Looking after the starter
Store it in a jar with a lid but without an airtight seal. A glass Kilner jar without the rubber seal works well. Have two jars, so that you can refresh the starter in one while the other is being washed.
Keep the starter in the fridge and refresh it about once a week, ideally the day before you want to bake. If it seems to have lost its oomph, refresh it a couple of times.
Refreshing the starter
Use equal quantities of water and flour. Use organic strong white and wholemeal flour, 50:50. You want organic stoneground flour. The white flour works quickly and the wholemeal flour contains more wild yeasts.
- 100 ml water
- 50g white organic stoneground flour
- 50g wholemeal organic stoneground flour
Stir the old starter. If there’s liquid on top, stir it in (it’s alcohol). Take a clean jar and add two tablespoons of old starter. Stir in the water and then the flour. Leave the jar out at room temperature for 10/12 hours. It will bubble up and increase in size. After 10/12 hours, the starter is ready to be used to make a leaven, at once or later.
Making the leaven
- 75ml water at about 22° C in summer, about 28° C in winter
- 75g strong white organic flour
In a large bowl, mix two tablespoons of starter from the fridge with the water and the flour. Cover and leave at room temperature. It will bubble up after a few hours. To test if it’s ready to use, drop a teaspoon of leaven into a cup of cold water. It should float.
Mixing and stretching
- 325 ml water at about 22° C in summer, about 28° C in winter
- 400 ml strong white organic flour
- 100 ml strong wholemeal organic flour
You can vary the proportions of white and wholemeal flour at this stage. These quantities are for a 500g loaf. For a 1kg loaf, use the same amount of leaven but double the quantities of flour, water and salt.
Add the water to the leaven and stir well. Mix in the flour. Leave for half an hour to an hour. This is the autolysation stage, letting the fermentation get under way before you add salt, which will inhibit the action of the yeast.
Add 10g sea salt. You can use less. Salt keeps the crust softer and makes the bread stale less quickly. Because it inhibits the action of the yeast, it slows the rising of the dough.
Stretch the dough to mix in the salt. Fill a jug of water to wet your hands. Take a handful of the dough and stretch it out as far as possible in one direction, and then fold it back to the centre. Rotate the bowl a quarter-turn and stretch it again, and so on until you’ve completed the circle. The first couple of time you stretch the dough, wet your hand (later, you won’t need to).
Roughly half an hour later, stretch the dough again, and then another two times at half-hour intervals. You can be quite cavalier about the timing – whenever you happen to be passing is fine. But don’t give it less than half an hour.
Shaping and proving
Butter a tin or flour a banneton. Tip out the excess flour on the work surface. Rice flour is a good non-stick flour for this purpose.
Half an hour after stretching the dough for the fourth time, tip it out of the bowl. Keep one thumb at the centre of the ball of dough. Take hold of the dough at one edge, stretch, and fold it in to the centre to be anchored under your thumb. Repeat all the way around until you have a tight boule shape. Turn it over. Using the heels of your hands, push it towards you over the surface, and keep doing this until you have tightened the skin of the boule. You may need more flour, or you may use a little olive oil. If you are shaping the dough for a rectangular tin, you want a similar tight structure but as a rugby ball rather than a football.
Turn the dough into the banneton, seam side up, or into the tin, seam side down. Shake some flour over the top. Cover and leave in the fridge overnight to prove. A shower cap makes a good cover.
Heat the oven to 220° C, or as hot as possible. Heat a baking sheet or a ceramic cloche in the oven.
Dust the baking sheet or the cloche base with semolina. Turn the proved dough out on to the baking sheet. Score the surface lightly with a sharp knife or razor. For a tin, remove the cover and score the top.
Bake in the cloche at 220° C for 50 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180° C and bake for a further 15 minutes. For a tin, bake at 220° C for 30 minutes, and at 180° C for another 30 minutes.
Remove and allow to cool. Wrap the loaf in a clean cloth for a softer crust. Don’t try to slice it until it’s cool.