The secret to Bread Ahead’s famously good brown sourdough bread
“The core of a sourdough loaf of bread is the wild yeast used in the dough. It is what defines a bread as a sourdough,” says Justin Gellatly, head baker and director at Bread Ahead Bakery. “Sourdough is what we call a long fermentation bread. The natural wild yeast takes longer to prove the dough than commercial yeasts, which are used in other breads. Wild yeast is something people can get a bit scared of because they don’t understand what it is, but basically it is a natural organism that is in the air all around us—we are breathing it in every day.”
Yeast is the reason bread rises—without it you get flatbreads which, while delicious in their own right, do not have the light airy texture of the loaf we love. When the dough is left to prove, the yeast consumes the sugars in the flour, releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol as by products and creating small air pockets which grow as more gas is produced. During baking the gas expands, causing the bread to rise.
To make sourdough you must begin with a ‘starter’, which is the way you get the wild yeast into the dough—and there is something very special about the history of the starter that’s at the heart of the sourdough loaves that come out of the Bread Ahead ovens.
“When we first started at the Market, we took our flour and water starter across to Southwark Cathedral to be blessed and did the first stir of the flour and water to gather some of that initial wild yeast,” Justin recalls. “The flavour of our sourdough is deeply connected to the local area.”
Making a starter takes patience but, divine blessing aside, is actually very simple to do—just take equal quantities of flour and water, mix them together and let the wild yeast penetrate into the mixture. “The journey that follows involves treating your starter a bit like children,” Justin laughs. “You need to feed them every day, with equal parts flour and water. At Bread Ahead, we feed ours every day, if not twice a day—even over Christmas someone has to come in and feed the starter.”
Some starters are quicker than others, but it is roughly a five-day process. “After five days it should be bubbly, aromatic, with a slight acidity to it and a little bit alcoholic in smell,” this master baker explains. “Then you are ready to bake your own wonderful loaf of bread”—read Bread Ahead’s recipe for sourdough starter here.
A real punchy tang
Justin and his fellow bakers produce a range of sourdough breads, but Justin has a soft spot for the brown sourdough. “It has a really nice depth of flavour with a real punchy tang,” Justin explains. “We use a really wonderful wholemeal stoneground flour which also adds a certain nuttiness and bake them quite hard for a long time, which creates a leathery crust and a nice bit of singe. It adds another layer to the characteristics of the finished bread.”
It is a versatile loaf of bread, which Justin likes with nothing but a slather of really good butter. “It is also very sturdy, which makes it wonderful for those dishes you can scoop or sop up, then eat the bread afterwards,” he says. “When I started making sourdough about 15 years ago, I was one of very few people doing so. Now it’s becoming the norm, which is a great thing in my eyes. It really is a wonderful style of bread.”