Baking sourdough loaves can be tricky, even if you’re not new to baking. Just ask our fashion editor, Chia Wei Choong.
For a bit of background, managing editor Jamie Tan launched the #AMCircuitBreaker challenge as a sanity preservation measure . “We can develop new skills at home,” he chipped. And Choong decided to hone his culinary skills by attempting to bake a sourdough loaf from scratch.
It seemed easy enough – feed the starter, let it ferment, check for readiness, and bake. However, despite all exhausting all measures, his loaves didn’t rise to the Instagram occasion. They were either too dense, dry or wet. It took Choong a whole gruelling month before he yielded a palatable sourdough loaf.
When did you first experiment with baking sourdough bread?
I had my own sourdough starter called Larry when I moved to Singapore from New York 2.5 years ago.
How long did it take before you perfected your sourdough baking skills?
I don’t think I’ve perfected it. Bread is one of those things that you’re constantly learning from and about. Every step affects the outcome so the possibilities are quite endless. I am at a point now where I am happy to serve my loaves to guests.
Which process in sourdough baking makes it unique?
That you’ll never know how it will turn out until you bake it. You could take the same steps for everything. But all it takes is an open window, the air con that’s left on a tad too long, and even rain or shine to make a huge difference on the outcome of your loaves. In that respect, no two loaves are the same, and I think that’s the thing that makes baking sourdough loaves a maddening obsession for many people. That’s why I think baking sourdough loaves is a unique experience.
Apart from its tangy flavour, are there differences between sourdough and other types of bread?
There are many flour and water goods that classify as bread but the main difference is that you can assume that all sourdough bread is naturally leavened. That means that there is no instant yeast involved and no artificial leavening agent (baking soda/baking powder). This means that the baker is relying purely on fermentation of the starter + dough to create the perfect environment to get a loaf that rises when it bakes.
The only ingredients in a basic sourdough are flour, water, salt and air. But you can add in lots of different mix-ins and flavours on top of that. “Sourdough bread” really just tells you how the bread was made.
We understand that the fermentation process produces unpleasant odours. But how can we tell if the starter is alive or has gone bad?
To be honest, you shouldn’t be getting any unpleasant odours from your sourdough starter, or its dough for that matter.
A good starter almost smells like beer. It’s got a fruity, yeasty kind of quality. Sure, fermenting fish, or cabbage, or cheese, smells pretty awful sometimes. But if your starter smells bad? You’re probably doing it wrong. You can tell that your starter is alive by just watching it after you feed it. A healthy starter should rise in the hours after you feed it, doubling or tripling in size. Starters are really quite resilient, even if you haven’t fed it in two to three weeks and it’s developed a layer of clear liquid on the top called “hooch”, you can just stir it up, feed it and it’ll probably pull through. That said, don’t wait for that to happen. Feed your starter once a week and keep it in the fridge if you’re not baking every day.
What are the signs that indicate it’s ready for use?
The rule of thumb is to use it just before or at the peak of its rise. A starter is like a pet – the longer you have it, the more familiar you will be with its habits.
Let’s imagine that you’ve decided to bake today. You can’t use the starter that you’ve just pulled out of the fridge. It’s sleeping and hungry and it ain’t rising anything. Take it out, put it on the counter for a couple of hours and let it activate, then feed it in a clear, glass jar. After you’ve fed it, you mark the level the starter is at and wait. The temperature of your environment will dictate how long this takes.
Note how much it has risen, feed it about at the peak and wait again. You can do this a few times to get the starter nice and strong. When you have confidence that it’s rising with strength and regularity, you can make the leaven and do the float test, which is basically dropping a bit of active starter in a bowl of water to see if it floats. If it does, you’re good to go.
Do you have tips for people who’re trying to bake sourdough bread for the first time?
The foundation of baking is science. That’s why a recipe for bread needs to be interpreted and ‘translated’ for your specific environment and climate instead of being plug and played like a recipe for cooking. In my opinion, most online recipes don’t leave things out; They are true for that baker in their kitchen. Many novice bakers fail to understand this. I ran into these issues myself when I went from making bread in the US to making bread here. Think about it: If sourdough is all about fermentation, why should a recipe that was written in cold, dry Europe work in a hot, humid, tropical climate like Singapore?
My advice to novice bakers is to make more bread. Experiment, read, try different recipes, read, join online sourdough groups in your country – there are plenty of veteran bakers who are happy to offer advice, read A LOT. Once you go through the process and bake a few loaves, more of what you’re reading will make sense.
Some things to keep in mind are that timings happen much quicker here. In the US, my starter would take 8 hours to peak. Here, it could take less than five. So if you’re using a European or American recipe, try adjusting the timings.
At the end of the day, the only way to make good bread is to make a lot of shit bread. Honestly! I made really bad bread when I started. I couldn’t even get my wife to eat it. The secret ingredient to good bread is time, patience and experience. And if you like how it tastes, who cares what it looks like or what the internet says it should look like. If you like it, it’s good bread.
It took us three weeks before we got anything that looked like sourdough. Would you say that the effort in making this is worth it?
I’ve been a chef for 13 years. All this time, if I could make something from scratch, I would. I place a lot of value in knowing how to make the food that I’m, not only eating myself but, feeding other people. I think now more than ever, we should be paying attention to this and choosing our food and food sources consciously. I think the part I enjoy the most about baking sourdough is that I’m not a trained baker. I learnt this myself through trial and error, and persistence. Baking bread is so different from cooking because it’s so precise. It’s less expressive, more controlled and calculated. At its best it’s meditative and calming, at its worst, it’s a damn good way to occupy your time during the Circuit Breaker.
What lessons did you learn from this?
We should be paying way more for bread.
You might also like to read about wellness tips while we’re still practising social distancing.