Move Over, Sourdough

January 19, 2021

There’s a new fermentation kid on the block

Not that I’ve given up on the sourdough – if anything, now that we’re both at home all day, I’m baking more of it than ever, it’s just that it’s become somewhat routine. I was excited during the first lockdown to be godmother to a number of baby sourdough starters as various friends and Twitter contacts started asking my advice, for some reason (I hope they also consulted a few people who actually know what they’re doing), but I did slightly envy them the excitement of starting a new project seeing how much pleasure I’ve got out of my own sourdough adventures.

After miraculously managing to lose weight during the first lockdown, despite cycling drastically fewer miles, we’ve been somewhat pushing our luck in this latest incarnation by upping our culinary game. Not only did we try once of those fancy ‘restaurant in a box’ meals for our wedding anniversary, but I’ve also been trying to spend a bit more time away from the computer by attempting a few more elaborate dishes that take my fancy that I wouldn’t normally have time, which for me tends to mean sweet things.

pecan pie

Given that I also gave the other half an ice cream maker for his birthday last year (the best present ever, certainly from my point of view), it was clear that if I was to continue to fit into my jeans, I was going to have to develop some slightly more healthy ambitions than ‘perfect my shortcrust pastry technique’, hence sauerkraut which has all the potential rabbithole ahoy interest of sourdough for those who want to take it further, plus plenty of reputed gut flora benefits, without going completely down the path of kimchi, kombucha or (the one I’d really try if I had the courage, because who doesn’t want to be nursing what is effectively an improvised explosive device in their pantry?) home-brewed ginger beer.

So anyway, a couple of weeks ago, following the instructions helpfully supplied in the Weekend Guardian I sliced up a cabbage our neighbour had given us, massaged in the salt as instructed, added a few flavourings (if the last few 8-year-old juniper berries from the bottom of the spice jar count as ‘flavouring’) and left it in a ‘cool well-ventilated place’ to await its miraculous transformation.

After the suggested few days I tasted it to discover I had basically made some very salty raw shredded cabbage. So, I tried diluting the brine a bit, left it a bit longer (faintly tangy and ever-so-slightly less salty cabbage), left it a bit longer (possible faint echoes of sauerkraut) and then decided that perhaps keeping it in the effectively unheated utility room might be part of the problem (I should remember that London-based cookery writers’ interpretation of ‘a cool place’ may be different than for those of us living in Scotland). So it’s now found its niche in our kitchen where – a fortnight after I started – the other half has pronounced it as tasting ‘almost like sauerkraut’.

sauerkraut in jar

I’m reminding myself that this is probably better than the internet dubbing my second attempt at sourdough ‘dwarf bread’, and will persevere, hoping this isn’t something that ends in tears. Or, indeed, botulism…

What’s your latest lockdown project?

Wee Jimmy

August 28, 2019

We made it to the US (I highly recommend Icelandair if you do have to fly the Atlantic, by the way, if only for the incredibly civilised transfer arrangements between flights at Keflavik Airport) and with a two-week stay in the offing, obviously the first order of business was to get a sourdough starter on the go (One side-effect of blogging a couple of times about sourdough is that other sourdough-curious people occasionally make the mistake of asking me about it, and getting persuaded into giving it a try (see also: cycling)).

cow nose

“Have you been in close proximity to any livestock?”

Sadly, I couldn’t bring Jimmy-Carter-the-Starter with me to the States (the customs declaration makes it clear you shouldn’t have been recently handling livestock, let alone bringing in millions of live microscopic organisms in your luggage) so a new Jimmy needs to be created. That means unbleached flour and ideally untreated water, to allow all the yeast beasties to multiply. Filtered water would probably have been okay, but when the other half mentioned that the big brewery downtown used to have a tap where locals could fill up bottles with the water from their spring, that seemed like a much better option, if only for the Internet bragging rights.*

schmidts brewery


This being 2019 rather than 1979, the brewery tap has moved on somewhat (as has the brewery which now hosts upmarket housing and the misleadingly named Keg and Case market where you can buy mushrooms grown on the site (complete with logs) but not, as far as we could see, any actual beer). This is not just water, it’s The Drink and now comes out of a high-tech vending machine which accepts ApplePay because of course it does. Still, it’s only $1 for a gallon which seemed reasonable enough. We made the beginner mistake of not bringing our own gallon container, but the next-door cafe was happy to provide us with an old milk jug, and the precious water was secured.

filling the container

And appropriately labelled, in case anyone got confused.

water container labelled

New Jimmy is currently residing on top of the fridge awaiting its next feed and looking fairly hopeful so far. I will keep you posted with any exciting developments, or even – my blog, my rules – any crashingly dull ones, as they unfold.

Next stop, the State Fair.

* There’s something about sourdough that attracts a certain amount of one-upmanship. The next time someone flourshames me for just using flour from the supermarket, I’ll be able to hit back with my 35,000 year-old artesian well water.

Five Things I have Learned about Sourdough

January 24, 2018

So, I promised you an update on my sourdough baking adventures, and who am I to disappoint, especially now that all the picturesque snow has melted (it’s amazing what a day of rain will achieve) and been replaced by a slightly worrying new burn running half way round the house, which we’re hoping will disappear again when the currently saturated ground dries out some time in ooh, May …

1. there are more ways to bake sourdough bread than you ever dreamt of. And every single one of them is _the_ way

If you start googling for sourdough recipes you pretty much soon find that everyone who’s ever baked sourdough bread has then gone and started a blog about it (a bit like cycling, then), laying down their absolutely failsafe method for making sourdough bread, which is of course slightly different from everyone else’s. I’ve yet to discover whether the sourdough bread world is as riven with factions and controversies as cycling is – or what the sourdough equivalent of vehicular cycling or helmet wearing might be – but I’m hoping that all that soothing carbohydrate and delicious bread products is keeping them mellow because I don’t want to stumble into some horrible twitterspat over dutch ovens or kneading vs no-knead techniques.

2. It’s aliiiiiive. And it’s everywhere

I originally got the impression that the hardest thing about sourdough starter is keeping it alive. But it turns out Jimmy (Carter, the starter) is pretty vigorous for an old guy, and has already escaped from his container into the fridge at least once. The way the starter works, you keep making more of it too, and because the dough is sticky it gets everywhere (I keep looking down and realising that the respectable not-gardened-in trousers I thought I was wearing are now spattered with sourdough). Given that it’s all alive, I am starting to wonder if it’s basically taking over the house and possibly even the septic tank, and you really don’t want that rising up in the middle of the night. Some people have suggested composting any leftovers but I don’t want our army of compost daleks becoming sentient …

3. You cannae change the laws of physics

But what about the bread, you cry? Well the first loaf I baked followed a recipe that claimed it didn’t need to be proved in a basket, but would rise unsupported. Ha. Hahahaha. The result was a fine looking and very tasty discus, because sourdough bread dough takes forever to prove and even though it is rising while that happens, it is also spreading slooowly because it’s quite wet compared to normal bread dough.

first sourdough loaf

4. I’m a much shallower person than even I imagined

As a result of the whole laws-of-physics thing, I went back to basics for my next two loaves and (following the Bread Matters recipe) used a loaf tin to create a more loaf-shaped loaf. This worked – it was delicious, it made reasonable sized slices for making sandwiches and toasting, it could be sliced without bending the bread knife, but it looked a bit …

sourdough loaf from tin

Dwarf bread. 

Not so much rustic, as pretty urban, as if it had lost a fight in a dark alley (it was a bit of a struggle getting it out of the tin). What can I say? My instagram feed is full of gorgeous pictures of beautifully risen and marked loaves nestling in baskets lined with checked cloth, while mine got dubbed a brick and ‘dwarf bread’ by Twitter which, if you read your Terry Pratchett, is not a compliment.

So, following a recipe from another Twitter user, I sorted out an improvised proving basket from a serving dish and a tea towel (after 26 years of marriage it’s quite something to be able to finally use one of your wedding gifts).

loaf of bread proving

I gave it a nice long time to rise, failed to make any pretty patterns in the top, bunged it in a dutch oven, only burned myself a little bit trying to get the lid off half way through and bingo

Fourth sourdough loaf

I am ready for my closeup

5. Even so, it’s totally worth it.

So now the only problem is that I’ve got to keep it up because I don’t think we can go back to normal bread. My ambition now is to see just how long we can keep going without resorting to the back-up loaf of shop-bought bread that’s been sitting in the freezer since the beginning of the year. So far, I’ve been keeping up with demand (which appears to have doubled since I started this project) but given it’s a 24 hour lead time minimum, it takes a bit of planning

In fact, I now have to go and set off another Amy (which is what I’m calling the production sourdough, i.e. the offshoot you make the bread out of, rather than Jimmy the ancestral starter that lives in the fridge – this all makes perfect sense in my head) and maybe pick another recipe to see if I can hit my next goal: a loaf that actually remains oval rather than mysteriously going round while it’s in the oven. Oh, and mastering those pretty patterns on the top

What recipe do you use?


January 5, 2018

We woke this morning to a hard frost and fog which gradually lifted – or perhaps sank, for I discovered when I set out to Bigtown this afternoon that we were above the clouds, which is one of the unexpected bonuses of living on the side of a hill.

clouds below

It did give the road that leads down to the river valley an unusually apocalyptic feel.

heading into the mist

I was heading for Bigtown to, among other things, see* whether the library had a book on sourdough bread which it, amazingly, did

Setting off, I began to reconsider my plan of waiting until the warmer weather before getting to grips with bike maintenance. Not only is my rear brake not centring, which means I have to lean back and straighten it up every time I come to a hard stop (fortunately I have designed my ride in so I don’t normally need to do too many of those), but there’s a slow puncture in one of my winter tyres, which means I need to pump the tyre up every morning, something I invariably forget until I’ve already set off and am wondering why the handling is a bit weird. I’m not sure I can handle either learning how to sort out my brakes or working out how to change a spikey tyre without loss of life or limb, but I could at least work out how to adjust the kickstand on my bike – something I have been meaning to do for ooh, approximately three years now, so that I don’t have to find the one bit of the drive where the slope is at exactly the right angle for the bike not to fall over just as I start pumping up the flat tyre.

In other news, the first sourdough loaf is proving as we speak. I haven’t actually read the book yet, apart from dipping into it for amusingly acerbic asides but from the bits I’ve read so far, I think it’s going to be right up my street. Now, who’s written an amusing, no-nonsense guide to being a bit less crap about maintaining one’s bike?

* the entire coonsil library management system has been titsup for over a year now so the only way of finding out is to go and look…

Slow Starter

January 3, 2018

Because I’m clearly Not Busy Enough, with the new year my thoughts have been idly turning on possible resolutions. In 2017 I not only managed to stick to my standard resolution* for the first time in ages but also managed to ‘turn left‘ for a new micro adventure every month, even if it was sometimes a very token effort indeed.

This year, as well as attempting not to start any more cycle campaigns (I need to be very careful if I see Back on my Bike coming anywhere near me with cake), I have decided I will attempt two things and you, dear blog readers, get to be bored rigid – sorry, bear witness – to my attempts. The first is to get better at maintaining my bike, of which more anon when the weather has warmed up (remind me in March or April; I have a plan for this).

The second – after a rambling new year’s eve twitter conversation (which as actually far more enjoyable than a lot of twitter conversations are these days, involving as it did no references to Donald Trump or Brexit or cycle helmets) – is to start baking sourdough bread.

I have made bread occasionally in the past, mostly wheaten loaf (or soda bread), and it’s nice enough but it’s never really stuck as a habit. The attraction of sourdough – apart from the fact that it’s complicated enough to be potentially interesting – is that your starter seems to take on the status of something between a chemistry experiment and a family pet (the most concrete advice I have been given so far is to give it a name, to encourage me to look after it properly), complete with the need to get a sitter in when you go on holiday (are there starter kennels? There probably are by now. If not, I offer you the Hipster Business Idea of 2018, coming soon to a crowdfunder near you). This seemed to me the best way to encourage me to actually keep the habit up as starter thrives on you regularly baking with it, and I’m much more likely to do something when someone is expecting me to do it, even if that someone is in fact a bunch of yeast cells named Jimmy Carter,** rather than an actual real person.

And then there’s the complication side of things. New Year’s eve found me rummaging around in the Scottish Water website trying to work out what water treatment chemicals were used in the Bigtown area to find out if I needed filtered water (it’s the chloramines, you see, they’re much more likely to kill off the organisms than plan old chlorination), and wandering the house trying to find a spot that would remain at a steady 21C (this is the problem with following American instructions for starting your starter. Also with moving out of the house with the Rayburn …). Twitter has been reasonably reassuring on this score and provided enough contradictory advice that I can go ahead and do what I was planning on anyway (sticking it next to the hot water tank).

So far – day three – and Jimmy Carter is beginning to bubble away although I suspect it will take a bit longer before he’s fully fighting fit. This weekend I will attempt to bake my first loaf of bread and hopefully the results will be at least palatable enough that I continue the experiment. And maybe even successful enough that I can quietly sweep that foolish ambition of getting better at maintaining my bike come the warmer weather …

* not starting any more new cycle campaigns – although Back on My Bike has conned me into continuing with the supposedly ephemeral Walk Cycle Vote campaign even though there won’t (we hope) be any voting to be done in 2018.

** Why, what do you call your starter?