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My interest in fermented foods started perhaps a couple of years ago, when I began to investigate making ginger beer. This introduced me to the concepts of wild yeast, and starter cultures. I absolutely love the combination of food and science in this. I had a couple of ginger beer experiments, with varying success, probably not helped by being a bit inconsistent with my ginger beer starter (or bug) feeding patterns. Then life got busier (as olive oil started to take over) and I didn’t make much more progress.

Wild Fermentation book by Sandor Katz

Wild Fermentation book by Sandor Katz

One of my favourite blogs is zerowastechef.com. The changes she’s made to pretty much eliminate waste from her home are inspiring, and I love the tips and tricks she shares about this. This week she’s posted about making soup from leftovers, including really simple and easily adapted recipes. She’s passionate about fermented foods too, and makes it sound really do-able. She runs workshops, and is now running regular free webinars for people who can’t make it to one of the real life sessions, which I think is such a cool idea.

So, having been thinking about fermentation for quite a while, I decided to get going this year. Something I’ve realised is that you have to be patient. Not easy in this current world of instant gratification… And it does take a bit of planning. Rather than doing one thing at a time, I thought it would be a brilliant idea to start it all in one go… Sourdough, kombucha, and ginger beer. Not quite as wonderful in practice, as I haven’t had time to keep everything going!

My new ginger bug is sort of working, but I haven’t quite got around to the whole making of the beer bit. The bug was bubbling reasonably well but then I put it in the fridge, to give myself a bit of time. It’s now been in and out a couple of times, but it hasn’t quite got back to where it was. Not sure about the likely survival of this!

Ginger beer bug (left), and kombucha (right).

Ginger beer bug (left), and kombucha (right).

Kombucha has been much better. I bought a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) from someone on Gumtree, followed the instructions, had to wait A WHOLE WEEK while the friendly fermenting bugs did their stuff, but got a tasty drink at the end of it. My husband won’t touch it though. He thinks the SCOBY is too weird. And although it is pretty weird, I’m kind of fascinated by it. Like an alien lifeform.

The sourdough has received the most time input and it’s been generally successful. I had an initial starter failure. Due to not reading the instructions properly, not feeding it at the right time, and letting it dry out. The second time went much better. I’m totally amazed that by mixing flour and water, and letting it sit around, that you end up with something alive. It’s so cool. But you have to be patient. It took about seven days to get a starter that was behaving in the way it’s supposed to, and consistently doubling in size.

There are lots of slightly varying instructions on how to make a starter, but for mine I followed advice from the zerowastechef “How to make a sourdough starter”, and also from this website “Sourdough Home”.

Weighing the flour worked better for me than using cup measurements. The consistency of the starter seemed too thick with the cups. I’ve used a mixture of white organic all-purpose flour and rye flour for the starter. The first time I used cheesecloth to cover the mixture, but it dried out too much. Since then I’ve been using cling film (sorry zerowastechef!), but actually I could use a plate instead. The water was another thing to consider, as some people find the chlorine in most domestic tap water to be a problem for the friendly bugs. Now I’ve got into the routine of putting some tap water in a jug and leaving it there for a few hours or overnight to let the chlorine dissipate.

So, finally I had some starter to use, and I wanted to make something to eat now!! Then I realised that pretty much everything sourdough related takes extra time to make too. Pancakes turned out to be what I could do straight away, while I waited another day to make some bread. To see the recipe I used click here. (I obviously used extra virgin olive oil instead of the suggested butter or coconut oil!) We actually had a batch of pancakes for breakfast this morning, cooked on the BBQ 🙂 Yum!

TIP – when cup measurements of starter are given, this seems to refer to starter that’s been stirred, so you’re measuring the actual starter, and not including the air bubbles. I have to say that I prefer to go by weight, it seems to me that that’s more reproducible.

Sourdough pancakes

Sourdough pancakes.

The next complication was that I couldn’t get my head around the timings of:

  • when to feed the starter prior to mixing up the dough,
  • when to start making the bread dough,
  • when, for how long, and how many times to let the bread rise,
  • and when it would be ready to cook, and eat!

I didn’t want to get stuck with a step that had to be done in the middle of the night!

As with the starter instructions, it seems like everyone makes their sourdough bread slightly differently!  This video from Hobbs House Bakery is great, it’s so useful to see what everything looks like at the different stages. And the step on shaping the loaf really helped me out. “Mould the dough into the desired shape” didn’t really mean much to me! They’ve got a recipe section on their website here.

Their list of equipment is a bit daunting, and a lack of several items nearly stopped me in my tracks! I don’t have a proving basket (didn’t even know they existed!), but this article from River Cottage suggested using a floured cloth lining a bowl, so I did that. And I don’t have a spray bottle, so I put a dish of boiling water in the base of the oven. And I don’t have a baking stone, so I used a heavy dish instead.

The first loaf I made was the little one from the Hobbs House recipe. It was small (Husband: “Is that it?”) but perfectly formed.

For reasons I still don’t understand, rather than following the same method the next time, I decided to use the measurements from their big loaf, but to try a “no knead” method. Like I said, don’t know why. I like kneading dough, so it was a combination of curiosity and laziness! I mixed up the starter, the flour, and the water until it just came together, and left it overnight. It rose well, but when I tried to shape it, it became apparent that it was just a huge sticky mass. No photos of this, as my fingers were totally glued together!! Eventually I managed to add enough flour to make it less like ectoplasm, and manoeuvred it into a bowl. It rose again, and I managed to get it onto the dish for baking a few hours later. I put baking parchment under it, because I was worried it’d get stuck. I’m not sure if this is the reason why when I took it out, the base was a bit damp, or whether that was just a reflection of the dough being too wet. Anyway I put it back in on the shelf for 10 minutes, and it dried out fine. Although the crust was a bit thick and tough. Not sure if that’s from having steam in the oven for the whole cooking time.

Fast forward to the current time – week three – and having not learnt from my mistake about trying something new every time, I decided to use a majority of white bread flour with some spelt flour. It turns out that spelt absorbs a lot less water than regular bread flour, so I ended up with a VERY STICKY pile of dough. It rose ok however, and I managed to sort of shape it and get it into the cloth lined dish for the second rise. It rose again, but when I went to tip it into a casserole dish to bake it was stuck to the (not floured enough) tea towel, and then and it got stuck on the side of the dish.  Then the top was too sticky to be able to slash it properly and it kind of wrinkled and tore. I threw it in the oven anyway (it was 10pm by this point…) and hoped for the best! The result is a loaf that has a pretty good flavour and texture, but is in several pieces because it was glued to the dish.

So next time, maybe I should just follow a recipe! I’ve been collecting a few on Pinterest. If you’ve got any favourites I’d love to hear about them. And if there are any other Pinners around, maybe this could be a community board? Please let me know your Pinterest user name if you’re interested, and I’ll invite you 🙂 FFx