You might have noticed that starting to bake sourdough bread can get you slightly addicted; there is something magical about what a simple mixture of water and flour can do. I was no exception many years ago when I made my first starter. I remember waking up early to fold my dough or run home from a day out to transfer the dough from bulk to proofing. I was impatient to cut through the great looking loaf coming out of the oven, only to discover a damp and dense bottom with large air gaps in the crumb. With time and better understanding of the whole process, I've been able to accommodate the bread making fit to my timing rather than the opposite, and get an even crumb.

I would say that there are two main elements to watch out for in succeeding a sourdough bread: knowing how to feed your starter and knowing when it's ready to use, and then adapt to the room temperature. I learned about the whole process through the book ‘Tartine Bread’ by Chad Robertson; only it took me a while to realise what they call 'room temperature' in California is around 27°C, not quite the same as here in Belgium.

A year before opening Café Bautier, I started experimenting with baking focaccia, an ideal bread type for sandwiches, with its airy crumb and thin crust. The simplicity of focaccia makes it a good recipe to start making sourdough, so here we share our recipe with some tips for the process.

For the café we need a certain consistency in the making so I use a fermenting chamber, giving a constant temperature of 27°C. In this way I can work on the same timing for every batch. When working at room temperature, you will have to adapt your rising time to the season. No need to invest in a fermenting chamber as an occasional baker, but if you get hooked, I would highly recommend the products from Belgian company Rofco, who produces fermenting chambers and small home deck ovens, offering a baking result close to professional ovens.

Unlike yeasted breads that require kneading, the sourdough process is much more gentle. Working with sourdough and very wet dough, especially for the focaccia, the dough stays in a bowl during the bulk fermentation, with a few gentle ‘folds’ in the first part of it. It's then transferred to a baking tin and left to proof until ready to bake.

135g active starter
500g water
640g white flour
12g salt
3 tbsp olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
flaky sea salt

Pour the water into a large bowl, add the starter and stir to combine. Add the flour and salt and mix with a spatula until the flour is well incorporated. Place somewhere warm (27°C, or adapt time for colder temperature).

After 30 minutes, give the dough its first set of folds. Reach into the bowl and pull the dough up and back into the centre. Turn the bowl quarter turns and continue this pulling 4 to 6 times. Cover the bowl and rest for another 30 minutes. You are going to fold the dough twice more (so three times in total), leaving 30 minutes between. (I've done it successfully with only the first fold in case you're not around). Each time you fold, you should notice the characteristics of the dough changing, as the gluten forms, the dough starts to hold better together.

After the third fold, drizzle with some olive oil and rub to coat. Leave the dough again for a final 60-minute rest.

When bulk fermentation is over, place 2 tablespoons olive oil in a 39 x 27 cm baking tin (if you're unsure about the non-stick quality of your tin, line it with baking paper). Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the tin, over the olive oil. Fold the dough as an envelope by pulling one side towards the middle, then the opposite side, and top and bottom. Flip it over (so the seams are on the underside) and gently coat the dough all over with the olive oil from the tin.

Leave to proof, uncovered, in a warm spot for 3,5 hour or until the dough has spread to fill the tin, be puffy and nearly double in volume.

Drizzle about a tablespoon olive oil over the dough and rub your hands slightly with oil. Gently rub the oil to cover the dough evenly and dimple the top of the dough with your fingertips, going right through to the tray. Sprinkle generously with flaky sea salt and bake in a 220° preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until deep and golden brown. Remove from the tin and transfer to a cooling rack.

Focaccia is best eaten on the day it's baked, although it will be great for the next few days lightly toasted. It also freezes very well. Just leave to thaw at room temperature for about 1 hour, then place in a preheated oven at 200° oven for 7 minutes.


Maintaining a sourdough starter

There are several methods to maintain a starter, depending on how often you bake. As I don't bake every day, I keep mine in the fridge. If it's been there for a week, I use it directly in my bread recipe. Any longer than that, I would usually give it one feed about 8 to 14 hours before using it. And if it has been sitting there for a couple of months, I would do several feeds until it rises up nicely again.

To feed your starter, take it out of the fridge, put 100g into a bowl (discard the rest) and combine with 190g strong white bread flour, 10g wholemeal flour, and 200g water. Scrape the refreshed starter into a tub or glass jar and place a rubber band around the vessel it is in to mark its height. Leave this to ferment for 8 to 12 hours at room temperature or until doubled in volume. It’s now ready to use for your focaccia.

I highly recommend marking the level of the starter on the jar, this way you will know when it has doubled and is ready to use. In the beginning, this will help you to understand how a starter rises and falls and what happens when you feed it more regularly or leave it in the fridge for too long... You should use your starter when it has doubled in volume, before it deflates again.

To store your starter, you should feed it, let it rise at room temperature for a couple of hours, then cover and store in the fridge until you are ready to use it again.

Don't hesitate to ask for a little of our starter at the café, if you would like to begin with a good base.

Happy baking!

Café Bautier
Wednesday-Friday 10am to 4.30pm
Saturday 10am to 6pm