Not one to be beaten by such a thing, I decided to work out why this might have been the case. I spent a long time looking for the answers on the internet and an even longer time making more loaves that just didn't seem to work out. And the problem with a sourdough loaf is that it takes so long to make that by the time your fourth loaf has gone out in the garden to feed the birds (yes, I must claim responsibility for some rather heavy-looking birds!) you do start to feel a bit disheartened.
Then I came across a post on Lucy's Attic 24 blog for no-knead artisan bread. This appealed to me immensely as I thought that cutting down on the preparation time and not ending up getting covered in ridiculously sticky dough might go some way to solving the problem, or at least, ease the disappointment. I searched a bit further and discovered Breadtopia's no-knead sourdough bread and thought that at last I had the answers!
Sadly not. I was almost there but I had forgotten one vital fact. Cooking on an Aga is different to cooking in a normal oven. Each Aga has it's own temperature that it runs at and although they're all basically the same, it's hard to know exactly where, say, 180° is in the oven. Aga recipes specify "runners" rather than temperatures as that's a better way of getting more consistent results, and Aga owners cook by moving the oven shelves up and down the sets of runners that line the oven walls to get the temperature they want. Although the bread that I made using the Breadtopia website was so nearly right, I realised that it was down to where I was cooking it in the oven, and what I was cooking it in.
No knead bread in a conventional oven is cooked in a Dutch oven or a casserole dish with a tight-fitting lid but in my Aga, I found that I got a better result if I cooked my bread in the Aga cake baker. This is a large aluminium lidded pot with trivet inside that a cake tin rests on. The hot air circulates around the tin to cook the cake but keeps the temperature at a lower level than it would be just in the oven.
At last! A few changes to the US recipe, a few versions of the sourdough starter, a change to how I was cooking the bread - and I'm now producing consistently tasty sourdough loaves in my Aga!
I thought I'd share my technique so that anyone else wanting to cook sourdough in an Aga might find it easier than I did to get started. It's really not that hard, but from the problems I've had, you could be forgiven for thinking so.
Right, so here we go.
First of all, you need a sourdough starter. There are lots and lots of sourdough starter recipes around, taking from 4 days to 7 days, using pineapple juice, grapes, raisins or other ingredients, but mine is just flour and water. I used this link to get going, and found that I got a better starter by using plain flour instead of bread flour as some recipes suggest. The starter needs to be bubbly as that shows it's alive and well. You can see the bubbles up the side of the pot (I found a plastic pot with a tight-fitting lid works very well for me) ...
and this is what it looks like with the lid off. Plenty of bubbles means plenty of life in your starter which will make your bread rise. Try not to take the lid off other than when you're using or feeding your starter as that will make the bubbles disappear.
Feeding your starter to keep it going after every use is also very simple; I just mix in half a cup of plain flour with a quarter of a cup of water. Now, this cup thing causes some confusion so the recipe I'm giving you later uses imperial and metric weights. Most American sites, however, measure in cups and my cups are Canadian which are different again, but I think it's safe to say that you can use whatever you like as a "cup" as long as you are consistent and use the same cup for all your measurements.
My sourdough starter lives next to the Aga if I'm making a loaf every other day or so, but if there's going to be a longer gap than that, it goes into the fridge. You have to remember to take it out about 12 hours before you want to use it, give it a good stir and put it back into the warm place for it to start bubbling again.
Now, on to the bread itself. I found a video on the Breadtopia sourdough page very useful and you might want to have a look at it yourself, but the basics of what you do are below.
Weigh out your flour and salt and put them in a large bowl. Give your sourdough starter a good stir before removing it from the pot. Mix the starter into the water and add that to the mixture. Stir it all together until it's mostly combined.
It will look a bit like this ...
Now, at this point, although it's called "no-knead" I've found that it's best if you do stick your hands in and knead the bread until all the flour is collected. You'll find the dough starts to get quite sticky and at this point it's best to leave it alone - sourdough can be incredibly sticky, although the stickier the dough is, the better it seems to rise - and as the whole point of it is not to cover yourself and your kitchen in dough, then it's time to leave the dough to rise in the bowl. Cover it with oiled clingfilm and put it in a warm place for about 18 hours. I tried leaving it next to the Aga but I think it was a bit warm, so if you want to try that, keep an eye on your dough and use it before the full 18 hours are up - over-proving will also cause the bread not to rise very well.
After covering up your dough, the next thing you need to do is wash your hands and all your utensils in hot soapy water otherwise the dough sets like concrete and it's really difficult to get off (ask me how I know this!).
After 18 hours, my dough looks like this.
It's hard to see from the picture exactly what it's done, but it has relaxed and risen in the bowl. I don't know if I'd say it's twice the size; it certainly doesn't rise as much as an ordinary loaf does, but it has risen.
The next thing to do is to spread the dough out on a floured board. I use a large chopping board but you can use the working top if you don't have a board big enough. Don't throw the cling film away as you're going to need it again in the a minute. This isn't as sticky a job as you'd expect, but you can sprinkle a little flour onto the dough as well if you're worried that it's going to stick to you.
Fold the left side into the middle, then the right side over the top and finally fold the top of the rectangle that you have left in half to give this folded stack of dough (check out the Breadtopia video at this point if you need to). You can see the folds in the dough quite clearly. Cover the bread with the cling film and leave it to rest for 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, carefully pick up the dough and put it into a bowl to prove for another 1-1½ hours. I'm not sure that it really matters what sort of bowl you use, but I know there are plenty of bread aficionados who might choose to disagree. I've been putting my dough back into the same bowl that I mixed it in, covering it with the cling film again and leaving it (next to the Aga this time) to rise. The Breadtopia video uses a proofing basket and a tea towel instead of cling film. I don't have a proofing basket and found that my bread didn't rise as well with a tea towel, but I think the best thing about these recipes is that you can alter them to suit yourself to a certain degree so I would just suggest that you try it out for yourself and see how it works.
After about 1½ hours, I put the Aga cake baker into the oven to warm up and I turn my dough out onto a 7" non stick circular cake tin liner.
It's a bit sticky and squidgy at this point so I try not to touch it more than I have to and just drop the liner into the cake tin and then sit the tin inside the trivet.
This is my loaf, easily as tasty as any that we've bought, and more importantly, I can produce a loaf like this consistently by using this method which means that now we never run out of sourdough bread.
Sourdough bread makes the most fabulous toast I think I've ever had, and although it might seem like a lengthy process to make, the no-knead method means that you actually do very little other than leave the bread to work it's own magic. You do need to think a little bit about the timings - for example, whether you are going to cook the bread during the day or in the evening, and then you work backwards from then to when you need to start your bread to give it the 18 hours' initial rising time.
I was told that once you get into the swing of making sourdough, you never look back and I'm finally believing that it's true - I hope this helps you to feel the same way! Do let me know, I'd love to hear from you!
Aga no-knead sourdough loaf
1lb (approx 450g) strong white bread flour
1½ tsp salt
11 fl oz (approx 312ml) tepid water
3 generous tablespoons sourdough starter
Mix all of the ingredients together in a large bowl, using your hands if necessary to ensure that all the flour is incorporated into the mixture. Cover with oiled cling film and leave for 18 hours in a warm (but not too warm) place.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and spread out into a rectangle. Fold the sides and then the top of the dough in onto itself, cover with the cling film and leave for 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, return the dough to the bowl (or use a proofing basket), cover with either cling film or a tea towel and leave to rise for another 1-1½ hours.
Put the Aga cake baker into the roasting oven to heat up. Turn the dough carefully out onto a cake tin liner, or straight into a well-greased cake tin and put into the trivet. When the cake baker is hot, remove from the oven, put the cake tin inside and return to the bottom of the roasting oven for 1 hour.
After 1 hour, remove the lid of the cake baker for a further 15 minutes before removing from the oven and turning out onto a wire rack to cool.