June 9: bread is life

Someone said to me recently, joking about our mutual bread-making habit, “Bread is love. Bread is life.”


It may have been said in jest, but there’s a certain truthiness to the statement as well. Bread has been central to a lot of cultures around the world; to the best of my knowledge, the East Asian cultures whose main subsistence grain was rice through most of their history are the only ones in which bread hasn’t played a central role (cooked rice replaced bread for those cultures). Even the Australian Aboriginal peoples appear to have had a tradition of breadmaking long before they met any European colonial influences.


I have to admit to never having made traditional damper myself. I’ve made the schoolroom version, which is basically soda bread (scone dough), sometimes enriched with spinach and/or feta cheese, wrapped in tinfoil and then baked in an oven (rather than in the coals of a fire, as is traditional). I’ve certainly never made bread from the seeds of native plants, nor have I even ground my own flour from wheat or rye grains (although I’d really like to get a mill and try that). I have made both yeasted and sourdough breads from scratch, though, as well as using a bread machine, and I love it. There’s something deeply satisfying about kneading the dough until it genuinely stops being a sticky mess, the proteins change their structure and hydrate, and the dough becomes “silky smooth” (or at least satisfyingly even-textured and significantly less sticky).


My current sourdough culture is derived from the wild yeasts of my kitchen, which makes me happy. Every time I make bread with it I think to myself, this is what a healthy kitchen smells like. I think a good dose of beneficial wild yeasts and lactobacillus are the modern equivalent of the old stories about brownies who live int he kitchen and keep a home safe and healthy. (As an aside, I find it really interesting that pre-scientific people described spirits as invisible entities which could cause illness, in the case of evil spirits, or health, in the case of friendly spirits – sounds a lot like bacteria and other microorganisms to me.)


So, for those who’d like to follow me down the dark paths of kitchen technomancy, here’s my method for a sourdough starter (stolen wholesale from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage).


  • In a large bowl, mix about 100g of bread flour (at least 50% wholegrain, e.g. wholemeal, spelt, or wholegrain rye) with enough lukewarm, chlroine-free water to make a batter the consistency of thick paint. You can use rainwater, or dechlorinate tapwater by boiling it and then letting it cool; the chlorine in regular tap water will kill the wild yeasts you’re trying to encourage.


  • Beat the batter well, then cover it (with clingfilm or a lid) and leave it somewhere warm and dark. A warm kitchen is fine, or a pantry cupboard. Check it every few hours until you see bubble forming on the surface, indicating that fermentation has begun. Don’t be concerned if this takes overnight, especially in cold weather. Be patient.


  • Your starter now needs to be fed regularly. Whisk in about 50 – 100g of fresh flour, and enough dechlorinated water to maintain the thick-paint consistency. Keep the starter at normal room temperature, unless it’s summer and you’re in Australia, in which case you may want to keep it in a cool place if you can (or feed it more often, as heat increases activity). Be aware that the starter will start to die at 40 degrees C, so don’t let it get too hot – just like any other pet.


  • Feed the culture another 50 – 100g of flour and some water every day, removing some of the starter first if your bowl is getting too full, and after 7 – 10 days you should have a healthy sourdough culture. It should smell fruity and sour, like a good plain yoghurt.


Hugh says that you should not  be tempted to bake a loaf until the starter has been going for at least a week. In practice, I’m impatient and I did exactly that. It worked. The second loaf, a few days later, did rise better, but the first loaf was perfectly edible if you don’t mind a dense, chewy, more-than-half-rye bread (I used organic rye flour to start my starter).


If you’re going to bake every few days, and the weather isn’t too hot, you can keep your starter at room temperature and feed it every day. If you want to go longer between baking, add more flour to make a stiffer dough out of the starter – this way it will need feeding for a few days. You can get your starter to hibernate by putting it in the fridge, and it should keep for about a week without being fed. You’ll need to let it sit at room temperature for a few hours to reactivate it before using it again though.