Bank holidays in Ireland mean several things: family trips to seaside towns, films on RTÉ2 and, most importantly of all, if you are truly Irish, projects. All-consuming, all-involving, weekend-long projects; painting the garage door projects, sorting out the attic projects, or finally finishing that flat-pack unit that’s been sitting in the spare room, half built, since January projects. But if you’re looking for a relaxing Bank Holiday project that will give more gratifying end results and allow you to read the papers while you’re doing it, you could try starting your own sourdough instead.
But do so with a little bit of caution: sourdough bread does take a lot of time and effort (as well as much reading and re-reading of instructions, which is probably the reason that flat-pack didn’t get finished). However, the results are so shockingly good that it truly is worth the hassle: there is no more perfect combination on earth than a slice of oven-fresh sourdough with a spread of ordinary, cold Irish butter, and it’s all the more delicious because you’ve made it yourself.
Once your starter is ready, the production cycle quickens substantially for the next time you bake too, meaning that you can easily make a beautiful loaf of sourdough bread every weekend if you so choose. And you might, as it is addictive, but it’s also much gentler on the stomach than ordinary white bread, making it a good option for those who are a little sensitive to gluten as well as those who are just greedy and devoted bread eaters, like myself.
Many sourdough aficionados swear by the ‘Country Bread’ method, as espoused by Chad Robertson of Tartine bakery. Tartine, a famous San Francisco food institution, sells 240 loaves of their very special sourdough a day; when they go on sale at 5pm (at $8 each) there’s a queue of people trying to get their hands on one winding around the block.
Having tried making the Tartine method at a sourdough workshop at the Fumbally last week I can see why this approach has become such a cult favourite around the world– it delivers an absolutely stellar loaf: beautiful, bubbly, glossy and crusty, with a delicate and very appetising balance of sour, savoury and sweet flavours.
Unsurprisingly enough, there’s lots of information about the Tartine method of making sourdough bread online (people get nerdy about sourdough), but this New York Times article explains the process reasonably clearly, laying out the various steps in a simple and easy to follow fashion. According to the author, “It is a bit of project — from start to finish, it takes about two weeks — but it’s well worth the effort.” [If you already have active starter ready to go, then the process shortens to two days.]
“…So know that you have to be patient, and that the nature of bread baking at home is unpredictable. The level of activity of your starter, the humidity in your kitchen, the temperature during the rises, the time you allow for each step — all of these elements affect the bread and any change can impact your final loaf. But that final loaf is a wonder, the holy grail for the serious home baker.” Indeed it is – give it a go this Bank Holiday weekend!