All you need for the perfect sourdough bread is a superhuman starter

As a serial murderer of house plants I’m relieved to find that, in theory at least, “starters are actually really hard to kill”.

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Friday morning in Hackney, and I’m standing looking at a phone screen full of close-up shots of bubbly beige stuff with a small group of people who have taken time off work for the privilege. “This is #opencrumb,” the phone’s owner, and our sourdough guru, Martha de Lacey, announces. “People, mostly men, are obsessed with getting really big holes in their bread.” There’s a moment of unhappy silence, before she adds what we’re all thinking – “even though it makes terrible toast. The butter just falls through.”

De Lacey, who only started baking herself because she was spending “a small mortgage on bread every weekend” (and, encouragingly, spent several years turning out “delicious but completely flat” loaves before a YouTube epiphany on the importance of shaping) was persuaded to begin teaching by the reaction of her supper club guests – “people kept asking me where they could learn, like it was some big mystery. And it really isn’t.”

Yet it’s exactly the mysteries of science, of hydration percentages and fermentation temperatures, that have put me off thus far: baking is, according to the 2,642-page, $625 Modernist Bread book, “applied microbiology”, and that sounds some way above GCSE level.

Thirty-minute soda bread is much more my cup of tea – though, sitting somewhat fraudulently on a bakers’ panel at the Latitude Festival this summer, sandwiched between Chris Young of the Real Bread Campaign and Rebecca Bishop of Suffolk’s Two Magpies Bakery, I was left in no doubt that it didn’t really count. “More of a cake, really,” was Young’s verdict, as he fielded queries on enzyme levels in rye flour and the benefits of steam ovens. Chastened, I decided to go back to school.

I do have some previous with sourdough: twice during the last decade I have failed to keep a starter – the mixture of flour, water and naturally occurring yeasts that makes sourdough rise – alive for long enough to make more than one loaf. (And when those things go bad, they really go rogue: if de Lacey’s claim that the layer of foul-smelling liquid is “prison hooch” proves true, a dead starter would be a deterrent against a life of crime.)

This time, instead of starting from scratch, I get a helping hand in the form of a spoonful of her trusty starter, which, she tells us, once travelled to Corfu in a contact lens case, and then exploded out of it at 35,000 feet. As a serial murderer of house plants, I’m relieved to find that, in theory at least, “starters are actually really hard to kill” and don’t even need much tending if you’re not planning to bake more than once a week: just stick them in the fridge until you fancy a sandwich.

Even better, those oh-so desirable big holes demand a dough so wet it’s all but impossible to knead – instead, de Lacey advocates “slap and fold”, a technique that’s as satisfying to perform as it sounds, though it seems this is yet another contentious area: “Some people think you should be as gentle with your dough as a baby, others think you ought to knock it about a bit. I’m somewhere in the middle.”

My first batch of dough is waiting for me in the fridge, my oven billowing smoke at this unaccustomedly high temperature. I imagine this is a similar feeling to when they send you home from hospital with an actual baby – I’m utterly terrified I’m going to kill it. I don’t, but I do learn something else important: almost anything tastes great smothered in butter and Marmite.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war