Bread and I are no strangers. I have been known to bake the odd loaf, several focaccia and countless pizzas. I have played with spelt, dabbled in rye and covered myself in wholemeal flour. The results varied considerably and I learnt a lot in the process. However, what all of these loaves had in common was the inclusion of that magical ingredient: commercial yeast. I had yet to attempt my favourite bread, the complex, tangy, crusty, dense, chewy deliciousness of sourdough.
I have always wanted to try my hand at sourdough, but felt intimidated by the long process and concerned that making and maintaining starter would involve the strictest of culinary chemistry. One day my love of food TV and latent desire collided in the first episode of River Cottage Australia, when chef Paul West christened his River Cottage experience with the making of a starter and eventually, River Cottage sourdough. It took me over a year to finally try it but when I did, I followed Paul's process to the letter and the results, I think, speak for themselves.
The starter now lives in a wide-mouthed, loosely capped jar in the refrigerator. I view it as a fairly low-maintenance pet. Each week I take it out, let it come up to room temperature and start bubbling (it's ALIVE!!!). Then I feed it by discarding half and whisking in half a cup of equal parts rye, wholemeal spelt and wholemeal flours and approximately the same amount of water. What happens next depends on whether I am baking a loaf or not. If I am not baking, I put the starter back in the fridge for another week. If I am baking, I leave the starter out of the fridge to bubble up a second time before using around half to make my sponge (refer to the recipe in the link above) and feeding the remaining starter in the manner just described. Then I put the jar of starter back in the fridge. Over the course of 1-2 days, the sponge I made will become a dough and the dough will be stretched and shaped a few times before the much anticipated loaf is complete. I can attest that there is no better bread-related sensory experience than the smell and taste of the freshly baked loaf.
I have made this bread 5 times now and there is no end in sight.