Sourdough

I’ve never baked bread before the Corona pandemic of 2020, so this page is going to reflect my own learning process. The prospect was intimidating and complicated, but I found some workarounds. It took three loaves to get it right.

Making a Sourdough Starter

This Twitter thread was my first step towards learning to make sourdough starter:

Alton Brown, as usual, helped clarify the process with his Wild Sourdough Starter Recipe. It’s a must read.

To make a sourdough starter, mix equal parts flour (100 grams = 1 cup) and water (100 grams = 4/10th of a cup, or about 7 tablespoons) and let sit in a loosely covered jar for 3 days. Once the mixture has bubbles then it is ready to feed with equal parts flour (50 grams = 1/2 cup) and water (2/5ths of a cup, or about 3.5 tablespoons) each day, until the yeast changes from smelly-cheese scented yeast to tangy-sweet scented bread-making yeast. For each daily feeding, take out 50 grams of starter and add it to an equal mix of flour & water (50 grams each). Discard the rest of the old starter and repeat until it no longer stinks, at which point you can just feed the starter without discarding any of it each time.

We successfully made three different kinds of sourdough starters, discarding excess and feeding them daily. All three successfully made bread.

  1. Wild Starter: 100 grams (1 cup) of white AP flour with 100 grams (4/10ths of a cup, or about 7 tablespoons) of water. Bubbled after 2 days, stunk like smelly cheese for 5 days, ready afterwards.
  2. Raisin Starter: Same as above, but the water was first used to soak a handful of raisins. The raisin yeast helped establish the yeast colony. Bubbled after the first day. Never went through as bad a stinky-cheese stage as the wild starter.
  3. Dry Yeast Harvested Starter: Same as wild starter, but I added 1/4 packet of dry baking yeast to the flour & water. The packet was 2 years out of date. Bubbled on the same day. Never went through a stinky-cheese stage.

Once the starters are matured and ready for baking, you can add just 25 grams of flour (1/4 cup) & water (1.5 tablespoons) per day in order to help conserve resources. You can also leave the starter in the fridge for a week, take it out and & leave it out for 2 hours after feeding, and then put it back in the fridge for another week, to further conserve resource. It won’t grow in the fridge, but if you’re not going to bake with it for awhile then it’s another way to conserve flour. Leaving it out and feeding it a day before you’ll need it will help get it ready for baking.

You can still discard flour when you feed a matured starter, but don’t have to. If you do discard, there are plenty of recipes for frying or baking the starter into crackers or waffles or fry bread.

Warning: Do not seal starter in a glass jar. It can explode. Leave the lid loose.

Sourdough Recipes

Professional bakers have plenty of good recipes and video walk-throughs for sourdough bread. My favorite is “Bake with Jack”, who has a whole YouTube playlist on sourdough:

Here’s the link to his written recipe: https://www.bakewithjack.co.uk/blog-1/2018/7/5/sourdough-loaf-for-beginners

My friends Chris and Elaine Baca have a clear webpage with beautiful pictures going through their sourdough recipe step by step. It explains terminology and the motive behind the steps in ways that are not always covered by professional bakers’ videos. Binging with Babish has a helpful video walkthrough for making sourdough. It’s a little bawdy with the innuendo, but the explanations are helpful and he’s very good at modeling how to handle the dough.

Pro Home Cooks has a helpful video on 15 mistakes that home bakers tend to make:

Justin from Bread Ahead was helpful for learning how to use a dutch oven:

My Recipe

Tools & Ingredients for one loaf

150 grams (~2/3 cup) starter
500 grams (~4 cups) white AP flour
300 grams (~1 1/4 cup) cold water
8 grams (~1 1/2 tsp) salt

Stand mixer with a bread hook

Dutch Oven, or a cast iron pan covered with an upside down pot that withstands 450 °Fahrenheit. I used a turkey roasting pan on a top of a comal (cast iron skillet).

Recipe

Feed the Starter, wait 4 hours

  • Feed the starter ahead of time so that it will have enough yeast for your recipe & enough to keep the starter going for the future. 
  • Wait 4 hours until the starter has increased in volume and is full of bubbles.

Make the dough (Autolyse stage)

  • Mix the flour (500 grams, or ~4 cups) & water (300 grams, or ~1 1/4 cup) in a mixer until it just pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Don’t add the salt yet. You’re hydrating the flour and letting enzymes develop in the dough, but not trying to make lots of gluten strands just yet.
  • Rest for 30 minutes.

Combine Starter with rested Dough

  • Combine the starter (150 grams, or ~2/3 cup) with the dough and mix for 3-4 minutes on medium speed. Dough will start to firm up.
  • Rest for 30 minutes.

Add salt

  • Add the salt (8 grams, or ~1 1/2 tsp) to the dough, mix for an additional 1-2 minutes. 

Form a ball and let dough rise

  • Wet hands so the dough won’t stick to them.
  • Move dough ball to a non-floured surface and fold into a ball (Stretch & Fold technique).
  • Oil a bowl and put dough ball inside.
  • Loosely cover bowl and let dough rise for at least 1 hour. It will not double in size but will increase in volume. I’ve let it rest for 4-5 hours at this stage before putting it in the fridge overnight. If you want to add additional Stretch & Fold sessions, this is where they’d go.

Divide Dough (if you made enough dough to split) and place in make-shift bannetons [1]

  1. Divide the dough and carefully fold & stretch each ball into the shape of a loaf (round or oval, your choice).
  2.  Put shaped dough balls each into their own banneton.
  3. Seal each banneton inside a plastic bag so that it does not dry out in the fridge overnight.
  4. Put dough in fridge and keep it there until it is ready to go into the oven 12-16 hours later.

Preheat the Oven and Dutch Oven to 450 degrees

  1. Put Dutch Oven and a ½ cup of water into the oven. The water should be in its own open container that can be heated to 450 degrees. We use a metal measuring cup. Whatever you use, leave the water outside of Dutch Oven.
  2. Preheat to 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes – 1 hour. The Dutch Oven needs to match the air temperature, and the water needs time to humidify the air.  
  3. When the oven is ready, carefully remove lid and place dough in Dutch Oven.
  4. Score the dough with a knife or scissors, using a hashtag pattern or a single slice or three parallel slits, depending on what you want the loaf to look like when it is done. The slit will allow the steam to escape while the crust forms in the baking process.
  5. Cook, covered, for 20 minutes at 450 degrees Fahrenheit. This stage steams the bread, allowing it to rise and cook all the way through without forming a hard shell that would hinder the process.
  6. Remove lid, and cook for another 10-15 minutes until the crust is the shade of brown that you prefer to eat.
  7. Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack or counter. Let it cool for 1-2 hours as the insides continue to cook and the grain hardens enough so that it can withstand slicing.

[1] A banneton is a wicker basket made for holding dough. Whatever device you use will help the dough keep its shape as it rises overnight. You could use a cheesecloth or clean kitchen towel to line a colander or sieve. Cover the cloth generously with flour and you’ve just made a banneton. I’ve also used a paper towel that I first laid flat on a surface and pushed flour into. This made the flour stick when the paper lined the seive. The dough popped out the next day with no problem and I disposed of the paper towel.

Final Tips

Any cooking surface will do, though thicker material will retain heat and spread it out more evenly. A Dutch Oven is ideal. Cast iron or a baking stone will work too. Cookie trays are thin but you might be able to make them work.

If you have a problem burning the bottom of the loaf, dry using parchment paper or cornmeal granules between the cooking surface and the bread. You could also insert a baking stone (pizza stone) in the rack below the bread. This will help distribute heat and prevent the bottom burner from having a direct line to the bottom of the loaf.

If you can’t cover the loaf while cooking, make sure to wet the top of the loaf before it goes in, try lowering the temperature to 425 degree, and keep an eye on the cooking time.

Experiment with each stage of the process. Try adding additional Stretch & Fold & Rest stages before resting the dough overnight in the fridge. Try not sealing the dough in a plastic bag when its in the fridge. See if it matters whether you use a makeshift banneton or leave the dough in bowl in the fridge. See what happens if you add rosemary or other herbs to the dough. Let me know what works for you, and I’ll keep updating this page as I continue to tweak the recipe.

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