It’s become somewhat synonymous with self-isolation, the home-made sourdough loaf. Made five delicious banana breads? Tick. Collect £200, move past go and straight onto the oh-so-trendy artisan sourdough loaf!
With bread flour harder to come by than loo roll and the sudden realisation that I’ve no idea how my favourite vehicle for smashed avo and poached eggs is made, I jumped on the opportunity to get my hands on one of the Indytute’s Signature Sourdough Starter Home Kits.
Just a few short days later, a satisfyingly large box arrived at my door, bringing with it that giddy exuberance you felt receiving post as a child: a mixture of Christmas morning vibes and an almost overwhelming urge to rip the paper off with your teeth (I didn’t – just think of the hygiene implications).
Inside, packaged like a fine dress in layers of tissue and packing paper is the ultimate sourdough starter kit, packed everything you could possibly need to make bread from scratch.
Or nearly scratch. In a large Tupperware with a lid, a monster-like goo resides: the magic-making sourdough starter.
In a cute little envelope, on heavy paper, a letter from Dough – the kit's creators – explains all the steps you go through, what each piece of equipment is for and some handy tips for the perfect loaf.
It turns out, having a sourdough starter is a little bit like having a pet. A brilliant pet, you only need to feed once a week, you never need to walk (a modern-day Tamagotchi, if you like) and will not only provide you with tasty bread, but has the added bonus of giving your house that warm, fresh bread smell that will make you want to never leave. Which is lucky, because you can't leave it anyway.
As someone who’s been shielding solo, I’ve become incredibly close to my houseplants. I’m not sure anyone has ever kept a basil plant alive this long and I caught myself apologising to one the other day.
Yes, that’s right, I’ve started apologising to the plants. Even the cactus and he’s a little prick. Hehehe.
The houseplants have welcomed the sourdough into the fold with open arms and hope for a distraction from over-watering, aggressive pruning and the odd talking to.
Since it’s arrived, I’ve made five perfect (if I may say so myself) loaves of delicious bread. More bread than I probably ate in 2019 in total.
But, my first loaf (through no fault of the kit at all), my first loaf, turned out to be quite the… Adventure.
To make the starter suitable for sending via post, it arrives in a dormant state. Before getting started, you need to activate it by adding flour from the designated starter flour packet and a little water, giving it a good mix and popping it in the fridge overnight.
I did this in five minutes tops, feeling like a baking Goddess!
Throughout lockdown, my siblings and I have been embroiled in a fierce war over who can cook the best poached egg. Judged anonymously on social media, what had started as a joke on the family WhatsApp group had spiralled into a genuine war, with our friends desperate to know whose egg is whose.
Homemade bread. I’ve worked out the golden ticket. There’s no way I couldn’t win this week’s entry with sourdough from scratch up my sleeve. So I dive right in.
The kit is incredibly comprehensive. It includes everything you could possibly need. From the different types of flour to a scalpel to etch patterns for your bread to grow. From semolina to help your loaf slide into a hot oven to a quality baking tray, an ovenproof ramekin, a tea towel, a water sprayer, rising baskets, a scraper and of course the starter itself.
Ah. Okay, the one thing it doesn’t have is a set of scales or a measuring jug. Two things every kitchen has, right?
I’m the kind of cook that free hands most things. I follow recipes very loosely, use what I have on hand and improvise. But I’m not much of a baker, where it’s so much more important that the measurements are correct.
The kit states it contains everything you need for two loaves which it recommends you make in one batch and freeze if necessary. I have a tiny freezer and live alone, so I decide to stick to one loaf for now. I figure I’m fairly safe in just using half of what’s in each little bag. As for water, I rather smugly find an old, clean pesto jar which had double the millilitres needed for the recipe and use that.
Ah. So, the starter itself grows. And is, therefore, an unknown quantity. I guess I’ll guess that. What could possibly go wrong?
I’ve never made sourdough before, but I have made bread quite a lot. I’m familiar with kneading and dough, this should be a breeze! The instructions say ‘the dough will start out as a sloppy mess, then it will firm up over the first few minutes’, so I wasn’t overly concerned at the rate my wet dough was spreading across my wooden board.
Whereas with other bread I’ve made where you turn the dough out onto a floured surface, the instructions here state ‘use the plastic scraper wherever the dough sticks to the bench, rather than using flour, as you don’t want to change the flour ratio too much’, and explained that the dough will firm up with some vigorous kneading.
So, I roll up my sleeves and get stuck in.
Ten minutes in, it’s become quite clear my guestimations are way out. I can barely scrape the liquid dough back into the middle quick enough to get going again. I’m starting to panic, and I’ve realised doing this in a carpeted room was a mistake.
Who carpets a kitchen? I know, I know. But I rent and there’s a global pandemic, there’s nothing I can do right now.
Ignoring the warning about changing the flour ratio (I’ve obviously gotten it wrong anyway) I decide it’s time to add some more flour to the mix and relief spreads over me as it becomes something more recognisable as dough.
After another ten minutes of kneading, it’s become apparent I was really, really out in my initial ratio, so I liberally shake in some more of my precious flour.
Finally, we have something that looks ready to prove.
I flour my basket, tip in my dough, cover it with the tea towel and liberally spray it with water and leave it overnight.
I leapt out of bed the next morning, half frightened, half excited to see if the beast had risen overnight? But low and behold, it was double the size, peeking plumply out of its basket under the tea towel.
The next steps went without a hitch. You get your oven and the baking tray as hot as your oven will go, turn your dough out onto a board covered with semolina, use the scalpel to cut some lines in the top, spray it with water and slide it onto the hot tray ready to bake.
After the previous day’s issues, I was a little worried, but it was so easy! The semolina made the loaf slide perfectly into the waiting oven. I felt like a master pizza chef.
It was only when I took my loaf out, I realised I’d forgotten to put the ramekin of hot water in the oven, which is responsible for the crunchy delicious crust you get on your favourite artisan loaf.
You may have noticed, however, that I’m less of a culinary genius than I initially thought and perhaps am not very good at following instructions.
You’re advised to wait at least half an hour after your bread comes out of the oven before slicing, which were possibly the longest 30 minutes of my life. But, miraculously, when I did, I found myself with a slightly wonky, but totally delicious load of home-made bread!
The bubbles inside were smaller than that of your usual sourdough and the top looked a little floury but it tasted delicious!
A few days later, having procured a set of scales and a measuring jug I gave it another go. And it was a total dream!
The kneading process was easy, I’d go as far as saying therapeutic.
The loaf rose in perfect symmetry and with the addition of water to the oven came out with a beautifully rich, crunchy crust. The recommended flour mix makes a deliciously mild, nutty bread and when you don’t totally faff up the kneading process it rises into a light and airy ball of deliciousness.
A modern-day Tamagotchi, your starter only survives as long as you feed it, but I couldn’t recommend this kit more.
... Just make sure you’ve got a set of scales before you start!
Further Reading: feeling foodie? Why not Recreate the Restaurant Experience at Home?