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One year on: how Plastic Free July changed our lives for the better

On Wednesday night my boyfriend and I spoke at the Plastic Free July closing ceremony about how our lives had changed since taking part in Plastic Free July last year. It was lovely to be asked to speak, and great to be able to share with the community what it had meant to us. It was also a chance for us to reflect on how far we had come.

Whilst it’s still fresh in my mind I thought it would be good to share on the blog too.

One Year On from Plastic Free July

When we signed up for Plastic Free July in 2012, I have to confess, I thought it was going to be easy. I thought that we were pretty sustainable already – after all, we took our own shopping bags to the supermarket! I figured we’d buy a few more things in jars, a few more things in cardboard packets, and it would be a breeze.

Then I saw the movie Bag It.

If you haven’t seen this movie, I beg you to seek it out. It’s a documentary that’s funny, clever, down to earth and it gives out so much information without overloading the viewer. I think I’ve seen it five times now and each time I get something new out of it.

I know others who have seen environmental movies and claimed it changed their lives. An Inconvenient Truth is one. The End of Suburbia is another. I haven’t seen either of these, but for me, Bag It was one of those movies. After seeing it, I knew there was so much more I could do. I also knew it wouldn’t be something we just tried for a month. After July was over, we intended to carry on.

July 1st came around, and the challenge began.

Our first couple of supermarket shops after starting Plastic Free July looked like this:

We realised that if we weren’t going to starve we would probably have to make some big changes to our shopping habits.

So we started shopping at markets and bulk food shops like these:

bulkInstead of taking bags at the shop, we re-used old bags – both plastic ones that we already had and also paper bags – and also went to a workshop and made our own washable cloth bags. We also took our own containers to the deli counter and got reusable cups which we carry everywhere with us.

Another simple change we made was to buy bar soap rather than shower gel and liquid handwash that come in plastic. We choose soap made with natural ingredients and without chemicals or additives so we can avoid all that nastiness too, plus it’s made locally by a woman with her own natural skincare and aromatherapy oil business. Wins all round!

soapSo what else? We started buying more of our stuff second-hand. When we moved into our flat we had committed to buying all our furniture second-hand, but after Plastic Free July we started buying second-hand kitchen appliances, and now we always check to see if we can get something we need pre-loved rather than getting a brand new version from the shops.

We make great use of our local library. As well as the obvious books, our library also lends magazines, CDs and DVDs free of charge. This is great if it’s something we just want to flick through, watch once or have a quick listen, as we can then return it for someone else to use. It’s a great way of cutting down on plastic, but also less wasteful of resources and takes up less space in the flat. After all, how many times do you watch most of your DVDs or read most of your magazines?

We also started switching plastic items with non-plastic alternatives as they needed replacing. This cleaning brush on the right is made by a company called Full Circle (their Australian site is here). It has a bamboo handle and the heads can be replaced so you don’t need to throw the whole thing away. The head is made of bioplastic and the bristles are a mix of natural fibres and recycled plastic fibres. I’m not quite at the stage of knitting my own dishcloths yet (I don’t know how to knit, for a start) so this is a good compromise for now. The brush on the left is wood and natural bristles.

brushesI also bought my boyfriend this awesome little stainless steel lunchbox for Christmas, which he really likes. It generates a fair bit of conversation at his work, too. The plastic fork in the picture came from a pre-Plastic Free July long haul flight – I kept my initial set of cutlery and reused it for

IMAG0360 (2)the entire journey, and then my boyfriend used it at work for several months until the prongs finally snapped. Wouldn’t have happened with a metal fork though, would it?!

After Plastic Free July was over, the Earth Carers, that fantastic group of people that came up with the Plastic Free July challenge in the first place, ran a 5 session course on waste. Having been inspired by Plastic Free July we went along. One of the days was a trip to a rubbish tip and a recycling facility.

One of the big changes you’ll probably have found if you took part in the Plastic Free July challenge is that you ended up with a lot more glass bottles and jars. This happened to us, and we continued to recycle them diligently until we visited a recycling facility.

RecyclingThis massive smelly heap is the recycling collected from just a few suburbs of Perth in one afternoon. I also found out that a lot of recycling is actually shipped to Asia for processing, and glass is often trucked thousands of kilometres to be processed in a different state. The glass that is recycled in Perth is often used for road base – not shiny new glass bottles.

Even with the pantry heavily stocked with bulk items stored in glass jars, we were still accumulating more and didn’t have the space to store them indefinitely. To cut them out I decided to make more food from scratch. We committed to try to avoid buying as much as we could in any kind of packaging.

So I learnt how to make yoghurt, labne cheese and sourdough bread, amongst other things.

I also learnt how to make deodorant and toothpaste. I hope eventually to make most of my own cosmetics and skincare, but I haven’t got round to it yet.

The other interesting thing that happened, and arguably the best thing, is that we became a lot more involved in our local community. After the Earth Carers course we also enrolled in a 10 topic, 7 week sustainability course called Living Smart. It focuses on individual behaviour change and goal-setting, and has been a great way to meet like-minded people who live in our area. My boyfriend and I have both completed the Living Smart facilitator training course that allows us to run our own Living Smart courses. So far I’ve had the chance to present at a few courses and we’re looking forward to running our own by the end of the year.

Finding the Balance

One of our biggest achievements over the year has been finding the balance between wanting to consume as little plastic as possible whilst still wanting to stay sane, be happy and remain part of society! There’s no point in depriving ourselves of things if it’s going to make us miserable. After Plastic Free July I thought we’d become plastic extremists and never buy a single thing in plastic ever again. Over time we’ve come to realise that emergencies happen, sometimes we have to compromise and sometimes, plastic can actually be useful. So we do still end up with plastic – here are the main examples.

Firstly, there’s sneaky plastic. If you took part in Plastic Free July, did you buy something thinking that it was plastic free, only to find that beneath the deceptive cardboard outer, some plastic was lurking inside? Yep, us too.

Secondly, there’s the unavoidable plastic. Despite our best efforts to buy second hand, we sometimes need to buy new things, and these often come with all the little bits and pieces wrapped in unnecessary plastic bags. For example, when I decided to make my own yoghurt I bought a wide-neck flask and a milk thermometer new because I couldn’t find either second hand. Both of these had stupid unnecessary plastic, but it helped stop waste further along. Another thing I’ve found impossible to avoid is plastic lids on glass bottles, or plastic linings inside metal lids, although I buy as few as I can and refill where possible.

Finally, there’s guilty pleasures. These are the things that contain single use disposable plastic but we continue to buy anyway. My boyfriend’s top example is beer bottle tops. Maybe when we have our own place he can try his hand at homebrew. Hopefully he will turn out to be a master brewer; otherwise I think these are likely to stay.

capsBirthday and Christmas presents to each other are excluded from the plastic-free rule too – although we keep it for gifts we give to everyone else in the family! We never go crazy though. The stainless steel lunchbox purchased last Christmas actually came in a plastic bag, and I received a board game with various bits and pieces packaged in plastic. Still pretty old-school, really!

If you’d asked me a year ago how Plastic Free July would have affected me, I wouldn’t have guessed anywhere close to where I am now. I think the main lesson has been to take things slowly, and keep at one new thing until it becomes a habit before starting the next thing. A lot of this is now second nature to us, but it took a bit of work to get there.

The other important lesson has to be not to berate others for their choices. Everyone is on their own journey and if you want to inspire your friends and family to change their habits too, it is far better to lead by example than berate them for what they aren’t doing! Once people see you quietly getting on with things, hopefully they will be inspired to try things out for themselves. Everyone needs time!

As a thank-you for presenting we were given a copy of Beth Terry’s Plastic Free book. Despite being so committed to plastic free living I’ve never actually read this book, so I’m looking forward to any new inspiration that it brings!

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Recipe! Cacao Banana Smoothie

This smoothie is my current new favourite drink. I guess it’s more of a dessert than a drink, but it’s delicious, takes about 2 minutes to prepare and it is actually full of nutritious goodness!

Here’s just some of the great stuff that it contains. Raw cacao is massively high in antioxidants, and contains calcium, magnesium and iron. Bananas are high in potassium and also contain vitamin B6, magnesium and vitamin C. Cashews contain omega-6, iron, phosphorus and calcium. Flaxseeds are really high in omega-3  and also contain calcium, fibre and lignans.

You know those chocolate milkshakes that you buy in the supermarket? Well, rather than all this great stuff, they contain sugar, milk and other powders, modified starch, stabilisers and gums. How un-delicious does that sound?

Here’s a couple of examples. According to the frijj (UK) website, their chocolate milkshake, which they describe as a “chocolate lover’s dream”, consists of: Skimmed Milk (68%), Whole milk (22%), Sugar, Fat Reduced Cocoa Powder, Buttermilk Powder, Modified Maize Starch, Stabilisers (Carrageenan, Guar Gum).

Now I love chocolate, and I definitely don’t dream about those ingredients!

In Australia, the Kick Double Choc milkshake manufactured by Brownes is made up of: Milk, Sugar, Chocolate (1.7%), Flavours, Cocoa, Colours (150c, 155), Emulsifiers (Soy Lecithin, 471, 476), Vegetable Gums (407, 412).

Yuk!

So rather than consume that synthetic, nutritionally-devoid rubbish, try this instead!

Cacao Banana Smoothie Recipe

This is the recipe for one smoothie. But make two and share it with someone – they will appreciate it!

Ingredients:

1 cup raw cashew milk (see how to make your own here – it’s dead easy)
1 tbsp raw cacao
1 small banana (or half a large one)
1 tbsp ground flaxseeds

(Optional – 1 dsp maca or mesquite powder)

Recipe:

Put the banana, cashew milk and cacao in a blender. Blend until combined.

Add the flaxseeds (and maca/mesquite powder if using) and whizz briefly to mix.

Top with some cacao nibs for some crunch!

And enjoy!

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Homemade Hummus and Tzatziki (2 Simple DIY Recipes)

Homemade dips are delicious, plastic free, don’t contain a list of additives as long as your arm and are made with real ingredients, not bulked out with cheap ‘fillers’. What’s not to love?!

If you’re reading this and thinking, oh but I don’t have time for all that fiddly stuff, I want to try to convince you otherwise. There’s so many that you can make that are ready in minutes! Sure, if you want to try to recreate anything with the words ‘slow-roasted’ or ‘honey-glazed’ or ‘aged’ it’s probably not going to be a quick process, but there’s so many others that just involve combining a few ingredients and – ta-da!

Two of my favourites to make are hummus and tzatziki, because the recipes are so simple, cost next to nothing to make and taste fantastic. Hummus is a middle-eastern dip made from chickpeas and tahini (a paste made from ground sesame seeds). It’s dairy free and suitable for vegans, and tahini is a great vegan source of calcium. Tzatziki is a Greek dip made with yoghurt, cucumber and mint.

Hummus

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I only buy dried chickpeas which are much cheaper and save wasteful packaging. I buy 1kg at a time, soak them overnight and boil for 1-1/2 hours. This makes a ridiculous amount of chickpeas but they freeze amazingly well, so I separate into a few containers and freeze what I don’t need.

This makes a shedload – just under 1 litre.

Ingredients:

650g cooked chickpeas (approx 400g dried chickpeas)
200g unhulled tahini paste
2 cloves garlic, crushed
40ml freshly-squeezed lemon juice (about 2.5 tbsp)
5 tbsp water

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Method:

Put the chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice and crushed garlic in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add water until the mixture is a soft paste. You don’t want it to be runny.

Serving suggestions: if you want to be fancy, you can top the hummus with some whole chickpeas, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle on some sesame seeds or season with spices (try ground cumin, cumin seeds, paprika or cayenne pepper).

This can be kept in the fridge for up to a week.

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Tzatziki

This makes about 500g

275g strained (Greek) yoghurt – if you want to make your own see instructions here)
1 English cucumber or 1 1/2 lebonese cucumbers
1tbsp grated lemon zest
1 tbsp lemon juice
large handful chopped mint (6 – 8 tbsp)
2 tbsp dill (optional)

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Method:

Cut the cucumber into segments and remove the seeds (if your cucumbers don’t have very many seeds you can skip this step but mine had LOADS of seeds).

Grate the cucumber. If you have a food processor it will be superfast but if not then a normal grater is fine.

Put the cucumber in a clean dry tea towel, and squeeze tightly over the sink to drain the excess water.

Stir the cucumber into the yoghurt. Add the lemon juice and zest and chopped herbs and mix to combine.

This will keep in the fridge for at least 2 days.

NB: Don’t let any of the steps be a dealbreaker – if you don’t have Greek yoghurt and don’t want to strain it then you can use normal yoghurt; it will just make the dip much more runny. If you don’t want to strain the cucumber, the extra water will just make the dip a bit more watery. When I’m feeling lazy I just chop some mint, squeeze a bit of lemon juice, grate some cucumber and add to normal yoghurt.

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How to Make Cashew Nut Milk (A Recipe)

Cashew nut milk is a non-dairy alternative to cow’s (or other animal) milks. Of course it’s not a milk as such, but a blend of cashew nuts and water that has a similar consistency to milk and can be used as a dairy milk replacement in some instances.

It’s got a completely different molecular make-up to dairy milk and won’t respond in the same way to heating, but it’s a great replacement for cold milk.  As I’ve said before though, I’m not a vegan, so what am I doing making cashew nut milk anyway?

Well, I’m passionate about real food. And when that comes to dairy milk, this means non-homogenised, full fat milk with A2 proteins that comes from grass-fed cows, preferably organic or biodynamic. (If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about you should probably read this post, which explains the terms and also the health implications in a little more detail).

This milk can be hard to find – in Australia you won’t find it in your local supermarket – and is much more expensive than the mass-produced stuff. Consequently, I buy less than I used to.  Coupled with the fact that I’m quite curious about food anyway, this means I have become more open to alternatives.

Before I stopped buying plastic I used to keep a carton of UHT milk in the cupboard for emergencies. However those cartons contain plastic and aren’t recyclable, so I don’t buy them any more. Now I keep a jar of cashew nuts in the cupboard instead.

Raw cashew nuts are minimally processed and highly nutritious. They contain 80% unsaturated fat which is predominantly oleic acid and also linoleic acid, an omega-6. Cashews also contain a number of vitamins and minerals including iron, phosphorus and calcium. (Have a look here for complete nutritional information).

My main uses for cashew milk are as an ingredient in smoothies, a dairy replacement for muesli and in some dessert recipes, and as an emergency in case we ever run out of cow’s milk, or it sneakily goes off. (Because it only ever goes off when ALL the shops are shut.) You can add cashew milk to tea and coffee (and it won’t curdle), but I prefer dairy milk for that.

How to make cashew nut milk

This recipe makes 750ml milk. You will need a jug-style blender for best results.

Ingredients:
1 cup raw cashew nut pieces (125g), soaked in water for a few hours or overnight
3 cups water (750ml)

Method:

Drain and rinse the soaked cashews.

Put cashews in blender with 1 cup water.

Blend until smooth. Add remaining 2 cups water to the jug and blend briefly to combine. And that’s it! No need to strain.

You can use immediately or store in a jar in the fridge, it will keep for up to 5 days.

Tips:

  • The higher the quality of your blender, the better the results.
  • The longer you blend the milk, the smoother it will be, but the heat from the friction of the blades will gradually cause the milk to warm up. If the nuts are heated too much they may go rancid.
  • Use chilled water if possible, and chill the soaking cashews to help prevent the milk warming too much whilst blending.
  • My blender is made of glass and I find it also helps to chill the jug in the fridge before using.
  • I have tried making this is a food processor and it works okay if you have nothing else, but you will get a much smoother result with a jug blender.
  • If you store your milk in the fridge, remember to shake before using.

If you need more convincing, I’ll be posting some recipes that use cashew milk on the blog in the coming weeks so stay tuned!

How to Make Labne (Cheese) and Greek-style Yoghurt

I recently started making my own yoghurt (you can read about it in this post). The next part of my yoghurt adventure is making Greek-style yoghurt and labne. The great news is that making it requires no additional ingredients and no cooking either!

In case you’ve never heard of it before, labne (also spelled labneh or lebni) is a simple fresh-tasting cheese made from yoghurt that originates from the Middle-East. It is made by straining the yoghurt to drain off the liquid (whey) and leave the solids (curds). The longer that yoghurt is strained, the firmer the consistency. Labne can be made after 4-6 hours and up to 3 days; thickened Greek-style yoghurt is the intermediate product formed after straining for 2-3 hours.

How is this different to shop-bought Greek-style yoghurt?

There’s no additives! Real natural yoghurt is fairly thin and runny. Draining the liquid off is the natural way to make the yoghurt thicker, but the final volume is much smaller. 1 litre of milk will make 700ml yoghurt, which if strained for several hours will result in around 350ml Greek yoghurt. To save money, instead of straining yoghurt, manufacturers may leave the whey and use additives to bulk and thicken the yoghurt artificially, including gums, gelatine, starch and milk powder. In Australian supermarkets it is almost impossible to find any yoghurt for sale without one or more of these additives. In the UK the market is much better and natural Greek-style yoghurt is more readily available.

 

Let’s get making!

You will need: 1 litre yoghurt, muslin (cheesecloth), a bowl and a sieve or colander. If you don’t have any muslin, you could improvise with other (very clean) material such as an old sheet or tea towel.

How to make thick Greek-style yoghurt

Fold the muslin so it is 4 layers thick and place in the colander. Place the colander over a bowl.

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Pour the yoghurt onto the muslin. The whey will begin dripping into the bowl below straight away.

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Leave for 2-3 hours until thickened.

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Place in a glass jar and store in the fridge. The yoghurt will last for several days.

Note: if your room is not too warm it is fine to leave out on the side whilst the whey drips out. If it is a particularly hot day or you would prefer, place the bowl in the fridge instead of leaving at room temperature.

How to make labne

This is a lengthier version of the previous recipe, and it starts in an identical manner. By leaving the yoghurt for longer you will make labne instead of Greek-style yoghurt.

Fold the muslin so it is 4 layers thick and place in the colander. Place the colander over a bowl.

Pour the yoghurt onto the muslin. The whey will begin dripping into the bowl below straight away.

After 2-3 hours, take the four corners of the muslin to make a parcel, and hang over the colander to aid dripping. I used a clothes peg.

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After 6 hours, the yoghurt will have thickened enough to make a soft cheese. You can leave this longer if you want the cheese firmer – leave for up to 2 days in the fridge to make a really firm labne.

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This is how my yoghurt looked after straining for 6 hours.

When you are happy with the consistency, remove the curd ball from the muslin. You can eat it straightaway or store covered in olive oil in a jar in the fridge – it will keep for up to a week.

Storing your labne with herbs and olive oil:

You will need a clean glass jar, olive oil and some fresh herbs.

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Cut the curd into pieces and shape into walnut-sized balls with your hands.

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Add the balls to a clean jar along with some herbs, and cover with olive oil.

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This will keep in the fridge for up to a week.

Using what’s left – the whey

I used 700ml yoghurt to make my labne, which made enough cheese to fill one small jar, and I was left with 350ml of whey.

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This cloudy yellow watery liquid (which has a similar taste to yoghurt) contains proteins, minerals such as calcium, potassium and B2 as well as friendly lactobacteria, making it a great probiotic. Don’t throw it away!

So…what should you do with it then? Well. It can be drunk as a probiotic drink. It can be used to replace the water when making bread products, or to replace the buttermilk in other recipes. You can use it to soak lentils and grains. Apparently. I wouldn’t like to recommend any of these things without trying them out myself first though, so expect a follow-up blog post in the coming weeks with some helpful tips with what to do with all the leftovers! In the meantime, you can leave it in the fridge in a sealed glass jar for several weeks.

Two simple recipes for do-it-yourself toothpaste

This weekend we finally finished off the toothpaste we have been using since last year, purchased before our plastic-free adventure began. We had a bit of a stockpile of the old stuff to use up, but now the last little bit is gone, and from now on I’m gonna make my own.

I’ve been suspicious of conventional toothpastes for a while and stopped buying them 18 months ago. Conventional toothpastes are full of cleaning agents, detergents, preservatives, anti-microbial agents, and thickeners, and many of these ingredients are questionable in terms of their effects on the body.

Three Nasties in Conventional Toothpaste

Sodium lauryl sulphate
This is added as a foaming agent and detergent. It is a known irritant.

Sodium fluoride
This is added to toothpaste to help prevent cavities. However it is toxic by ingestion and can be fatal. It can affect the heart and circulatory system. In younger children too much fluoride can cause fluorosis, which is when the enamel of the teeth is discoloured and the teeth have brown markings.

Triclosan
This an anti-microbial and anti-bacterial agent used in toothpaste to help prevent gum disease. However, it has a number of other impacts on humans and the environment. For example, triclosan is fairly stable and fat soluble, meaning it can accumulate in the body. It has been found in blood, urine and breast milk. It is a demonstrated endocrine disruptor and has potential links to breast cancer.

Despite its stability, it can react with chlorine in tap water and sunlight to form toxic intermediate and breakdown products such as dioxins, which are highly toxic, and chloroform, which is a carcinogen. Triclosan is also toxic to aquatic bacteria, phytoplankton, algae and fish. (This fully referenced fact sheet is great if you want more information.)

There are also concerns that its widespread use may cause resistance in bacteria similar to the way antibiotic-resistant bacteria developed.

So what are the alternatives?

You can buy natural toothpastes but they are expensive (and some still contain questionable ingredients), and they almost all come in plastic packaging. Making your own safe, inexpensive, packaging-free toothpaste seems to be the best solution.

How to Make your Own Toothpaste

You can make your own toothpaste simply in just a couple of minutes using only a handful of ingredients.

Bicarb soda – is an abrasive agent that removes dental plaque and food from teeth. It also neutralises stains and odours.

Sodium chloride (salt) – is a mild abrasive and also has anti-bacterial properties.

Glycerine/glycerol – is a sweet-tasting colourless odourless liquid that makes the paste smooth, provides lubrication and acts as a humectant, helping the toothpaste retain water. You can buy glycerine at a pharmacy.

Peppermint oil – this gives the toothpaste its minty taste. You can also use other essential oils but ensure they are food grade.

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Ingredients:

4 tsp bicarb soda
1 tsp sodium chloride (salt)
3 tsp glycerine
8 – 10 drops peppermint oil

Method:

Measure dry ingredients into a bowl. Add glycerine and stir to form a paste. Add essential oil.

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Alternative Recipe – Glycerine-Free Toothpaste

There is a lot of information on the internet regarding  glycerine in toothpaste. It all seems to come from one source, Dr Gerard F. Judd, who wrote a book called ‘Good Teeth, Birth to Death‘ published in 1996 in which he claimed glycerine coats the teeth and prevents remineralisation. I have not read the book but if using glycerine in toothpaste is something that concerns you, you can replace the glycerine with coconut oil.

Coconut oil has anti-microbial properties and because it is solid below 25ºC it works well as a glycerine substitute.

To make this version use the recipe above but substitute 3 tsp glycerine for 2 tsp coconut oil.

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The Taste Test

Neither toothpaste willtaste like conventional toothpaste, so don’t be surprised! Bicarb soda and the salt make the taste very salty. The glycerine version is slightly sweeter and has more of the texture of conventional toothpaste. It has a higher melting point, whereas the coconut oil will melt in your mouth – literally – and has a mild coconut taste and the texture of oil. If you’re not worried about glycerine (and if you’ve been using conventional toothpaste you’ve probably been using glycerine in that) I would recommend starting with that, and once you get used to the taste you could consider making the switch to coconut oil.

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… Make Your Own Natural Yoghurt

This is a recipe for dairy yoghurt. You’ll find my recipe for dairy-free coconut yoghurt here.

Ever since I went to a workshop, I have been meaning to make my own yoghurt. The workshop was in February. We’re creeping towards May. I needed to stop thinking about it and talking about it, and actually do it!

The delay was predominantly the result of my not having the right equipment, namely a thermos flask and a thermometer. Strictly speaking you don’t need either of these things, but it makes it easier. Plus they are both useful tools to have in the kitchen anyway, and I know I will use them.

After scouring Gumtree and eBay for two months I decided to bite the bullet and buy a new flask. A wide-neck one is more practical and there didn’t seem to be any available second-hand. I also bought a new thermometer. Both came with a few pieces of unnecessary plastic packaging (do I really need a carry strap for the flask, and even so, does the carry strap really need to be ‘protected’ by a plastic bag?!).

I don’t buy brand new things very often (see why here) but sometimes I have to admit defeat. At least now I can get on with my yoghurt-making!

(I have to confess I was slightly nervous about the end result of my first batch. I remember at school in biology class having to do an experiment where we filled test tubes with milk and a dollop of yoghurt and then incubated them at different temperatures for a few days. After waiting the few days, we ended up with…test tubes of milk and a dollop of yoghurt. Even the teacher was confused. But I needn’t have worried…)

Making yoghurt is simple. You will need: fresh whole fat milk and live yoghurt (it will say ‘live’, ‘probiotic’ or ‘cultures’ on the label). 1 litre of milk requires 1 tablespoon of yoghurt, and should make 700ml yoghurt. As well as a flask and a thermometer, you will require a saucepan and a wooden spoon.

Pour the milk into a saucepan. Warm over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until the thermometer reaches 82oC. This heat treatment kills any bacteria that may be present in the milk. Turn off the heat and allow the milk temperate to drop to 45oC.

The milk needs to drop to 45oC so that when the yoghurt cultures are added they are not killed by the high temperature. Once the milk has cooled enough spoon the yoghurt culture into the flask (make sure the flask has been thoroughly cleaned with hot water beforehand) and add a small amount of the milk from the saucepan. Stir thoroughly before adding the rest of the milk into the flask.

Screw on the flask lid. Now you need to leave the flask for 8 hours to allow the yoghurt culture to do it’s thing – namely converting lactose (the natural sugar in milk) into lactic acid, which then causes the milk proteins to coagulate, which results in the thicker, creamier texture of yoghurt.

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Ta-da! Fresh homemade probiotic natural yoghurt.

On opening up the flask, you should be looking at a container full of delicious probiotic yoghurt! It will need stirring to make sure there’s no lumps. (This is why a wide-necked flask is useful.) The yoghurt can then be poured into a glass jar and stored in the fridge. It should last several days.