Playing with sourdough
by Rachel Jesson
in Blogs

I have this love-hate relationship with making sourdough breads. I tried very hard to include a recipe in our book Wholesome Nutrition, but at that time I was truly unsuccessful in making them. After consuming kilograms of rye flour, I was turning out bread that was hard enough to concuss Ian!

At one point, I had nailed my starter (which acts like the instant yeast used in commercial breads), conquered the bulk fermentation by which your dough doubles (almost triples in size with our hot Jozi weather), but then would somehow manage to ruin the dough by de-gassing it at the proofing stage. I tried really hard, but continued to be unsuccessful.

A few weeks back, I decided to delve into the labouring love of making this bread again. However, I was now open to working with stoneground wheat flour because I figured that if I could understand the dough better, I may just be able to make the bread that I wanted. I went to a sourdough bread workshop for a day to brush up on my knowledge and dived right in.

The first wheat loaf I ever made was another flop. I felt like I had started where I had left off two years ago. It was edible, but had no oven spring (rise) and was far too dense. I had managed to de-gas it again by messing up the shaping process, and my heart dropped into my big toe.  

I then looked for the five sourdough books (yes, I can’t buy one of anything, especially books!) that I’d bought in desperation two years ago to try and figure out my mistakes; I pulled my shoulders back, stuck my chest out and tried again. I froze my starter, had a back-up in the fridge and another two going on the kitchen counter! I could do this… I attempted the 66 per cent rye option next, so it had some wheat in it and I would still be able to manipulate the dough. I figured that if I messed up the shaping process, I was going to dump it all in a loaf tin and that way I couldn’t make the mistake again. And guess what? I made my first ever sourdough loaf. I took a photo of it and sent it to everyone I knew who had understood my fight for this loaf. I was over the moon. It had a lovely oven spring, a beautiful colour and really was a good tasting bread.

I only gave the wheat two chances because I started developing a rash on my face, which to me is a sign that I am not at peace with my wheat sensitivity yet, even if it is in a fermented state, so I went straight for the ‘kill’ and made a 100 per cent rye. My third attempt was another disaster. It was impossible to manipulate the dough and felt like I was working with sticky mud. Because rye is truly impossible to shape, I tried the loaf tin again and my shoulders drooped again. Another brick of a loaf that if you kicked, it you may have broken your foot! Heavy and doughy and even stodgy to the gut. Oh my poor insides from all my experimenting!

I downed a few glasses of kefir and began again. This time leaving my 100 per cent rye dough to ferment for longer. I managed to get it lighter in texture, but it still needed work.

I then tried a spelt-rye mix, where there was more spelt flour than rye in the mixture. This dough was wonderful to work with, super easy to knead and I actually could say that I felt like a bread baker. The act of kneading is incredibly therapeutic and it’s almost impossible to over-knead a sourdough, so I’ve been using this as my excuse for getting out of certain mummy duties when I can. Shhh, don’t tell anyone - it’s my secret. The bread rose beautifully and was a glorious golden colour with a lovely light sour taste and a chewy crisp crust. Just delicious. I made another one just to see if it wasn’t a fluke, and it wasn’t.

My next experiment will be a gluten-free sourdough bread. I’m not sure if you can even buy this option in South Africa, but I’m going to get my hands dirty trying. I would love to experiment with a variety of gluten-free flours to see which combination works best. And I imported my gluten-free starter all the way from San Francisco, so I have an even better excuse to get baking.