Shaping the dough
Start by flouring the banneton or proving basket. In this method I use a cold proving technique, which means putting the loaf into the fridge overnight or for several hours. This increases flavour, as the acid production is still happening but with little gas production, meaning a more stable loaf. The cold will also make the loaf set its shape in the banneton, giving a headstart for a beautiful plump loaf once baked.
Flour the top of the loaf, then flip it out upside-down onto a worksurface. Lightly shape the loaf into a rough rectangle and fold the edge furthest from you up and over the middle. Do the same with the left-hand edge, the right-hand edge and the edge nearest to you. Work quite quickly to keep the shape of the loaf. Lift up and put straight back into the banneton, folds facing up, and into the fridge to chill. Again, if you’re short on time, just 1 hour will help the dough keep its shape better.
Baking the sourdough
Heat the oven to as hot as it will go and put a lidded cast-iron pot in while it heats, for around 45 minutes. This will help to recreate the conditions of a baker’s oven. In the first part of cooking, bread needs steam because a moist environment means bread will rise to its fullest and prevents the crust from forming on the loaf, so it can keep rising. Cooking the bread inside a lidded cast-iron pot for the first part of cooking traps the naturally produced steam.
The faster the loaf comes out of its banneton, is scored and in the oven, the better. So get yourself well prepared by having a clean chopping board or cake slider (in baking terms this is called a peel) in front of you, so you can score the loaf on this and then carefully slide it into the pot.
Also have your scissors/knife/lame (blade) close to hand. The reason to score a loaf is to direct it where and how to rise. As the gasses expand inside the loaf, they will tear the outer structure – without scoring, the loaf will often tear on the side or near the bottom, which will ruin its look.
Have a good pair of oven gloves and a bowl of polenta to hand. Scattering polenta on the chopping board allows the loaf to slide off easily into the pot.
When fully heated, remove the pot from the oven and take off the lid. Turn the oven down to 260C/fan 240C/gas 9. Remove the loaf from the fridge and scatter polenta all over the chopping board, the bottom of the pot and the loaf. Turn the loaf out onto the chopping board (it may take a little coaxing) and score the top – I often just cut a square. Slide the loaf into the pot, put the lid on and return to the oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the pot from the oven and take off the lid. Return to the oven without the lid for another 20 minutes. Remove from the oven again and tip out on to a wire rack to cool. Then enjoy your delicious sourdough creation, slathered with butter.
Bread baking is a hugely rewarding process, but it can be quite unforgiving. Even as a professional baker, baking 250 sourdough loaves in a day, it can be unpredictable – there are many variables and factors that can influence a loaf. If your loaves aren’t as good as you’d hoped, keep trying. The more you bake, the more success you will have. Once you’ve baked the loaf of your dreams, harnessing the power of flour, water and salt, you’ll be hooked, just like me. Share your loaves on social media with #olivemagrecipes.