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 tries to get a respectable loaf.

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 The packet was 2 years out of date.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. Ready to use by the next day.

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.

A third option for conserving starter is to feed it, let it bloom, then put it in the fridge. For me, my best results have been when I took the starter out two days before use. I make the loaves on Saturday, so I take the starter out of the fridge on Thursday and feed it that night (40-50 grams), give it a bigger feeding on Friday night (80-90 grams), then feed it first thing Saturday morning. It takes my starter 3-4 hours to bloom after feeding, and when I’ve used the starter too quickly after feeding it has always resulted in a flatter loaf. Patience is key here.

You can still discard flour when you feed a matured starter, but don’t have to every time. 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 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

160 grams (~2/3 cup) starter
500 grams (~4 cups) unbleached AP flour [or 475 grams AP + 25 grams wheat, or 250 grams AP + 215 grams bread flour + 35 grams wheat]
300 grams (~1 1/4 cup) cold water [or 320 grams if using AP + wheat, or 330 grams if using AP + bread flour + wheat]
10 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 or more. (I make the autolyse right after feeding the starter and then let them both sit on the counter until the starter is ready to use, 3-4 hours later).

Combine Starter with rested Dough

  • Combine the salt, autolyse dough, and starter (150 grams, or ~2/3 cup) mix for 5 minutes. Start low, then increase to medium once ingredients mix, then turn to high for last 2-3 minutes. Dough will start to firm up.

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). Or, put the dough directly into an oiled bowl and fold the dough while leaving it in the bowl.
  • Oil a bowl and put dough ball inside, if you have not done so already.
  • Loosely cover bowl with a wet towel and let dough rise for at least 30 minutes.
  • Stretch-and-Fold the dough every 30 minutes for at least four sessions.
  • The dough will not double in size but will increase in volume. You may see bubbles form just beneath the surface.

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. You can cook the dough on the same day but I prefer to let it sit in the fridge overnight. The dough rises in the fridge.

Preheat the Oven and Dutch Oven to 450 degrees

  1. Put Dutch Oven into the oven.
  2. Preheat to 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes – 1 hour. The Dutch Oven needs to match the air temperature.  
  3. When the oven is ready, 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.
  4. Carefully remove lid from the Dutch Oven and place (drop) dough inside.
  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 15 minutes until the crust is the shade of brown that you prefer to eat.
  7. Remove from oven, remove from Dutch Oven, and place loaf 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. Before we bought a Dutch Oven I used an upside-down pot placed on top of a cast iron griddle.

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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