Baking Sourdough Bread.

I love real food, and I especially love fresh real bread. Not the ‘bake-from-frozen’ or ‘filled with additives’ bread that the supermarkets sell as fresh bread, but proper, slow-risin’, crusty, still-warm-from-the-oven bread that is sold in bakeries where the bakers have been up since 4am. The kind of bread with just four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast.

I particularly love sourdough bread. Sourdough is slightly different to other bread because it requires a sourdough starter which, in addition to yeast, contains lactobacilli bacteria. These ferment the dough giving a distinctive and slightly sour taste. Compared to bread made with commercial yeast only, sourdough is easier to digest because fermentation helps break down gluten, and has a lower glycemic index (GI). Additionally, because sourdough is acidic it discourages mould from growing, and so the sourdough will keep for much longer.

The downside is that buying this kind of bread isn’t cheap. We used to spend over $11 a week buying two loaves from the bakery at the weekend markets. We also had to make sure we made time every weekend to go to the market in order to buy the bread, which was annoying if we wanted to make other plans. The dilemma: have fun…or have bread? Tricky.

So these factors (cost and freedom), combined with the appeal of learning a new skill, led me to decide I was going to teach myself how to make my own bread. That was six months ago, and we haven’t been back to the bread shop since.

There is a shedload of information about sourdough on the internet, and it can get a little overwhelming. I don’t claim to be an expert, but the sourdough I make consistently works, tastes amazing and keeps extremely well. If you think that bread from the shops that is still warm is delicious, wait until you make your own and eat it straight out of the oven!

How to bake a Sourdough loaf

Making sourdough can be thought of in four stages: looking after the starter culture, making the sponge (fermentation), making/proving the dough, and baking the loaf. The whole process takes about 36 hours from start to finish, although the physical time actually doing anything is far less. However it’s quite difficult to pause the stages because you’ve suddenly found something better to do, so it takes a bit of forward planning. That said, the fridge is your friend, and can give you a bit of extra time if something unexpected comes up.

The quantities described below are for making one large and small loaf. If you want to make one medium loaf, simply halve everything.

Total ingredients required: 175-200g sourdough starter culture, 1.010kg bread flour, 600ml water, 22g salt.

Sourdough Starter

To make sourdough you will need a starter culture, which contains yeast and lactobacilli bacteria. I got mine from a friend but if you don’t know anyone who makes their own bread, you could try eBay, Gumtree or Freecycle, or a local bakery.

This culture needs feeding and watering to keep it alive. I keep my culture in the fridge in a glass jar and feed it every time I make bread, which is usually every 10 days or so. It will keep fine in the fridge in-between bakes.

When you’re ready to bake, take the starter culture out of the fridge. It may have gone hard on top and not look very pleasant. Don’t worry! Stir in any lumps and they will be broken down. Leave the culture at room temperature for several hours to allow it to become active and ferment (or ripen). Leaving overnight is fine. What should happen is the culture should bubble and become frothy, and appear to double in size, before deflating back to its original size. This is when it’s ripe and ready to use. If you’re not sure whether it’s risen and deflated (if you left it overnight for example) look at the sides of the jar; if it has risen it will probably have left a residue.

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Starter taken from the fridge. It will have started to ferment in the fridge but will not be fully developed.

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The starter after a couple of hours. The bubbles show that fermentation is taking place.

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Fermentation in full swing. The starter will appear to have doubled in volume.

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Fermentation is complete and the starter is ready to use. You can see on the sides of the jar where the culture rose and then sank. Looking for this helps know when your starter is ready.

Before using the starter in your loaf you will need to retain some for the next time you bake. You will need to feed this with flour and water; the ratio starter:flour:water needs to be 1:5:5. So, for 20g of starter you need to add 100g flour and 100g water. This is called a ‘100% hydration starter’. Mix together in a bowl, pour into a clean glass jar, cover with a piece of cloth or a loosened jar lid and return to the fridge.

Making a Sourdough ‘Sponge’

Now you’ve fed your starter you’re ready to start making the loaf. The first part is making what is called the ‘sponge’. The sponge is made of flour, water and starter culture which is allowed to ferment for several hours.

Ingredients:
160-175g starter culture (remember to save 20g for the new starter culture)
460g strong white unbleached bread flour
580-600g filtered water

Method:

Weigh the ingredients into a large bowl (remember that whilst fermenting the mixture will rise). Cover with a tea towel and leave at room temperature for at least 8 hours (or overnight) until the mixture has risen and then deflated.

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The sponge mixture starts with a glossy appearance.

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As it ferments bubbles appear on the surface and the sponge rises.

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When the sponge is ready (ripe) there will be bubbles on the surface but it will have reduced in volume. You can see marks on the side of the bowl where the sponge rose and then sank. Look for this to know when your sponge is ready to use.

Preparing the Sourdough ‘Dough’

This is the stage where timing is more critical. If you don’t have enough time to make the dough, leave it to rise and then bake into bread, the sponge can be left longer until you are ready. I have left the sponge for a day in the fridge when something unexpected came up – just remember to bring it back to room temperature before using to make the dough.

Ingredients:
Fermented sponge (see previous step)
550g strong white unbleached bread flour
22g salt

(Don’t be tempted to leave the salt out. In addition to adding flavour it slows the fermentation rate of yeast, and also strengthens the gluten, which is what allows the dough to rise.)

Method:

Grease a loaf tin (or two) with butter or oil. Add the flour and salt to the bowl containing the fermented sponge mixture. Mix together with a wooden spoon until the mixture becomes stiff.

Turn the mixture out onto an un-floured surface. It will look impossibly sticky and nothing like bread dough, but don’t be disheartened. Once you start working it, it will start to look like dough very quickly.

Don't panic if your mix looks like this! With ten minutes kneading, it will look like a proper ball of dough.

Don’t panic if your mix looks like this! With ten minutes kneading, it will look like a proper ball of dough.

Stretch and fold the dough for at least 10 minutes using your hands. (If it is really sticky a large silicon spatula is helpful to begin with.) Working it like this allows the gluten to develop which is needed for the bread to rise.

After 10 minutes the dough should be smooth and elastic (if it isn’t, keep on working it and you’ll get there). Shape into an oblong that will fit into the loaf tin. Cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place until doubled in size. The time this takes will vary according to the temperature of your kitchen – in Australia I find that in summer it takes around 4 hours, and in winter nearer 6 hours.

You will know your loaf is ready when it has doubled in size. If you leave it too long it will start to sink.

Baking the Sourdough Loaf

Total time required: 30 minutes

Preheat your oven to 250°C.

Pour an inch of water into a roasting tin and place in the oven once it reaches the correct temperature. Once the water in the tray is bubbling, the oven is ready for your loaf. (You can speed this up by using boiling water to pour into the roasting tin.) The steam created will give your loaf a better crust.

Using a sharp knife, score the top of the loaf just before you put into the oven. This will stop the loaf bursting open as it cooks.

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Use the sharpest knife you have and try to cut the bread quickly to avoid dragging the skin.

Place the loaf in the oven. After 10 minutes reduce the heat to 200°C, and bake for another 5 minutes. If one end appears to have cooked more than the other, it is fine to turn the loaf around at this point.

Now turn the oven off and leave for 5 minutes, then open the oven door slightly and leave for another 10 minutes.

Take out of the oven and remove the loaf from the tin and onto a cooling rack as soon as possible – use a clean tea-towel to handle the loaf if it is too hot. If you leave the loaf in the tin the steam will make the crust soggy.

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Your loaf should keep for several days (and up to two weeks), and the flavours will continue to develop.

Baking Sourdough: Timings

It’s worth giving a bit of thought to when it will be convenient for you to actually put the loaf in the oven, and work back from that so that all the other steps happen at the right time. I have misjudged how long the loaf would take to rise and had to stay up past midnight in order to actually bake it so it wasn’t flat by morning!

This is what generally works for me:
Day 1: 6pm Remove starter culture from fridge and (leave at room temperature for 12 hours)
Day 2: 6pm Make new starter culture (10 minutes)
Day 2: 6.10pm Make sourdough sponge (leave at room temperature for 12-18 hours)
Day 3: 8am Make dough (10 mins)
Day 3: 8.10am Work dough (10-15 mins)
Day 3: 8.25am Grease loaf tin and put loaf into tin (leave at room temperature for 4-8 hours)
Day 3: 2pm Bake loaf (30 mins)

If you want to bake bread on a Saturday it’s quite easy to do the other stages on Thursday and Friday evening, and once the bread is rising in the tin you can leave it for several hours. I find it all starts to go wrong when I try to make the sponge and the dough on the same day, because the fermenting of the sponge can’t be rushed or speeded up, and it means I am still baking bread after midnight. If you start out with good intentions but come Saturday morning you can’t face getting up, let alone baking, the sponge can be left on the side for a few hours or put in the fridge for 24 hours without any adverse effects, and you can make the dough and bake the loaf the following day.

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How to…Line your Rubbish Bin without a Plastic Bag

Australians use nearly 4 billion plastic bags per year, using each for only a few minutes. When you think that plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, it seems pretty crazy to be using such a valuable resource to make something that’s only going to be used for such a short amount of time, and then thrown away.

A common argument – or even justification – for using these plastic bags is, oh but I do recycle my bags, I use them to line my rubbish bin. Thing is, that’s not recycling. It’s barely even re-using.

It’s still sending to landfill, just with other rubbish inside.

I have to confess, before I signed up to Plastic Free July I used to take the odd plastic bag from the shops when I needed to line my rubbish bin. I certainly wasn’t going to pay for virgin plastic to line my bin in the form of fancy bin liners. And what is the point in buying compostable corn starch liners when you’re sending them (and their contents) to landfill, where they won’t break down? Landfill sites essentially bury the waste and prevent exposure to air, moisture and light – and also the microbes that can break them down.

And then someone said to me, why don’t you line your rubbish bin with old newspaper? Such a simple and obvious solution! I really don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

How to Line a Rubbish Bin Without a Plastic Bag

All you need is a few sheets of old newspaper. I use three sets of two sheets, and sometimes I’ll fold some additional ones to put in the base. It takes about a minute.

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When the bin is nearly full you simply roll over the tops to make a parcel and dump in your outdoor rubbish bin. The great thing is that newspaper is usually made from recycled paper so has already had a previous life (or several lives) before you send it off to landfill.

What are you waiting for?!

Worm Farms…Tips and Tricks

After writing my post yesterday on how to build a DIY worm farm, I thought it might be useful to write another post explaining how to look after your worms, and also provide some reasons why you might consider worm farming in the first place.

In their National Waste Policy fact sheet, the Australian Government estimate that two-thirds of waste sent to landfill is organic. If you’re not sure what I mean by organic, it’s the waste that originally came from plants and animals which can be broken down. As well as the obvious grass clippings, food scraps and bones, this includes cardboard, paper and wood. In 2006-2007, Australians landfilled almost 14 million TONNES of organic waste. A full garbage truck holds 10 tonnes. Sending all that organic waste to landfill meant an extra 1.4 million garbage trucks on our roads. Even if you think Australia’s got the space, that’s a lot of unnecessary heavy road traffic, not to mention fossil fuel burning and airborne pollutants via vehicle emissions.

Next up, soil quality. Australia has some of the oldest land masses on Earth, and consequently they are nutrient-poor and with little organic matter. Perth has some of the worst agricultural soils in the world. (Someone once told me that it was officially the poorest soil in the world, but I can’t find anything that confirms it. However, ask anyone who ever tried to grow anything in the soil in Perth, and they’ll confirm it for you!) The sandy soil repels water and also nutrients. If you want to grow plants in Australia, you need to improve your soil by adding organic matter. And this is where the worms come in!

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Worms and their castings. Castings are the product created when worms break down organic matter, and contain nutrients that plants can uptake easily.

Worms eat organic waste and break into down into a product called castings. These castings contain beneficial nutrients that can easily be absorbed by plants. Their texture also enables them to retain water and so they are great for improving soil structure. And they won’t burn plants, as some chemical fertilizers do. Castings are also suitable for seedlings. Worms also produce a liquid that needs to be drained – worm wee! (Or more technically, leachate.) Some tips on using worm wee are provided below.

And keeping worms is fun! It’s free, they require very little maintenance, meaning you can go on holiday for weeks and they will still be alive on your return – how many pets can you say that about?

Tips & Tricks

So I’ve made the case for reducing fossil fuels, reducing landfill, improving your garden and having fun…so what’s keeping you from getting your own worm farm? Is it any of these?

1. Worm Farms smell.

Actually, they don’t smell if you look after them properly. Castings have an organic smell similar to the earthly smell of soil. The main cause of smelliness is too much food. It can be tempting once you set up your worm farm to add every single scrap of food to it immediately, but worms only eat their body weight in food every day, so you need to start small and increase the food once the worm numbers build up.

2. I don’t have a garden.

Neither do I! The worm farm takes up only a very small amount of space, and it will take several months to fill up the worm farm with castings. You can use them with house plants or pot plants and even if you don’t garden, you are bound to know someone who does so just give them the box of castings once it is full.

3. I don’t have time.

Seriously, how much time do you think you need?! Once the worm farm is set up, all you do is empty your food scraps that you would have thrown in the bin into the worm farm. It helps to have the worm farm nearby – if it’s located at the bottom of the garden you are far less likely to make the trip.

Problem-Solving

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully covers some of the more common problems that you might encounter.

My worm farm smells

Likely cause: too much food

Solution: STOP ADDING FOOD! Give the worms a chance to eat what they already have. Anaerobic conditions (no oxygen) can also cause this so give the top layer a stir to aerate.

My worms are escaping

Likely cause: If it is only a couple of worms, there is probably not an issue. If there is a mass exodus, then there may be too much moisture or too much food.

Solution: Add newspaper to reduce the moisture levels, and stop feeding if there are large amounts of uneaten food.

I have other pesties in my worm farm

Likely cause: Not all insects in your worm farm are problems, and you should expect to find other creatures making their home here. But some pests indicate problems.

Solution: Burying food should keep unwanted pests at bay. Flies indicate there is too much food, so reduce the feeding. Ants indicate that the conditions are too dry, so add water.

Other Things to Know

  • You need to use composting worms for your worm farm – varieties such as red worms or tiger worms, as these are adapted to the conditions of a worm farm, whereas ordinary earthworms are not.
  • Worms prefer cooler conditions so on a very hot day, add an ice pack above the worm blanket to keep the inside of the worm farm cool. However, freezing will kill them! (This is not a problem we have here in Perth but may be an issue in cooler climates.) If you are expecting a frost, bring the worm farm indoors.
  • Worms do not have teeth, but suck in food. The smaller the food particles are, the more they can eat. Blending or chopping helps, but if you can’t be bothered, freezing the food then allowing to thaw will help break down the cell walls and make it easier for your worms. And if you can’t manage that, just try to bury your food so it doesn’t attract pests.
  • Worms don’t like acidic conditions and don’t like acidic food such an onions and citrus. Avoid giving these to your worms.

Worm Wee vs Worm Tea

You may come across references on the internet to both worm wee (leachate), and worm tea. The two names are often mistakenly used interchangeably, but they refer to different products. Leachate is what drains from the worm farm. Worm tea is a product made using castings, water and molasses, which are “brewed” for 24-48 hours. The main difference is that worm tea is aerobic, and so great for plants, whereas leachate can be anaerobic.

Leachate is fine to add to compost, but if your leachate is anaerobic it may harm your plants. I learnt this the hard way, diluting my leachate to a 1:10 ratio (1 part leachate for 10 parts water) and pouring on my seedlings, which caused them all to go yellow and die.

The way my worm farm is designed, my leachate does not have much contact with air and so will always be anaerobic. If your leachate drains freely into an open container it will probably be aerobic. You can try to aerate your leachate by diluting and exposing to air for a couple of days before using. However, always exercise caution when using on plants. Make sure you dilute 1:10 with water, and avoid using on seedlings, house plants or other temperamental plants.

How to Build a DIY Worm Farm

One of the first things I noticed once I stopped buying plastic packaging was that my rubbish bin was now filled almost exclusively with organic waste – vegetable peelings, fruit skins and cores, leaves and the like. In the UK my local council had provided a brown bin for organic waste, which was industrially composted, but here in Perth Australia it was heading straight to landfill.

This meant someone was driving a truck to my flat, picking up my organic waste, driving it to a landfill site, dumping it into a hole in the ground and covering it with rocks. With fuel and machinery costs, wages, increased pollution from vehicle emissions, and the resulting contaminated land, it seemed like a lot of energy (and effort) was being wasted dealing with something I could potentially deal with at home.

And so I built a worm farm! I use the term ‘built’ loosely, as there was no actual building involved. In fact, it is dead simple. Additionally, I spent ZERO! Nothing! Zilch!

How to Build a Worm Farm

What you will need: two polystyrene boxes, a skewer, scissors, junk mail or shredded paper, some worms, an old towel

I salvaged two polystyrene boxes with lids from my local supermarket. (I just went to the Fruit & Veg section and asked a member of staff.) In Australia, vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts are delivered in these, and once emptied of stock, they are simply thrown away.

The boxes need to be the same width and length, but the same depth is not necessary.

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Two insulated boxes, courtesy of the supermarket. The bottom box doesn’t need a lid as the other box sits directly on top.

The boxes will be stacked on top of one another, so if they are different depths, choose the shallowest to sit on the bottom.

The top box is for the worms, and so needs drainage holes. The bottom box will be used to collect liquid that drains from the other box, so no holes in this one! To pierce holes in the bottom of the box simply use a skewer, making the holes approximately an inch apart.

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Drainage holes allow liquid to drain away, and stop your worms from drowning. The liquid collects in the bottom box.

Place a layer of cardboard at the base of the top box so that the worms do not fall through the holes. Next, add some shredded paper to make bedding for the worms. This is a great way to get rid of those annoying supplements and catalogues that come in the newspapers, or in the mail.

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If you don’t have a shredder (I don’t) then you can make strips of paper for bedding by cutting slits in a newspaper at 1cm intervals along the spine, and then tearing.

Using a litre of water (ideally rain water of filtered water, if you have) pour carefully over the bedding to ensure it is wet. Any excess water will drain through to the bottom box.

And then…worms! I got mine from a friend but many community gardens offer them either free or for a small fee. You can also find them on gumtree or freecycle. If all else fails they can be purchased at the big DIY stores but be aware that these will have potentially been sitting on the shelf for a long period of time and may not be in very good health, so will take longer to get going.

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The worms in their new home : ) One fistful of worms needs one fistful of food per week. It’s important not to overfeed them as this means a stinky worm farm and can also attract other unwanted pesties who want in on the action.

Finally, cover the worms with an old towel, sack or carpet, or if you don’t have these to hand then use cardboard. This cover keeps the worms dark and damp, and keeps flies out. If you’ve used cardboard or something biodegradable you will eventually have to replace this as it will disintegrate over time.

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An old flour sack acting as a worm blanket, as I don’t have any old towels.

Lastly, replace the polystyrene box lid, after piercing a couple of holes for air, and place in a shaded spot. My worm farm lives on my balcony but it would be fine to keep indoors in a laundry or kitchen…if you wanted to!

Do not feed the worms for a few days to give them a chance to settle into their new home.

And there you have it – a DIY worm farm that didn’t cost you a penny!