The Duke of Cambridge criticised the space race and space tourism. In an interview with Newscast on BBC Sounds, the day after William Shatner made history by becoming the oldest person in space it is reported that he said that the world’s greatest minds need to focus on trying to fix the Earth instead. I was thinking that it didn’t have to be the world’s greatest minds; we bakers can do our bit too.
I once met a man who lived the most sustainable life possible. His home was a yurt in a field, he grew his own food and he was self-sufficient in every way he could be. It was admirable, but he was isolated and, at times, uncomfortable. I’m sure he felt he was doing something tremendously significant. But his lifestyle was extreme and, while I admired him, I felt his was an approach that perhaps wasn’t really practical. The truth is, there are very few things in life where a completely purist attitude works, and this is also the case when it comes to being ethical and sustainable. However, aiming to bake sustainable sourdough is one time when a purist approach can also be practical. For me, helping students learn how to make bread isn’t simply about teaching them the techniques. It’s about getting my students to understand the entire process and ask questions – and then ask more questions. I want to be able to explore where our ingredients come from, how the fermentation and baking process changes these basic ingredients into something delicious and nourishing, and, ultimately, how that relates back to us, our gut microbiomes, and our physical and mental health.
How to make the most sustainable sourdough bread possible
These are my top tips for approaching making sourdough in the most ethical and sustainable way possible:
Sustainable sourdough equipment
I don’t buy very much new here at the Sourdough School. Most of the equipment I use has been given to me by friends and family… grandmothers, aunties and great-aunties. It’s always worth having a good rummage around and asking friends, family and neighbours if they have any old baking equipment. Bowls and baking tins are often sitting unused, tucked away at the back of a cupboard, and people are usually more than happy to gift something when they know it will be appreciated.
If you have no luck with friends or family, my next stop would be charity shops, car-boot sales, second-hand stores, and then websites like eBay and Etsy. These places can be a treasure trove of equipment. I’ve found many items in my local charity shop, which were presumably unwanted gifts, that have gone on to become well-used pieces of equipment in my own kitchen.
I always recommend that you become familiar with the equipment you use: your bowl, your spoon. Like any tools, when you use them every day, every week, they become a part of the rhythm and flow of your baking and the sensory connection to making your dough.
If I am buying something new, I like to call on a local potter or wood-carver. Someone who is creating beautiful and practical handmade objects. It’s not always practical to find second-hand wooden spoons. So, when I need a new spoon, I’ll try to connect with a local spoon-carver. And yes, it does cost more to have somebody carve a spoon for you, but it’s usually made from sustainably sourced wood, and there’s something so magical about having a spoon that’s made just for you. I treasure mine. They’re ergonomically designed by my spoon-carver to fit the weight and power I use when I’m mixing my dough.
The only things made from plastic that have ever made it into the School are some dough scrapers that were gifted to me. I’m extremely reticent about allowing any plastic in here because of the links to the petrochemical industry. But when you first begin making sourdough, a plastic scraper is extremely useful because it is pliable and gives you confidence when you are working with your dough. You can also get metal scrapers, and many bakers feel comfortable using them. A dough scraper is one of the few pieces of equipment I would suggest buying in the early days of making bread.
Sourdough starter pot
Other pieces of equipment that I use regularly here are my mixing bowl, a jug and a pot for keeping my sourdough starter in.
When it comes to a pot for storing my sourdough starter, people often ask me if I like to use a glass jar. I would only recommend using a glass jar in the initial stages of developing a starter. Early on, it allows you to see how the starter is progressing. Once you are maintaining an established starter, you can switch to using an earthenware pot – something like an old mustard pot with a loose-fitting lid. I always used to keep my starters in glass jars, until the time I was baking 40 loaves and picked up my starter to put it away, only to realise there was a sliver of glass missing from the rim. After having to discard all 40 loaves because of a missing sliver of glass, I reconsidered what kind of pots I keep my starters in. I don’t like to use plastic: the acidity leaches out toxins over time, and I don’t get any joy from touching plastic – quite the opposite. So, I tend to use an earthenware pot. Another tip is to always put a label on the jar. One of my students told me how her mother-in-law had surprised her by cleaning the kitchen, and in doing so throwing away a pot of what she thought was smelly goop!
Once you are baking regularly, there are a few other pieces of equipment that I would suggest investing in:
The first would be a cloche. I can’t recommend cloches or large professional baking pans enough. When you are just starting out, you don’t need them. It’s far better to use something like a big casserole dish with a lid. But, as you bake more often, you will find the casserole dish is not as practical as a cloche. It can be difficult to get the scoring right, and a little tricky to get your dough into the dish without occasionally burning yourself. If you have an old casserole dish, you can repurpose it by taking the knob off the lid and using the lid as the base (it needs to be a flat-lidded casserole dish). But on the whole, I would recommend investing in a good-quality cloche that will make baking easier and last a lifetime.
I can’t get away from the fact that a good mixer is a necessity if you want to be able to mix larger amounts of dough, especially for higher hydration and enriched doughs. In the coming months, we will be listing some small producers of mixers that we recommend. A mixer is an expensive piece of equipment, but many people already have a stand mixer. If you don’t yet have one, you could perhaps borrow one for a few weeks while you’re deciding if it’s something you would use regularly.
For the final prove, I personally prefer to use handmade bannetons from France, because they are well made and last a lifetime. But when you start making sourdough, you can, of course, use a tin – or, if you want to bake boules, you can begin by using a colander lined with a very well dusted tea towel. It’s a great starting point for anyone.
A good blade is going to be essential. I think a lame is probably one of the very few pieces of equipment I would suggest you really should buy when you first start baking. At the School, I use a razor blade. I’ve been doing that since I was 11 years old, so I’m used to handling a blade. In the first instance, I’d recommend getting yourself a lame because of the safety aspect… no one wants to be cutting themselves with a blade when they’re scoring dough. Lames can be bought quite inexpensively and will last a long time.
Covering your dough
There are times when you need to cover your dough. I avoid using cling film, and prefer to use either a wax cloth (we make our own wax cloths here at the School) or a damp tea towel. You can use a wet tea towel that’s been wrung out (just avoid any strong washing powders). In fact, if you keep a tea towel specifically for this use, you don’t need to wash it at all. Leave it to build up a layer of flour, because this is actually a good thing. Between bakes, you just need to make sure the tea towel dries out, then simply shake it outside to get rid of any loose excess flour. It’s not a matter of hygiene – your bread is going to be baked at over 200°C (400°F). But if your tea towel is allowed to build up a layer of flour, it helps prevent your dough from sticking.
If I’m making buns and I want to cover them and keep them humid, I use a high-sided baking tin (another very useful piece of equipment!). Alternatively, get a mushroom box from your local greengrocer, put your baking sheet of buns on the counter, then place the box over it and drape a damp tea towel over the top while your dough proves.
Sustainable sourdough ingredients
When it comes to flour, there’s no question that organic is best. But I want to encourage everyone to come to sourdough bread-making, so I think we have to maintain a sense of economic reality. In the first instance, I would say you should work with the best flour you can afford – whether that is supermarket own-brand or artisan stoneground organic or one of our beautiful Botanical Blend flours.
Here at the Sourdough School, we use organic flour. It’s a standing principle. The microbial integrity of the soil, and the lack of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides on the wheat itself, is essential to the microbial relationship between us, our digestive systems and the soil. It all comes back down to the earth. The wheat, how it is grown and that relationship with the soil can actually affect the nutritional value of our food and, in turn, our gut microbiomes.
Tap water is absolutely fine to use for sourdough. It’s beyond ridiculous that anybody might consider buying bottled water for bread-making. If you have chlorinated water and are worried about using it, simply let it stand for 20 minutes and the chlorine will dissipate.
For me, salt is an artisan product, and we try to connect with artisan makers wherever possible. It’s not simply about the artisan nature of making salt in a respectful way that doesn’t pollute the environment. We also look for producers who filter any microplastics out of the water. Sea salt contains levels of micronutrients not found in other salts, so this is an opportunity to increase the micronutrients in the most basic of your everyday foods.
I do appreciate that this salt is more expensive but, in reality, we’re talking a matter of pennies per loaf. Do I use mined salt? I would need to know that it was mined sustainably, and I often can’t find enough information on the source of Himalayan pink rock salt. My preference is always to use Anglesey sea salt, because I know the people who are producing it: I’ve visited and talked to them and I know that they operate with absolute integrity.
The commercial yeast manufacturing process uses fertilisers derived from petrochemicals for the yeast. This is a hidden part of the petrochemical industry that we don’t see. If you are baking sourdough, you are avoiding commercial yeast.
Eating your sustainable sourdough bread
My approach to sourdough is anchored by three things.
First, make a little more than you need and share it. It doesn’t take any more effort to make a little extra dough… it’s the same process, the same timings.
Secondly, we have a ‘one dough, unlimited bakes’ principle to maximise what we bake with one batch of dough. Rather than simply baking one loaf, we make enough dough to divide and make a tin loaf, a focaccia and a boule. Or a boule and enough pizzas to feed a hungry family. We teach this principle through the Sourdough Club and here at the School.
The third thing is to think about how we eat our sustainable sourdough bread and what we eat with it. To fully appreciate sourdough, we ask ourselves: what is the most ethical and sustainable way of eating it? It’s about making connections to local producers: to the cheesemonger, the fishmonger, the dairy that produces the butter we spread on our bread, and the grower producing the fruit for our jams. Ask questions. Ask yourself if the things you are eating with your bread have the same level of connectivity and same level of integrity that you apply to making the bread. And, suddenly, you’ll find that you don’t have to look out of a rocket ship window to see that your bread changes the way you see the world.