As we all stayed home more and spent more time in our kitchens, bread has emerged as the baked-good champion of the lockdown. Although it may have initially been a response to the sudden decrease in supply of bread as demand soared, baking bread has emerged as the most prominent lockdown coping strategy, not to mention the most beneficial to the whole family.
But as bakers perfect the simpler recipes, they want to up their game. Sourdough, bread leavened by a natural fermentation process, instead of commercially available yeast, has become very popular. Despite its association with specialist bakeries and hipster cafés now, sourdough bread existed before commercial yeasts and mass production were introduced in the 19th century.
Traditional recipes, which largely remain unchanged to this day, contain a starter (made of a fermented mix of water and flour), salt and flour. Though this recipe sounds basic, it produces sourdough’s signature complex, tangy flavour, crunchy crust and airy inside.
“It’s easier on the stomach, doesn’t leave you feeling bloated and there is a depth of flavour in sourdough bread that simply doesn’t exist in normal bread,” says engineer-turned-baker-and-cookbook writer, Chuah Chiew See. “Because of its fermentation, it also has a longer shelf life than normal bread.”
Thirty-one of Chuah’s recipes are in a recently published cookbook titled Autumn Baking, her ode to sourdough baking. An electrical engineer by training, she honed her skills after becoming a full-time homemaker. After mastering cakes, including her three children’s birthday cakes, she took on the challenge of baking sourdough breads.
She gradually expanded her repertoire to include recipes that are more familiar to the Asian palate — purple sweet potato buns, for example, as well as yu char kway, or Chinese breadsticks.
Chuah’s initial plan was merely to record her recipes for posterity. A keen photographer, she would bake and photograph everything when the children were asleep. A recipe book seemed the natural next step, and Autumn Baking was published last year.
“Sourdough isn’t only the hard, crusty loaves; it can apply to so many other baked goods, and that is what I wanted to showcase,” she shares. “Because of my engineering training, I’ve approached the recipes with extreme precision so even newbies can safely try them out.”
Autumn Baking, which took a total of 15 months to complete, is split into four sections — rustic recipes that use no fat or eggs, sandwich loaves, small soft buns and non-traditional bakes like waffles, bagels and even Chinese crispy pancakes, or ban chian kuih. The book is illustrated with Chuah’s beautiful photographs, and the recipes are provided in English and Mandarin. At the beginning of the book, she details recipes for building your own starter and gives an introduction to some of the processes in sourdough baking.
Aware that not everyone likes traditional crusty loaves, Chuah wanted to incorporate sourdough into foods that she and her family enjoyed eating. “There is a perception that sourdough baking is difficult or complicated, and with this book I tried to take the guesswork out of everything so you have a set of tried-and-tested recipes by a fellow home baker, who enjoys the same flavours that you do.”
See more of Chuah's bread recipes here.
This article first appeared in issue No. 99, Spring 2021 of Haven.