One of the things beginner sourdough bakers worry about is the care and feeding of their leaven. That’s only right and proper; having received or created a culture, the last thing you want to do is neglect it. On the other hand, a good culture is a pretty resilient thing, so I always tell people at my workshops not to worry too much if they have not been able to bake for a while. Yes, the leaven may become a bit smelly. It may throw off some liquid hooch, or even be sporting spots of mould. No matter, it is probably OK and will respond to a little TLC.

I just had a chance to put my own words to the test.

Both of my leavens had been sitting quietly at the back of the fridge for around 7 or 8 weeks, and both had a bit of hooch and a bit of a pong. I tackled the 100% hydration starter first.

You can see the greyish hooch in the photo above. Oftentimes I’ll just stir it in, but this time I poured it off. Then I took a spoon of the culture — about 12 gm — into a clean jar, added 30 gm of water and 30 gm of flour, stirred them well together, put the lid on loosely and left it on the counter.

Twelve hours later, this was the result:

A classic active and lively starter. To put it to good use, I made a single loaf of Hamelman’s Whole-wheat Bread with a Multigrain Soaker, adapted to use a natural leaven instead of a preferment.1 It rose beautifully.

I baked in a cast-iron casserole, now much easier with my new method. Instead of just tipping the loaf from the banneton into the very hot casserole and hoping for the best, I now tip first onto a piece of baking parchment, score and then lower the parchment into the casserole. (You can see the fold marks on the side of the loaf.) Much easier and more controlled.

Good eating too.

The moral is, never give up on a neglected starter culture. A couple of quick builds will usually bring it back to active, bubbly life. Next up, I’ll repeat the process with my “ancient” 75% wholemeal starter.

  1. If there’s interest, I can post my version of the recipe. 

There is a wonderful, and largely forgotten, graphic novella by Tom Wolfe, called The Man Who Always Peaked Too Soon (glimpses here) and for an age it was a standing joke in our family that I too always peaked too soon. Also that I was too idle to do anything with my insights before they turned into the Next Big Thing. Now, here I am, on the brink of returning to that freelance life, thinking hard about how to make it work and discovering that I have been so neglectful of so many things over the past few salaried years. Things that give me genuine satisfaction, that feed the autonomy, mastery and purpose that I find essential to make life worth living.

So it is that I have spent much of the morning searching for the notes I am sure I made about a loaf of bread I know I made. I know I made it because I have the photos to prove it. And I took them to illustrate a post, here or elsewhere. But no trace of that can I find.

The bread used grano arso, or burnt flour, which I came across in May 2011. I failed to find out much about it, but I baked with it that same month. And I was thinking about that because I’ve just recorded something for Eat This Podcast that rekindled my interest and sent me to the internet, where I discover a little burp of interest that apparently starts in February 2012.

See? The Man Who Always Peaked Too Soon.



Into the oven



Anyway, I wanted to be able to lay some claim to an early interest, but the best I have is these photographs. My recollection is that I used a standard semolina recipe, raised with yeast rather than a natural leaven, and that I used about 25% grano arso. I also remember it being delicious, so why didn’t I make more of it? And why didn’t I make any pasta?

If you can’t find any, there are now plenty of suggestions online for how to make your own. Are they “authentic,” whatever that means? I don’t really care.

Originally posted 16 November 2006

I know that everyone and her cat has already blogged Jim Lahey’s No-knead bread, as seen last week in the New York Times. That won’t stop me adding my take on the matter, late through no great fault of my own. That is, I’ve been snowed under at work, one reason why posting here has been slight of late, and when not at work I’ve been socializing conscientiously, leaving no time for solitary pleasures. Indeed, one reason I opted to try that bread is that I haven’t had time to make bread the traditional way for ages. So, last Thursday I threw the ingredients together, and on Friday I baked the loaf. I was working while it was in the oven, but in a manner of speaking live blogged the entire event in a series of one-line emails to a friend who shares my passion for good bread. Not that I’m going to resurrect those here.

The point is, it worked. and it worked amazingly well. The dough was incredibly loose, more like a biga or poolish than like a proper bread dough. And it slopped all over the shop. Instructions to form it into a ball I regarded as a joke. No sooner had I done so than it collapsed into a pancake. But I managed to get it into the heated casserole without incident, and then monitored its progress, and I was astounded. It sprang up beautifully. The crust hardened, but the crumb kept rising, until it broke through, resulting in those luscious crispy points. The crust was crunchy and chewy (the cornmeal doesn’t hurt on that score) and the crumb was light without being airy.

All in all, a miracle. And – like all miracles – a bit confounding.

I’ve learned a couple of things in a long history of baking. One, originally from Elizabeth David’s incomparable English Bread and Yeast Cookery, is that less yeast and more time invariably results in a tastier loaf. It’s obvious really that the longer the yeast has to work its biochemical magic, within reason, the more complex are going to be the results, and thus the better the flavour. The other, from experience and all the books, is that there’s no substitute for a good knead. Doesn’t matter whether you do it by hand or by machine, there’s something that happens to the dough that makes it elastic, maybe even shiny, and an entirely different beast.

Lahey’s method reinforces the benefits of a long, slow rise. But the fact that it rose so well and had such a fine crumb with literally no kneading knocked me sideways. Mark Bittman, for his article on Lahey , was similarly flummoxed and consulted the God of kitchen scientists, Harold McGee (who started blogging a few months ago). His response:

“It makes sense. The long, slow rise does over hours what intensive kneading does in minutes: it brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile in a high proportion of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.”

Indeed, it does make sense.

Buoyed by the first loaf, I decided to try a second one with my sourdough, which has made my bread for more than a decade, on and off. Mostly off, lately. I just used Lahey’s standard quantities, but instead of a smidgen of yeast, dumped in the ragged old starter. If anything this mix was even wetter than the first. But the result was just as good. Better, in fact, if you really like sourdough flavour, and I do.

It didn’t rise as well, not surprising seeing as I hadn’t fed the starter in a couple of months. But the crumb was great, with the big holes that I personally really enjoy. and the crust was good and chewy. Next time, which may well be on Saturday, I’m sure it will be much better.

A few points in conclusion.

I’d like to have taken a photograph of the inside of the first, yeasty loaf. Unfortunately, it disappeared too quickly. By the time I realized that I had wolfed down the last bruschetta with fresh, fruity olive oil, it was too late.

Rebecca has links to the article and the recipe; go to her, and I guarantee you’ll find something else to like.

I continue to loathe and despise the American habit of measuring solids (and powders like flour are solids too) by volume. I know I read an article once by Raymond Sokolov on why they do this, but I’m blowed if I can find it now. Nor can I remember his answer. Anyway, it is dumb. For anyone who is interested, I used 480 gm of 00 soft flour. And if you know the article I’m talking about, tell me where I can find it.

All hail Jim Lahey.


I’m reposting this here and now because today’s Eat This Podcast featured Suzanne Dunaway, who launched Buona Forchetta bakery from her kitchen in Los Angeles. Suzanne was one of the first people to popularise the no-knead technique, which prompted me to go back to my own first attempts. In the meantime, as any search engine will reveal, no-knead bread has developed a life of its own, with supporters and detractors in roughly equal measure. Me, I’m equivocal …

Bagels for Sunday brunch have become altogether too easy, and while I keep telling people I no longer cook to show off, what I really mean is that I no longer cook only to show off. Of course there remains an element of demonstrating my mastery, to myself as much as to anyone else. What finer way, then, to do so casually than to conjure up a basket of proper croissants, here in the land of the oversweet, unbuttery cornetto?

I knew the principle already; essentially a sweet puff pastry, dough finely laminated with butter. And I knew, in theory, how to make it. Dan Lepard, whose recipes are generally really good, had a detailed one for croissants in Exceptional Breads. Best of all, croissants are, they say, equally good reheated from frozen, which would be easy enough in an oven already hot from bagels. So, on Friday evening, I made my dough, following the recipe precisely.

It was very stiff, stiffer by far than bagel dough.

I checked and rechecked the recipe and reaffirmed both that I had followed it to the letter and that 220ml of liquid for 500gm of flour was both correct, as printed, and very, very wrong. Naturally, I flew to the internets. Dan Lepard, who in the past has been very helpful, was MIA. Last Friday evening, his website read “14th October 2013 Working on a new website design, should be ready soon.” It still does.

Search engines were no help; nobody else appears to have even tried that particular recipe. Or if they did, they failed to publish their difficulties.

I searched further, for croissant recipes, and though there seemed to be lots of them, the vast majority were from the US and measured volumetrically, making any quick calculation of hydration a pain. At last, I found Jeremy Shapiro’s series of posts detailing his adventures in pursuit of the perfect croissant. Now, I’ve been slightly snarky about this other Jeremy before, and he took it in very good part, so I decided to ask his advice, even overcoming my reluctance to sign in to leave a comment. And, a true gent, he replied: 58% hydration, as against the recipe’s 44%.

Long story short, next morning I sweated and strained to work the extra milk into the dough, schlepped my way through the butter lamination, the rolling out, the cutting and the shaping, and baked the little buggers.

They tasted great — with that much butter, sawdust would taste great — but they had failed to rise and really were not presentable. With hindsight, they were destined to fail. As Jeremy S. told me (too late, alas): “Start over! Or the detrempe will be overworked!”

And that’s what I plan to do, half a batch at a time, until I have failed often enough to get them right.

The failures are still in the freezer; too good to throw away, too bad to serve to anyone else.

Inspired by an article in Smithsonian online’s Food & Think column — What Makes Whole-Grain Bread So Hard to Bake? — I started to reminisce about my start in baking bread and to read around various recipes online and in books. The only thing to do, in the end, was to try it, putting what I’ve learned over the past few years into practice. And all is going well, so far. The oven is busy heating up, and in a few hours I’ll know for sure whether it really is as hard as people say it is to make 100% wholemeal bread.

Watch this space.