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James Morton: Anything that involves breads, I am pretty much for

Brewer, baker and Bake Off runner-up Andrew Morton talks to Katie Wright and Ella Walker about lockdown, beer and the rules of caring for your precious sourdough starter

Former Great British Bake Off contestant Dr James Morton

“THEY’RE both microbiological wonders,” James Morton says of two of his great loves: sourdough and beer brewing. “They’re both very scientific, very measured. And they’re both ways of achieving taste nirvana.”

And they’re the subject of his two new cookery guides, From Scratch: Sourdough and From Scratch: Brew.

The former Great British Bake Off contestant, who lives in Glasgow, has been making sourdough since his late teens, and has been pleased to see the lockdown-friendly bread in particular get “the recognition it deserves”. His other bread books actually sold out as a result of the pandemic rush – but as a doctor, there have been lows for Morton during this past year, as well as the bread-based highs.

“We’ve all had a few crises, a few wobbles,” says Morton, who also become a father during the pandemic, to daughter Lily. But, he adds, “I’ve got a feeling we’re getting there. I’m feeling really, really positive.”

:: So why do you think sourdough became so popular during lockdown?

“It’s a labour of love, there’s this story of creating something from literally just flour and water, bringing it to life, sharing it with other people, sharing it online – which has become a really important part of it. And the fact it’s just awesome. You can make bread as good as the best bread in the world, in the comfort of your own home.”

:: Is there a secret to producing perfect sourdough?

“Sourdough is just a mixture of flour, water and salt, but there’s all this biochemical madness going on in order for you to get this loaf of bread, and the most important part of that is the starter. It’s just flour and water that you leave to go off, it starts to bubble, it’s full of yeast and bacteria, and if you neglect it, let it just fizzle out and fade over time without feeding it, or taking proper care of it, it will just not produce good bread.”

:: What mistakes do people always make?

“People say, ‘My loaf has just fallen apart into this wet pancake’. But almost always, even if you think your problem is completely unrelated, it’s down to the starter; your starter isn’t active enough. You just need to feed it more and feed it better.”

:: Do you name your starter?

“Absolutely not. If the starter’s not going well, or it’s really, really faded, you should just get rid of it; you shouldn’t have any sentimental attachment. There are people who have starters that are hundreds of years old and like to boast about this. But that doesn’t actually make any better bread.

“Starter hotels even exist. People will drop off their starters to other people to look after when they’re on holiday. You don’t need to do that. Just stick it in the fridge, it’ll be pretty resilient, and then give it a couple of feeds when you get back.”

:: Feeding it sounds quite complicated…

“If you try and feed it every day, you’re just going to forget; you’re setting yourself up for failure. The key is actually to keep it dormant in the fridge and only when you need it, take it out. Feed it with far more flour and water than is in the starter, and you’re gonna have a good loaf. Your starter should always at least double in size before you use it. And if you stick to that, you will not go far wrong.”

:: How often do you bake bread?

“I make bread two to three times a week, two to three loaves at a time. So we get through a lot of bread. I’ve been making the focaccia and my staple, the country loaf [in the book]. It’s mostly white, with a bit of rye or oatmeal in there to give it some earthy crunch.”

:: When did you initially find yourself drawn to brewing beer?

“I did get into it as a student. One of my friends happens to be a UK champion homebrewer, and so he introduced me to this idea that homebrew wasn’t just something that tasted dodgy, brewed in these big plastic buckets with little airlocks, that bubbled on top and was always sour, or the bottles were exploding.”

:: How straightforward is brewing?

“Like a sourdough, you’ve got to follow these scientific steps to get really, really good results, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it is possible.”

:: Has the pandemic affected your eating habits?

“Not really, to be honest. We get our veg box and try to try to keep everything as local and as seasonal as possible, which in Scotland means lots and lots of potatoes, carrots and swedes at this time of year! We’re getting into some spring greens and some cabbage, I hope.”

From Scratch: Sourdough and From Scratch: Brew by James Morton are published by Quadrille, priced £12 each. Photography by Andy Sewell. Below is a recipe from the book for you to try.

FOCACCIA INTEGRALE

(makes 1 large focaccia)

150g rye or wholemeal (wholewheat) sourdough starter

425g strong white flour

8g table salt

350g tepid-warm water (see method)

100g good-quality extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for oiling and drizzling

2–3 tsp good-quality sea salt flakes

Herbs or toppings as you see fit – I like a handful of olives, a few tomatoes on the vine, a sliced red onion or a sprig or two of rosemary

Method:

Ideally, take your starter out of the fridge at least eight to 14 hours before you want to bake. If it hasn’t been fed recently, give it a feed when you take it out. You can use it straight from the fridge, but your first prove will take quite a bit longer. In a large bowl, weigh your flour. Add the table salt, then mix this in using your fingers. Add in your sourdough starter.

Mix some warm and cool water in a jug to 25C, then weigh out 350g and pour this into your bowl. Mix everything roughly until you have a very wet dough. Let the dough rest for about 20–30 minutes – even allowing for a short autolyse of 10 minutes makes a difference. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or a plate to stop the dough drying out during this time.

Knead your dough – for this dough (which is very wet), stretching and folding intermittently works very well, but I’d still give it a little bit of working before adding the oil. The slap and fold method also works well. Give it five minutes of mixing, and as soon as it feels smooth, add your oil. Mix this until completely combined and you’ve got a very soft, shiny dough. Wrap your bowl in a couple of large tea towels to keep it warm and stop the dough drying out. Leave in a relatively warm place for about four hours.

Alternatively, you could retard this prove overnight in a cool place, covering the dough with a plastic bag. I would do a stretch and fold following this, if so, then leave it in a warm place for one hour before shaping.

This dough should appear large and slightly terrifying, with loads of big bubbles. If it isn’t, leave it a little longer. Once it is, oil a roasting tin and then add a little oil on top of your proven dough. Your hands should be very oily, too. Use your hands or a dough scraper to scrape your dough out of the bowl and into the tin. If it sticks, don’t worry – you can lift it off with your scraper and then add more oil.

Flatten your dough slightly, being careful to maintain its delicate air bubbles. Fold your dough in half, and then fold your new, longer dough in half again. I think of this like folding an A4 piece of paper twice so that you’ve got a smaller piece of paper. Add more oil if it’s sticking, and gently push your dough out into the corners of a 30 x 40cm (12 x 16in) roasting tin. Stick your tin inside a plastic bag and leave to prove for two to three more hours at room temperature.

Alternatively, you can retard this prove overnight or for up to 24 hours until your bread is ready to bake. You want it to grow further by about half.

Preheat your oven to 250C/230C fan/Gas 9 at least 30–40 minutes before you expect to bake your bread. If you have a stone, place it in the oven to heat up. Just before it’s ready to bake, remove the focaccia from the plastic bag and poke indentations using oiled fingers in the dough, giving the focaccia its characteristic holes. Top with some flaked sea salt, at least, and any olives, vegetables or herbs you like. Drench the whole thing with generous drizzles of oil.

Place in the oven and add steam using your chosen method – for example, adding some water into a cast-iron pan that’s sitting in the bottom of the oven. Turn the oven down to 220C/200C fan/Gas 7. Bake for 20 minutes, and then vent the oven by opening the door and allowing the steam to escape. Bake for another 15–20 minutes, or until a good golden brown.

Leave to cool for at least 15 minutes. Then add more oil on top. Slice and serve hot if you like, but it does also keep extremely well. Just add more oil when you serve it.

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