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Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 04/27/19 11:21 AM

Feature: Baking sourdough bread


The sourdough challenge

In which the writer attends a sourdough workshop and develops starter-fear.


This is the mother starter, pronounces Sourhouse India`s Selvan Thandapani,  who is taking the Introduction to Sourdough Workshop for us.

His tone is reverential, and we stare in respectful if slightly foggy fashion at the mason jar with a white paste at the bottom. By the end of the workshop which lasts for a little more than four hours, I have developed   a healthy awe mixed with a smidgen of fear for that starter. So much power in so little…. paste.

Selvan tells us awe-inspiring stuff about sourdough starter cultures. My fear intensifies. He then takes us through the paces. We make (create?) our own starter: take a set amount from the mother culture, mix in flour and water and keep it aside to rise. Since that will take the length of time of the workshop itself, we set to work on our own bowls of dough.

Starters contain wild yeast which is fickle, finicky, fussy as hell, and has a mind of its own. It also takes its own sweet time to proof breads, thus rendering the whole process a slow, carefully curated affair.

Next we mix our leaven with flour and water using the autolyse method, taking great care not to knead, then let it rest for a bit. During this time, the flour absorbs the water, becomes fully hydrated, and enzymes in there  get to work, packing the end product with taste. I keep casting   nervous glances at my starter. It stares back implacably at me.


On the table sits a bottle of fermented kefir water and mugs, as well as  sourdough crackers in little bowls with a hung-curd dip, and we eat and drink  happily as we mix, slap and fold.

The  slap- and-fold technique is at the heart of sourdough-making, a rather arduous process whereby we throw the dough onto the stone counter in front of us, then take the north, east, south and west corners by turns, and fold it into the main dough.

This has to be done about 500 times, I kid you not, with short breaks to rest…the dough, not you! I cast a glance at my starter. It (she?) has risen a bit.

The dough is then shaped with the help of a spatula and folded into proofing baskets already dusted with flour. It, we are told, needs 24 hours of proofing. Even as we wonder if we are to come back tomorrow, Selvan, with the air of a conjurer, brings out a set of six proofing baskets with neatly shaped ovals of dough in them.

Take a blade, he says next and I happily reflect that this workshop is full of surprises. Someone asks why we cannot use a serrated knife instead, and is told that a blade gives better results. And so, we score the top of our dough with a main slit running north to south, and other patterned slits on both sides.

Into the industrial oven the loaves go, watched almost obsessively by the bakers. And voila! Twenty minutes later, they are out, six golden loaves of sourdough with the steam rising faintly off them. I carry mine home, brandishing it like a trophy. The starter I carry gingerly, like it might explode any moment. It`s like becoming a parent when you are not yet ready to become one.

I stashed it away for two weeks. Pretended it wasn’t there. Then I took it out, fed it for four days running, discarded most of it and  baked  a (fairly good) sourdough loaf, on the fifth day. I got over my starter-fear, huzzah!

This ran in THE HINDU of 27 Apr 2019.


autolyseBangalore bakersfermented foodslevaineSelvan ThandapaniSour House Indiasourdough breadsourdough workshopstarter

Sheila Kumar • April 27, 2019

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