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 get “the recognition it deserves”. His other bread books sold out as a result of the pandemic rush but as a doctor, there have been lows during this past year, as well as the bread-based highs.
“We’ve all had a few crises, a few wobbles,” says James, originally from Hillswick, Shetland, who also became a father during the pandemic to daughter Lily. “I’ve got a feeling we’re getting there. I’m feeling really, really positive.”
Here we quiz the master baker about bread, beer and babies…
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. 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.”
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.”
What’s your go-to toast topping?
“Peanut butter and banana on toast – I think it’s my number one at the minute. Peanut butter and jam – mostly involving peanut butter, to be honest, or scrambled eggs on toast. Anything that involves breads, I am pretty much for.”
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 home-brewer, and so he introduced me to this idea that home brew 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.”
What should every budding brewer keep in mind?
“Everything needs to be super, super-clean, and not just clean but sanitary. What I mean by that is, it’s covered in some food-safe disinfectant of some kind to stop the beer getting infected, which is what happened to my first batch. If it becomes infected, it could become sour, smelly, sulphurous or over-carbonated and the bottles could explode.”
Has the pandemic affected your eating habits?
“Not really. We get our veg box and try to try to keep everything as local and as seasonal as possible. Having a load of really good restaurants very nearby means there’s loads of dine-at-home options and we’ve not had to get a babysitter, so we’re just able to have date nights and the baby’s been upstairs asleep.”
Do you still watch Bake Off?
“I watch it most years. I watched this year. It was a really nice light relief from (the pandemic). They’ll be filming the new season soon. It’s not always good…it makes me feel stressed, like I’m going to be judged again!”
From Scratch: Sourdough and From Scratch: Brew by James Morton, photography by Andy Sewell, published by Quadrille, £12 each
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