We love bread for many reasons.
It signifies community; bread is a humble product that has held a place on the table in almost all of our lives, no matter who we are or what culture we come from.
Sourdough is very much the backbone of our business at Nelson the Seagull—it’s been on our menu since we opened our doors in Vancouver’s Gastown in 2011.
What is sourdough?
Sourdough comes from a traditional way of baking bread. It is created by the baker making his or her own unique sourdough starter (called “the mother”) within his or her specific baking environment. It’s truly an easy-access activity, as starting a sourdough mother only involves flour, water, and patience.
We started our mother nine years ago, and the flavour has developed into something truly moorish. We think it’s pretty special that no two sourdough starters are alike.
Sourdough is often easier on our stomachs than other types of bread because its gluten content has been digested by the wild yeast, whereas most bread is made using commercial baker’s yeast. This makes it a popular choice among carb-lovers everywhere.
Since the coronavirus pandemic has forced people to stay home and cook more, we have seen a huge increase in people asking us about bread and how to make a starter. Our recipe is in The Gastown Foodie cookbook with great visuals, but we’ve also outlined the basic steps below. If you’re in Vancouver, you can order the flour for this recipe via our online shop; we have unbleached white as well as whole grain (we use both in our breads, but always whole grain to feed our starter).
How to make your own sourdough starter
100 grams of whole grain flour
100 grams water
Mix the ingredients into a thick batter consistency. Whole grain flour, when mixed with water, will start fermenting and will produce the healthy yeast bacteria we need to make traditional sourdough.
Cover the batter with a tea towel and leave it at room temperature for at least two days. A tea towel is preferable to a sealed lid as this mix will expand and produce gas; a sealed container may explode.
After a few days, the mix should have a sharp odour and be bubbly. If not, leave it for an extra day or two. While the smell will be strong, it should not be unpleasant. If it smells rancid or has mould present, discard it and start again with new flour.
Discard the crust that will develop on top.
How to feed sourdough starter
Now “feed” the starter again with 120 grams water and 120 grams of flour. Repeat this process every 24 hours at roughly the same time of day until your starter is acting predictably. It should be rising and getting active in a constant pattern based on your feedings. It also helps if you are feeding your starter at the height of its activity, when it is super bubbly.
When you are ready to bake, use only 80 per cent of the leaven so that you can keep your starter going for the next batch of bread (leaven is what goes into your main bread mix, and the starter is what is left behind to create your next leaven).
How to use sourdough starter
Ready to make your bread? You want to mix your main batch of bread at the same time that you have been feeding your leaven every day.
How to start baking sourdough
As with all things in life, the better your ingredients are, the better the results will be. We recommend using high-quality salt and flours.
800 grams water
200 grams leaven
800 grams white flour
200 grams whole grain flour
25 grams salt
Mix all of the ingredients except for the salt together in a big bowl with your hands until you have a smooth consistency. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let it rest for 30 minutes. Add the salt to the dough after this waiting period. Mix until the salt is completely incorporated (you should not be able to feel it). The process of waiting to add the salt is called autolyse; during this period, the flour is able to completely absorb the water, allowing the dough to develop flavour and strength (the strength becomes important when your loaf is rising). Adding the salt too soon inhibits this process.
Now, allow the dough to ferment for three hours, ideally in a clear plastic container. Keeping the dough in a clear container will help you keep track of its rise and see the bubbles formed from fermentation.
During these three hours, fold the dough on top of itself every hour. By the third fold, the dough will become very elastic and will feel light for its volume. Wait another 30 minutes after your last turn, then tip the dough out onto a clean, un-floured surface.
Initial shaping of your sourdough
Cut the dough in two and form into two rounds. Do this by allowing the dough to stick to the surface, while twisting it about with your hand and a bench knife. This will take some practice; there are plenty of videos online that demonstrate the technique beautifully.
Once you have formed the rounds, you need to allow them to sit for 20 minutes. During this time the dough will relax, aiding in the ease of the final shaping. You should be able to see air bubbles forming on your dough during this period. It is also a good idea to cover your resting dough with a tea towel to prevent a skin from forming.
Final shaping of your sourdough
Lightly flour your work surface and flip one of the rounds onto its back, so that the side that was resting on the work surface is now facing up. Grab the bottom of the dough with your fingers and stretch it towards yourself, then fold it back on the round. Repeat this process with the left, right, and top parts of the dough until you have a neat square. Roll this over on itself so that the folds are now on the table.
Just like when you first made the rounds, you must now rotate the dough until it forms a tight ball. Place this ball into your floured proofing basket or a bowl just a bit bigger than the size of your dough ball with a floured tea towel. You want to place your dough in here with the folds facing up.
Final proofing of your sourdough
The dough now needs to rise (called proofing) for a few hours at room temperature. This normally takes three to four hours. Your dough will start to feel light and elastic. You will be able to see lots of air bubbles coming to the surface. Under-proofing the dough is the main reason why first-time bakers fail when attempting sourdough. Don’t be afraid to push the fermentation to five or six hours.
Baking your sourdough
Once you are satisfied that the dough has proofed, you can get ready to bake (note: at this point, you can also put the dough into the fridge overnight and bake it the next day. This is how we do it at the bakery; the extra time this gives the loaf to rest produces a superior flavour).
When ready to bake, you will need to get your oven to its max temperature, normally 500 degrees Fahrenheit, with a large oven-proof pot with a lid inside. When the oven is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven, take off the lid, and place your dough inside. Be careful: your pot will be extremely hot at this point. You should be able to just turn out the dough in your proofing basket and allow it to fall gently into the pot. Note that because we placed the dough in the basket upside down earlier, it will now be the right way up in the pot.
Score the dough in whichever way you want to with a blade and place the lid back on the pot (scoring is placing cuts into the top of the dough to allow it to expand when baking). Place everything back in the oven and leave the temperature at max (500 degrees Fahrenheit) for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, turn the temperature down to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and carefully remove the lid of the pot. Note that steam will escape as you do this, so caution is required. Bake the bread for an additional 30 minutes, or until a dark golden brown is achieved. Repeat this process with the second loaf.
Once baked, allow the bread to cool for at least two hours before cutting it. And then, by all means, dig in.