Master a classic skill - make a gorgeous artisan bread, as seen on River Cottage
Makes 1 loaf
For the starter
For the sponge
For each loaf
1. Begin with the starter. In a large bowl, mix 100g strong bread flour with enough warm water to make a batter, roughly the consistency of thick paint. Beat it well to incorporate some air, then cover with a lid or clingfilm and leave somewhere fairly warm and draught-free. Check it every few hours until you can see that fermentation has begun - signalled by the appearance of bubbles on the surface. The time it takes for your starter to begin fermenting can vary hugely - it could be a few hours or a few days.
2. Your starter now needs regular feeding. Begin by whisking in another 100g or so of fresh flour and enough water to retain that thick batter consistency. You can now switch to using cool water, and to keeping the starter at normal room temperature - though nowhere too cold or draughty. Leave it again, then, 24 hours or so later, scoop out and discard half of the starter and stir in another fresh 100g flour and some more water. Repeat this discard-and-feed routine every day, maintaining the sloppy consistency and keeping your starter at room temperature and after 7-10 days you should have something that smells good - sweet, fruity, yeasty, rather than harsh or acrid. It's now ready to bake with.
3. The night before you want to bake your loaf, create the sponge: take about 100ml of your active starter, and combine it with 250g fresh flour and 300ml warm water in a large bowl. Mix well with your hands, or very thoroughly with the handle of a wooden spoon, then cover with cling film and leave overnight. In the morning, it should be clearly fermenting - thick, sticky and bubbly.
4. Now make your loaf: add a fresh 300g flour to the sponge, along with 1 tbsp oil, if you like (it will make the bread a touch softer and more silky, but is not essential), and 10g salt (which is essential). Squidge it all together with your hands. You should have a fairly sticky dough. If it seems tight and firm, add a dash more warm water. If it is unmanageably loose, add more flour (but do leave it as wet as you dare - you'll get better bread that way).
5. Turn out the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and silky. This takes in the region of 10 minutes, but it can vary depending on your own style and level of confidence.
6. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and turn it so it gets a light coating of oil. Cover with lightly oiled cling film, or put the bowl inside a plastic bag, and leave to rise. Don't expect it to whoosh up to twice its original size in an hour, as a conventional loaf does. Sourdough rises slowly and sedately. The best thing is to knead it in the morning then simply leave it all day (or knead in the evening and leave overnight) in a fairly cool, but draught-free, place, until it has more or less doubled in size and feels springy when you push your finger gently into it. Knock it back (deflate it) on a lightly floured surface.
7. You now need to prove the dough (i.e., give it a second rising). You are also going to be forming it into the shape it will be for baking. If you have a proper baker's proving basket, use this, first dusting it generously with flour. Alternatively, rig up your own proving basket by lining a medium-sized, fairly shallow-sided bowl with a clean tea towel, then dusting it with flour. Place your round of dough inside, cover again with oiled cling film or a clean plastic bag and leave to rise, in a warm place this time, until roughly doubled in size. This might be only an hour or it could be three or four. Then the dough is ready to bake.
8. Preheat the oven to 250°C/gas mark 9 (or at least 220°C/gas mark 7, if that's your top limit). Have ready, if possible, a clean gardener's spray bottle full of water - you'll be using this to create a steamy atmosphere in the oven, which helps the bread to rise and develop a good crust. (You can achieve the same effect with a roasting tin of boiling water placed on the bottom of the oven just before you put the loaf in - but the spray bottle is easier.)
9. About five minutes before you want to put the loaf in the oven, put a baking tray in the oven to heat up. Take the hot baking sheet from the oven, dust it with flour, and carefully transfer the risen dough to it by tipping it out of the proving basket/bowl, upside down, on to the sheet. Slash the top of the loaf a few times with a very sharp, serrated knife (or even a razor blade).
10. Put the loaf into the hot oven and give a few squirts from the spray bottle over and around it. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 200°C/gas mark 6, give the oven another spray, and bake for a further 25-30 minutes, or until the well-browned loaf vibrates and sounds hollow when you tap its base. Leave to cool completely, on a rack, before you plunge in with the bread knife.
© River Cottage
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