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Want to bake perfect sourdough bread? Just go back to school. Sally McKenna explains how to do it.

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The idea of being able to make a Californian-type sourdough is the dream of many a domestic baker. I set about to see can if it be done: can you make crunchy-crusted, chewy-airy, satisfying and flavourful bread in a domestic oven in small batches?

Yes, is the answer. But, it takes time, and I think you need a lot of help. I did anyway.

First of all I got help from friends and mentors. Bakers are always happy to share, so beginning with the late David Semple, a much-missed bread tutor, I also got advice – and sourdough starter – from artisan bakers Thibault Peigne, of Tartine Bakery in Dublin, and Tim Allen, of Ballymaloe Cookery school.

You need friends when making sourdough bread, and I think it’s better to inherit a mother – that essential sourdough starter – so that you’re off to a flying start from the first loaf. Thereafter you just have to make the same loaf again, and again, and again, over a period of months and slowly learn the process.

You also need lessons. At the moment there are a number of “bread schools” operating in Ireland. I visited Firehouse Bakery, on Heir Island in West Cork; Riot Rye in the eco village of Cloughjordan, in County Tipperary, and did a class with Shane Palmer from Scéal Bakery of Glasnevin, in The Fumbally Stables, again in Dublin.

To be able to bake great sourdough bread, you need to do at least one of the courses from these teachers. In fact, over time, any baker should do all of them. Each gives a different take on bread, and together it all adds up like the pieces of a jigsaw.

The first course I took was on beautiful Heir Island, at Firehouse Bakery. I kayaked over to the island and, on the way back, my vessel was laden down with loaves. You can choose to take the ferry, of course, but however you travel, the fact that this course is on an island in West Cork is part of its magic.

Patrick Ryan is a ball of energy, and the amount of loaves you get through and understand in the course is nothing less than phenomenal.

Each member of the group takes a different loaf. You learn from each other and end up not only with a bounty of breads to take home, but a comprehensive list of recipes from herb loaves, to baguettes, and a 100% sourdough loaf, which is baked in their pizza oven.

You also learn some nifty pizza peel techniques. Above all, it’s a fun day out, with great food to taste and a very social time spent in the company of other enthusiasts. Everybody who does the course sings its praises after doing it. It’s an unforgettable experience.

Riot Rye is run by long-time baker Joe Fitzmaurice and his partner, Julie Lockett. The course has deservedly won the award for Best Cookery School at the 2017 Irish Restaurant Awards. Come to this day-long course, and you will know how to make a loaf of sourdough by the time you leave.

Joe has a passion to educate people how to make and find real bread – a friend once said that Joe “wanted to change the world through bread.” He teaches what he calls The Common Loaf with an infectious zeal. This isn’t a cookery course, this is a Movement! The course lasts all day, and you leave it knowing everything from the grain, to kneading, to proving, to the final oven spring.

You are now equipped to make proper 100% sourdough and come away with the technique for making both a wheat loaf, and a sourdough rye. There is also a great pizza recipe and technique in the recipe booklet you leave with. Joe also sells flour, a lame and other accoutrements. Altogether, Riot Rye is a brilliant experience that ends in a life skill well learned.

The third bread course I undertook in my effort to make great sourdough was with Shane Palmer, of Scéal Bakery, in The Fumbally Stables, series of workshops This course is all about inspiration.

First of all, it takes place around the polished cement table in the Fumbally Stables kitchen, surrounded by fermenting bottles and jars. The room itself is more than cool. Secondly, Scéal Bakery is one of the cutting-edge food companies in Ireland. Their breads are sensational. Shane has worked in Tartine Bakery in California, and the recipe used here to bake bread is based on the Tartine loaf.

Shane makes the basic dough that we work with, which is great for learning to work with a well hydrated mix, and I particularly enjoyed the fact that the finishing techniques were so well taught: the initial shaping; the final bench rest; and cutting patterns with the lame and baking to achieve a great crust. Meanwhile, Shane was baking loaves with four year old fermented potatoes, and with koji barley from the pantry at NOMA. This is an inspirational evening.

All three courses also serve a fabulous lunch or dinner, you meet new baking friends, and at the end of it all, there’s a life skill to be learned. A voucher would make a great present, especially for yourself. Go on, what are you waiting for - enroll!

Pictures show two home-made loaves, a pizza from the Heir Island course, Joe Fitzpatrick teaching, and bread shaping in Scéal.

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