Lessons I have learned through sourdough
Baking sourdough is an adventure and a commitment. My journey with sourdough bread has been a ride with ups and downs. I have played around with sourdough over the last few years when I knew I was going to be home all day. I also had to have created a starter since I usually don’t keep one going. Suddenly I have been home for weeks so why not really jump into the deep end. I have read books, watched videos and compared recipes. I am still on a major learning curve but there are a few things I will share that might help you prevent some moments of uncertainty.
My daily sourdough bread adventures have become part of the rhythm of my day. I bake a loaf and start dough for another each morning. Stopping in the kitchen at intervals throughout the day to fold the dough. Before dinner I place the new loaf in a banneton for the night and make dinner. The next morning I start all over again.
Opinions are everywhere
There are many opinions on how to make sourdough bread. As I mentioned I have played around with making sourdough bread for a couple of years. I would get a starter going and make bread and then move on. With free time on my hands recently, I have put some effort into learning more about the process. What I have come away with is that there are many people making bread, many making sourdough bread specifically and they all have an opinion and their approach is the best.
First things first, you need a starter.
What is a starter? It is a mixture of water and flours that will act as the leaven in your bread. In a lot of breads and rolls you will use yeast, but in sourdough your starter acts as the leaven so you don’t use yeast. It will take at least a week to get a good starter going. It can take longer if it is cold in your kitchen.
Things I learned about a starter:
1. For the first week you will “feed” it every evening! Don’t worry, it is a pretty easy process. You will start the first day with a glass jar, flour, water and a scale. Feeding your starter will be an effort some where between your pet rock and your tamagotchi.
A fun thing to have but isn’t required is a dough spoon . It makes mixing flour and water easier when you go to make your dough. A banneton is used to rest the dough in overnight. It is handy but you can substitute a bowl with a dish towel instead. You will need a baking pan with a top that is oven safe to actually bake the bread in. Some parchment paper makes clean up of your baking pan a breeze after baking. One last thing is a bread lame which is a razor blade that helps you score the bread.
Starter- How to start and maintain
Each evening you will discard some of your starter (which you can use for other things instead of just tossing it out). You will “feed” it again equal parts flour and water and mix it up with a fork or spoon, trying to remove clumps if possible.
I started with a recipe from acouplecooks.com. It is a very simple recipe to follow and I have had success, however I also have had a few issues. Sharing my experience hopefully will move you on down the road with your own sourdough bread experience. Please come back and share what you learned with me.
My process after much deliberation of what to do
So the starter I use is Acouplecooks Day1: see their site for specifics but basically you use whole wheat flour, all purpose flour and room temperature water. I generally do this in the evening so I remember to do it as I am cleaning up the kitchen.
Week one of a starter
Leave the starter out on the counter each day of this feeding process when you start your starter. Day2: Discard about half of your starter and add in same as first day. I have seen some bakers say to use that discarded starter in biscuits, pancakes, cookies and one even just baked it up on a skillet with herbs. Day3: Discard about half of your starter and add 50 all purpose flour and 50 grams water. Day 4: same as day 3, discard about half of your starter and add 50 all purpose flour and 50 grams water. Day 5: I feed same as day 3 and 4. If you plan on making bread the next morning be sure and feed it in the evening.
Feed your starter the evening before you plan to use it
This is something I totally missed originally but is a key step to any starter the evening before you plan on using the starter to make bread the next day. You MUST FEED your starter about 12 hours before using it to activate it. A lot of bakers put a rubber band around the jar to mark where the top line of the starter is when you feed it. The next day you can see just how much it has grown. You want to use your starter when it is bubbly and active and higher than it was when you fed it. I have read that you should seal your starter and I have read that you should allow some air to circulate through your starter. I will let you decide how best to handle your starter.
You can let your starter sit in fridge if you are not using it, feeding it occassionally
I am going to sidestep here for a minute. Another thing I missed was once you have a starter up and running you can put it in the refrigerator and feed it less often. If you plan on using it the next morning you MUST take it out of the refrigerator, discard some and feed it equal parts flour and water and leave it out overnight.
A lot of bakers provide inspiration for your journey
This adorable Irish Baker has a whole video on sourdough, his voice is calm and reassuring. Patrick Ryan can answer all of your questions about a starter. He basically says once you use the starter add back in equal amounts of water and flour to your starter. In other words if you used 80 grams of starter, add back in 80 grams of water and 80 grams of flour. If you want to get super scientific about it all pick up a copy of Bread Baking for beginners by Bonnie Ohara. Bonnie Ohara gets very scientific as to the temperature of the air, flour and water for the perfect loaf. I haven’t gotten that precise.
Bakers’ percentage- the key to bread
Another fun fact is you can use different types of flour. There is a “baker’s percentage” which for a finance major didn’t add up at first until I grasped that your flour amount is always 100% then you add in a percentage of that in water, leaven (your starter) and salt so they all add up to 100%. Each ingredient is a fraction of the amount of flour. Let me try to make this clearer with a simple example
Flour: 200 Grams All Purpose Flour
200 Grams Whole Wheat Flour
50 grams Bread flour
450 grams of total flour 100%
325 grams of water 72%
81 grams of starter (leaven) 18%
10 grams of salt 10%
So the water, starter(leaven) and salt are all a percentage of the total amount of flour. This comes in handy what you want to add in something or you want a dough that isn’t as wet or vice versa. You can change up the mixture of flours. Hopefully that makes sense to you.
Ok so with that behind us let’s move on to exactly how much time you need to pamper your starter if you are not using it. Please understand I am no expert and have just read and watched a lot of different approaches to sourdough. For example the Bread Bosses use a fermented water in their starter day one of creation.
There are starters that have been shared and passed through families and generations. There are ways to let it “sleep” as I understand it but that is not something I have really gotten comfortable with. Evidently they are not as high maintenance as I once believed. I will let you do your own research on that for now just know what I am comfortable with is putting my starter in the fridge when I know I am not going to use it and feeding it 2 to 3 times a week The cold of the refrigerator will slow down the bacteria and it’s eating process.
Science behind Sourdough starter
Bacteria you say? Again this is a scientific process so I will keep it as simple as possible. So back to exactly what is a starter. When you mix flour and water together in equal parts and let it sit you are making a culture. You will hear a lot about wild yeast versus active yeast that you buy in the baking section of your market. Wild yeast is present in flour and the air along with bacteria, you might want to call them microorganisms. Science takes over when you combine water and flour and a fermentation process begins. Here is a great read on more of the science behind your starter,
Starters take on elements from their surroundings
Like I said there are almost as many opinions of how exactly to start a sourdough starter as there are bakers. One fun fact I picked up recently was that if you buy a starter in San Francisco, California and bring it home to Texas. It will begin to take on the microorganisms in Texas. Your sourdough will not taste like the loaf you had in San Francisco.
Sourdough resources and approaches
Why do so many people enjoy Sourdough bread? Well partly because of the starter fermentation it is easier on your gut. A fabulous brook to read is The Sourdough School by Vanessa Kimball . She tells her story about loving sourdough bread as a girl in France. However upon moving to London she could not eat bread without getting sick. She returned to the French town her family had spent so much time as a child. She ate the bread in the local bakery where she had worked when she was younger. Expecting to get sick like she did with bread in London, she was surprised when she didn’t. It was all about the organic flour that was used in France. Pick up a copy of the book, it is a wealth of information.
Another great book is Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson . Chad’s story is one of perseverance and determination for what he envisioned as the best loaf of bread. He explains his journey, which makes me envious of his experiences and his first hand knowledge. A first hand knowledge that is rooted in some of the oldest and purest bread making processes.
Important to note so far
Ok so main takeaways so far:
Starters are simple but everyone has their opinion of the right way
Starters take can take anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks to really get going
Keep your baker’s percentage in mind if you change anything up in the combination of your dough.
Bonus note- you will feed your starter one evening, make your dough the next day and bake your bread the following day! Plan accordingly, working on the dough takes some time then it rests in the refrigerator overnight before you can bake it. So this is really a three day process to make sourdough bread.
Equipment that will help you while making bread
Equipment for making sourdough bread:
A digital scale
A bread spoon (optional)
A large bowl to mix in
A dish towel
A bowl or banneton to rest dough in overnight
An oven safe baking pan with top ( a dutch oven or pyrex baking pan )
Bread lame (optional)
Back to the beginning
Ok so get your starter going and after 5 days of feeding it, check it and let’s make a loaf of sourdough bread. Again there are so many different ways and opinions on the correct way. Pick one and follow it through.
Generally I feed the starter one evening and work on my dough starting the next morning and bake the following day.
Mix your flour (A couple cooks recommend a mix of all purpose flour, whole wheat flour and bread flour but check out different recipes for your taste) and water in a large bowl and stir it all together. This is when I use my bread spoon. Let that rest covered with a dish towel for about an hour. This is technically called autolyse. Add in your starter and stir, cover again with dish towel and rest for about 30 minutes.
Side note on starter after you use it
Side Note: Let’s take a look at that starter, it has been depleted since you just used some for your dough. You only need a Tablespoon of starter to re-feed it and keep it going. I add about 80 grams of flour and 80 grams of water to my starter later in the day that I use it to keep it going. Don’t forget to add your flour and water in equal parts.
Don’t go to sleep if you haven’t fed your starter and you plan on making another loaf the following day. This is the reason I don’t immediately feed my remaining starter when I first use it. I wait and feed in the evening so I can use the next day. If you are not going to use it for a while, feed it and place it in the refrigerator. If you are going to make another loaf the next day, leave it out on the counter after feeding it so it can get active.
Salt can retard the activity in your natural yeast (your starter)
Some people don’t think it matters if you toss in your salt with your starter. I have always heard that salt can slow down the activity of the yeast (your starter). To avoid this I let the dough and starter rest after I mix it in and then add salt and stir it in . I have begun adding the starter by making a little well out of the dough. I add the starter into the well and fold each side of the dough over, by hand< to prevent losing any of the starter to the side of the bowl. Once I have each side folded over to the other I let it sit covered for about 30 minutes.
I like to use my hands after dipping them in water so they don’t stick to the dough. When adding salt I kind of sprinkle some of the salt in and mix. Then as some more and mix until I have it dispersed through out the dough. Using my hands I mix it and then cover with a dish towel for about 30 minutes. I have a proofing setting on my oven but found it really caused my dough to not perform as I wanted. I just leave it on my counter top and cover with a dish towel.
Fold or knead? You decide
Now this is where things get fuzzy. Acouplecooks suggest you just fold your dough and when I say fold there is a process to folding. I place the bowl in front of me and with clean, damp fingers I pull the dough farthest from me straight up, stretching it and then bring it to the front of the bowl and sort of slap it down. The first time the dough really stretches. I turn the bowl ¼ turn to my right and fold again back to front. Turning the bowl again ¼ to my right and this time the dough doesn’t pull as much. I turn the bowl again and fold again until I feel like the dough is getting “tighter”.
Some sourdough bakers insist on kneading the dough for 15 minutes. The folding or kneading actually activate the glutens in the dough. I have done both ways and honestly the folding has worked better for me than the kneading. Here are some articles that address this controversy of kneading vs folding, Breadtopia. I will let you read all you want on this process.
Bottom line I don’t proof my dough in an oven and I think I am a folder and not a kneader.
Continuing to work with the dough
Back to our dough, following the folding and resting process after the salt has been mixed in and it has rested for roughly 30 minutes. Fold that dough again like before using damp fingers and turning the bowl after each fold until you can feel resistance from the dough, let it rest covered again for another 30 minutes, then repeat the process and rest for 45 minutes. I sort of keep doing this until I feel like the dough has gotten a good stretch and fold. I basically have four or five folding and resting periods of 30 to 45 minutes each after I get the salt mixed in.
Keep folding and resting your dough
After your last 30 to 45 minute rest your dough should be getting some nice pockets of air developing so on this last fold be gentle as if you were changing a sleeping baby’s clothes. As you fold your dough, it will be starting to hold a rounded shape and will be a prettier dough. This time let it will have a nice rest like an hour and half to two hours. Next you are going to gently put it on your counter and encourage the dough to hold that nice round shape to the best of it’s ability. You can use a scraper to help shape it but my dough sticks to the scraper. I put a dusting of flour on the scraper and use my hands and the scraper together to twist the bottom of the loaf to shape it into a nice wide ball.
Place the scraper under the dough and move it around under the dough. You are sort of twisting the dough underneath the loaf.Use your other hand to guide the dough to stay in place as it begins to look like a nice ball of dough.
Grab a bowl and place a dish towel inside of the bowl like a liner and flour that dish towel up. Flouring it will help bread be easily removed the following day. If you have a banneton this is the time to flour it up and we are going to lay that dough with it’s pretty side down into the bowl or banneton. Take a moment to pinch up the bottom and any rougher spots. Say sleep tight to your dough as you will either covered it with plastic or if you have a nice size plastic bag place the banneton or bowl into the plastic bag. Put it into the refrigerator for the evening.
Let’s Bake some sourdough bread!
On the following day, so technically the third day with evening 1 being feeding day for your starter to activate it, day 2 being the day you make the dough and day 3 is Finally baking day.
Let’s take a few steps before you bake your sourdough bread.
Time needed: 45 minutes.
- Remove your top rack and be sure there is room for your bread baking pan , if you have to remove the middle rack, do it. I usually only have the bottom rack in. I learned the hard way that my le creuset dutch oven pan could not handle being close to the top part of the oven as I melted the knob off. Good news you can order replacement knobs. I now am the proud owner of a challenger breadware pan , which is a cast iron pan specifically designed for baking breads in. It is a little heavy but bakes some of the most beautiful, evenly baked bread I have ever seen.
Prepare your oven and baking pan
- Place your baking dish with it’s top in place into the oven. This can be a dutch oven or even a large pyrex dish with a top. Preheat the oven to 515 degrees Fahrenheit, my oven only goes to 500 degrees so do your best.
Preheat oven and pan
- Let your oven preheat and be at the temperature for 30 minutes to ensure the whole oven is at the correct temperature. If you are not sure, use an oven thermometer to be sure your oven reaches the correct temperature.
Let oven be good and ready and preheated throughout
- Layout some parchment paper, probably about a foot and half in length. Place the parchment paper over your dough in the bowl or banneton. Gently flip the dough onto the parchment paper. Hopefully a pretty side of the dough is facing up. Dust the top of the loaf with flour, I use all purpose flour for this step. Take a sharp knife or bread lame if you have one. Slice with the blade at a shallow angle, across the top from one side to the other, being careful to not cut the actual edge of the dough. You can make your own baker’s mark on your bread but the one across the top will need to be deeper than you think, this will develop the ear of the loaf and give more room for the loaf to expand in the oven. This is also when you can do decorative cuts.
Prepare your loaf
- Once your oven is ready, and your loaf is sitting on parchment paper, carefully remove your pan from the oven. It is going to be really hot. Take off the top. Please be super careful in placing the parchment paper with the dough sitting in the center of it, into the baking pan. Please, please be careful and do not burn yourself. Place the pan top back into place. Place the pan, with dough and parchment paper and the top of the pan back in place all into the oven, probably on the bottom rack. Having the pan top on will create a steam of sorts to help create your perfect loaf of sourdough.
Put loaf in pan and score it, place in oven
- Set a timer for about 15-17 minutes.
- At 15 -17 minutes remove the pan from the oven. Change the oven temperature to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. You will remove the top of the pan. You can place the topless baking pan with the loaf still sitting inside back in the oven or if you are adventurous, place the bread loaf still sitting on the parchment paper on a bread stone in the oven. (The bread stone will have already been in the oven, if you put a room temperature bread stone into a hot oven it will crack). The next 20 – 25 minutes your breads crust is going to start to turn golden. You will need to check it and see if it needs 20 minutes or a few more minutes to accomplish the final look you are wanting.
Brown top of loaf without top of pan
- Remove bread from oven when your loaf acquires a golden finish.
Remove from oven when golden on top
- This may be the hardest step… You will need to let your bread rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing into it. Really a longer wait time is better and it will be easier to slice the bread.
Let your gorgeous bread rest and cool
- Congrats you have made sourdough bread and hopefully it is perfect.
Enjoy your wonderful sourdough bread
Start your journey with sourdough today
Ok, let’s get you started on your own sourdough journey. Don’t get weighed down with absolutes. Find your own way that works with your life. You have to create the starter but that’s easy. You can make it as complicated as you want or make it easy. After a week you will bake up a wonderful loaf that you will want to share with everyone. Sadly, you won’t because you will eat it before you can share it. Make your favorite soup so you can serve it with your own homemade bread!