Yeast and flour are two things that are proving difficult to find in UK supermarkets. Don’t worry though, this BBC article reassures us that ‘grocery shelves won’t be empty for long’, and yeast isn’t needed for what I consider the king of breads: the sourdough, or pain au levain in French. Plus, as ‘locked-down Brits turn to home baking en masse’ (The Grocer), it seemed appropriate.
Sourdough is bang on trend here in the UK. Every hipster café under the sun seems to offer sourdough bread in some shape or form – or at least, they did, back in BC (‘Before Corona’). But it’s hardly new. In fact, this is how bread was traditionally made, before the advent of commercial yeast.
So, what is sourdough?
It’s a bread made using wild yeast and lactic acid. ‘We capture and cultivate these microorganisms in a pot of flour and water and with regular nourishment, warmth and water they increase in numbers’- this is called a ‘starter’ and is used in place of commercial yeast (Sourdough.co.uk). The dough ferments slowly over a long time. This means making sourdough requires some preparation and patience.
But bear in mind that – in the UK at least – the term ‘sourdough’ is unregulated, and this article explains that supermarkets often market products as such which have skipped the long fermentation process, instead adding additional leavening agents to speed up production. All the more reason to give it a try yourself. If you’re interested, see the ‘recipes and substitution ideas’ section towards the end of this post.
Sourdough has seen a rise in popularity in the UK recently, due at least in part to its health benefits. For one, ‘the lengthy fermentation process pre-digests the gluten, breaking down some of the indigestible proteins and literally making the bread easier to stomach’ (wellwellwell.co.uk). It’s also been shown to help us absorb additional nutrients (sourdough.co.uk).
Moving on from health, it’s great to eat. The flavour is amazing. In the blog post containing my source recipe, the author describes it as the taste of ‘real’ bread, which you* used to go and pick up from the bakery. Depending on the recipe and flour used, it can taste ever so slightly tangy. Typically, it’s lovely and chewy, with a good crust.
The recipe I chose is on the Dans la cuisine de Sophie website, hosted by a food stylist and photographer, and is for Pain au levain 100% naturel, or 100% natural sourdough bread.
Afternoon? Evening? Cultural differences regarding time.
Just above the recipe, Sophie has listed the timings she uses for her bread. I was struck by the following:
je nourris mon levain dans la matinée. Il est à point pour être utilisé dans l’après-midi.
Je pétris entre 17h00 et 18h00.
Here, she’s explaining that her starter will be ready to use in the afternoon, and goes on to say she starts kneading between 5pm and 6pm. So it seems she considers 5pm as l’après-midi. I wouldn’t normally refer to 5-6pm as the afternoon. In my mind, 6pm is definitely ‘evening’, while between 5 and 6pm is a bit of a grey area, but I’d probably call is ‘early evening.’ But maybe that’s just me? Maybe it’s just my particular combination of experiences. The concept of time is one of those things that differs a lot across cultures, as this article explains in some depth.
So I opened up a twitter poll and thread on it, interested to hear different perceptions. I was a little impatient to publish this post, so there may still be replies come in after this. But already, there have been some interesting results, with 66.7% of people voting for 'afternoon', and some fascinating observations, from cultural differences to seasonal ones - see below.
I thought that since the evening meal tends to be eaten later in France, it seems logical the ‘afternoon’ would also extend further.
In the end, I opted to go for the safe middle ground, with ‘early evening’.
The ingredients list called for levain naturel (word-for-word translation: natural starter). But elsewhere on the page, it’s referred to simply as levain. So, is there a difference? Based on my initial research, there didn’t seem to be. Rather, they both mean ‘starter’, and it could be that naturel is added in the ingredients list to avoid any possible confusion with levure (de boulanger), or ‘(commercial) yeast,’ since the two words look quite similar.
Then I came across this definition on CNRTL, 'pâte de farine fermentée et additionnée de levure' . This suggests otherwise, and it seems like levain can also be used to refer to a preferment, which may be made with commercial yeast. A preferment refers to the process where:
‘a portion of the total formula flour is fermented prior to mixing with dough ingredients. The pre-fermented mixture contains flour, water and yeast/microorganisms.’
In English however, ‘starter’ is unambiguous, so I omitted ‘natural’. Another option would be ‘sourdough starter’, just to be crystal clear, but I don’t think it’s necessary.
My partner is the chief sourdough maker in our household, but I’ve made loaves a few times too. So it wasn’t an unfamiliar process, and I already had our trusty starter to rely on.
But this recipe was different from others I’ve used. This recipe had an especially high water content. Despite resting overnight, it rose very little until placed in the oven. Unusually, you add it to a cold oven, in a cast-iron casserole dish, then turn it up high. The bread rises as the oven begins to warm up. This made for a highly aerated dough, with larger holes than I’ve seen in sourdough before. The recipe writer actually explains she was aiming for such a bread, so she did well.
The end result? See for yourself. It looked amazing and tasted just as good. The only downside was the enormous holes – difficult to top with butter and other spreads!
Recipes and substitution ideas
However, if you do want to give it a try…
Start with a starter, of course. This webpage explains how to make one from scratch. For French speakers, there is a good explanation above my source recipe.
Once you’ve got that down, here are 50 sourdough recipes, including some for beginners, to get you started.
Sourdough doesn’t contain many ingredients, so substitutions aren’t really necessary. In fact, there are recipes for sourdough made from all sorts of different flours.
Top tip: although the dough is often very wet and sticky, don’t be tempted to keep adding flour. Instead, use a stand mixer, or if you’re kneading by hand, just keep moving it around, using a plastic dough scraper (or something similar like a spatula) to unstick it when needed.
It seems only fitting to make something seasonal or related to Easter. We’ll see what I can rustle up.