60g starter, 300g strong white flour, 205g room-temperature filtered water
8g sea-salt, 8g nigella seeds
8 hours (approx) autolyse/ferment
Stretch and fold
8 hours (approx) bulk ferment
Stretch and shape
8 hours (approx) prove
30 mins at 250C (480F)
You’ll notice my three eight hour stages add up to 24 hours! I find it works best if either the first or second stage is overnight, but not the third, when the proving loaf needs an occasional check to see if it is ready to bake. I generally put the bowl in the fridge during this overnight stage, after an initial hour or two at room temperature. At a room temperature of around 20C things go slowly, so these timings are pretty flexible. In a sunny summer kitchen, the times will shorten.
I use a stainless steel bowl with polythene lid for all three stages; it is deep enough to contain my small round banneton, with a little headroom for proving. And I use a flexible rounded plastic dough scraper to mix and fold ingredients and to separate the dough from the sides of the bowl. I use a Challenger Dutch oven, which has a shallow base (and deep top) which makes it easy to score the loaf once it has been tipped onto the hot base. There is room inside the oval Challenger to place a little stainless steel dish of hot water beside the loaf before I put the lid on.
To get the starter active I take it out of the fridge 12 hours in advance, feed and discard, and then feed it again when I start the loaf, before returning the starter to the fridge.
For an even crumb – eg for sandwiches – stir the starter into the water till there are no lumps, and then mix in the flour. For a more holey sourdough, simply mix the starter, flour and water together. Either way, briefly mix the ingredients and scrape the flour from the sides of the bowl till there is no dry flour left. Put the lid on, and set the bowl aside.
After about 8 hours, fold in the salt and 6g of nigella seeds, scraping the dough lose from the sides of the bowl before sieving a small handful of flour on to the top of the dough and the worktop, and brushing it smooth with your hands. Tip out the dough and pick it up, letting gravity pull it into a big flat disc like a pizza base, quickly rotating it as you hold its edges with your fingertips. Quickly fold the disc – either in the air or on the worktop – in three and then into three again, making sure it picks up just enough flour to prevent it sticking to the worktop or your fingers. Do this stretching and folding two or three times, until the dough has developed enough elasticity not to droop when you hold it by one end, and is folded into a ball. This should take three or four minutes in all. Return the dough to the bowl and put the lid on.
After about eight hours, do one more stretch and fold, tucking the sides under until the dough is shaped into a ball. Then tighten the outer skin of the ball, by placing it seam-side down on a flour-free worktop and cupping your hands around its base as you drag it seven or eight inches towards you across the worktop. The friction of the worktop draws the skin a little tighter. Rotate 90 degrees and repeat the dragging, several times. This skin helps prevent the dough from sticking to the banneton as it proves.
Sprinkle the remaining 2g of nigella seeds into a lightly-floured banneton (or baking parchment-lined container) and place the dough in it, seam-side up. Put this inside a taller bowl and put the lid on. Leave this to prove, and check after 4 hours, but unless the kitchen is hot it will need about 8 hours to rise. It’s ready when doubled in size, and no longer springing back completely when prodded.
During the last hour of proving, heat the oven to 250C, to bring your Dutch oven up to temperature. You can minimise the heating time by separating the lid from the base, so the cast iron is warmed from inside as well as out.
Finally, remove the hot lid from the oven, pull out the oven rack that has the hot base on it, and tip the loaf straight on to it. Score the top. Place a small stainless steel dish of hot water beside the loaf, before fitting the lid and sliding the rack back in.
After 15 minutes remove the lid and lower the temperature to 225C for the remaining 15 minutes.