It’s August 2019 and I’m in Shetland, seeking out the unique wildlife of the islands and finding out more about its Norse heritage. And doing some sampling of the food of the islands too.
So what has this got to do with sourdough you may ask? Quite a lot actually!
I have been making sourdough for a couple of years, but have been actively practising this particular sourdough recipe throughout this year, making loaf after loaf, every other day, trying to get a loaf that ticks all the boxes. I am by no means there, but I feel happy enough to write up my latest efforts for this post.
My version is based on the recipes of James Morton, the Shetlander baker known for his bread making skills and in particular for his passion for, and scientific approach to sourdough. His latest exploits on Instagram @bakingjames are a fascinating diary of a keen bread maker!
It seems appropriate, therefore, to be blogging about sourdough while I am actually in Shetland.
My sourdough procedure is based on James’ recipe from the book Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World, co-written with father Tom Morton, but also on his original sourdough recipe from his book Brilliant Bread. I’ve got my own take too, on these recipes, and what I am blogging below is as much about my experience of the pitfalls of sourdough as well as its exquisite joys.
Shetland is utterly beautiful. I am gobsmacked by its rugged coasts and verdant pastures, and its birds, otters and seals. I am also quite smitten with the sheep of Shetland – picture perfect flocks, more romantic than our more prosaic Australian sheep!
Today I’ve been in Hillswick and in Eshaness, walking stunning cliff tops and enjoying the local food at the St Magnus Bay Hotel and writing my sourdough post.
So here’s my take on James Morton’s recipes for sourdough, blogged on Shetland.
Note: This recipe calls for baking the bread in a cast iron pot or casserole. It’s an amazing way of cooking the bread, allowing you to cook at quite high temperatures. I also use a bread proving basket. Not quite as necessary as the cast iron pot, but a really good investment if you’re a bread maker.
100g organic stoneground flour
100g fresh orange juice
Mix the flour and fruit juice together in a glass jar, big enough to hold at least triple the amount of the original starter. Leave this for about 5 days, or until the mixture is bubbly and frothy but has begun to settle. Now you can feed the starter with equal parts flour and just water. For the feeding stage, I use 125g flour:125g cooled boiled water.
Leave for 12-24 hours until the starter is bubbly and has expanded in size. It’s now ready to be used.
Keep on feeding every day in this way. If you’re not baking bread, you will need to discard a lot of the starter, to make room for more flour and water. You should have only about 200g of starter in the jar left before feeding.
If you don’t want to feed your starter every day, you can put it to sleep in the fridge and feed it just once a week.
250g tepid water
200g sourdough starter
400g strong white flour
10g or 1.5 teaspoons salt
Pour the tepid water into a large bowl.
Add the sourdough starter and stir together with the water until the mixture is loose and just mixed. It’s so loose it’s almost like soup!
Add the strong white flour and salt on top of the water/starter mixture. Use your fingertips to mix the salt into the flour, then a wooden spoon to mix everything together into a dough that is quite rough and sloppy.
The bowl needs to be covered and left for half an hour. I use a plastic shower cap, the kind you find in hotel rooms. I collect them just for this purpose. Or you could use cling wrap or a large plastic bag. Leave somewhere in the kitchen where it’s not draughty.
Remove the cover, and with the tap running, wet one hand, (to stop your fingers sticking to the dough), fold the edges of the dough over and into the middle. The dough should start to feel stretchy. Do this for about 30 seconds.
Put the cover back on the bowl.
You need to repeat this stretching and folding of the dough 3 more times. I make the time interval in between stretching and folding suit whatever I am doing on the day. The minimum time is 30 minutes. I often leave the dough 2-3 hours in between stretching and folding if I’m busy during the day. As James says: “Timings aren’t that important, as long as the stretching is done.”
After the last stretching session, cover the bowl and leave for 2 hours.
Sprinkle a work surface with some flour.
Flour a proving basket. Proving baskets are great for shaping your loaf! If you don’t have a proving basket, put a tea towel into a large bowl and sprinkle liberally with flour.
Turn the dough out onto the floured surface, making sure there is enough flour on the working surface so the dough doesn’t stick.
Now here is the interesting part. That is, how to shape your bread. I have used the James Morton method very successfully, as described below. I also discovered another way on an Instagram video from @season_adam. I suggest looking up this Instagram video as it’s well worth the look. It’s too tricky to try to describe here.
Here is James Morton’s method:
Using lightly floured hands press the dough out slightly flatter. Next you want to roll up your dough as if rolling up a Swiss roll or a Persian rug really tightly.
Turn the rolled dough 90 degrees and roll it up again.This time it will be harder – it will feel tight and try to spring back. You’ll now have piece of dough with a seam on the top and a smooth surface on the bottom. You want to keep this smooth surface on the bottom and sit the dough in your proving basket or prepared tea towel in a bowl.
The dough should be proved again in the proving basket or bowl. Put the dough in the proving basket or bowl in the fridge to rest for a few hours, or overnight if you reach this stage at night. This fridge prove is important as it allows the bread to develop flavour.
Heat the oven to 240 degrees C half an hour before you want to bake the bread. Place the cast iron casserole pot, lid on, into the oven to heat up over the half hour.
After 30 minutes, carefully remove the pot from the oven and take off the lid.
Turn your dough out into the pot, so the smooth side is on top and the seam side is on the bottom. This can be tricky, but be bold – and careful – and turn the dough out as deftly as you can.
Score the dough with a sharp serrated knife or lame. This is a sharp razor blade attached to a handle and is really useful to have if you bake a lot of bread. Replace the lid and put the pot back in the oven.
Bake for 30 minutes with the lid on. After this time turn the oven down to 230 degrees C. Then carefully remove the lid from the pot and bake for another 20-25 minutes until the loaf is very brown. The loaf needs to be a really dark brown colour. Don’t be afraid to go an extra 5 minutes to get that colour.
Once cooked, remove the loaf and turn out onto a wire rack to cool. You need to wait an hour before slicing as the bread is still cooking!
Serve with lashings of butter and homemade jam. Sourdough toast is lovely with a boiled egg too!
Special note re oven temperatures!
The temperatures given work well for me in a fan forced oven. I have read several recipes which also use similar high temperatures. And I have made this recipe countless times using these temperatures. However, you know your oven and whether the suggested temperatures would work for you.
The magic of any bread, but particularly sourdough, is seeing how much the bread rises. I am always nervous on lifting the lid after the first part of the baking to see how much it has risen. But it’s a fantastic feeling to see that beautiful risen loaf in the pot! And when you take the bread out of the oven after the final bake there is another moment of triumph when you see your brown risen sourdough loaf in all its glory.
Sourdough bread is so worth the effort to make!
And the sheep of Shetland are pretty good too.