The secret to making the best sourdough bread you’ve ever tasted

Mark Best
07 July, 2014

Visionary chef Mark Best takes us on an 8-day journey to exquisite sourdough.

Our sourdough starter is an adaptation of a French ‘Poolish’ (or Polish) fermented starter. The starter or ‘mother’ as it is often called is now thirteen years old and commenced its life in my kitchen at home six months prior to the opening of Marque.

I started with an organic apple and pear, juicing each and allowing them to ferment separately at room temperature. After that I added a little flour each day to feed the natural yeast ferment. When the culture was strong enough I mixed a cup of organic wheat flour with a cup of water and added the same to each juice. Starters are demanding and this became a daily event, keeping it thriving and also building up a working amount for the coming restaurant.

Early in its life I fancied I could smell the difference between the two starters. Later on I had no idea which one was which, but continued to tell the customers that of our two breads one was from pear and one from apple. The customers would nod heads in recognition. It was a salient lesson in the power of suggestion.

To make the sourdough starter

  • organic fruit (1 apple, 1 pear or 1 small bunch grapes)
  • filtered water
  • organic unbleached wheat flour (12 to 14 per cent protein)

Day 1 to Day 3

De-stem the fruit and then blend to a rough pulp. Place in a very clean container and cover with muslin. Leave at room temperature. Within 12 to 24 hours the natural yeast flora on the skin of the fruit will start a simple alcoholic ferment. At this stage it is very important to feed the ferment with a sprinkling of organic unbleached wheat flour (12 to 14 per cent protein) once a day. Do this for three days. It should have increased markedly in volume and have a fruity aldehydic smell. If there is no activity, or any mould forms, discard the mixture and start over, paying more attention to the hygiene of the utensils used.

Day 4 to Day 6

Mix 1 cup flour with 1 cup filtered water. Mix into the ferment, then cover. This will at least double in volume. Repeat this process over the next two days. At this stage you will have to increase the volume of the container to contain the level of fermentation.

Day 7

Mix 1.5 kilograms flour with 1.2 litres water, then add to the ferment and cover for 24 hours. At this stage you are good to go. The starter needs to be fed every 24 hours with an equal volume of flour and water to keep it active and healthy. On days you are not baking this means you will need to discard the same amount as you are adding to maintain the same volume. At Marque we have two 20 litre buckets on 24-hour rotation. We put back what we take out to maintain the same volume. We store the buckets in the wine cellar at 18ºC. I think this is the reason our starter is so long lived and stable.

To make the sourdough bread

  • sourdough starter (see above)
  • water
  • organic bakers’ flour
  • organic wholemeal flour
  • table salt

Begin this recipe one day in advance. Place 325 grams sourdough starter and 500 millilitres water at 26ºC together in a bowl and whisk to combine, then pour into a heavy-duty mixer with a dough hook. Combine 750 grams organic bakers’ flour and 120 grams organic wholemeal flour and add to the liquids in the mixer. Use the dough hook to mix the dough for 1 minute then leave to hydrate for 30 minutes. Add 25 grams table salt and continue to mix for 6 to 10 minutes, or until elastic and smooth.

Remove from the mixer and place in a large container with a lid, then leave at room temperature for about 4 hours, or until it has doubled in size. Turn out onto a clean workbench and knock back by folding it over itself several times. Use a pastry cutter to cut two 750 gram portions of dough. Roll these into tight balls using both hands in a circular motion. Allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Line a baking tray with baking paper. Take one ball of dough at a time and place it upside down on the workbench. Flatten it out into a rectangle about 20–30 centimetres and about 3 centimetres thick.

Starting at one of the shorter ends, roll the dough into a tight roll all the way to the end. Starting at the middle of the roll, use both hands to stretch and work the loaf so that it is around 25 centimetres long and even in width. Push your hands down while rolling on the ends of the loaf to produce nice rounded ends.

Gently lift the loaf onto the prepared tray and repeat with the other loaf. Drape each loaf with a piece of plastic wrap, and then wrap the tray tightly with plastic wrap so that it is not exposed to the air. Store in the refrigerator for 24 hours, to allow the loaves to prove slowly and develop in flavour.

Remove the loaves from the refrigerator and allow them to prove at room temperature until they have increased in size by around three-quarters and still spring back to the touch – this may take 3 to 4 hours.

To bake the loaves, preheat a combi steam oven to 240ºC. Dust the loaves with flour and slash five times in a diagonal motion, about 2 centimetres deep, with a bread knife. Bake at 240ºC on combination steam for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 230ºC with no steam and bake for a further 15 minutes. Finish on 140ºC with no steam for a final 5 minutes' cooking. Allow the bread to cool completely before cutting.

Makes 2 loaves.

For more of Mark Best's expertise, check out his stunning opus, Marque.


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