After nail-biting excitement of cultivating a sourdough starter, with only the subtlest of indications that the primordial swamp of rye flour and water harbored intelligent life, I thought the best way of testing the starter was to bake with it. For this, I adapted Yoke Mardewi‘s recipe for Pain au Levain, “an easy but delicious bread for your first attempt”.
150g rye starter
600g unbleached baker’s flour
360g (weighed) filtered water
2 teaspoons ground sea salt
1. Measure and combine ingredients in a non-metallic bowl until they form a “cohesive mass”.
2. Rest the dough for 15-20 minutes to allow absorption of water.
3. The dough was very sticky at this point, so to lubricate the process, I put a little olive oil on my fingers and spread some on the benchtop. Then using my fingertips I threw the dough in the air and then would throw it on the bench to “air knead”. Proceed with doughy acrobatics until the dough develops elasticity (about 5 minutes).
4. Rest for a further 20-30 minutes to relax the gluten. At the end of this rest, the dough should feel “soft, elastic and slightly sticky”. Add more water or flour as appropriate.
5. Knead the dough again for another 5 minutes or so, with much aerial action. Mardewi recommends a “windowpane test”, where you stretch the dough thinly while holding it up to the light – if you can see light through it without the dough breaking it’s ready! My dough was sticky intensely sticky at this stage, so I used flour more liberally in the kneading process to prevent things from descending into a gluey tangle.
6. Place the dough in a non-metallic container, cover with wet tea-towel or cling wrap and allow to rise until it has almost doubled. Mardewi reckons this will take about 4-6 hours. My dough rose seemingly imperceptibly for the first 5 hours, so I thought I’d boost it by putting it in a cooling oven after dinner. We went to bed, and in the morning it was monstrous. It had a rising time of some 14 hours in the end, but didn’t seem to do it any harm!
7. Divide and shape the dough into two separate loaves if desired. Place on baking paper, and I put the loaves into rectangular cake tins to avoid them flattening into pancakes on a flat surface. Allow the loaves to rise for a further 2 hours or until they have almost doubled again.
8. Preheat the oven to 230-240 degrees (our oven is imprecise), and bake for about 30 minutes. The loaves are ready when brown and offer a hollow sound when knocked on the base. If you’re unsure about whether they’re cooked, turn off the oven but leave them inside for another 10 minutes or so.
9. Cool, slice and devour. After the nerve-shredding tension of coercing starter into being, it’s unexpectedly exhilarating to see the bread rise, to smell it bake and brown, to slice it open to reveal a pleasing density and colour, and, of course, to eat the darn thing.