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Your starter for ten: quizzing Jane Mason on achieving the perfect sourdough loaf

Starter for ten: Jane Mason on the art of sourdough baking

by Izzy Burton 26 April 2016

Baker and writer Jane Mason talks us through the science of sourdough and explains why it's an art form we should all grow to love. Discover tips on tarting up your starter and advice on buying and baking delicious tasting bread.

With her third baking book coming out in May, it's safe to say Jane Mason knows her bread. This most recent title focuses solely on the dark arts of sourdough baking, that most satisfying of activities which has been known to swallow people for days at a time. As someone who regularly consumes but very rarely makes the stuff, I was keen to find out more about the science behind sourdough, its appeal and any extra hints she might have for achieving the perfect loaf.

Can you remember your first attempts at sourdough? Any advice for beginners you wish you could've passed on to your novice self?

Oh yes – it was probably about twenty years ago when I was working with a starter and an old old book both given to me by my friend Harriet. The starter was 'born' in 1857 (we think). The first things I made were bread rolls for a party, trying to follow the book’s not too clear instructions! In the end they were great but I was absolutely alarmed by the stickiness of the wet dough. For starters – that stickiness is a feature of working with sourdough. When you add sticky goo (the refreshed starter) to an otherwise perfectly normal dough, it stands to reason your dough will resemble sticky goo!

How does the flavour profile change over the years when using historic starters? What's the appeal?

Sad to say, the flavour does not change at all! I took the starter to a yeast lab hoping they would find rare and fascinating yeast. They laughed. There are not so many strains of yeast – they live in the air and the air blows around the world! In any case, whenever you refresh your starter it is sweet smelling because of the new flour and water. There could be different, interesting strains of bacteria in an old culture that has been many places but they don’t impact flavour. The appeal of an old starter is romantic! It’s been kept alive for so long and seen many places, and baked many, many loaves.

Do you support the trend for adding extra ingredients to sourdough starters?

There is no single way to do anything. Beer works, acidic fruit works, using water in which fruit has been soaked works . . . and just plain flour and water work too. I think people should have fun and experiment if they want to. Everyone has a story to tell.

What are your tips for the best crust? One tip from the sourdough rumour mill suggested that using a casserole dish works particularly well.

Baking dough in a casserole dish with the lid on produces lovely bread with a thin, crispy crust and a moist crumb (that's the inside bit). Inside the dish, the dough expands quickly and the liquid that evaporates during this process is trapped as steam – keeping the dough moist for the first few minutes of baking. Once the crust has formed, no more steam comes out of the dough but that initial hot and steamy baking atmosphere give you a loaf that is moist on the inside and has a thin, crispy crust.

Is there a 'proper' cycle of feeding and fermenting? What would you say is the ideal timeframe for a beginner trying sourdough for the first time?

Once again, there is no single way to do anything. The 'feeding' or 'refreshing' time frame depends if you keep your sourdough starter in the fridge and let it go dormant between bakes or if you feed it every day and keep it at room temperature. The longer the dough ferments (or rises) the better it is for your health (because it is easier to digest) and the more acidic the bread will taste. However, it is possible to over-ferment dough – you will know when you do it because it will be impossible to shape or it will collapse in the oven (ugly, but still delicious). Beginners may want to follow recipe instructions to the letter to get some experience and confidence. Once you figure out that there is actually quite a lot of freedom to baking, you can begin to experiment with 'retarding' your dough (putting it in the fridge to rise slowly) or building it over a few days to change the flavour and texture.

We've heard mixed feedback on how much flour quality has an impact on the bread. Is expensive flour a worthy investment?

Yes. As long as you are getting a quality product! Organically grown, stone-ground flour is better for your health. It is more nutritious, it does not have the long list of additives that most industrially processed flour has, and because it is more gently processed, it does not have the nutrient loss that industrially processed flours experience. It also tastes much better. We forget that flour has a flavour and different kinds of flour grown from different strains of grain and milled in different ways will taste different. It’s clear to almost everyone that a Granny Smith apple is completely different from a Cox Pippin or that cheddar cheese from one producer is completely different from cheddar cheese from another producer. Flour is no different. The better the flour, the better the bread.

What are the characteristics of a really good sourdough and how can one tell an imposter which has been made with a sourdough flavour powder or paste?

The sourdough powders and pastes are so advanced that it can be hard to know whether bread is a 'pure' sourdough or is 'regular bread made with yeast' and the addition of sourdough paste or powder to flavour it. The best thing to do is to buy bread from a baker – rather than from a bakery. The baker will tell you what is in the bread. The person working in the bakery (or at the bread counter in a supermarket) may not know. When ordering bread at a restaurant, ask the waiter where they buy their bread and whether they can tell you anything about it. If the answer is 'no' and 'no' and you are dedicated to eating pure sourdough for whatever reason, don’t eat the bread because it’s unlikely to be made without added yeast.

Get your copy of the book

Perfecting Sourdough is out 5th May, published by Apple Press (£14.99)

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Starter for ten: Jane Mason on the art of sourdough baking


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