Sourdough

Sourdough part 1.

Living in the United Kingdom, coming from the Netherlands and France, has been quite a shock where it comes to the quality of the bread. I love bread and I love sandwiches so we always have bread in the house. Unfortunately, the UK seems to be stuck with the ubiquitous “sliced white”, a tasteless and soggy excuse for a loaf of bread. The UK has even re-invented the process of bread making (the Chorleywood process) to be able to make it even more tasteless. 80% of the UK’s bread is made using this process, which allows for the use of lower protein-level flours and quicker baking in huge factories, creating a loaf that only does a very poor impersonation of bread.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a baker in the village so, a year ago, I thought it would be fun to try and make my own bread. I did have a very critical audience though; mrs. Urban Wildman comes from a baking family, having grown up in the very successful family bakery. So, any bread I was going to make would have to be good enough for her exacting standards.

I started out using standard baking yeast and the results were OK, still lacking a lot of the flavour I was looking for in a loaf. Therefore I made the plunge and embarked on the path of sourdough, never to look back…

Sourdough is great; it is natural and gives bread with great flavour and texture and isn’t that much more difficult than baking with standard yeast. It does the same thing as standard yeasts, only slower. This slower process means you have to do a little more planning, you can’t wake up in the morning and bake a loaf ready for lunch the same day. Otherwise, almost everything that can be achieved with baker’s yeast can be achieved with sourdough, it just needs a bit more experimentation and understanding of the process and what takes place in your mixing bowl.

In essence, a sourdough culture or starter is just a mix of water and flour in which naturally occurring yeasts from the air surrounding you grows. Because these yeasts ‘eat’ sugars in the mix and convert them to carbon dioxide, they give rise to breads whilst at the same time creating lactic acid which gives the bread a slightly acidic taste.

An added benefit is that it feels as though sourdough bread is easier to digest than standard breads made with baker’s yeast. It createsless bloating and you don’t feel overly lethargic after yet another overly laden sandwich.

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In this post I will explain how I created my own sourdough starter and how I keep it alive. In future posts, I will share my recipe for a standard weekend bake and possibly explore some more recipes.

How to create a sourdough starter

After I had taken the decision on creating my own starter, I of course turned to the magic of the internet to figure out how to do this. Turns out there are several ways, including buying a ready-made or freeze dried starter from another batch. The whole point of sourdough is that you create this mix of flour and water which then forms a healthy feeding medium for yeasts that occur in your house naturally. So buying another culture seemed pointless as I figured the yeasts would be replaced anyway. Plus, as always, I thought I could do better myself…

I wasn’t too confident that we’d have enough yeasts floating around in our kitchen, so I started looking at ways to kick-start the process. I found quite a few methods incorporating fruit and especially apples or grapes in the water-flour mix. The idea is that there are yeasts present on the skins of these fruits that could start growing. Over the course of time, this culture would start being replaced by my kitchen yeasts and the fruits would dissolve in the mix, so it seemed a good idea to give this a try.

Bad idea, the whole thing turned mouldy and bad in a matter of days and I ended up throwing the whole thing out, a little deflated.

A couple of days later, I still thought I wanted to give it a try so I went for the basic recipe:

100 grams of flour and 100 ml of water.
The great thing with sourdough is that this is pretty much all you need to remember when you start. The idea is that, as your culture eats its way through the flour, creating all the good gases and acids, it starts to run out of food and will need topping up or feeding. To create your culture, you need to do this every day, or even twice a day. I did a daily refresh for 10 days, after which I started baking with Graham, as I started calling him (named after the Urban Wildgrandfather baker). I had well and truly created life (cue dramatic music) so now it was all about keeping him alive! Obviously we have quite a few organisms living in our house, because he’s still alive today!

Method:

On day 1, start by mixing 100g of flour and 100ml of water in a container. You can use any kind of flour to do this, I would always recommend using an organic wholemeal flour (wheat, rye or spelt doesn’t matter), non-sterilised of course (sterilisation would kill the yeasts that occur naturally). You don’t have to use the full 100ml of water or you might need some more (the great thing about sourdough is that it is not an exact science), as long as the resulting mix has the consistency of thick wallpaper paste or pancake batter. Don’t choose your container too small as the mixture will stay in there for a while and will rise and fall. Nothing will happen, your mixture will just look like a very strange kind of pancake batter. . Leave on your kitchen counter in an open container overnight.

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On day 2, you can expect to see little gas bubbles in the mixture. This is exciting, as this is a sign you’ve got activity in there and are on your way to working with sourdough. If you see bubbles, you will notice a change in the smell as well; it will smell a bit fruity and yeasty maybe, but not mouldy or rotten.
Even if there is no sign of activity yet, it is time to feed the mixture. Start by throwing about half of your mixture away (it makes a great addition to your compost) because otherwise you will soon run out of space in your container. After this, add another 100g of flour and 100ml of water and mix. Leave out again for another day.

Repeat this process of throwing half of your mixture out and feeding with 100g of flour and 100ml of water for a week to 10 days to create a stable culture. You will start seeing more and more activity, bigger and bigger bubbles and your mix will start to smell beery-y and fermented, but still smell fresh. You will also get to know your creation, see how fast it reacts to a feed and how much it rises and falls. A good way to measure this is to actually mark the level on the outside of the container, it should double in size between feeds.

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Now that you have your culture stable and strong, it is time to think about how often you will use it. If you intend to bake daily, you can keep him out of the fridge , as long as you feed him every day. I bake only once a week on the weekend, so Graham lives in the fridge during the week. The cooler temperature slows down fermentation, allowing for more time in between feeding. Otherwise, if you weren’t baking every day but kept your starter at room temperature, you would still be throwing half away every day and feeding, making a lot of waste and requiring a lot of flour.I still feed him with 100g of wholemeal flour and 100ml of water. After he has doubled in size and is creating loads of bubbles, I use 150g of starter to bake my bread, the rest of him goes back in the fridge.

He has gone through 2 weeks in the fridge without feeding and was fine. The longer you leave it in between feeds, the more it starts looking for nutrients, eventually converting sugars to alcohol! This looks like a greay scummy layer of liquid on top of your starter and smells boozy. Don’t worry too much about this, you can tip it away or stir it back in, along with the feed of flour and water. This alcohol used to be called ‘hooch’ and I’m sure was seen as the baker’s privilege, a little tipple before starting the bake!

If you want to, you can even freeze part of your culture, it will stay dormant for a very long time. When you are ready, take it out and thaw it, feed it and you’ll see, it will come back alive!

So that’s it, this is how to get started with sourdough and creating a starter culture. I thoroughly recommend it, as the result is so much nicer that store-bought bread and hey, how cool is it to actually create life in a jar?

The perfect Roast Beef

This is a recipe that was given to me by Erik from Slagerij de Wit in de Wakkerstraat in Amsterdam. My brother is lucky enough to be living around the corner from this amazing butcher’s and put me on to them. Slagerij de Wit is one of the last butchers in Amsterdam still butchering themselves, using the whole animal to create a high-quality product. They are famous for their sausages and cured meats (their ossenworst is award-winning!) and even have their own, 100-year old smoker in the cellar of the shop! One of the great things about having a butcher around the corner like this is that you can go in and ask him for any cut you want and he’ll cut it for you. Plus, because they personally buy in the animals, they know everything about provenance, age and quality of the meat they sell. They are passionate about their products and gave us an impromptu tour of the shop, including the smoker, last time we were there.

When it comes to roast beef, he recommended a “wrong way around” method; achieve the cuisson you would like your meat to have first (blue, rare, medium etc.) by putting it in a very low oven for a long time and finish it off by browning the outside last. The big advantage of this method over the traditional way of browning first and then roasting in the oven is that you get meat that is correctly cooked throughout with a crispy brown crust.

The theory behind this is as follows: When it comes to achieving the perfect piece of roast beef it is all about the temperature of the core. What happens when you put beef in a high oven to roast, the temperature needs to penetrate the meat until it reaches the core and starts cooking this to create the cuisson.
This means that the outside of your cut is exposed to the higher temperature for a lot longer than the inside, in effect over-cooking it. This creates the triple layering of a typical roast beef: if you slice the average roast, you will see a brown crust, then a grey, overcooked layer to rare in the middle.
The greying of beef happens because the exposure to high temperatures boils the water in the meat and denaturates the proteins (just think how egg white goes from translucent to white when cooking; that is denaturating). And, as everybody should know, you do not overcook good quality beef on pain of death, so why would you overcook a good 50% of your Sunday roast if it can be avoided?

So, ideally, we want to eliminate the grey, overcooked layer and only enjoy a perfectly cooked roast; the crust and the rare bit in the middle.  So, what a lot of higher-end restaurants do is vacuum pack their beef and cook it in a water bath at 54°C. This temperature is perfect to achieve the perfect rare steak, but low enough not to overcook any part of your meat. The trick is to leave it in for long enough for the temperature to reach the core, which can be measured by sticking a meat thermometer into the center of the meat. This way, the whole piece will achieve the same temperature without the outside getting too hot. Once the correct temperature has been achieved throughout, the last thing to do is to create a nice crispy brown crust by pan-frying your meat on all sides.

Now, because I am not a Michelin-starred chef, I don’t have a water-bath and sous-vide machine (I know, I really should have a word with the Urban Wildwoman) but Erik from Slagerij de Wit has the perfect tip for people like me: sit your piece of beef in an oven set as low as it will go (50°C is perfect) until the core reaches that perfect 50-54°C. Then you can take it out and because the heat has reached the center, it will retain its temperature for a while. This means you can whack up the oven, ready for your roast potatoes, vegetables, chips, whatever while the meat has a rest. Then, when everything else is done, you finish of the meat in a frying pan or skillet, brown it on all sides and serve to cries of admiration for achieving the best roast people have ever had!

So, to try this out, and because we don’t live around the corner from Slagerij de Wit we went to the Watnall Farm Shop to get some very nice beef. This was only going to be for the 2 of us, so we got a 1 rib-width piece of sirloin, bone in, weighing about 1.2 kg. IMG_0675

IMG_0676It had been dry-aged for 4 weeks, and you can see the side that had been exposed had turned very dark with age and started to dry out. It smelled amazing, good enough to eat raw. The smell of properly hung and aged beef is something special and makes your mouth water!

It then went into the oven at 50°C for 2 hours, after which the core temperature had reached 52° (see the thermometer punctures in the middle), perfect for the blue to rare piece of meat.

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I increased the temperature of the oven, put the chips in, made a nice rocket, tomato and parmesan salad with pumpkin seeds and balsamico dressing and put my skillet on a high heat with some of the beef fat for frying. IMG_0678Fried the  piece on all sides, put it on a board and sliced it. Nice big blob of mustard on the side, oh my…

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The beef was so good, so succulent, so flavourful and tender that we almost finished of the whole 1.2 kg on the night. We had to force ourselves to stop eating or we would have exploded.

So, with this technique we will be able to achieve the perfect piece of beef everytime. The only thing that varies is the time it will take in the oven, but the principle applies to any size piece.