Making Sour Dough Bread

Sourdough Bread

One of the things I have attempted during lockdown is making sourdough bread. I don’t actually like sourdough—it tastes too sour!—but Husband likes it, and I rather liked the idea of making it. It’s completely different to making ‘normal’ bread, and has no yeast. Instead, you have a sort of mini chemical plant bubbling away in your kitchen, which you feed each day, and when it has grown to the appropriate size, you use it to make bread.

It reminded me of when I was a child, and we made ginger beer, having a ‘plant’ of sludge bubbling away in a jam jar, feeding it sugar and ginger every day, and then on a Saturday, filling the sink with bottles we had begged from relatives, filling them with boiling water to sterilize them, and then filling them with ginger beer; which we stored under the kitchen table for a couple of weeks, before drinking copious amounts of wonderful fizzy ginger beer. Any fizzy drink in those days was wonderful, as my parents only ever bought them at Christmas, due to cost. I’m not sure how the cost of the sugar we added when making the beer compared, but to my childhood self, ingredients didn’t count as a ‘cost’ and the beer was therefore ‘free.’

There was the week when our boiling-water-method of ‘sterilization’ obviously didn’t work (I learnt a lot about what ‘hot’ and ‘hurts’ meant in those days) and one of the bottles exploded, all over the kitchen floor. My mother was very good about things like that, she never minded us taking over her kitchen to cook, and she was never angry when we spilt things or bottles of fizzy drink exploded everywhere. It is one of the things I tried to copy when I was a mother.

Anyway, all this fuelled my desire to try and make some sour dough. I was not disappointed.

I found a recipe online, and made my ‘starter’. This was a goo of milk, yogurt and flour. Apparently, in days gone by, people made the starter simply by leaving flour (probably whole grain) to soak, until it started to ferment, and this became the base for the starter. But it’s quicker with yogurt, and less likely to go rancid. Each day, I added flour and water. The first couple of days, it expanded slightly, and bubbles appeared on the surface. But then it went flat, and looked dead. I think my house was too cold, and the bacteria couldn’t be bothered to do anything. I moved it to a warmer place, and it started to bubble again. I made it in a small Pyrex bowl, covered with clingfilm and a tea towel (to keep it insulated, as it needs to be warm, but not too warm).

Some days it looked as if the water and flour had separated, and there was water on the surface. This is actually alcohol (with a fancy name). I just stirred it back into the sludge. It looked gloopy, a bit like baby vomit, but it smelt wonderfully beery. If it starts to smell nasty (of poop) then it’s gone off, and you must throw it away and start again.

After six days, I was ready to make the bread. There was a lot of goo and sticky involved, and a good muscle workout in the kneading bit. It also took hours, as a sour dough starter is not as fast as yeast, so it needed two lots of 2 ½ hour rest periods to rise. The dough was never firm enough to support itself, so needed to be left to rise in a bowl. The instructions said to line this with a floured tea towel otherwise it would stick to the bowl. I did, and it stuck to the tea towel. When it was cooked, I was supposed to place tins of water in the oven, to produce a steamy atmosphere, but I forgot.

However, it was all great fun, and interesting, and I loved the slightly beery smell of the starter and the bread. I made two loaves, and they looked suitably rustic. Inside, they had the big bubbles we think of when we buy sour dough. It tasted—well, exactly like sour dough bread! So I didn’t much like it, but Husband was very pleased. I will make it again, because it was fun. I have included the recipe below, in case you fancy making some too.


Sour Dough Starter

  1. Day One: Heat 6fl oz skimmed milk (but not too hot to touch, or it will kill the bacteria, and bacteria is your friend here). Mix with 5 tblsp plain yogurt (you need the stuff with bacteria in, and not a flavoured one, as that would make very odd bread!) Cover the bowl. Leave 24 hours (somewhere not too cold). Stir.
  2. Day Two: Stir in 4oz (100g) white bread flour. It needs to be proper bread flour, not plain flour, as it needs the extra strength—otherwise your loaves will flop over in despair and you will have made weird sour pastry, not bread. Cover. Leave 48 hours.
  3. Day Four: Add 6oz (150g) bread flour, and 100 ml water, and 3 tblspn milk (I used semi-skimmed milk). Leave 24 hours.
  4. Day Five: Remove half the starter. You can throw it away, but I put it into another bowl, in the fridge. When I wanted to make more, I simply put it into the warm kitchen and started at Day Four again, hence making another lot of starter for more bread. Apparently, some people keep their starter for generations, passing it on and on, a sort of sludgy heirloom. Not sure my children would especially enjoy inheriting that.
    Add 5 ½ oz (150g) bread flour, 150 ml water. Mix well. Leave 24 hours.
  1. Day Six: Use the starter to make the bread.

Sour Dough Bread

500g Strong White Flour

300g Starter (this is what the above recipe will give you)

2 tsp brown sugar

2 tsp salt

oil for greasing

9fl oz (150 ml) warm water

loads and loads of extra flour to stop the dough sticking to your hands/board/tea towel


  1. Mix the starter and flour, gradually add the water until forms a soft dough, you will probably only need about 6 fl oz. (I added it all, because I didn’t read the recipe properly, and made a sticky mess. Had to add a lot of extra flour to make it workable.)
    Add sugar and salt.
    Knead for 10 minutes, stretching and pushing and squeezing the dough. It’s ready when you can stretch out a piece so thinly that it’s almost translucent. This means all the gluten in the bread has burst, and will hold the bubbles in the dough when it cooks. If the dough isn’t stretchy enough, keep kneading until it is, otherwise you will be making biscuits (ones that will break your teeth).
  1. Put into an oiled bowl. Leave somewhere warm for 2 ½ hours.
  2. Knock back (ie, knead a little bit more, so some of the air is released, but not enough to push out all of it). Shape into two loaves. Cover a tea towel with loads of flour (really, loads, push flour into the fabric with your fingers—it will still stick!) Place the tea towel into a bowl, and add your loaf. (If you leave it to prove on a tin, like normal bread, it will collapse into a dollop). Leave 2 ½ hours.
  3. Place loaf onto an oiled tin. (Good luck with that! I surgically removed the tea towel with a knife. But the scraggy top of the loaf looked quite nice when it was cooked.) Score a hashtag shape on top with a sharp knife (try not to press on the dough—you want to keep all the air bubbles inside now).
  4. Bake 200˚C for 35 minutes. If you remember, put a tin of water in the bottom of the oven, to create a steamy environment. The loaf will sound hollow when it’s cooked (so get it out and knock on the bottom if you’re not sure!)

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Letters to a Sister :26

How was your week? Mine was okay but busy.

I had the kittens neutered. Of course, usually two of them live outside with the mothers (which is working well, by the way, I haven’t seen a rat around the pond in ages.) However, while they were recovering, they all had to be inside. Louise, the grumpy older cat, was not happy. Nor particularly was husband. There were, I must admit, way too many cats in the house. Especially as one (I think Mandy) was refusing to use the dirt tray. They are all outside again now. They are much happier. So am I.

The chickens were also annoying this week. There were no eggs. I wondered if something was getting them (or even, much worse, if the hens had started eating them) so I put a couple of bought eggs into the nesting boxes. They are still there, so that wasn’t the problem. I then wondered if perhaps they were laying elsewhere. During the day I open the hutch and they wander around the garden. They’re safe because Kia is often out there too (even a fox wont mess with a GSD.) So, I tried leaving them shut in all day. They were unhappy but I got eggs. Now I don’t know what to do – I like them wandering around but there’s no point having hens if I still have to buy eggs. Have discussed it with them, I’m sure that will help.

It was also my turn to cook for the oldies. I decided to give them chocolate brownie and ice cream for dessert. This was very popular. Lots of people have asked for the recipe, so I thought I would include it below. It’s modified from a Nigella Lawson recipe (I like her recipes – they always work) so do hope I am not breaching any copyrights. (I figure that she must have started with someone else’s recipe and changed it to suit her and I have done the same, so it’s kind of fair.)I do not look as sexy as Nigella when I cook and am a lot grumpier. But the brownies are nice.

The quantity is for ten old people, so to serve forty I had to do it four times. By the end I was in bit of a muddle, couldn’t remember if I had added salt and even forgot the buzzer – which is fatal. They were all edible, which is good.

It’s much nicer cooking with someone else. At Easter we always have a cream tea at our house, so I cook scones for about ninety people. Niece always comes in the morning to help me make the dough, so we help each other remember to add sugar and salt while I learn about her boyfriends and she ignores all my good advice. It’s a nice time.

But back to the brownies. I have included cup measures in case you make them in the US, where cooking is slightly less accurate but a whole lot easier. I have also included my own helpful comments, the sort of thing they never put in recipe books but you tell the children when they’re cooking. Enjoy:

Before you begin, put all animals out of the kitchen. And all teenaged boys. And if your mother is like ours, put her outside too. Then wipe the surfaces, wash your hands and find a clean apron.

Preheat the oven to 170℃.

200g chocolate (weight should be on the packet.) Be honest here, if you will eat some, buy extra. You can use any chocolate you like – milk, dark, white all work fine. I think orange might be too sweet.
200g butter (a little less than 1 cup.)
400g light brown sugar (2½ cups)
100g cocoa (¾ cup)
1⅓ teaspoons bicarbonate soda
200g flour (1¼ cups)
5 large eggs (if the hens haven’t laid them under a bush somewhere)
2 teaspoons vanilla essence (it’s expensive, so please don’t spill any.)

Grease a dish with sunflower oil. I use big lasagna dishes, 27cm squared. Put the chocolate into a freezer bag and bash with a rolling pin until it’s in chunks. Eat any extra.

Mix the eggs and vanilla with a fork.

Melt the butter and sugar. You need a very low heat and to stir all the time or it will burn. Bash out any lumps of sugar while you do it or they make horrid crunchy bits in the brownie.

Remove mixture from heat while you measure the dry ingredients. This is important. If it’s too hot when you add the eggs, they cook. You will then have brownie with cooked lumps of egg in them. Your husband tells you they are “interesting”, your parents-in-law politely remove the eggy lumps and leave them on the plate for you to find later and your children refuse to eat them after the first mouthful.

Add the flour, cocoa, bicarb and a little salt (pour it onto your hand first, you just need a pinch.)

Add the eggs. It’s easiest if you add them gradually. If you add them all at once you will need to beat the mixture really hard until it’s smooth, which is a good arm workout but hard work.

Add the chocolate chunks, then quickly, before they melt, scrape the mixture into the container and put it into the oven.

Set the timer for 25 minutes. It should look dry on top but not cooked underneath. If the top looks wet, give it another 5 minutes.

Leave in the dish to cool, serve warm with ice-cream or cold on a plate.

Wash up and wipe all surfaces.
Allow animals and family back into kitchen.

Take care,
Anne x

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Killing the kitchen roll. Again.


Guard duty.


Letters to a Sister :20

I finished writing my novel. This is big and very scary. It is actually my second one. The first I wrote years ago but was too scared to do anything with it so I put it in a filing cabinet. I found it again a year ago, read it, decided it was good and tried to get it published. This is when I discovered that trying to get a first book published when you are a normal, non-famous person, is rather hard. It is, I assume, like trying to be an actress or singer. The ability seems to be a minor factor, who you know (nobody in my case) and your ability to ‘sell’ seems much more important.

No publishers in the UK will take manuscripts from new writers, so first you have to find an agent. The initial approach is a covering letter. This involves a lot of sweat, tears, many rewrites while you try to adopt a casually witty style. I clearly never got it right because my first book remains in the filing cabinet. I was something of a literary snob. I felt that if my work was good enough, someone would pay me to publish it, there was no way I would self-publish. I am less of a snob now, I just want my book to be read. If no one likes my covering letter (and it does seem to be this rather than the actual book that is important) then I shall publish it myself. I will let you know how I get on.

On a completely unrelated topic, have you ever cooked with quinoa? I keep seeing it on tele but have never actually tried it. Am thinking of having a try. This fills my family with dread. I do tend to have passions for things in the kitchen. There was the time my mother-in-law gave me a rather nifty garlic press, the sort where you don’t do any peeling or chopping, you just squeeze the bulb through the grill. Immensely satisfying. We had garlic, a lot of it, with everything for a while. That phase did not get too many complaints. The next one did.

I discovered couscous. It was when I was teaching, had three children at different schools, was stressed and exhausted. The thought of a carbohydrate that required no peeling of potatoes or straining of rice was wonderful. There is after all a limit to how many frozen chips you can serve in a week. So I started adding couscous to most meals. The family complained, but they tend to complain a lot, so I ignored them. Looking back, I did perhaps over do it a bit.

The real low point was when it overlapped with my chilli phase. I grew little red chillies from seeds on my kitchen window sill. They were very pretty and I felt rather trendy adding them to dishes. Again, I did perhaps overdo it. Anyway, the meal which has gone down in family history was a chicken casserole, cooked on a day that had gone particularly badly. Teaching had been stressful, collecting the family from their respective schools had been a hassle, I was tired, had reports to write, just wanted dinner to be cooked, eaten and forgotten. It has never been forgotten.

I added too much chilli to the casserole, it was completely inedible. Never mind, I thought, I will add some couscous, that might dilute it a bit. It did not, it was now just burning hot and thick. My next brainwave, one that I really ought to copyright, was to add milk. Please don’t ask me why, but I had this idea that adding milk would neutralise the chilli. I think I was getting in a muddle with adding it to tomato sauce to neutralise the acid (which DOES work.) Anyway, I served the family a sort of hot chilli porridge. They say they can still remember the moment, my angry eyes flashing, them all trying to not say or do anything wrong and being faced with a plate of hot (in the spicy sense) porridge. As I said, a real low point in my culinary experience.

Of course, when I sat down and tried it I realised it was ghastly, impossible to eat and announced we were throwing it all away. Much to the relief of my children. I cannot remember now what we did eat that night but I don’t think any of them will ever forget that dish. I bet Mary Berry has never tried it. Maybe I will write a recipe book next.

Take care,
Anne x