Felix's Basic Sourdough Recipe
4-5 tbsp active sourdough starter
600g strong bread flour (white, wholemeal, rye or a mixture)
10g fine sea salt
To make the sponge
1. The night before you want to bake your loaf, create the sponge: take about 4 or 5 large tablespoons of the active starter and combine it with 300g of the flour and about 350ml warm water in a large bowl. Mix well with your hands, then cover with cling film and leave overnight. In the morning it should be clearly fermenting - thick, sticky and bubbly.
To make the dough
1. Add the remaining 300g of flour to the sponge, along with the salt. Squish it all together with your hands. You should have a fairly sticky dough. If it seems tight and firm, add a dash more warm water. If it's unmanageably loose, add more flour, but do leave it fairly wet - you'll get better bread that way.
2. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and silky. This takes about 10 minutes, but it can vary according to your own style and level of confidence. Keep going, stretching and folding, giving the dough a quarter turn every few stretches, until it is silky and smooth. Alternatively, use the dough hook on your mixer!
3. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and turn it to coat with the oil. Cover with lightly oiled cling film, or put the bowl into a large plastic bag, and leave to rise. Don't expect it to whoosh up to twice its original size in an hour, as a conventional loaf does. Sourdough rises slowly and sedately. The best thing is to knead it in the morning, then simply leave it all day - perhaps while you're out at work - in a fairly cool, draught-free place until it has more or less doubled in size and feels springy if you push your finger gently into it; alternatively, you could knead it in the evening and then leave it to rise overnight.
4. Gently deflate the risen dough by pressing it down with your fingers on a lightly floured surface. You now need to prove the dough (i.e. give it a second rising). You are also going to be forming it into the shape it will be for baking. If you have a proper baker's proving basket, use this, first dusting it generously with flour. Alternatively, rig up your own proving basket by lining a medium-sized, fairly shallow-sided bowl with a clean tea towel, then dusting it with flour. Place your round of dough inside, cover again with oiled cling film or a clean plastic bag and leave to rise, in a warm place this time, for 1½-3 hours, or until roughly doubled in size. Then the dough is ready to bake.
5. Preheat the oven to 250°C/gas mark 10 (or at least to 230°C/gas mark 8, if that's your top limit). If possible, have ready a clean gardener's spray bottle full of water - you'll be using this to create a steamy atmosphere in the oven, which helps the bread to rise and develop a good crust. (You can achieve the same effect with a roasting tin of boiling water placed on the bottom of the oven just before you put the loaf in.)
6. About 5 minutes before you want to put the loaf in the oven, place a baking sheet in it to heat up. Then take the hot baking sheet from the oven, dust it with flour and carefully tip the risen dough out of the proving basket/bowl, upside down, on to the baking sheet; it will now be the right way up. If you like you can slash the top of the loaf a few times with a very sharp serrated knife to give a pattern to the crust.
7. Put the loaf into the hot oven and give it a few squirts from the spray bottle over and around it. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 200°C/Gas Mark 6, give the oven another spray, and bake for a further 25-30 minutes, until the well-browned loaf vibrates and sounds hollow when you tap its base. Leave to cool for at least 30 minutes.