bottom of the oven (for adding steam). Boil the kettle.

Sprinkle the base of a large baking tray with a little flour or polenta. You may need two trays. Leaving room for expansion, very gently turn the loaf on to the tray. Quickly slash the top with a very sharp knife – I now slash a H in mine! – and put into the oven straight away. Open the oven door for a moment and pour in about 100mls of boiling water from the kettle. Close immediately.

Check the bread after 35-40 minutes, knocking the base to see if it sounds hollow. It may need a few more minutes back in the oven, turned upside down. Makes 2 x approximately 1kg loaves.

Be sure to chew well when eating.



Food writer. Broadcaster. Blogger. Author. Married to Eight Degrees Brewing. Member of the Irish Food Writers' Guild, founder of Irish Food Bloggers Association and co-author of Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer & Cider (New Island)

You may also like...

10 Responses

  1. Daily Spud says:

    Probably the most dramatic bread-eating story ever! Will be sure to chew carefully in future and treat sourdough with the respect it deserves 🙂

  2. Caroline Caroline says:

    It was a rather dangerous year all round. Still loving the sourdough though!

  3. After reading this, I’ll be treating sour dough bread with a lot more respect! I’m addicted to it, so will definitely try your recipe Caroline. Thanks!

    • Caroline Caroline says:

      I’m sure this isn’t a regular thing for people eating sourdough – I think that 2005 was just a dangerous year for me!

      Let me know how you get on with making your own. I’m always here for Twitter support if necessary.

  4. Geraldine says:

    I’m looking forward to trying this.

    I’ve just one question though- when you say cover it (Day 1) are you sealing the kilner jar?

    • Caroline Caroline says:

      I cover it with a teatowel or just leave the lid ajar. Don’t seal the jar or you’ll miss out on picking up those wild yeasts! I’ve changed the recipe to reflect your query – please do let me know if there’s anything else you need answered.

  5. Mandy says:

    Hi Caroline – I’m feeling inspired to try and make your sourdough bread – thought it would be useful for helping feed the masses at Ngaio (14 adults and 6 children!) Just wondering, how big are the baskets you use? Would plastic bowls do the same thing?

    • Caroline Caroline says:

      To be honest Mandy, it’s a lot of work for something that will get hoovered up in a minute by that gang! While it makes plenty bread for a household of two adults, two smallies, it wouldn’t even fill the corners for your crew. But, if you still want to do it, I’ll definitely give you a hand. The baskets I use are about 24cm (approx 10 inches) and the reason I use them is that the loose weave allows air to circulate. You might be better with a couple of teatowel-lined colanders than the bowls.

      • Mandy says:

        I thought you might say that! Maybe January just isn’t the right time for me to be getting back to ‘the good life’! Still tempted to try it sometime though. Thanks.

        • Caroline Caroline says:

          We could always do it together when I’m over – I would love to start a new starter. Get plenty of bread flour in and we’ll give it a try and see how many we can feed with our own bread! Now, all I need is a woodfired oven…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *