With her third baking book coming out in May, it's safe to say Jane Mason knows her bread. This most recent title focuses solely on the dark arts of sourdough baking, that most satisfying of activities which has been known to swallow people for days at a time. As someone who regularly consumes but very rarely makes the stuff, I was keen to find out more about the science behind sourdough, its appeal and any extra hints she might have for achieving the perfect loaf.
Can you remember your first attempts at sourdough? Any advice for beginners you wish you could've passed on to your novice self?
Oh yes – it was probably about twenty years ago when I was working with a starter and an old old book both given to me by my friend Harriet. The starter was 'born' in 1857 (we think). The first things I made were bread rolls for a party, trying to follow the book’s not too clear instructions! In the end they were great but I was absolutely alarmed by the stickiness of the wet dough. For starters – that stickiness is a feature of working with sourdough. When you add sticky goo (the refreshed starter) to an otherwise perfectly normal dough, it stands to reason your dough will resemble sticky goo!
How does the flavour profile change over the years when using historic starters? What's the appeal?
Sad to say, the flavour does not change at all! I took the starter to a yeast lab hoping they would find rare and fascinating yeast. They laughed. There are not so many strains of yeast – they live in the air and the air blows around the world! In any case, whenever you refresh your starter it is sweet smelling because of the new flour and water. There could be different, interesting strains of bacteria in an old culture that has been many places but they don’t impact flavour. The appeal of an old starter is romantic! It’s been kept alive for so long and seen many places, and baked many, many loaves.
Do you support the trend for adding extra ingredients to sourdough starters?
There is no single way to do anything. Beer works, acidic fruit works, using water in which fruit has been soaked works . . . and just plain flour and water work too. I think people should have fun and experiment if they want to. Everyone has a story to tell.