How to make the best sourdough bread from scratch
Tivoli Road Bakery’s tips and tricks for baking sourdough bread (and why you should).
In World War II they dug for victory. In the coronavirus era we’re baking for boredom – and rediscovering some old-fashioned magic in the process.
“I made my first loaf of sourdough just for something to do, but it’s come to be a lovely soothing ritual,” says Olivia Hill-Douglas, a television producer who, like most of the nation, is now working mostly from home. “The smell of freshly baked bread is amazing, and it’s so gratifying when you take it out of the oven and see that it’s worked properly. It’s just a fun solitary occupation, and you get breakfast in the process.”
It’s never been more important to have a hobby, and baking bread is leavening life under lockdown, literally and metaphorically. Social media feeds are clogged with artful close-ups of burnished loaves fresh from the oven, and mixing, shaping and baking have become credible topics for Houseparty catch-ups.
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to interpret the self-sufficiency of baking as a way of reclaiming some control in uncertain and worrying times. Making your own bread is mindfulness in action. The comfort of carbohydrates plays a crucial role in the brain’s feel-good chemistry (it’s why we crave things like bread and pasta during times of stress). Even the weight-conscious – to whom carbs are normally verboten – are indulging in the simple delights of bread and butter, safe in the sartorial comforts of their work-from-home loungewear.
“One of the few good things to come out of the coronavirus is the new enthusiasm for baking,” says Michael James, who founded Tivoli Road Bakery in South Yarra and recently launched the bakery at Daylesford’s Dairy Flat Farm. “People finally have the time and patience to learn the skill for themselves.”
It takes only a few hours to make bread using commercial yeast (assuming you can source some yeast, which along with flour has been stripped from grocery and supermarket shelves), but sourdough has the boasting rights all sewn up. “Yeast is quick, but sourdough is all about time and process,” says James. Unlike other yeasted breads, sourdough uses only flour and water along with a ‘live’ sourdough starter; the go-to-whoa process takes around 24 hours and involves several stages of kneading and proofing.
“It’s bread on steroids,” says Michael of sourdough. The volatility of working with something that is essentially alive is part of the challenge – and the fun. “Intuition is a big thing. Smell and touch are important and they’re only things that can be picked up by a process of trial and error.”
One of the few good things to come out of the coronavirus is the new enthusiasm for baking.
Northcote-based building designer Luke Middleton is another iso-convert to home baking who is newly versed in the agony and ecstasy of sourdough.
“I did a plain white that was pretty successful but then along came the loaf we called The Brick. We were optimistic when it came out of the oven, but it gradually revealed its true identity.”
The post-mortem on The Brick has revealed several rookie mistakes, including a starter that hadn’t been fed properly. But it hasn’t turned Luke’s household off their bread-making ritual, especially when success stories have converted a pair of normally crust-avoiding children into whole-loaf aficionados. “It’s a lot of time and effort at the start, then you gradually build your system and it becomes part of day-to-day life.”
Once the lockdown lifts, it’s safe to predict we’ll be returning to a more bread-literate normal. “I’ll definitely keep baking as part of my weekend routine once I’m back at work,” says Olivia. “Plus, after learning how much work goes into a really good loaf of sourdough, I’ll never complain about paying $10 for a loaf again.”
Tivoli Road Bakery’s tips and tricks for baking sourdough bread
- Make sure you use bakers’ flour, which has a higher protein and gluten content than conventional flour and is therefore stronger.
- Ask your local baker for some sourdough starter; alternatively, look up a recipe online and make your own from flour and water in around five days.
- You don’t need fancy equipment: a cast-iron pot or Dutch oven gives the all-important radiant heat to the loaf as it bakes in the oven, while a cheap plastic dough scraper will help keep the kitchen bench clean.
- Take notes as you go, recording room temperatures and times. It’s a process of trial and error so don’t be discouraged by failures.
- Once you’ve mastered wheat, try experimenting with other flours, including spelt and rye.