With Graham's permission I'm putting together a mini-series about how I make sourdough. Notice I say,how I make sourdough' and not,how to make sourdough' or even,how you should make sourdough'. That's because I don't think I have particularly special skills and I certainly don't have the technical knowledge to dictate to you, but I have been making sourdough successfully for a number of years, I totally agree with Graham's statement,making sourdough is easy' and I would like to contribute to demystifying the process.
There are numerous methods for making sourdough and when you are starting out the quickest way to be successful is to follow one method until you get it right and not to take a bit from one person and a bit from another and flit from one recipe to another. I'm afraid it comes down to routine. But, if that sounds dull, the excitement comes when the dough hits the heat of the oven and in the sights and smells of that transformation from a moist, grey blob of flour and water to a golden, crackling, steaming loaf that has the neighbourhood drooling.
And, don't forget, you people have got it lucky, you can't move for internet advice. When I started bread making in 1992 (yawn) all knowledge came from books (remember them') and, from my perspective in the UK, serious books about bread, and there weren't many of them, came from the USA. Hard to get hold of and expensive plus measurements in cups!
The first book with proper sourdough recipes in, i.e. ones that didn't include additional yeast, was Joe Ortiz' Village Baker and, try as I might, I could not get them right. When recipes don't work out it is easy to blame everything but your own incompetence. I concluded that the climate in Wales was not warm enough for natural yeast development. We have a cast iron stove in our living room in a big inglenook. I had my biggest Le Creuset casserole rigged up on top of a stool in the back of the inglenook with a double decker arrangement inside so it would hold two bannetons of dough to rise overnight. Can you imagine what it put the dough through, burning temperature with the fire at its height crashing down to near freezing in the early hours. Come morning it didn't need an oven to produce a crust. I admit it, I gave up on sourdough.
Then, towards the end of 1999, I made a new starter to be ready for the millennium and tried again. This is the bullshit factor. I know I said I wanted to demystify the sourdough process but it doesn't hurt to have a little bull up your sleeve. So if I ever get to be professional I have my Millennium Starter, made new for the incoming century and it will allow me to produce Snowdonia Sourdough (for this is where I live) harnessing the unique, natural yeasts from the pure Welsh mountain air. Just don't ever forget it is bullshit.
Anyway, that's the self indulgent bit. I'm not going to do a section on how to make a starter, there's loads of that information on the forum + to be honest, I've only ever made two starters in my life and, apart from the fact that I only used plain, organic flour and water, I can't remember how I did it.
Next I'll do a section on equipment and then, how I maintain my starter.
Comments/questions welcomed and please ask if there's a problem with Brit terminology, e.g. by plain flour I mean white bread flour.