“It takes time. A lot of time and a lot of patience,” Tony Dench insists, of making a sourdough loaf from scratch. He owns Dench Bakers with his father, John, along with Dench Café in Fitzroy North and Bread & James for Frances in Hawthorn. The pair also runs a wholesale operation.

Each loaf is crafted at the main bakery premises in Abbotsford in professional baking ovens. “If your oven is gas or fan-forced, the bread may look a little dull,” he explains. “This is because the steam has dried out and the dough can’t expand and caramelise properly.” Still, he agrees there is little more rewarding than baking your own sourdough loaf.

Here, Dench shares his instructions on how to make a sourdough starter (the combination of flour and water that ferments to create the yeast necessary for baking sourdough) and subsequently, a loaf. Trial and error is the key here, as baking differs in varied conditions.

Ingredients:

Starter
1 apple or potato
2 cups wholemeal flour

Sourdough
400g wheat flour
8g salt
150g starter (see recipe above)

Method:

Make a sourdough starter from scratch
The starter will need to be made up to 2 weeks before baking.

Boil an organic apple or potato until soft inside when poked with a skewer. Place it in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place out of the sun for a week. After this time it should start to ferment, with bubbles exuding from under the skin. Put on rubber gloves and strip the skin and seeds, then squish it between your fingers to make a pulp. Place the pulp, 1 cup of tepid tap water and 1 cup of organic wholemeal flour into a 2-litre bucket. Mix well and leave covered with plastic wrap for a day. The mix should start to bubble and show signs of fermenting.

This can take 12 hours or 2 days depending on the conditions. When the bubbles stop generating and the mix starts to look flat, it’s time to ‘feed’ your starter again with another cup of wholemeal flour and cup of tepid tap water.

Feed the starter
As the bucket starts to fill over successive days, start tipping out a third of the mix prior to feeding. As the ferment gets stronger, tip out half before mixing and start adding 1½ cups each of water and flour instead of 1 cup. Repeat this process for at least 2–3 weeks, longer if you can. The time taken for the starter (aka levain, leaven, ferment, sourdough, chef) to ferment and bubble will decrease until it is going through a cycle of feeding, fermenting and becoming flat within around 4–6 hours, depending on your conditions and chosen flour (rye is very quick, wheat is slower, for example). This cycle is your indication that the starter is strong and able to make a good loaf of bread.

Prepare the starter for baking
If you want to re-use your starter, mix it again with the same measurements of flour and water and let it rest for an hour on the bench. Then put it in the fridge and leave it for 1–2 weeks. To re-use, remove it from the fridge the day before baking, let it warm up naturally and then mix in more flour and water. Leave it to ferment overnight and then feed it again. Now you can bake with it. Follow this process after baking and your starter will last forever.

Make the dough
Combine the flour, salt, 250mL of tepid water and starter in a bowl, mix until incorporated and leave to rest for 10 minutes. Tip the contents onto a lightly floured bench and knead it with your hands for 3 minutes, rolling the dough out flat and folding it back into a ball. Your dough should be firm but elastic. Add a touch more water if it feels stiff. Note that it’s always easier to add extra flour to a wet dough than vice versa.

Prove the dough
Wrap the dough in a clean, damp tea towel and rest for 10–15 minutes. Knead it again for a few more times, for 1 minute or less, before covering it with the tea towel again and allowing it to rest for 1 hour. Be sure to place the dough away from draughts and cold, ideally somewhere reasonably warm, in a plastic bowl. After resting, the dough sould begin to prove (become slightly puffy and airy).

Rest the dough
Place the dough back onto a lightly floured bench, kneading it a few times and then sculpting it into your preferred shape: a ball, short Vienna or longer stick. Make a seam on the bottom of the loaf by tightening the dough with your hands. Keep the seam facing upwards and place the loaf to be in a floured tea towel, either in a bowl for round shapes or rolled into the tea towel for longer loaf shapes. Rest it for another 1–2 hours.

Check the dough
Your dough should look smooth and even before baking.

Test the dough
Preheat the oven to 200°C fan-forced (220°C conventional), preheating for at least an hour. Getting the temperature right can be difficult as each oven is different. Trial and error is often the way to go. Test to see if your dough is ready to be baked by lightly poking it. If your finger leaves an indent that doesn’t rebound, it is. You’ll notice the contrast if you try this step earlier on during proving.

Score the dough
Turn the dough upside-down so the seam is on the bottom and then cut or score it with a pattern using a sharp knife or razor (try one slice lengthways, several cuts across, crosshatching or stripes).

Bake the bread
Place the loaf on a pizza stone or baking tray. Spray the inside of the oven with a water spritzer, put your loaf in and close the door. It should take about 30–40 minutes to bake and turn golden in colour. When ready, the loaf should sound hollow when tapped on the base. If it colours or burns too quickly, your oven is too hot. Try dropping it by 15°C to 20°C next time, but keep the baking time the same.


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