Our Daily Bread –
well worth the time and effort
No, I’m not going to talk about the Lord’s Prayer, but about the bread, our family eats daily. Although it is pretty remarkable that in the Lord’s Prayer the request for bread comes before the more philosophical requests like the forgiveness of sins.
For someone with a German background, who is used to a wide variety of breads, life in Australia can be rather dire, especially if you don’t live in a metropolitan area. Most of the bread on offer around here is this soft, fluffy stuff made exclusively from wheat, which comes in two varieties: sliced and unsliced. No, that’s not my idea of bread. And if you find something that resembles real bread, for instance at a farmers’ market, the price reflects its rare status and would be rather expensive to pay for daily bread.
Need, coupled with an interest in making food myself, lead me to experiment with making our own daily bread. Initially with yeast, but I soon was interested in trying out sourdough.
Like kefir, sourdough is made using a fermentation process. Flour and water are mixed and left to stand, then more water and flour is added, until you have bubbly starter. The bubbles are caused by wild yeasts and lactobacilli which are naturally present in ground grain. The yeast produces carbon dioxide which causes the dough to rise and lactic acid bacteria which are necessary for the flavour.
I tried many different recipes for sourdough starters, using different ingredients and some needing more and some needing less TLC. In the end, I found the recipe in Avner Laskin’s The Easy Way to Artisan Breads & Pastries the easiest, which produces good results. In this recipe you just mix rye flour (preferably organic) with water and a bit of sugar and leave it for 4 days, stirring daily (this is not in the recipe, but I found it essential), until bubbles start to form. Then more flour and water are added and the mixture is again left standing. This is repeated for a few days until you end up with sufficient starter to make bread.
Making bread is where the fun starts. I bake mine with a mixture of rye and wheat flour (roughly half and half). To give it a bit more texture, I bought myself a grain mill. I get rye and wheat grain (online from Santos Organics) and then grind it in the mill. Sometimes I replace some of these grains with barley for a slightly different taste. The necessary amount of salt is mixed into the flour mixture.
In a big ceramic bowl, I mix the necessary amount of sourdough starter with filtered water and add flavourings like caraway seeds, or nigella seeds for a change, some linseed and chia seed and sunflower seeds. Another idea is barley, which has been soaked overnight. Feel free to experiment, it’s a matter of taste and what you have in the house. There are no fast rules.
Then stir in the flour, a bit at a time making sure it’s well mixed in before adding more. Eventually turn the dough out onto a floured surface and start kneading. You will need to add more flour to prevent it from sticking. Once it has the right consistency, form the dough into a ball, place it in floured bowl, cover with a clean and moist kitchen towel or cling film and leave to rise.
The rising period takes several hours, so you are free to do whatever you like, go shopping, watch a movie or do some housework (well, if you feel you really have to). The dough should have at least have doubled in size before it needs you for the next step.
I bake my bread in loaf tins. I have two which I bought ages ago in Hemel Hempstead in the UK, which are a bit wider and higher though shorter than the normal ones, just the right shape for a nice loaf of bread. I usually make enough dough for two breads (and keep one in the freezer until needed).
For the next step, I first grease my loaf tins, then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into two pieces, knead each well and shape into an oblong ball. With the seam at the bottom, sit it into the loaf tin. Repeat with the other half and the second loaf tin. The dough needs to rise again and needs to be covered. The cover which works the best for me are large ceramic bowls upside down.
Now you have again a few hours to do other things. I have even left the dough to rise overnight and then bake first thing in the morning. This is, however, better in winter when it’s cooler and the process takes longer.
Once the dough is well risen, place the tins into the oven and bake at 180 degrees Celsius for approx. 45 minutes. It is not necessary to pre-heat the oven, but if you place the tins into a cold oven, leave them in for 50 minutes. The bread is done, if it sounds hollow when tapping the underside (once you have taken it out of the tin), otherwise leave in the oven for a bit longer.
Leave to cool on a wire rack and enjoy!
Just a few words of advice. Like with kefir, avoid washing your equipment too vigorously with antibacterial washing up liquid. A friend once asked me for my recipe. After a couple of weeks, she came back complaining bitterly that it didn’t work, even though she kept washing all her equipment with antibacterial washing up liquid. When I explained to her that what made the sourdough go sour are natural bacteria, which was also killing off with her attention to cleanliness, she decided that sourdough was not for her. I have a separate wooden spoon for mixing the dough, which doesn’t get used for anything else and is only washed under the tap. Although I wash the bowls, as I also use them for other purposes, I make sure to rinse them thoroughly after washing.
The sourdough starter needs some care. I keep it in a big ceramic bowl covered with cling film in the fridge. As I bake two loafs at the same time, I only need to bake once a week or so. The dough should be fed every 3 to 4 days with another cup of rye flour and ½ cup of water, mixed in thoroughly. The evening before baking, I take it out of the fridge, add 1 cup each of rye and wheat flour and 1 cup of water (twice the amount of flour to the amount of water), stir in well and leave on the working surface overnight. The dough should be risen and bubbly the next morning.
So far I have not been able to keep my starter over longer periods of neglect, for example when going on holidays. I have heard from people who did so without problems, but I always found it better just to start from scratch after coming back.
Baking your own bread with sourdough is not difficult, you just need a bit of time. Though you are free to do other things while the dough is rising, it’s not something you can do when going out to work for the whole day, so this might be a problem. But if you have the leisure to spend a bit of time in the kitchen, I can only encourage you to bake your own bread. You can’t beat the taste and you know exactly what’s in it. Try your own daily bread!
Laskin, A., The Easy Way to Artisan Breads & Pastries. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 2007. ISBN 978 1 4027 4740 3 (PB), pp.14-15