Ingredients for a Great Sourdough Loaf (or a Nerdy Discussion of Flour)
The beauty of sourdough bread, for me at least, is its simplicity: flour, water, salt (and a couple thousand microorganisms, give or take) . Commercial bread has up to 45 ingredients in it for plain, white bread, many of which are unpronounceable.
Making it at home, you not only have the added benefit of controlling what goes into it, but you also are able to save money. A 1kg loaf of bread (the kind we will be making) can cost upwards of £4 in shops whereas bread you make yourself, even with high end flour, is significantly less than that, making it an affordable way to add artisan food to your kitchen.
The biggest purchase you will make around for your daily bread is flour. Whatever flour you use, you need to be looking for "strong" or "bread" flour - this is flour with a higher protein content, aiding your starter in developing structure and helping it keep its shape as it develops. We use a local organic strong bread flour from Mungoswells Mill in East Lothian, Scotland, grown and milled less than 30 miles from us.
White vs Brown Flour
For health and flavour, brown and wholemeal flours are often people’s first choice. As we mentioned in the post about starter, wholemeal flours do give the bread’s yeasts and bacteria more to feed on. Also, bread made with wholemeals tends to have a more sour flavour and is generally more digestible.
However, brown bread does have a significant downside. Wholemeals absorb more water than white flour and thus can create a very dense bread. My advice when starting out is to keep your wholemeal flour content down to about 20-30% of your overall flour content so that your bread retains a lighter finish and is easier to work with. As you become more familiar with your bread, feel free to create wholemeal loaves.
Organic vs Non-Organic
It will come to no surprise that as a small organic farmer, I am going to advocate for using organic flour if you can the practices used around organic farming have been shown to increase the number of LABs in our flour and thus in our starter (1). More bacteria, more flavour, better rise, etc etc.
The second reason I would advocate for using organic flour is that it is quite common practice to apply glyphosate (commercially known as Monsanto's Round Up) to wheat before harvest to dry out the husk and make harvest easier. Glyphosate has been labeled as a 'probable carcinogen' by the WHO (2), is increasingly being linked to liver and kidney problems (3) and in recent studies was found in 30% of British bread (4). Making your own bread means you can have greater control of what your family consumes and is a tangible way of helping save the bees and other pollinating insects as glyphosate is considered a major contributor to their decline.
Other Flours Are Available
If organic flour isn't in your budget, there are a number of other really great flours on the market. We love Lidl and Aldi's own brand flour - coming in at 65p for 1.5kg, it makes a great loaf of bread at an affordable price. Both store are also increasing their 'other' flour options - rye and spelt have both been spotted recently in their bread aisle and both make a wonderful addition to the flavour of bread.
We primarily use strong white bread flour. Even adding a small amount of wholemeal, rye or spelt flour to your loaves will change the flavour profile, but keep it light and easy to work with.
Water and Salt:
The water you use in your bread can be straight from your tap, even in cities. If you have chlorinated water, you can leave it standing on the side for a bit before you use it to evaporate off the chlorine - doing so won't effect the outcome of your bread by a discernible amount, but it will mean you ingest less chlorine.
Generally speaking, you want your water to be slightly warm when you add it to your bread. I tend to use lukewarm water straight out of the tap. This helps speed up the fermentation of your bread, though conversely, cold water can slow down fermentation and is useful if you know it will be awhile before you can get round to baking your bread.
Salt has two main functions in making bread. The addition of salt slows down the fermentation of bread, helping it remain in check. It also is a flavour enhancer, bringing out the different notes of flavour in your loaf. Biting into an unsalted loaf is always a disappointment as it just doesn't taste "right". We like sea salt flakes, for no other reason than we buy it in bulk for all of our cooking.