Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Project Sourdough: Bourke St Bakery and River Cottage Handbook

I have purchased two books to help me on my journey baking with natural yeast. I've learnt a lot from their detailed descriptions of ingredients, methods and techniques. There is no substitute for asking advice from and sharing tips with fellow bakers. Forums and youtube videos have their place too. However books are where most of us start, so I thought I would record my thoughts on the two books I have used.

The Bourke St Bakery cookbook is about a lot more than just bread. The first half of the book is dedicated breads (sourdough, derivative and yeasted), with the rest split between pies, sausage rolls and sweet treats. My thoughts are focused solely on bready sections of the book.

The good:
The book contains a lot of detail to help out the new baker. There are detailed descriptions of each step in the process. Useful photographs to accompany the descriptions. I found these details a useful reference as I was building up my confidence.

It may only be five pages long, but the section of the book on how to create a starter and feed it in preparation for baking, is the best I've seen.

The book contained approximate timings as well as what to look out for in each step of the process. Overtime you use the timings less and 'touch and feel' more. But the timings are useful for the virgin baker.

There is a really good selection of recipes. Basic breads, different mixes of flours and suggested extras to add to your bread (e.g. the fruit bread). You could happily bake from this book for a long time without needing to go anywhere else for inspiration.

The bad:
The Bourke St Bakery book is written from a professional standpoint that makes very little accommodation for the domestic baker. I worked out several of their timing schedules and they had you up at 4am baking. That might be how a professional bakery operates, but the domestic cook wants something a bit more sociable!

I found the book quite intimidating at times. You feel that you must prove your bread at 25-27 degress with 80% humidity otherwise it is going to fail. I've learnt that you can be quite a lot more relaxed with the whole process and still produce great results.

I read the River Cottage Handbook second and this inevitably impacts my thoughts. I wasn't such a nervous baker when I read this book and was looking for different things as a result. Unlike Bourke St Bakery which focuses more on sourdough, natural yeast makes up a relatively small portion of the River Cottage Handbook. However, there are still lots of tips to be taken from the book.

The good:
The River Cottage Handbook it is a homestyle book. It is written with an infectious enthusiasm for bread, there is none of the intimidation of the Bourke St Bakery book. It makes you want to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.

Different hints and tips come across as a result. I'd never heard of the sponge method before I read this book.

I liked the minimalist / green / ethical approach of the book.Why would you buy specialist equipment when you can just as easily 'make do and mend' with items you already have in your kitchen?

Like Bourke St there are also detailed sections on the techniques of bread making.

It had a whole section on how to build you own clay oven. It's a dream of mine to have a clay oven in my back garden one day.

The bad:
The sourdough section of the book is relatively small. There are only five different sourdough recipes and none of the variation of flavours and added ingredients Bourke St has.

It is difficult to judge fully as I read this book second when I already knew quite a bit about sourdough. However, I've got concerns that if this was my only book it wouldn't have answered all my questions as a newbie baker.

Worth a mention as well is Matthew Evan's The Real Food Companion. He has a great chapter on the different types of flour and their uses. There is only a few paragraphs on sourdough, however, they contain lots of useful tips for the less regular baker on storing your starter in the fridge and even freezing some.


  1. Those books sound a bit high-tech for my humble kitchen where I have no means by which to control the temperature, heat or even the lighting!

  2. Hmm, three books that as you know I love. The good thing about sourdough is it's such a versatile beast, that you can fiddle and tweak it until you find a rhythm that suits you.
    Have you had a look at Perth based Yoke Mardewi's book Wild Sourdough? She doesn't use methods that I use, but there are some lovely breads in there to get ideas from.

  3. @CHFG - I hadn't heard of Yoke Mardewi's book. I will try and get my hands on a copy.

    And yes in true Rover Cottage make do an mend style I'm still using the iron! ;-)

  4. Thanks for your reviews. I've been to Bourke Street Bakery myself and am keen to get my hands dirty testing out some of their recipies. Thanks for the heads-up that it might be a bit tricky at times.

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