18 June 2015

Emmer sourdough

One of the joys of baking my own bread is experimenting with different flours. Sometimes that might be seeking authenticity baking a ciabatta using an Italian type 00 bread flour, or baguettes using French T55 flour. What I particularly enjoy is baking with heritage flours, from grains such as spelt or emmer. Humans have a long history of growing grains, and over the millennia have developed and cross-bred countless varieties. The pace of this advance has been particularly fast since the Second World War. As I wrote in another post, mainstream varieties of wheat grown commercially today are quite different to those grown 50 or even 30 years ago. Often, yield and disease resistance, rather than flavour, are the major driving forces behind the development of modern cultivars. (And in many ways this is understandable, we live in an increasingly crowded planet and have only a finite amount of agricultural land.) By baking with heritage flours, we can inject more complex flavours into bread, as well as getting a taste of the breads our ancestors ate.

Also known by its Italian name farro, emmer is an ancient grain, originating from the fertile crescent in the Middle East. It was one of the first varieties of grain to be domesticated, and during ancient times was widely used in bread and beer production. It grows well on relatively poor soils. These days, most commercial European production takes place in upland Italy, particularly in Tuscany.

Emmer is relatively low in gluten, meaning that it lacks the rising potential of strong wheat flour. I have baked a 100% emmer loaf, but found it a bit too dense. I prefer to mix it with strong white wheat flour, which gives both more rise, and makes it easier to shape. In this recipe I use extra strong Canadian flour. The high protein content in this flour creates a dough that can easily be shaped freehand. You could use normal bread flour instead, but unless you bake the loaf in a tin, you might find that it ends up going slightly flat.

The bread uses a sourdough starter, as our ancestors would have done to bake bread. I have been using the same sourdough starter for a good two years. I have given some instructions on how to make a sourdough starter, for readers who haven’t got their own starter. The starter takes a good week or so to develop before you can bake with it, so a little patience is required. I have also included my thoughts on keeping a sourdough starter in a domestic kitchen.

Making a sourdough starter

I have made two sourdough starters over the years. The first I did in a very purist way, using just flour and water, but I found it had a tendency to go mouldy. The second one, which is the starter I  use to this day, also contained fruit. I found it to be more robust, so it is the method I reproduce here. This is essentially the method given by Justin Gellatly (now of Bread Ahead, and formerly St John), in Fergus Henderson’s wonderful book The Complete Nose to Tail. After you have used and refreshed it a couple of times, the fruit will disappear.

Day 1: Finely chop a stick of rhubarb, add to 2tbsps of live yoghurt, 50g rye flour, 50g wholemeal flour, 100g strong white flour and 200g luke-warm water. Stir until combined, and place somewhere warm.

Day 2: Stir again.

Day 3: Add 25g white flour, 25g rye flour and 50g water.

Day 4: By now you should see signs of fermentation. Discard approx one-third of the starter, and add another 100g rye flour, 100g white flour and 200g water.

Day 6: By now the starter should be bubbly and have a slightly sour smell. It is now ready to bake with.

Keeping a sourdough starter at home


I once read a piece in the Guardian about people getting a neighbour to feed their sourdough starters daily while they were on holiday. This article typified the nonsense that one sometimes reads about keeping a sourdough at home. I have read books and articles that require the home baker to feed their sourdough daily, each time throwing away masses of unused starter. This is simply not necessary. Following a few simple rules, a starter can be fed once a week. If you bake bread with it every week, you will throw very little away. And if you go on holiday for two weeks, or forget to feed it one week, don’t worry – it will be fine.

I think the myth about the necessity of daily feeding emanates from artisan bakeries, where the sourdough starter will be used daily. This necessitates daily feeding, to ensure that there is enough starter for the following day’s bread. The starter will often be kept at room temperature to ensure that it is sufficiently ripe for usage the next day. The home baker seldom needs this much starter, and the whole fermentation process of the starter can be slowed down by storing it in the fridge in a tupperware container.

One thing to be aware of, is that the longer you leave between feeds, the potentially more sour your starter can taste. Although you might want a bit of acidity to your sourdough, few people want their bread too sour. This can be countered by understanding where the sourness comes from. As the wild yeast in the starter consume starch from the flour they give off a number of by-products. These by-products include acetic and lactic acids. It is the acetic acid which gives the sour flavour. The ratio of acetic to lactic acid depends on how wet the starter is. A fairly stiff starter will produce more acetic acid, whereas a wet starter will produce more lactic acid. Therefore if you are only going to feed your starter once a week, you should keep it pretty wet. I go for 100% hydration, so for every 100g of flour I also add 100g of water. (This has the advantage of being easy to calculate when feeding your starter.)

Thirdly, you want to feed the starter a mix of flour that will sustain it between feeds. I used to feed my starter just white flour, but I found it got a bit whiffy, and not in a good way. I started feeding the starter a 50:50 mix of white wheat flour and wholemeal rye flour. This seems to work better.

Finally, when I feed the starter, I take only a small amount of the starter, usually 20g, put this in a new container, then add quite a bit of flour, usually 50g each of white and rye, then 100g of water.

Emmer sourdough recipe

Makes enough dough for two loaves.




For the pre-ferment

100g sourdough starter
50g strong white bread flour
50g wholemeal rye flour
100g water


For the rest of the dough

450g Canadian strong white bread flour
320g wholemeal emmer flour
16g salt
280g pre-ferment
500g water


Mixing the pre-ferment

Make the pre-ferment about 10-12 hours before you want to make the main dough. I usually do this either in the evening, so I can make the main dough in the morning, or in the morning, so I can make the dough in the evening and let it ferment in the fridge overnight. The amounts in the recipe will leave you with 20g of starter to keep you starter going.

Weigh out 100g of your sourdough starter into a clean container (you can discard any left over). Add 50g strong white flour and 50g rye flour. Add 100g of water, and mix well. If your kitchen is quite cold, warm the water slightly so it is luke warm. In summer when ambient temperatures are higher, there is no need to warm the water. It is fine to use tap water, but it is best to let it stand for half an hour or so before usage, so that any chlorine can evaporate. Chlorine in the water can hamper the reproduction of the wild yeast in the starter.

When the starter is ready, it should have roughly doubled in size, and you should see plenty of bubbles on the surface.


Mixing the main dough

When your starter is ready, you can make the main dough. I usually mix this in a kitchen aid using the dough hook attachment, but you can easily do it by hand.

Weigh out the Canadian and emmer flour into a bowl. Add the salt and 280g of the pre-ferment. Do not forget to keep back 20g of the pre-ferment. (You should feed this with 50g white flour, 50g wholemeal rye and 100g of water and set to one side for several hours before putting back in the fridge.)

Add 500g water. As above, in cooler weather warm the water a little, but no warmer than blood temperature. In hot summer weather this is not necessary. If the dough seems dry when you mix it, you may need to add a little more water.

Mix the ingredients until well combined. If using a kitchen aid, use the 1 setting. Once combined, knead on the 2 setting for three minutes.

Once you have kneaded the dough in the kitchen aid for 3 minutes, or if you have mixed by hand, tip the dough onto a clean surface and knead for about 6-8 minutes until the gluten feels nicely developed. (Once you have made bread for a while, you get a feel for when this is. If you are new to making bread, the first sign of gluten development is that the dough gets less sticky. The classic test for gluten development is the window-pane test. Pull off a golf-ball sized piece of dough and stretch it, you should be able to stretch it sufficiently thin as to produce a translucent window of dough).

Place the dough in a bowl and cover. After about 30-40 minutes, fold the dough three or four times in the bowl. Wait another 30 minutes or so, then put in another one or two folds. This improves the structure of the dough, and prevents the dough from flattening out too much once shaped.

Leave the dough until it has almost doubled in size. This can take anything between 3-6 hours depending on room temperature and the strength of your starter. When it is ready, if you press your finger gently into the dough, the mark of you finger should stay in the dough, rather than bounce back.

If you make the dough in the evening to bake the following day, leave it at room temperature for a couple of hours, until you can see a definite expansion in size, then put in the fridge overnight.

Once the dough has more or less doubled in size, gently tip it out onto a lightly floured work-surface. Divide the dough into two equal-sized pieces, and leave to rest for five to ten minutes.

To shape the bread into rectangular loaves, gently press the piece of dough out into a rectangle. Fold the two-sides of the rectangle in, forming a smaller rectangle. Turn this 90 degrees and press out again. Once again, fold in the two sides.

Roll the dough up tightly to form a cylinder. Place in a well-floured banneton, seam side up.

Repeat with the other piece of dough. Cover, and leave to prove for another hour or so.

Pre-heat the oven to 240C. Place a large baking sheet in the oven.

When the dough has proved sufficiently (you can test it using the finger press test above), take the hot baking sheet out the oven. Dust with a little semolina flour, then turn out the loaves onto the sheet. Slash the top of the loaves to allow some of the gas to escape as the bread bakes.

Place the loaves in the oven, and turn the oven down to 220C. I place a container of hot water in the bottom of the oven when I bake bread, which helps the loaves rise in the oven.

Bake for about 40 minutes. When baked through, the loaves should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

Allow to cool.

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