Tag Archives: natural leaven

Sourdough September

Sourdough, plus Lux

Although I’ve still not got a kitchen, and can’t bake – seven weeks and counting – doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about baking. I think about baking a lot. I wish I could just knock up a batch of cookies, or put make some bread. I have, at least, been tending my sourdough starter, which is quietly biding its time at the back of the fridge, not entirely dormant, but not particularly active.

Sadly, I still won’t have a kitchen, or an oven, until late October, so I won’t be able to do any naturally leavened loaves during Sourdough September. This is the annual event organised by the Real Bread Campaign, a series of “local events and activities to help share sourdough secrets and demystify the delicious delights of the oldest way of raising a loaf.”

Not only is making your own bread not that difficult,  creating your own natural leaven, or sourdough culture, to use instead of commercial yeast, isn’t either. Read all about it here.

Oh, and that’s Lux with my sourdough. I notice she didn’t wipe her feet when she came in from the building site, which isn’t very hygienic. I’ll have a word with her about that before she heads off to the spa (okay, cattery) while me and Fran get out of the way of the builders for a week, firstly by walking the South Downs Way from Lewes to Winchester.

 

 

 

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Sourdough pizza and Hastings Brewery’s No 6 Hop Forward Pale Ale

Sourdough pizza with Hastings Brewery No 6 Pale Ale

Even though we ate tonnes on Saturday night, accompanied by various local beers and wines, I was making bread dough on Tuesday evening and thought, heck, why not make another pizza? One of the justifications was that on Saturday night one batch we did was slightly over-baked and the other slightly under-baked, so I wanted to keep on experimenting with our oven to try and get it right.

Anyone who’s made real pizza in a domestic oven will know it can be slightly challenging, largely because you simply can’t get the heat. My oven goes up to about 250C (480F) but a wood-fired pizza oven can get up to 450C (840F), enabling flash baking. You can improve things in a domestic oven by using a baking stone. Stones are excellent as you heat them in the oven first, so when the pizza is slid onto them, they’re already hot and help bake the dough through, quickly, as well as crisping up the base.

But I’ve not got one at the moment.

Currently, I’m just using a metal baking sheet, which goes into the oven cold. It’s not ideal, as, depending on the temperature variables in your oven, you can get a done, or potentially burnt, top, before the base is full baked. Even though I’m pleased with this recipe, the base wasn’t baked to perfection. That’s the challenge – for me and for you, as your oven will be different again.

Hastings Brewery No 6. With cat

Hopping forward
The other enjoyable factor about this pizza dinner – aside from being able to eat it outside on a warm English summer evening, 20C, no mosquitoes – was a great beer. I mentioned in my previous post I don’t think the light mild beer I was drinking was a good food pairing. This time round I chose a considerably more hoppy beer, and it worked well.

This was a Handmade No 6 Pale Ale bottled beer from Hastings Brewery, bought from the excellent Trafalgar Wines in Brighton, a booze shop with an excellent selection of beers. Apparently Hastings Brewery beers are their second-best selling now, after beers from The Kernel in London.

Hastings Brewery is a new discovery for me. I’m slowly working my way through all the local breweries. This one is 23 miles away from my home in Lewes. It started with founders Pete Mason and Brett Ross inspired “whilst litter picking after the Hastings Beer & Music Festival in July 2010.” Pete’s dad Andy got on board and by 2011 they’d bought “a larger – but still small – brewery”.

They’re an interesting outfit as not only do they do everything by hand on a small scale, with brews of 800 litres, they’re also make entirely vegan products. A lot of drinkers may not realise beer generally isn’t very vegetarian or vegan, but it’s often filtered with isinglass finings, which are fish bladders. Pete Mason is a vegan, as is their sales manager. Their beers are unfiltered. For some, this is appealing as filtering, arguably, can remove some of the flavour and mouthfeel.

The brewery’s label design and branding is great too. Their labels – all featuring a lion with fine mane and tongue sticking out1 – certainly stood out on the shelf at Trafalgar Wines.

Handmade

The 4.8% ABV beer, with its slightly unwieldy full name of ‘Hastings Handmade No 6 Hop Forward Pale Ale (Columbus)’, is very much a British take on a US craft beer. It’s defined by its use of Columbus, an American hop variety with a high alpha acid (around 15%), making it suitable for assertive bittering, 48 IBUs apparently. I suspect they’ve also used it for late-hopping (adding later in the boil, so it the oils aren’t totally broken down) or even dry hopping (adding during the conditioning stage so the oils remain largely intact) as the beer is highly aromatic: citrus, ginger, passion fruit, honey. The taste, while defined by massive bitterness, is also honeyed, with a salty, minerally aftertaste that verges on soapiness. [See below – actually they used a hopback.]

This beer really reminded us of our travels in the US, and while I have vague feelings of disloyalty to more traditional, malty, subtly hopped British beer styles when I drink something like this, I also love how British brewers are playing around with US styles. I love all the international cross-pollination of tastes and styles. The beer also went really well with our pizza, which I topped with mozzarella, thinly sliced pancetta from Beals Farm Charcuterie and a pecorino romano, for that added salty goodness.

I was hoping to add some asparagus but while I still saw plenty on the farmers’ markets a few days ago, guess what? Waitrose – nominally the less unethical British supermarket – only had asparagus from Peru! Southafeckingmerica!!! It’s asparagus season here – in England – right now, the end of the season sure, but still now. Now. In England. I’ve seen signs outside farms as I’ve cycled around Sussex, mere miles from that branch of Waitrose. Supermarket food economics is bonkers. Not to mention environmentally appalling.

Baked pizza

Sourdough pizza recipe
This makes one large-ish pizza, about 30cm (12 inch), but could cut up and manipulated differently. If you roll it flat, you’ll get a much more Roman-style pizza. If you open out the centre more and leave a wider, fatter edge, you’ll get a more Neapolitan-style pizza. The latter is called a cornicione and is the speciality of Michael Hanson at The Hearth in Lewes. Lewes, depressingly, has about four industrial chain pizza places; I’d say my pizza is better than all of theirs, easily, though still second-best in Lewes, after The Hearth.

This is a naturally leavened dough, so you want to make it the day before, to give it time to do a nice long fermentation.

250g strong white bread flour (or a mixture of strong, high protein flour and plain, all-purpose flour)
180g water
50g sourdough starter (100% hydration. I used a rye-based one, but wheat-based would be fine too)
15g olive oil (a good glug basically, QB)
5g salt

1. Whisk together the sourdough starter and water. It doesn’t matter if the water is cool, as it’s a long fermentation it doesn’t really need that boost of using body-temperature water. Try and use water that’s not too chlorinated or fluorinated. I filter my tap water with a Brita and the sourdough starter seems to prefer it.
2. Add the flour and salt and stir together well.
3. Add the olive oil and keep blending until well-combined.
4. Turn the dough out onto a work surface lightly greased with more olive oil and give it a short knead. It is a relatively wet dough. If you find it too sloppy, add a little more flour – but not too much or you’ll make a nasty dry dough.2
5. Put the dough back in the bowl, cleaned and oiled, and let it rest for 15 minutes before giving it another quick knead, stretching it and folding it over. Repeat this twice more, then put the dough back in the bowl, again, cleaned and oiled.
6. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a shower cap, and put it in the fridge and let it ferment slowly for about 24 hours.
7. Take the dough out of the fridge about an hour before you want to use it.
8. Form it into a ball on a floured work surface. Cover.
9. When you want to bake, preheat your oven to the highest setting.
10. Gently stretch out the dough. Don’t be too rough, or you’ll damage the structure that’d been developing during the fermentation period. How you open it up depends on what shape of pizza you’re making (see above).
11. Once you have opened up the dough to almost the desired shaped, gently transfer it to an oiled baking sheet, hanging it over your forearm and taking care not to poke your fingers through it.
12. Cover with your desired toppings. I did a pizza rossa – with tomato sauce – along with the abovementioned cheese and pancetta. Here’s the pizza before it went into the oven:

Unbaked pizza.
13. Bake in your preheated oven until it’s done. Yes, I know that’s vague, but it could be 10 minutes, it could be 25, with the oven turned down a little lower to make sure the middle of the base bakes and the top doesn’t char (too much).
14. Enjoy. Preferably al fresco with a quality, hoppy local beer.

 

Info
Hastings Brewery, 12 Moorhurst Road, Hastings TN38 9NB
hastingsbrewery.co.uk | info@hastingsbrewery.co.uk | 01424 572051

 

Trafalgar Wines, 23 Trafalgar St, Brighton BN1 4EQ
01273 683325

 

Footnotes
1 Some local ignorance – is the lion a Hastings thing? Maybe, as there are lions – or one lion and two half-lion/half-boat things – on the town’s crest.
2 The mixture is really 275g flour and 205g water, as the 50g of leaven at 100% hydration is 25g water, 25g flour. So this is a 74.5% hydration dough in bakers’ percentages. I’m using Stoates organic strong white bread flour; I find it quite absorbent, possibly as it’s stoneground and contains more bran. If you’re using a whiter, less branny flour that’s less absorbent, and

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Filed under Ale, beer, Baking, British beer, Pizza, Recipes

The natural leaven, or sourdough starter

What is a leaven?
A leaven is simply the agent that causes a bread or other baked item to rise. It can be a chemical agent like baking powder, or it can be a type of yeast, which is encouraged to fart out carbon dioxide to fill your dough with pockets of gas – the holes in the crumb.

The yeasts (products, not species) most commonly used in bread-making are the powdered, instant or easy-blend yeast, the granular active dried yeast (ADY) aka dried active yeast, and fresh yeast, compressed bakers’ yeast, which is known as lievito di birra (beer yeast) here in Italy, a reminder of the relationship between baking and brewing. On this blog, however, I also talk a lot about natural leavens, which I often just refer to as leavens.

Healthy leaven

Yeast, bacteria and a long, strange symbiosis
A natural leaven is also known as sourdough, or lievito naturale or madre (mother) here in Italy (where it’s generally a much lower hydration), or a levain (if you prefer to use a French term to sound extra sophisticated).

The natural leaven is a culture containing both yeast and bacteria strains. So while bakers’ yeast is the strain Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a natural leaven will contain a colony of various strains of wild yeasts and lactobacilli. The latter is a remarkable genus of bacteria that humanity has had a relationship with for millennia. Lactobacilli play a part in the production of many fundamental consumable delights, such as beer, wine, cheese, yogurt, cocoa and, of course, bread.

It’s a fascinating symbiotic relationship, and one I enjoyed exploring while living on a smallholding in New Zealand years ago, making some crazy cheeses. And who’d have thunk chocolate involved fermentation? Well, it does: the pulp and seeds of the harvested cocoa pods are fermented before drying. Gotta love Theobroma cacao – that is “Cocoa: food of the gods” in Greek.

Anyway, I digress. (As usual.)

When humanity first started making leavened bread, it was thanks to lactobacilli and wild yeasts. In a bread natural leaven, the lactobacilli and yeasts live alongside one another in a sludgy slurry of flour and water, the starter. This was the chief way of making leavened bread from around 1500BC (or earlier) until the Middle Ages, when bakers starting using beer barm, the froth on the fermenting brew.

In the 19th century, when the likes of Louis Pasteur were not only overhauling our understanding of disease but also revolutionising the production of fermented foods, Saccharomyces cerevisiae was finally identified and became, effectively, a crop: brewers’ yeast.

When you mix yeasts with flour, the sugars in the cereal grains (notably maltose) provide them with food. The result of this feeding is lactic and other acids; the by-product is the carbon dioxide. These acids are what can give sourdoughs a pronounced, even tart flavour. Rye flour gives an especially sharp flavoured bread, but some wheat-based sourdoughs can be as mild as breads made with bakers’ yeast.

Healthy leaven

How to create a leaven culture
The easiest way to start a leaven may well be to buy a good book, like Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf. This gives a great account of how it’s done with plenty of lovely pics. Or you could read on, for a somewhat less professional lesson.

If you’re using a good quality flour, one where the character of the grain hasn’t been brutalised too much by industrial processing, it may well contain have suitable wild yeast strains already. The yeasts are also on and in your body, and even in the atmosphere. Some people collect them by leaving a jar of flour and water outside but if you live in a polluted city you might want to control the process a little more carefully.

You can do this by putting a handful of raisins and a few teaspoons of live yogurt in a mixture of equal proportions of water and flour. Another baker here recommends rhubard. While Sandor Ellix Katz says “organic plums, grapes, or berries.”1 The fruit will (hopefully) have just the right yeasts on their skin, the yogurt will introduce the lactobacilli. Put the jar, covered with a cloth or with the lid on loosely, in a warm place.

Over the following few days, feed more flour and water to the leaven, stirring it well. To keep things at a reasonable domestic scale, I tend to feed mine around 20g each of flour and water, morning and night. Equal proportions of water and flour mean you have a “100 per cent hydration” leaven2. Lepard suggests increasing the proportion of flour slightly to slow down the fermentation.

It should start to bubble – not like a fizzy drink of course, but you’ll see gas in the sludge and perhaps some foaminess. The smell will become slightly alcoholic too. If your leaven is nice and active and bubbly, it’s happy – so strain out the raisins, their work is done. You can now use some for baking. (Instead of straining out the raisins at this point, you can just soak them overnight at the start and use the liquid. Watch the video here on Viva La Foccacia. It’s in Italian, but even if you don’t understand, the process is clear.)

If you just keep feeding the leaven, without removing any to use, it can become unhealthy, with too much ethanol (another yeast by-product) in the mix. If this happens, simply take a small amount, and, in a fresh jar, start feeding it again.

Feeding the leaven

Your pet slurry
When you have a natural leaven, you have to think of it almost like a pet: it’s a living thing that needs care, needs feeding. But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to maintain. If I’m not baking much, or not making sourdoughs, I leave my jar of the leaven in the fridge for weeks, even months occasionally. This retards the fermentation process, as the culture prefers a temperature of 25-35C, not the 4C or so of a fridge.

After a while, the leaven will divide into a grey, putty-like goop, with a watery liquid on top. It’s not dead though, just a bit unhappy. To revive it, you can take a spoonful of the goop, put it in a clean jar and start feeding it again, as described above.

If you change the flour, the yeast strains may well change, and your bread may well taste different, but to me that’s all part of the fun. My leaven is about four years old now, had moved house three times and even moved from Britain to Italy. During this time, it’s been fed on white wheat flour, wholewheat flour, durum wheat flour, emmer flour, spelt flour and rye flour.

For a while I had two parallel cultures, one white wheat, one rye, but it didn’t really seem necessary. If you plan ahead, you can simply take some leaven and feed it with a different flour, creating another strain. This may take around a week of regular feeding.

Be nice to your pet slurry and it could last you a lifetime. Or several lifetimes. There are stories of prospectors in the American gold rush who carried their sourdoughs, which may well have originated in Europe, across North America. I can well believe this as, years ago, I knew an Austrian guy in New Zealand who’d transported his culture around the world in the form of dried flakes, which he rehydrated when he wanted to bake. (He was basically smuggling. Introducing food, vegetable matter and organisms to the Antipodes is a serious no-no these days as they have major problems with foreign species. Don’t do it kids!)

Anyway, some of the US immigrant natural leaven cultures may well still be used today in the thriving sourdough bakery scene of the West Coast US. Certainly some cultures still in use date to the mid-19th century. Gotta love that symbiosis.

Footnotes
1 Katz is a respected US fermentation expert. Something of a guru in fact, who treats his HIV with fermented foods. His book Wild Fermentation includes a recipe for Basic Sourdough Starter (page 95), which says this about the inclusion of fruit: “One effective technique for speeding up the introduction of wild yeasts into your sourdough is to drop a little unwashed whole fruit into it. Often on grapes, plums, and berries you can actually see the chalky film of the yeast (‘the bloom’) that is drawn to their sweetness. These and other fruits with edible skins… are great for getting sourdoughs bubbling. Use organic fruit for this. Who knows what antimicrobial compounds could lurk on the skins of the fruits of chemical agriculture?”

2 Bakers’ percentages are based on the amount of liquid (usually, but not always, water) as a proportion, a percentate of the flour in the recipe. There’s more info here. Leaven percentages are considered in the same way as dough percentages.

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