Chilly chilli bread

It’s darn cold here in the UK right now. Not necessarily the darkest depths of double digit negatives but it is colder than we’re used to and snow is forecast. Keeping the north side of our house warm in temperatures like this can be a challenge. A key heating strategy is cooking, especially in the mornings.

Does it surprise you to know The Birdhouse is a sourdough kinda place? Surely not. And today was a sourdough kinda day. As are most days. Preheat the oven, bake for an hour or so, eat warm bread. All in the name of breakfast.

Birdhouse sourdough starter

We always have a sourdough starter on the go. A regular feed and warmth -with the occasional vacation in the fridge- keeps it lively and tasty. Our starter began life as equal weight of flour and water. Fed until it was a robust, living, breathing member of the family.

The idea is that the natural yeasts and bacteria found on grains (and so in flour) multiply over the first few days of warmth and feeding. After the natural balance of microorganisms has battled it out and found harmony, this foamy starter can then be used in place of bakers’ yeast to make a leaven loaf.

When we started on our sourdough adventure we endlessly pored over images, recipes, blogs and FAQs from a couple of sources: Vanessa Kimbell at The Sourdough School and Maurizio at The Perfect Loaf. 

Our own tried and tested recipe and method is as follows:

The ingredients:

  • 100g of sourdough starter (not recently fed but not ravenous)
  • 300g of water
  • 500g of flour
  • 10g salt mixed into 15g water

All the ingredients are in grams as this just makes adding everything easy. It seems to be sourdough convention to do it this way. This is not a quick bread. Our dough generally takes 24 hours to get from jar to plate. This is a slow, cool, fermenting prove, not a quick, hot and tasteless affair. Minimal effort, spaced over a leisurely day. Once you get into a routine it’s difficult to get it wrong.

This morning we have chosen to add a good tablespoon of our Prairie Fire fermented hot sauce. Surely that will keep the frostbite at bay. We’ve mixed it with the salt and reduced the water accordingly.

The method:

  1. Mix the ingredients. No need to build up a sweat kneading, just bring it quickly together into a smooth dough in a bowl.
  2. Leave the bowl, in a warm place with a damp tea towel over the top for 20 minutes or so. This allows the microbes a chance to do their thing with the fresh flour.
  3. Then add the salt & extra water and poke it into the dough with your fingertips until there is little or no liquid remaining. You can’t add the salt too soon as it might kill off the fermenters.
  4. Lift and stretch and fold the dough in half. Do this four times: once to the top, once to the right, once to the bottom and once to the left.
  5. Leave the dough to sit for another 20 mins. Repeat the folding pattern.
  6. Leave for another 20 minutes, repeat fold.
  7. Last time, after 20 mins, fold away. You can leave longer than 20 minutes between each stage. Let it fit in with whatever else you are doing that day.
  8. Prepare your proving basket. We have bamboo bannetons. They add the iconic sourdough concentric circles of flour to the loaf. Dust out any older flour. Sprinkle a little cornflour, or polenta or semolina flour. Anything to stop the sticky dough sticking to the basket.
  9. Transfer the dough to your proving bowl. The bottom of this dough will be the top of your loaf so try and place a smooth side down into the basket.
  10. Cover the basket with a damp tea towel and place in the fridge overnight. This will allow the dough to prove slowly and the fermented sour flavour to develop. Baking can take place anytime within the next couple of days.
  11. Preheat the oven and baking vessel to 220 degrees. We bake in a dutch oven/casserole with a lid.
  12. Carefully turn out the dough and place into the baking dish. Pretty side up.
  13. Score the surface of the dough with a very sharp knife or razor. This allows the steam to escape as the bread rises and keeps the shape round and even. We have a birdie shape we like to add.
  14. Bake the loaf for an hour with the lid on.
  15. Remove the lid and reduce the temperature to 180 degrees.
  16. Bake for another 15-45 minutes depending on how dark and crisp you like you crust. By the way, it’s all about the crust.
  17. Take the loaf out and let it rest for a while. The final steam will come out and make carving a whole lot easier.

At steps 4-7 you can add all sorts of yummy ingredients: spices, herbs, seeds, nuts, flowers, fruit, cold porridge, sauces and pickles, sugars, syrups and honey, colours, veggies, cheese, pieces of meat, oils. The list is endless. At step 8 you can put a topping in the base of your banneton. We like rosemary springs, sesame seeds, walnut halves and chilli flakes (natch).

Just use your judgement regarding how these additional ingredients will affect the prove, consistency and bake of your loaf. Perhaps reduce the water? Maybe a little extra flour? An extra coating in the banneton? Baking is a science that requires thought, not just blindly following a recipe.

We love a dark chocolate, lime and coconut loaf as a breakfast bread. The basic recipe is an excellent way to use up the end of a pack of… whatever really. But today, it’s Prairie Fire chilli sourdough. Watch out, ‘coz here we come!

Birdhouse chilli sourdough loaf

Feeding time at the zoo

It’s time to give these little chilli seedlings a bit of what they fancy. They have been potted on into seed compost and are settling in admirably. The seed leaves are opening, they are a good green colour and generally they look healthy. The seed compost has no nutrients in it though.

Seven day old seedlings looking healthy after moving into their newspaper pots.

In the future we’d like to have a go at producing a homemade, maybe organic, specialist chilli feed. Using local ingredients. Perhaps with a seaweed enrichment? But not just yet.

Seemingly THE recommended chilli food is Chilli Focus. Containing ‘A precise formulation for optimal performance of chillies and peppers in pots, grow bags or the open ground.’ We used it all last season and the chilli plants and crop were spectacular. It turns out that Chilli Focus is ‘Made with care in the UK’, and ‘enriched with organic complex plant acids and pure concentrated extracts of kelp’ and comes in a 5 litre bottle, ‘enough for 1,000 litres of feed’.

With added Kelp extract

Err, sounds pretty good to us. Homemade fertiliser can wait for further research on a rainy (or snowy, check the forecast!) day.

The seedlings have been given a gentle dilute feed of 5mls per litre. This will be given once a week for now. Once the plants start to flower it will increase to 10mls per litre and then twice weekly when they set fruit.

The last seeds, promise

And still the chilli seeds arrive. A brief trip to Potato Day (100s of varieties of seed potato at 20p a spud) resulted in us buying not just potatoes but additional chilli seeds too. A repeat from last year, ‘Tobago Seasoning’. We had zero success in germinating this variety but we’re having another go. So far the Chinense types are responding well so fingers crossed. Tobago Seasoning are now hanging out in the propagator after their tea bath.

Thomas Etty Tobago Seasoning chilli seeds

Then, a surprise, 26 days after they were ordered, more chilli seeds turn up in the post: 7 Pot Bubblegum and Poblano. Woo Hoo! They got dunked into a cuppa and they will be introduced to the germinating station the next day. The Bubblegum seeds have a neon pink tinge to them and the Poblano seeds are the biggest chilli seeds EVER!

A free pack of Numex Christmas was also in the package. Perhaps more ornamental than culinary? They have small multicoloured chillies, thin skinned and are on the hot end of the scale. Ones to sell as pretty plants.

We are going to need a second greenhouse. Seriously.

Idle hands

It’s been too long, maybe actual hours, since the last chilli featured in our lives. Well, that’s not strictly true as we eat chilli with most meals and are compulsively checking the nursery of chilli seeds for germination and leaf growth. So to be more honest, we have not made a chilli product in a while and, after the scrummy success of the fermented jars, we are itching to experiment. Tricky though, as homegrown fresh chillies are not easily forthcoming in January in the UK. However, a local supermarket comes up with the goods.  Let’s get fermenting!

We’ve been discussing other ingredients for the fermenting jars. Pineapple is on the list, as is ginger, turmeric root, rose petals, cola, bay, mango and lemongrass.  With this far flung candy box of ingredients in mind, my attentions turn to our stores. What do we have that can be bubbled up in a jar and turned into a tasty chilli sauce?

It turns out we have some peaches, jalapeños, white onion, lime, garlic and coriander seed. Chopped up, salted and topped up with water. Current status: inert. Give it a couple of days in the sunny windowsill and Mather Nature will work her magic.



Fermenting jar of peaches, white onion, limes, garlic, jalapeños, salt and coriander seed. Top up with water and twist on the lid.

Learning some lessons

An update, with added advice to self for next year:

The sprouted seedlings have been transferred to their paper pots, 135 of them so far. Thank goodness for grandparents and all their newspapers. The seed soil was cold and waterlogged (it is January after all) The pots were filled and warmed gently on the radiator.

Paper pots are quick to make and take less paper than you would think. Hopefully the pots will be soft enough for the first roots to break through meaning there will be no need to disturb the seedlings when potting on the next time.


Do not let the moisture in the chitting pods evaporate completely or the roots shrivel and dry. This has happened to Habanero Primavero Red. Hopefully some of the remaining seeds will germinate as we have no more in the packet. Not buying any more.

Also, don’t leave the sprouted seedlings too long in the chitting pods as their roots  become intertwined with the capillary matting. Some of the roots have snapped in the transferring process. Not sure whether they will survive or not but they will sulk for at least a week, no doubt. Maybe a vermiculite mix to germinate in would be best next year?


The race is on

The chillies have been chitting in their heated propagator. After their tea bath they were carefully strained then snuggled into the chitting pods (takeaway container + capillary matting). Finally they were placed into the heated propagator on the 17th January.

In the propagator the temperature stays above 25 degrees (even on the coldest of – 5 nights so far) and reaches the sweaty heights of 35 degrees +. The pods are stacked with the Chinense types at the bottom, nearer the heated base, and the Annuum varieties on top, not quite so warm.


Without a thermostat it is impossible to keep the temp constant but it seems that most of the varieties have responded well. Here are the results so far…

Chilli (A=Annuum, Ch=Chinense)Date started chitting (after a soak overnight in some tea)Date of first germination
Jalapeno (A)17.01.1919.01.19
Serrano (A)17.01.1920.01.19
Aleppo (A)17.01.1921.01.19
Cow Horn (A)17.01.1921.01.19
Cherry Bomb (A)17.01.1921.01.19
Golden Greek Peperoncini (A)17.01.1921.01.19
Sweet Banana (A)17.01.1922.01.19
Scotch Bonnet (Ch)17.01.1922.01.19
Espelette (A)17.01.1922.01.19
Madame Jeanette (Ch)17.01.1922.01.19
Trinidad Perfume (A)17.01.1922.01.19
Padron (A)17.01.1922.01.19
Habanero Primero Red (Ch)17.01.1922.01.19
Guajilo (A)17.01.1925.01,19
Mustard Habanero (Ch)17.01.19Yet to germinate
Orange Habanero (Ch)17.01.19Yet to germinate

Not bad results for 8 days after starting.

Jalapeno seeds starting to germinate just two days after soaking & chitting.

You may notice that a couple of previously mentioned chilli types (Poblano and 7 Pot Bubblegum) are missing from the first list. They have not yet turned up in the post. A refund will be requested. And, the very observant amongst you will have seen the addition of Serrano. These came free from one company. Lovely.

The seeds that germinated in the first few days are now in need of planting in their very first pot. These are newspaper pots filled with nutrient poor seed compost. We don’t want these tiny seedlings growing too quickly as daylight hours are still short and too much food will produce leggy seedlings. Hmmm, note to selves: do we need to think about a lamp?

Cherry Bomb seedlings ready to be potted up.

Off to buy some seed compost and make 100 million more paper pots.

Anyone for a cuppa?

The 16 varieties of seeds have finally arrived. Some from Devon, some from Athens, some from Italy and some from Holland. All very pleasing.


The kettle is now boiling. High tech stuff. The seeds will be soaked overnight in tea. The hope is that the tea will soften the seed case with a chemical action similar to that of the seed passing through a digestive system. Thus making things easier for the root to break through and give a higher rate of germination.

The Chinense varieties are harder to germinate (according to last year’s results) so we are keen to support them in any way possible. A good cuppa will hopefully work its magic.