Flour. Water. Salt. The three simple, humble constituents of a homemade loaf of sourdough bread; a prime example of Aristotle’s observation that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Just over a week ago, I vigorously whisked up a mixture of water and spelt flour, which I kept at room temperature while ‘feeding’ it almost daily, first discarding a similar amount each time to maintain a relatively stable quantity.
After a week, the smell of the mixture suddenly changed; from a sharp acrid tang reminiscent of cider vinegar and fusty cupboards, it became a gentle mellow thing. When I fed it this final time, instead of discarding a portion, I made it into what is known as a sponge, by adding a mix of rye and wheat flour and water.
The sponge rested overnight, then the final addition of flour and salt was incorporated to form a dough. I kneaded this, then shaped and rested it several times through the course of a day until finally it was ready to be split, shaped and proved one final time, and baked.
The result was three beautiful sourdough loaves; from a mixture of spelt, rye and wheat flours. The transformation from three simple ingredients to these majestic tangy loaves with such an open texture and flavourful crust rather takes my breath away.
I am surprised still by the vigour of the starter – even in the fridge, where the cooler temperature should now reduce its need for feeding to once a week or thereabouts, it has continued to ferment and grow, pushing its way out of one container already. The yeast and ‘friendly’ bacteria that have created these loaves, giving them their texture and taste, were conjured from the air – what a marvellous trick.
Slow fermentation and the presence of Lactobacillus make sourdough bread more digestible than modern rapid-culture loaves, with better absorption of vitamins and minerals from the grain, and a far lower glycaemic index or load. If you’ll excuse me, I’m just heading back to the kitchen for another virtuous slice of bread…
I used the instructions in River Cottage Bread (Handbook No. 3) to create my sourdough starter, and turn it into these handsome loaves.