Overnight sourdough focaccia
If you’re new to sourdough baking, focaccia is the perfect loaf to get you started: easy, forgiving, endlessly customisable and – most importantly – ridiculously delicious.
I was insanely jealous of my fellow food writers who mastered sourdough bread during the first lockdown. With a 5 year old to home-school, whilst wrangling an unruly 2 year old, it was a dream as unobtainable as a foreign holiday. By March 2021, although we were still not restriction-free, I did regain a couple of days a week to myself. It was time to get baking!
I made a couple of attempts to recreate the perfect banneton-shaped loaves of my favourite local bakeries, but it quickly became apparent that there were going to be many failures on the road to success. I have a huge amount of respect for techy home bakers that take pride in those long-strived for wins amongst the misses, but I just don’t have the time or the patience for that.
Luckily, focaccia is much more forgiving! Although it isn’t as all-purpose as a white loaf (I wouldn’t recommend it toasted and spread with marmalade for breakfast for example), it is undeniably more delicious in its own right. I’ve probably made 30 versions over the last 6 weeks and each bake, from the very first go, has been a triumph. That’s the sort of success rate I can get on board with!
As with any fermented product, there is a certain amount of natural variation between batches, but I feel confident that the method below will give you good results from your first go.
It’s perfectly possible to make your own starter from scratch. I tried it years ago, but I was never sure if it was quite right. This time round, impatient to get cracking straight away, I bought a well-established starter online. I really can’t recommend this route highly enough – Happy Kombucha have a great range as well as easy-to-follow tutorials to keep your new pet in perfect shape. I went for the San Francisco sourdough starter, as I like a more pronounced sour flavour.
The starter arrives in a 150 g pouch which you need to decant into a kilner jar, then simply stir in 75 g of water and 75 g strong white bread flour. Each day you discard 150 g of the starter and replace it with 75 g water and 75 g flour. After a few days getting used to its new home, it’ll be back up to full strength and instead of discarding the 150 g, you can use it to bake. If you want to make sure it’s definitely ready, drop a teaspoonful into a glass of water – if it floats, you’re good to go.
One of the most important factors for me was that the bread should fit into my daily schedule without me having to wait up for it to rise, or wait in for it to bake.
The basic schedule for my focaccia is:
- Mix it while you’re making dinner (about 7pm)
- Fold it before you go to bed (about 9pm)
- Scrape it into the tin before breakfast (about 7.30am)
- Bake it after the school run (about 9.30 am)
That said, I’ve managed to bake it and cool it in time to include in packed lunches before leaving the house at 8.45am. Likewise, I’ve extended the bulk prove until mid-morning and served it warm from the oven for lunch. There’s a small difference in height, but both extremes are delicious. In fact, while I can’t say that each bake has been completely consistent; I can promise that every experimental focaccia has been completely delicious, and really, that’s what counts.
The other key ingredients
Water – I don’t have a water filter, so I leave a jug of water on the side in the afternoon to allow any chlorine to dissipate before I use it. It’s not the end of the world if you forget (half the time I do!), but it does marginally affect the rise.
Flour – I’ve tried various different brands and varieties of white bread flour, though I think my favourite is Wessex Mill Strong White Bread Flour. It’s widely available in Hampshire farm shops and more reasonable than some of the more niche flours from other high end English mills.
Salt – I use Maldon sea salt and grind it fine with a pestle and mortar to help it dissolve, though any fine sea salt will work.
Olive oil – I use a decent (but not outrageously expensive) extra virgin olive oil for my focaccia. It’s pretty much the main flavouring ingredient, so the better you use, the better the bread will taste. That said, it’ll be heated to 230C for 24 minutes, so we’re talking quality within reason!
Getting a decent rise in a stobbornly chilly house
I’ve always had trouble getting dough to rise in our house. We tend to be ‘put on a jumper’ people, rather than ‘turn up the thermostat’ people. Good for the environment; disappointing for dough. I’ve tried various homemade contraptions with proving bags, wire racks and hot water bottles, but without much success. The solution when it came was incredibly simple. You can turn your oven into a proving draw by putting a tray of recently boiled water on the shelf below your dough in a cold oven. The steamy atmosphere, coupled with a drizzle of oil on top of the dough, also means you don’t need to cover the dough itself. No more oiled clingfilm; no more proving bags sticking to your carefully tended dough.
The only upside of our chilly house is that I can bulk-prove overnight at room temperature. When I’ve used the fridge in the past, it’s taken hours for the dough to come back up to temperature and regain signs of life. If you’re blessed with a better climate or you’re reading this in the height of summer, feel free to slow things down in the fridge.
Mixer or bowl – This isn’t a bread that relies upon heavy duty kneading. The only reason I use the free-standing mixer is to keep it as hands-free as possible, because flour triggers my contact dermatitis. If you don’t have a mixer, or just love to get hands-on, you can mix it by hand in a large bowl.
Plastic scraper – These are just cheap plastic baking scrapers, though you can use a flexible spatula or your hands instead to avoid buying one specially.
Shower cap – I have a cheap transparent plastic shower cap that’s perfect for covering the mixer bowl during the bulk prove. You can use clingfilm or the lid your mixer bowl came with if you prefer.
Roasting tin – I use a deep 35 cm x 25 cm (14″ x 10″) roasting tin to bake it in, but you could use something a little smaller – it’ll just produce a thicker focaccia. Mine is hard anodised non-stick (the kind that doesn’t flake off), but cast iron would be brilliant.
Water tray – I use an old roasting tin for water on the shelf below to provide plenty of steam. It’s just a cheap metal one with an annoying moat round the outside, so I don’t mind too much if it eventually ends up encrusted with limescale.
Wire rack – It’s important to transfer the bread to a wire rack after it’s baked, as it can sweat and go soggy underneath if you leave it in the tin.
Overnight sourdough focaccia recipe
My starter produces 150 g of discard every day, so I’ve written this recipe to neatly use it up.
Makes 1 large focaccia
- 150 g sourdough starter
- 375 ml cold water
- 475 g strong white bread flour
- 12 g sea salt crystals, finely ground (plus extra for topping at the end)
- extra virgin olive oil (probably 4-5 tbsp in total)
In the evening (usually around 7pm for me):
- Weigh 150 g starter into the bowl of your mixer. Stir in 375 g cold water until the starter has dissolved.
- Add 475 g strong white bread flour, then use the dough hook on a slow setting for a couple of minutes until mixed to a smooth wet dough. (Meanwhile, feed your starter with 75 g cold water and 75 g bread flour).
- Cover the whole mixer with a damp tea towel and leave to autolyse for around 30 minutes (or an hour or so if it’s more convenient / you forget about it!).
- Drizzle a tablespoon of water over the surface of the dough, then sprinkle over 12 g finely ground sea salt. Mix again for a minute or so to incorporate the salt.
- Remove the bowl from the mixer, then use a wet plastic scraper to scoop up the far edge of the dough and fold it over the top. Repeat 20 times, giving the bowl a quarter turn each time. Cover the bowl with a shower cap.
- You can repeat the scoop and fold routine after an hour or two to give the dough more structure, though I don’t always get round to it.
- Leave to bulk prove at cool room temperature overnight.
The next morning (usually around 7am for me):
- Generously coat the base and sides of a 35 cm x 25 cm roasting tin with olive oil. Use an oiled plastic scraper to help you scrape as you pour the dough into the tin, retaining as many air bubbles as possible. Drizzle a bit more oil over the top. Don’t worry if it isn’t filling the tin – it’ll level out as it rises.
- Boil a kettle. Put the focaccia on the top shelf of your (cold!) oven. Add an empty roasting tin to the shelf below, then fill it half-way with boiling water. Close the oven door and let your focaccia prove in the warm steamy environment. Sometimes it only gets 30 minutes, sometimes I leave it for about an hour and a half – whatever fits in with your day.
- Take the dough out of the oven. Pour away the water from the bottom roasting tin (I usually pour it into the mixing bowl to start soaking off the dough), then put the empty tin back on the lower shelf. Start heating the oven to 230C fan (approx. 250C / 480F / gas 9 without fan).
- Lube your fingers with olive oil, then gently sink them into your dough, dimpling it all over. You can add any toppings you want at this point, though my ‘plain’ version is just a few sprigs-worth of chopped fresh rosemary and a sprinkle of sea salt crystals.
- When the oven is up to temperature, boil half a kettle of water. Transfer the focaccia to the top shelf of the oven, then carefully pour boiling water into the empty roasting tin on the shelf below. Bake for 12 minutes.
- Turn the focaccia around to ensure an even bake and carefully remove the water tray below. Bake for 12 minutes.
- Remove the focaccia from the roasting tin and leave to cool on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes before cutting.
- If you’re not intending to eat it until the evening, wait for the focaccia to cool completely and wrap in greaseproof paper. This seems to work much better than plastic wrap or paper bags in terms of keeping the crust crisp and the interior moist.
That’s all there is to it! The basic rosemary version is great on the side of anything Italian-inspired, but if lunch is more Middle Eastern, I leave out the herbs and sprinkle the dough with sesame seeds. You can also go completely to town with toppings until you have something more akin to a pizza, making it the perfect all-in-one picnic food.