Sourdough September: why you should use your loaf and bake your own

Take your lockdown baking to a new level and master the art of bread making with these tips from Eat Norfolk Home Chef of the Year and sourdough master Chris Payne

Lockdown loafing was a phenomenon that swept the country as a legion of first-time bread makers tried their hand at the art of sourdough bread baking.

As desperate bakers hunted for flour with the determination of those searching for the Holy Grail, the nation learnt that the best thing since sliced bread was homemade bread: and then they set about trying to master the art of sourdough.

This month marks Sourdough September, an annual event created by the Real Bread Campaign to encourage bread lovers to create and share their bakes.

Chris Payne, the reigning Eat Norfolk Home Chef of the Year has been baking his own sourdough since April 6 2013: he knows the exact date because there’s photographic proof of his first disastrous loaf.

Norfolk born and bred, Chris is a Digital IT Director at Aviva but at evenings and weekends “transforms Clark Kent-style” into the IT Boy Who Bakes (which is where you will find him on Instagram).

“I’m well known among family and friends for my sourdough bread, baking, patisserie and Sunday roasts and I just love to work with fabulous local produce,” said Chris, who lives in Norwich.

“As a child, I was inspired by my Nanny Payne, who was a local farmer’s wife and she cooked and baked the most delicious and warming home-fare - the kitchen was the heart of her home.

“I especially loved her sultana buns – all of my family have always cooked from scratch.”

Since winning the Eat Norfolk Home Chef of the Year in the Norfolk Food and Drink Awards, sponsored by the Richard Hughes Cookery School, Chris has been inspired to take his love of cookery and food to another level.

“I have a real passion for encouraging people to keep it as local as possible, buy real food, cook and eat real food and enjoy real food with the people they love,” he said.

“Since winning, I have been asked to be a Volunteer Ambassador for Proudly Norfolk Food and Drink, supporting local producers, suppliers and hospitality businesses. “I’ve also been given a great opportunity to go back to Richard’s cookery school to teach sourdough and croissants to students… and that went really well so I’m now in the planning phase for more courses in 2021.”

During lockdown, Chris found his sourdough talent in great demand.

“It was difficult for people to get online shopping deliveries, products and ingredients weren’t always available and many people had more time for cooking,” he explained.

“I had lots of people tell me they couldn’t always get yeast for example, or that they fancied giving one of my bread recipes a go so I painstakingly wrote instructions for making a sourdough starter and how to make a basic loaf.

“I shared it with lots of people, some who enjoyed cooking and baking and others who were complete beginners and had never made bread in their lives.

“My phone was buzzing with all the questions about bread and people sharing photos of their creations! It’s so fabulous to see other people making really tasty loaves which their families demolish in minutes.

“For myself, I spent spare time perfecting my own skills and really mastered croissants and doughnuts, safely leaving them on neighbours’ doorsteps with little notes: it really cheered up lots of people in our street and nearby friends.

“I should explain my wife Kathy doesn’t eat gluten or wheat and so she isn’t able to try all of my own baking and cooking so everyone else get’s to benefit!”

Sourdough is made of just three ingredients: flour, water and salt but the process of making the starter, which is used to give the bread its ‘rise’.

“We actually have two starters in the Payne household. One made by me and one made by my wife. They were made at River Cottage HQ in November 2014 on a baking course by master baker Aidan Chapman and are called Hugh and Aidan for obvious reasons. We couldn’t come up with anything more original,” laughed Chris.

“Starters are living, breathing, bubbling mixtures of flour, water and natural ‘yeasts’ from the environment. We use them to create a leaven. They develop the flavour of the bread and give it it’s rise. You might also hear them called the “mother”.

“You need to look after your starter, feed it and keep it healthy and alive to make good breads and pastries. A starter needs nurture but it really doesn’t need to be a bind that some people make it out to be.

“I keep mine in the fridge and if I’m not using it then I take it out of the fridge once a fortnight in the morning, give it a feed (that’s code for give it some flour and water), let it come up to room temperature at which point it will be bubbling away, and then in the evening give it another feed and pop back in the fridge.”

Having already led a sourdough making class in Norwich, Chris is planning more courses next year and is keen that people give sourdough loaf making a try.

“Like any new recipe, it can be a bit tricky at first, but anyone can make a decent sourdough with practice,” he said, “it’s traditional, more natural and doesn’t have the additives and preservatives you might find in other bread. It tastes utterly delicious and keeps pretty well, too.

“We may be celebrating Sourdough September but I like to celebrate the sourdough all year round. As a kid, my ambition was to be a chef or teacher. I love working in IT with Aviva, but teaching baking fulfils the other dreams in my spare time!”

Chris’s guide to making a Mother (sourdough starter)

Find a tub or a jar to make your starter in, plastic is best in case you drop it! Make sure you can seal the container and find a safe space where you can leave your starter on your counter top.

Day one: mix together a tablespoon of strong white flour with a tablespoon of water, mix together with a clean finger.

Day two: add two tablespoons of the same flour and two tablespoons of water to the day one mix and stir together. Seal the container.

Day three: add three tablespoons of the same four and three tablespoons of water to the mix and stir together. Seal the container.

Day four to seven: each day, add three tablespoons of the same flour and three tablespoons of water and mix together. After day four you should hopefully start to see bubbles forming in the mixture.

You now have a starter. Your starter can be kept out at room temperature or in the fridge, if you keep out of the fridge, feed it each day with a couple of tablespoons of flour and water.

If you keep in the fridge, you can leave it or two weeks – three weeks at an absolute maximum. Every two weeks, remove from the fridge, feed with a couple of tablespoons of flour and water, leave at room temperature for 24 hours, feed again with a couple of tablespoons of flour and water and put back in the fridge.

Bake like a boss: the sourdough essentials

1) Good flour – this will be a matter of choice (although in lockdown, it was often a matter of necessity). Try Bread Source in Norwich or Aylsham, which offers delivery within four miles of either (or 10 miles south and 15 miles north of Norwich with a minimum spend of £20)

2) Dough scraper – used for mixing, cutting, scraping the bowl, cleaning the table, these inexpensive little scrapers have two straight edges for scraping and cutting and a third curved edge to unstick bread from your bowl.

3) Water spray bottle – when you stretch and fold the dough it can dry and tighten up, so use a water spray to stop it sticking to the table.

4) A bread basket – not to put your baked bread in, to shape your bread before baking. The traditional basket is a round banneton proving basket which cost around £10 and can be used over and over again.

5) Cast Iron pot for baking – you can splash out and spend a fortune (and if you get into bread baking, it will be worth it) on a custom cast iron bread pan or you can use a large enough cast iron casserole dish with a lid. The cast iron pans ensure a constant temperature to help your bread bake evenly.