David McGuinness, co-founder of Bourke Street Bakery — which has a cult-like following of bread worshippers — has had his sourdough starter for about 12 years. It began life as a mixture of flour and water in a bucket on his kitchen bench. It took months of nurturing — regular feeding with more flour and water — until it had built up sufficient natural bacteria and yeast. It’s been alive and kicking ever since. McGuinness shares his secrets to baking good bread using a sourdough starter, rather than cultivated yeast.
What inspired you on your sourdough journey?
Working in restaurant kitchens when we made bread it was never as good as bread we could buy, and that was just yeasted bread, so i wanted to try to find out how to make good bread. At that stage there wasn’t a lot of sourdough around … although i do remember the first time i came across a sourdough, or a bread that was started from culture, was back in about the mid-1980s at a friend’s restaurant and i remember saying to him ‘that bread was amazing’. So i had that in mind — that that was my first good bread and it was made from a starter.
What’s the secret to making a good sourdough?
There are many things that make a good sourdough but most importantly a good, strong, healthy starter. Once you have that good, sturdy starter you have to make sure it remains sturdy, or that it is sturdy when you’re going to use it. So on the days before you use it make sure you’re feeding it three times a day at the correct times, every six hours, so that it’s building up the right amount of bacteria.
In our baking classes, we give participants a little starter to take home and most of them do kill it pretty quickly — with love. One person called in to say she’d made a failed loaf and she’d actually fed the starter two times that morning to really get it strong … but if you double feed it there’s not much power there. So it’s all about feeding it when it’s at its maximum activity, so the culture that’s feeding is doubling.
You do learn to understand what that looks like: the starter will be quite thick and gelatinous and the bubbles are big rather than this thin thing with froth on top — that’s an early development of the starter. If you follow the feeds it will become thick and gelatinous. When you get the bubbles going and the thin liquid on top it’s really hungry, the bacteria is starting to die and the starter wants to be fed.
You should only mix the dough when your starter is at its strongest: between three to six hours after the feed. This is when it’ll be at that very active point.
When you’ve mixed the dough we let it prove once. Then we knock it back down and let it prove up a little bit again before we divide it into individual loaves, at which stage we let it prove again for about 18 hours.
Should dough be kneaded?
We knead in a mixer, we don’t hand knead. We’ve been doing a lot of experiments with that lately and you don’t really need to knead a lot, but you do need to take time with it. So if you’re not going to knead it — if you’ve not going to stand there for 10 to 15 minutes and knead — you need to mix it and you sort of need to fold it around to stretch all the gluten out and then let it rest, and stretch it all out again.
How do you know when dough is ready to be baked?
When a dough is ready to go in the oven you’ll push into it and that dent you’ve made will slowly spring back. It really is something that takes ages to learn. Most of the photos we see — because people send us photos and say ‘what went wrong here?’ — indicate they have under proved it, so when it bakes it tears around the base, which shows that it’s still got a lot of energy to expel.
Once the dough has become about one and a half times its size, with the push test it’s showing that it still has the energy to expand in the oven, whereas when you’re leaving a dimple in it most of the yeast has already died so it doesn’t really have any energy left.
That is a pretty important part of it: getting it into the oven at the right time. It’s also difficult because it may be ready at three in the morning or seven in the morning, but that is something you’ve really got to get to learn the feel of.
Slashing your dough is again pretty important because that’s allowing it to split somewhere and allows it to expand. If you didn’t slash it, the baking bread would normally split around the bottom. So the perfect slash is going to bring the bread into the correct shape and it looks part of the deal, it’s the signature of the baker.
How often should you feed a starter?
I would feed it every day when I was not using it but you can get away with feeding it every two to three days. But i did pretty well religiously feed it every day and if i went away for a weekend i took it with me, or i had a baby sitter, but generally i took it with me and i found when it travelled it needed feeding more often — the jiggling around in the car got the yeast more active. I’d get to the destination, which was an hour down the south coast, and have a look at the starter and you could see that it had expired, it needed food to keep the culture going.
Back to when i first started my starter, it was on the bench on my kitchen for about three months, it may have even been longer, and i did religiously feed it just once a day. I remember my partner called me at work and she said ‘this bucket of flour and water stuff that you’ve had sitting on the sink for months, it’s all bubbling up and going over the top, i’m throwing it in the bin.’ I was like ‘no, no don’t do that, that’s exactly what it needs to do.’ I was so excited because it had finally taken to life and i thought it never was going to. So on that weekend i made my first loaf of bread and it’s been alive and kicking ever since.