Finally: perfect sourdough bread

The perfect sourdough bread.

Upon our return from Utah in July, I was excited about trying out a new approach to sourdough bread baking, after enjoying a great loaf which dear daughter Robyn bought from a local grocery store.

Trepidatious as ever that it would disagree with me – it is after all laden with gluten – I quizzed the baker about his process to ensure the bread was made “properly”: wild yeast fermented starter, long fermentation time, extended proofing time, to ensure that the gluten is metabolised to the point where I could safely digest it. It ticked all the boxes, so I ate it with gusto.

What impressed me most about the bread was its colour and texture. It is made with unbleached stoneground flour, rather than whole grain flour, so the crumb is lighter and moister, and almost ciabatta-like, with a large internal bubble structure. The crust is thinner and the loaf is generally lighter and airier than I am accustomed to baking. I returned excited about the prospects of a new direction in my bread baking.

I’d left my starter sealed in a zip-lock bag in the fridge, in the firm belief that it would survive for the three weeks of our holiday, but alas, it was sour and dead. I tried to grow a new starter, but to no avail. Either it was too cold – mid-July – or there just wasn’t any wild yeast around. Lugubriously, I gave up after two failed attempts spanning a fortnight.

A couple of days later, the phone rang and PR consultant Ian du Toit invited me to a ferment experience at Loaves on Long, a bakery in the old-world sense, in the most delightfully classic shop, replete with wood-framed windows and art-deco tiled floors, sandwiched between two high-rise buildings in Long Street, Cape Town.

When you step through the door, into Ciska Rossouw and Rickma Coxon’s emporium, you travel back to an era when time was the most significant asset in the business, and it manifested itself in the quality of the finished product.

The day was all about ferment, starting with a welcome drink of kombucha, a fermented tea drink, and the menu included dishes paired with wild yeast fermented wines from Remhoogte Wine Estate and KWV’s Mentors Cellar, presented by winemakers Chris Boustred and Izelle van Blerk, but for me the highlight of the day, was Ciska’s sourdough bread, and getting to meet and listen to Heinie Fourie, the owner of Golden Reef Milling in the Overberg, talk about how his Bio-wheat flours came to be, and how they contribute to the growing number of bakers who bake genuine sourdough bread.

I thought I understood gluten, until I listened to Heinie’s explanation of the role it plays in bread baking, and also how he removes the bran, but retains the wheat germ in his flours, a critical component in the chemistry of making pukka sourdough bread that gluten intolerants can safely eat.

I left Loaves on Long with a 2kg bag of Heinie’s course ground white flour, and the prize of the day, a polystyrene cup of Ciska’s wild yeast starter, along with a plethora of sage advice, that resulted in the baking recipe changes that follow, to bake beautiful sourdough bread.

The major changes are: no longer using wholegrain flour; using less water; using rice flour for dusting, rather than oil to prevent sticking in vessels; and reducing initial covered baking time.

This assumes you have your sourdough starter, but if not, drop me a mail and I’ll propagate one for you. Ciska is happy for me to share what she shared with me.

Ingredients, Selection and Preparation


100g sourdough starter

100g wholegrain stoneground wheat flour

100g unbleached stoneground white flour

200g warm water


1/2 the quantity of your leaven

1kg coarse-ground unbleached stoneground white flour, Bio Wheat if you can get it

800ml water

20g salt

White rice flour for dusting the proofing vessels

Unbleached stoneground white flour for dusting work surfaces


Prepare the leaven the evening before you plan to bake, by thoroughly mixing the ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl.

Thoroughly combine the flour and water in a large mixing bowl, making sure there are no dry lumps. Leave both overnight, covered.

The next morning, assuming your leaven has fermented well overnight, add half to the flour and water mix, and work it in well, initially using a fork, then with a wet hand.

Mix 100g of the remaining leaven with 50g each of stoneground wholegrain flour and unbleached stoneground white flour, and 100ml of warm water, to make your sourdough starter for next time. If you store it in the fridge in a zip-lock bag, once it has fermented, you only need to feed it about once a week.

Dig deep down the side of the bowl, and pull the dough up and over to the other side, and rotate the bowl a quarter turn. Repeat until you’ve rotated the bowl completely twice. You’ll use this same method during the fermentation time for the next three to four hours.

Let the dough stand for about an hour, then sprinkle the salt evenly over the surface and work it in thoroughly with a wet hand.

For the next three to four hours, repeat the folding process every hour, taking care to smell and taste the dough each time.

It should smell yeasty and mildly sour, and each time you work it, it should feel more billowy, elastic and light, If it smells and tastes overtly sour at any point, proceed to the next step immediately. And it will no longer stick to the sides of the bowl.

Place two large, non-woven fabric kitchen cloths on the counter top, and impregnate each well with white rice flour. Place each carefully in a colander, or similar vessel, nearby. You’ll use these as proofing baskets.

Dust the counter top liberally with flour, and turn out the dough. Divide it in half with a large plastic scraper, setting one half aside.

Flour your hands well, and taking one corner of the dough, lift and fold across, then lift and fold across from the other side. Rotate a quarter turn and repeat the process.

Repeat this entire process about a half dozen times, dusting your hands and the scraper with flour as needed. This process folds much needed air into your dough.

Flip the dough ball over, and with well-floured hands, rapidly rotate and shape it into a sphere, and using a floured scraper, lift and deposit it into one of the proofing vessels.

Sprinkle the surface of the dough evenly and well with white rice flour.

Repeat the process with the other portion of dough, and set both aside for three to four hours to proof in a warm place, by which time it should have at least doubled in volume.

Place two casserole dishes with lids – the baking vessels – in the oven, and heat to 240°C.

While the oven is heating, check the state of the proofed dough. You want to ensure that the surface is well dusted with rice flour, and that the dough has not adhered to the rice flour impregnated cloth.

If it has, ease it loose and dust that spot with rice flour. This will ensure that when your turn the dough out, it will fall cleanly into the baking vessel.

Once the oven is at temperature, remove the baking vessels, and set the lids aside. Carefully tip a proofed dough into each, and using an old-fashioned razor blade – Ciska gifted me one – make a couple of stylish slashes in the surfaces of the dough.

Place the covered baking vessels in mid-oven, and bake for 10 minutes, then remove the lids.

Bake for a further 10 minutes, then turn the over down to 230°C and bake for a further 25 minutes.

Check the bread by pushing a sosatie stick or something similar all the way in to the bottom of the loaf, then withdrawing it. If the dough on the end of the stick is wet and sticky, bake for five minutes more then test again. By now the crust will be a deep brown in colour.

Turn both loaves out onto a cooling rack and dust off any excess rice flour. Wrap each loaf in a kitchen towel, and leave them to cool completely overnight.

Store the loaves on the counter top in zip-lock plastic bags with air excluded, for up to a week.

Preparation time: 18 to 24 hours

Baking time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 loaves