Sasha on Sourdough
We traveled to Pembrokeshire this Spring and found Mathematician and fellow foodie Sasha Clarkson. He is a fascinating character and we are over the moon that he agreed to be featured.
Sasha is really creative with his baking but with a maths & science background he does “subject everything to a sort of analysis”, we couldn’t wait to hear his suggestions for sourdough.
How long have you been baking?
“I’ve been making my own bread for years and years and years, not really that good until about 4 years ago when I admitted that it was alright but not good enough and so I started reading up and since then I’ve completely changed the way I do it and the results are very, very different.
The one thing that I have absolutely come to the conclusion of in the last few years (because I haven’t bought a loaf of bread for getting on for 4 years) is that it’s got to be slow bread.”
How slow is slow bread?
“My standard bread making method is to make the dough at least a day before I want to use it.”
How do you make sourdough bread?
“I use far less sourdough (culture) than
I used to – if it’s a good active sourdough then you don’t need much. I use about 600-700g of flour but it varies according to the flour but I’ve found if it’s yeast bread I use between 62-65% of the
weight of water to the weight of flour so if I’m doing 400g of flour then I’ll need 260g of water, that’s how I do it. With sourdough I do 60% because then I add about 3 dessertspoons of the culture but also because I’m letting it rise overnight in the tin I sprinkle the top of the dough with water every now and then to make the thing not too hard.
I don’t add salt until just before I’m going to bake it.
The Rye is very important (white Rye) although this Rye is too dense to use it’s better than ordinary rye, because wholemeal Rye has too much roughage”. “I use German standard type 997”.
“What I’m going to do today is a 25% mixture (25% Rye, 75% strong white bread flour). But firstly I need some caraway seeds, for the authentic continental flavour of anything with sourdough and rye you need caraway seeds. Now I roast them a little bit, about 1 level teaspoon of these and I put them on a tray in the bottom of the oven and by the time I’ve actually measured the flour it will have enough time to have a partly roasted flavour but not be completely burnt. Quite often I put them in and forget about them though!
With Rye bread I don’t make that much at a time so here we’re going to use 325g of flour, of which 70-80g is going to be of Rye. There’s also Rye in the sourdough culture. But I’ll tell you about that in a minute.
Now, because there’s liquid in the sourdough mix I only put about 60% water so approximately 192g of water, the thing is, it becomes unscientific when I add that (points to sourdough culture) but you know by the feel of it. However, this is really a point of “not more than” because I don’t want too liquid a mixture and so end up adding more flour. “
(before adding the 192g of water poured out from the kettle Sasha dips his finger into the measuring jug to test the temperature)
“I’m going to leave that for a few minutes, I want it luke warm and not hot, because what I do then is add some of the sourdough to the water and then add that to the flour. Meanwhile the caraway seeds have been in (if anything for too long) oh no that’s fine actually, we’ll let that cool down. What I’m gonna do is I’m gonna grind them in a minute.”
“The other thing with this, it’s really important in particular with sourdough bread is that you never add salt at the beginning. If you add salt at the beginning it might well kill the sourdough. When you’re doing anything with sourdough, don’t add salt for half an hour. (grinds caraway seeds)
“Ahh that’s it, can you smell the slightly roasted smell already? I got interested in Rye bread basically because my mother was Russian”
“Now and this is where this method is different from anything you will see on the web (so far as I’m aware) because the ones on the web use a heck of a lot more sourdough culture”. (adds 3 dessertspoons of sourdough culture) but if you use more it will probably rise a bit more but in my experience there’s not much point. This will be ready to bake when I get up tomorrow morning, 8-9 o’clock or whatever. Tell you what – just to make sure I’ll add a bit more, make it 3 ½ spoonfuls. Let’s say if we’re going to be scientific(ish) let’s say a dessertspoonful for every 100g of flour. Bearing in mind that this (sourdough culture) is never going to be a uniform thickness anyway because you don’t make this scientifically. So that’s mixed now (mixes sourdough with water) It really does pay to weigh your ingredients (including the water) rather than looking “is it on the line, isn’t it on the line” as it could mean a big difference”.
“Now in most of my bread I use virgin olive oil – I don’t use the Greek stuff which is extra nice but for this…, as it’s eastern European Slavic I use unrefined sunflower oil which has quite a distinctive smell”.
“The thing about Rye any amount of Rye – it does have some gluten, not as much as wheat but there’s also something about the biochemistry of the Rye (and I don’t know what it is) but it is incredibly sticky to the touch. This is alright because this is just under 25% Rye flour if you start using 50% Rye flour (which I have done) you’ll fine even with yeast it sticks and it’s very very difficult to manage because the gluten in ordinary flour actually helps it not to stick to your hands and helps it be much easier to manage. Basically biochemically the gluten plus water it creates not only a long chain polymer but actually a lattice polymer so when you’ve got a dough with white wheat flour and you’ve worked it properly you’ve got a molecule probably which is the size of the dough of the gluten which is a three dimensional lattice containing the starch from the flour. So the more you fold it over the more it’s not just a number of different molecules you’ve then got one giant three-dimensional molecule”.
“I will get to the hands eventually (as he cuts the dough with a table knife) but this minimises the stickiness. This does have wheat flour in it therefore we will be getting the gluten polymer as well.”
“How on earth do you make sure that the salt is properly dispersed through the dough? Evenly dispersed through the dough? So what I do is I put the dough flat and I sprinkle salt on it, right, then I fold it over. Then you’ve got 1 layer of salt. Now every time you double – every time you fold it over just suppose you just fold it over once every time – what happens is that you double the number of layers every time. So, 1 will get 2 but after 12 times folded you’ll have 1024 layers. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 so actually after 12 folds altogether you can be pretty sure that if you’ve got over a thousand layers the salt will be well and truly dispersed.”
How do you go about creating your own culture?
“Ah that’s hit and miss, there are various descriptions of how to do it on the web which is basically what I’ve done. The bacteria in sourdough are everywhere in your local environment. The odds are that if you brought a sourdough culture back from abroad somewhere; in a years time you’d actually have your local one. Organic flour, especially Rye has the spores in it. You can encourage it taking an unwashed, unsprayed piece of apple in there to start with.
It’s best to start with Rye flour. You mix your Rye flour with warm water and everyday for a week you add a bit more flour and a bit more warm water and within a couple of days it will start bubbling. By the end of the week it’s probably going to be stable. You probably shouldn’t use it for a week or so. “
What’s the longest you’ve kept a culture going for?
“Well this is probably the longest, this is at least 2 ½ years old now. As I say I change the jar once a month. You don’t have to put it in the fridge, in fact putting it in the fridge: no point. Sourdough doesn’t require a sterile atmosphere au contraire”.
“Now then, I’m afraid I don’t measure this (salt) (Sasha scatters about 2 teaspoons of salt onto the flattened dough) – I probably should it’s not even but that will do”. “The last one was 3 wasn’t it so this is now 4, 5, 6, so now we’ve got geometric progression – this is part of A-Level maths. So 7, 8 just need a touch more (oil) on my hands, just to stop it sticking to my hands,
Some people of course don’t like adding oil to their bread, obviously omit it if you want to keep your bread absolutely oil free but again that’s usual for slow and quick bread. Slow bread is flavoursome quick bread isn’t”.
Does the oil help the crust then?
“Ah, sourdough does, sourdough crusts are definitely special”
“It’s something that you’ve got to experiment with”.
“I think we’re on 10 now, I’ve lost count because I’ve been talking too much.
The salt will be very well dispersed by now and of course every time you fold it you fold it from a side that hasn’t been folded last time”.
“Here we are, now (putting the dough into the prepared tin) being realistic I’ll probably bake this about 9-10 o’clock tomorrow morning. It doesn’t expand anything like as much as yeast but as you can see from those photos I sent you before you still get plenty of bubbles. But it is undoubtedly denser bread.
Now then, right now that’s fine, all I’ll do now is I’ll put it in a plastic bag, in here and in the morning I’ll probably, there are a couple of little holes in this bag which I’ll probably plug up with cello tape, but every 2-3 hours if I can be bothered I’ll, certainly at least twice between now and the morning I’ll sprinkle a bit more water on it just to make sure the surface doesn’t dry out. But basically there you have it”
So what happens in the process between now and the baking?
Does it slowly rise?
“The yeast in the sourdough produces the bubbles. Modern yeasts – there isn’t enough gluten in rye bread for the yeast to rise you wouldn’t get the bubbles being held by the lattice. But that produces it more slowly so you do get the bubbles but it’s a much slower and less vigorous process, which works with more kinds of flour but until 200 years ago all bread was sourdough.”
Sasha brought us the loaf the next day and recommended we have it with a good layer of garlic cream cheese, Rainer Kiess’s smoked salmon and some pickled gherkins - it was delicious!
I’ve always had problems getting my bread to rise. After talking to Sasha I decided to wait until the very last minute before adding the salt in my last batch, and it really made a difference. Perhaps also (because I’m a bit lazy) I prefer his folding method instead of kneading. Have a go!