Nearly two years ago I set out to make reliably good sourdough, and in the last two months I think I got there. There have been many months of experimenting, unreliable record keeping, distracted successes and focused failures along the way, and for those of you who don’t want to wait two years to make good bread, I’m going to give you my recipe.

I use a stand mixer for mine, which does save time and makes working with a wet, sticky dough a lot easier, but it can easily be done by hand without a lot of extra time required as I use a minimal kneading technique. I’ve learned that supermarket, stock standard flour doesn’t make great bread – these days I’m using 12.5kg bags of pizza flour from UCG Wholesalers. Pizza flour is a ‘strong flour’, that is, it has a higher gluten content, which is better for bread and pizza. Low gluten flours (which are typical of most self-rising and plain flours in the supermarket) are best for cakes and pastries. As I bake almost every day, I get through 12.5kg every three weeks or so, and it’s great value from UCG (there’s one in Melbourne CBD and one up on Bell St in Preston). I play with other flours occasionally too, especially rye, but my results are a lot more variable to date.

As for my starter, Fran, I feed her about a tablespoon of flour & a bit less of water each day, give her a quick stir and leave her on the bench with a lid loosely perched on the plastic honey jar in which she resides. In really hot weather I usually pop her in the fridge or she gets a bit manky (we must be related). It took me ages to learn not to add too much starter to my bread – the acidity keeps the gluten from making a lovely, stretchy, chewy crumb.

I’ve stuck with adding a bit of commercial dry yeast to get a reliable rise, and if I need to speed it up (when there’s no time for an overnight rise), I just add a bit more.

The key to sourdough is long rises, not loads of labour, in my experience. Hence putting a dough on in the morning, popping it into tins before bed, and into the oven in the morning seems to work perfectly, with minimal effort on my part and maximum time for farming all day. :-)

Recipe

1T starter (give or take – I often make double quantities, but only up the starter by about half)

2C pizza flour

1C tepid tap water (I reckon our rainwater has improved the bread too, by the way)

pinch flake salt

1tsp dry yeast

drizzle olive oil

Method

Pour starter into bowl. Add flour, dry yeast, salt, water and oil. Knead on lowest setting or by hand for about 1 minute – just until combined. Let stand 15 minutes. Knead again for about 30 seconds.

Brush a light covering of olive oil on top and leave to rise (prove) for 6-10 hours. The wetness of the dough and temperature and humidity in your house will determine the right length of time, but you can also make it suit your schedule. If you get home late from work, it may have fallen from the top of its rise a bit, but it doesn’t really matter, you’ll still get great bread from the second rise.

For the second rise, I don’t really ‘punch it down’, I simply pour it out of the bowl and fold it over like a book, turned at 90 degrees repeatedly, to form bubbles inside until it’s quite tight and doesn’t want to stretch any further. Then I put it into a lightly oiled (and usually with polenta on bottom) bread tin for the final rise. NB oil your hands and the board for this bit to avoid loads of sticky dough everywhere. Allow to rise overnight.

A quick note on stickyness – I love the results of a wetter dough, but too wet and it doesn’t rise with structure (so needs to be in a tin, not on a tray), too dry and you get dry bread. A really wet dough may rise beautifully but collapse before you hop up in the morning to bake it – the result will still be good, but just a bit shorter with a tougher top crust. Keep experimenting until it’s how you like it best.

Sunken loaves from a wet dough left to rise too long - still noms!

My favourite bit is waking up with a gorgeous sunrise washing through the house and turn on the oven to warm the kitchen.

I bake my bread on the lowest rack at max temp (which on my oven is around 250C) for about 20 minutes – until the top is golden & the bottom makes a hollow sound if you tap it. Occasionally I remember to put a water bath on the top rack or spray some water in for more yummy holes in the bread.

Enjoy your warm, fresh loaves every morning and take time to reflect on what a mood enhancer they are.

There’s no doubt that making bread feels good – it’s homely, nurturing & nostalgic – and if you’re making good bread, it’s especially satisfying. And given I devote around 10 minutes prep time to mine (that includes all stages), I no longer believe anyone who says it’s too hard or too time consuming, or that it’s some Little House on the Prairie anti-feminist practice.

What’s the best thing since sliced bread? A whole loaf you made yourself.

Mood leaveners

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  2. 2010: The Year My Sourdough Obsession Gets Personal
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  4. Fancy Gap fried chicken & artichokes
  5. The banal pleasures of cooking