I imagine that the incredibly long timescales involved in making a sourdough loaf was convenient for the medieval housewife. Leaving four or five hours between each stage would leave ample time for milking cows, rustling up a wicker basket, laying a new fire out etc.
However, when you work full time and want bread in the week, it is a bit of a pain. I usually don't bake sourdough during the week, because we try not to eat bread too much for diet reasons. But what normally happens is that we cave in and end up with a cheapo cardboard loaf from the supermarket - bad on both counts!
So, I am facing reality and baking in the week on the basis that if we are going to eat bread, I want it to be my lovely sourdough. I imagine it is healthier than the shop bought stuff, as I do not add sugar or rising agents. Also, the dough has plenty of time to ferment, which I gather means it is easier to digest. And, it is much cheaper to make your own - our Farm Shop charges £3.60 for a sourdough loaf.
BUT - it requires a bit of logistical shuffling to fit this around a full time job.
So... the night before, take your starter (I use this recipe) and mix with some new flour and a little warm water to make a 'sponge'. This is basically a watery dough mixture which will use the yeast you have grown in your starter to feed on the fresh flour and multiply, amplifying the effect. May as well use a huge bowl, as you will be adding to it.
Leave this overnight, somewhere warm ish, covered in cling-film or in a back bin bag, so that it doesn't dry out. Next day, in the morning, add more flour, salt and olive oil to the sponge, so that it becomes firm. Eventually you will be able to roll it into a dough ball.
Now, you can knead. After watching my bread machine in action, I assumed for a long time that kneading bread was a bit like rolling a football around a table. But it isn't, it is much more of a streeeeetch-turn-turn-streeeeetch kind of action. Literally dragging the bread across the kneading surface until it is at the point of coming apart, then roll it together, turn it and do it again. What you want is to produce long stretched gluten fibres that can accommodate the bubbles of carbon dioxide that the yeast will give off as it consumes the sugar in the flour.
I do this on a thoroughly cleaned draining board as we have waxed wooden worktops. Try and last for ten minutes - if I am honest, I usually only manage about 7-8. But after a while, you will see the dough become shiny and silky, and at this point I usually stop. If you can carry on for a whole episode of the Archers, that is about perfect!
Put back in the bowl and bin bag, go to work. You could leave it a whole day, but I come home at lunchtime. Punch the air out of the dough, leaving it flat again. Return to bowl to rise once more.
Then, that evening, you need to prove. This is a special word for what really means 'put in a tin and leave to rise for the final time'. As sourdough is traditionally a bun shape, I bought a proving basket, a nice lightweight job with a swirly pattern in the weave, which makes the dough look pretty - but any bowl will do.
Flour it well to stop the dough sticking and put the dough in. Back in the bin bag it goes, somewhere warm for about five hours. On Friday evening, at about 11pm, I bake my loaf. Tip it out of the proving container (or skip this step if it went straight into a loaf tin) veeeery gently, so that you don't squash it - or you may end up with a Frisbee shaped loaf.
Bung in a hot oven (as high as it will go) for ten minutes, then turn down to 200 degrees and finish for about 25 mins.
If it is hollow sounding when you tap the bottom, it is done. Leave to cool overnight and enjoy in the morning!
I love this routine. I also love having my own loaf. We don't waste it, and every slice is precious. Because it is so long coming, we don't gobble it down thoughtlessly either, which is good for our waistlines. More than anything else though, I like the fact that it is mine - not the product of some massive faceless corporation and not made for profit, at the expense of care or quality.