Sourdough Baking Basics

Sourdough – the ancestor of all modern day bread.

So you are thinking about learning how to make sourdough breads, but what is the first step? What do you actually NEED to make sourdough bread? Also, what are the NICE THINGS to have to make baking breads easier and more convenient? Read on as this post is intended to help you get started on this new hobby and make you understand as much as you can to ensure success in sourdough baking!

Sourdough has a reputation of being unpredictable, difficult, and needy. Most of us use commercial yeast because it can easily reproduce the results we want over and over. It can be ready to bake in less than 2 hours. And in our busy daily life, that is totally understandable. However, sourdough is not at all that difficult, you just need to give it time. Harvesting wild yeasts and bacteria to make your dough rise has been done since ancient times. Once your starter is mature enough and you have done a few bakes, you will learn how to feel the dough and know when it’s ready. Remember, practice makes perfect!

INGREDIENTS

SOURDOUGH STARTER

You cannot have a sourdough bread without first having a starter. You can acquire this several ways: 1. prepare your own starter, 2. buy some online or from someone you know, 3. ask some from a friend or relative that you know bakes with a starter, most of the time they will be happy to give you some and even share tips and recipes with you. If you want to make your own starter, you can follow my easy instructions here: https://athomewiththeresa.com/2019/10/14/sourdough-starter/.

*Please note that I believe that even if you get Alaskan or San Francisco sourdough, the taste will eventually be altered by the local yeasts and bacteria from where you live and the flour you feed it. Because of that, I recommend making your own sourdough starter. I do want to try this theory out though, so one day I will most likely acquire sourdough starters from faraway and see if the flavor changes after a bit. I will update this post when I do start that experiment.*

FLOUR

Next, you will need flour, of course. I have several different varieties of flour in my pantry but a lot of time I use plain Unbleached All Purpose Flour for making sourdough breads. It works fine for any baked good and is readily available. All purpose flour generally makes bread with a light and fluffy texture.

I also use Bread Flour often, specially if I want a more chewy texture as bread flour has a higher protein content than all purpose flour. If I have enough bread flour on hand, I try to use bread flour for all of my bread making.

00 Flour – I recently bought a big, 55 pound bag of Caputo 00 flour from Italy for pizza making and was using it often to feed my sourdough. I noticed a better structured dough when I use it to make baguettes, and of course, it is the default flour I use for making pizza dough and pasta.

*Note that because of flour unavailability lately due to the COVID19, I purchased some Target brand All Purpose Bleached Flour in 5 pound bags as those were the only ones I found. I was praying my sourdough won’t notice that it was bleached and I believe it did not. 👏 I baked with bleached all purpose after the starter was ready and the resulting bread was good, lighter and softer than I am used to with regular sourdough breads. I added a photo of one of the three loaves below. Before, I would only use bleached all purpose to make mantou buns and siopao doughs, chinese steamed buns, as the white color is desirable in these breads. However, I intend to go back feeding with unbleached flour as soon as I find some.

Made using Target all purpose bleached flour. Winner!

Specialty flours – there is an abundance of specialty flours in the baking aisle of every grocery store. Most of these flours require more water than all purpose or bread flours. They also impart flavor and most of the time, texture to the finished bread. Whole wheat or rye flour is used at the beginning in making your own starter as they contain more of the wild yeasts and bacteria needed than white flour. These are what causes your starter to come alive.

One thing to remember is that flour is perishable. It definitely can go bad, so try to check the longest expiration date when buying flour. And don’t be afraid of mixing or substituting flour. That is part of the fun of making your own breads.

WATER

I just use regular filtered tap water. Bottled spring or purified water should be fine too. I have not used distilled or RO water as I have read somewhere that it is not good for sourdough starter aside from the fact that I do not like the way it tastes.

SALT

Bread without salt tastes bland, as I found out when I accidentally forgot to add salt to a big batch of dinner rolls (it was saved by slathering on salted butter, which I specifically purchased to salvage that batch of bland bread!). Salt also help control the proofing of your dough and preserve the bread.

One thing to remember is that salt and yeast do not like each other, that is why when baking with commercial yeast you have to place them in the mixture separately. When making sourdough, salt is usually added with the flour, or after the autolyze stage. I try to keep recipes simple by just mixing it after the flour is added. If you follow a recipe, your bread should turn out fine.

Fine sea salt, available in any grocery or big box stores, is what I use in my recipes. The brand I have at home that I also use in my daily cooking is Sosalt from Italy. Sure sounds fancy but it only costs $1 for a box and is a good all around salt.

EQUIPMENT

I will say, the most basic things you will need are a dough scraper, a few different sized stainless bowls(those with silicone covers are a plus!), a kitchen towel, a dutch oven/clay baker, parchment paper, and a blade. Not in that order but these are the essentials.

DOUGH SCRAPER – makes working with a high hydration dough easier and gets every last bit off the working surface. A dough scraper also makes quick work of folding the dough by making a scooping motion from one side and pushing it down onto the dough, turning the dough 1/4 turn and repeating the motion 3 more times.

DIFFERENT SIZED STAINLESS BOWLS – very useful for mixing a small or big batch of dough, making different flavored or filled breads at a time, or even using it to cover the dough the first 20 minutes of baking to hold in steam if you only have a baking stone/sheet. I use the set of 3 nesting bowls from Magnolia (Target), it comes with lids so it’s super useful as I do not need to struggle with plastic wrap!

KITCHEN TOWEL – you can use this to line a basket or bowl for proofing the shaped dough. Make sure to flour generously to prevent the dough from sticking.

My current assortment of baking pots!

DUTCH OVEN/CLAY BAKER – this is, for me, the easiest way to make up to 3 loaves of bread at a time with minimal supervision. The vessels trap in the steam created by water escaping from the dough and gives the bread a really nice oven spring, all without extra effort on your part.

PARCHMENT PAPER – I never used to own parchment paper even when I baked often. It wasn’t until I got a bread badly stuck in an Emily Henry Bread Pot that I started using it regularly for baking breads. It sure makes easy work of removing the bread from the baking container and nothing ever sticks. You can also reuse it as long as it is still in good condition. *Now that I also have a beautiful Romertopf Clay baker, I never bake sourdough without parchment, as I can only imagine how badly the bread will stick to unglazed clay.*

BLADE/LAME/SERRATED KNIFE – for scoring, a regular double edged razor blade will work fine, just be careful you don’t cut yourself as they are sharp. I am able to reuse the same corner at least a few times. I also own some bread lames, but they are just razor blades with handles. A sharp serrated knife can do the work too. My UFO lame is from Wire Monkey via Etsy.

There are also some good things to have when making bread, or even just baking in general. My list would include a silicone mat or a large wooden board, weighing scale, a baking/pizza stone, a spray bottle, oven thermometer, banneton with cloth liner, lame, loaf tin.

SILICONE MAT OR LARGE WOODEN BOARD – I usually use a lightly floured silicone mat or the Vitamix cutting board (thin, pliable plastic) on the counter when dividing, weighing and shaping the dough. It is easy to scrape the dough away from the surface using a dough scraper.

WEIGHING SCALE – when you want to be accurate with baking, you have to go by weight and not volume. The same “cup” can vary in weight depending on the way the ingredients were place in the cup, if it was packed, or if it was sifted, etc. I usually use my weighing scale to divide the dough evenly into buns, loaves, etc.

BAKING/PIZZA STONE – if you want to bake multiple loaves, this is the way to go. I can bake 3 loaves on each stone at a time. However, I have to prepare the oven with a baking pan at the bottom and ensure enough steam is produced in the first few minutes.

SPRAY BOTTLE – good for spraying water the first 5-10 minutes of baking if baking on a stone. I do not like that the temperature drops everytime I open the oven and spray water though.

OVEN THERMOMETER – this is to ensure that your oven temperature is accurate. I have an new oven and it is off by 50F. I found out after baking cookies took almost 30 minutes. So I now heat to 550F if I need it to be at 500F.

BANNETON WITH A CLOTH LINER – this is simply a basket with a linen liner used for second proofing after shaping. I like the impression it makes on the dough if you use it without the liner. Do not forget to flour generously before placing the dough in. Dust with a lot more flour if you are not using the cloth liner.

LOAF TIN – this is to make loaf sourdough bread for sandwiches. I also have some pullman tins that will produce an almost square loaf, similar to the ones sold at Asian grocery stores. I love boules but it’s easier to fit a loaf shaped sandwich bread in kid’s lunchboxes!

HOW TO BAKE

There are a few approaches I learned in baking the finished dough. I will explain each method the best I can.


First Method is you preheat the oven with an empty dutch oven/clay baker, covered, in the oven. When temperature is reached you, you carefully remove the HOT dutch oven from the oven, make sure you place it on a heatproof surface, open it, ease the dough in, score it, cover, return to the oven and start timing. This method works well but I had my share of burns even if I am very careful handling the heavy, hot vessel. Plus my arms are not as good as they were so I am always afraid of dropping the hot container.


Second is place the shaped dough in the dutch oven/clay baker with a parchment paper on the bottom and let it proof the second time. Score, cover and place the room temperature dutch oven into the oven, then start preheating the oven. When temperature is reached, start timing. This is how I usually bake nowadays.


Third, Preheat the oven. Place shaped, proofed dough into a dutch oven. Score and place in the preheated oven when temperature is reached and start timing. I learned this from one of the books I acquired. This is the easiest of all method as this is how we normally bake.

Fourth, if you want to bake more loaves at the same time, you can purchase baking stones that are almost the same size as your oven racks, save for at least a 1 inch gap on all sides, for airflow. Make sure they are the thick, hefty ones. If you can only find thin ones, use two. You have to place the stone in your oven before you preheat the oven, so that the stone has enough time to heat up as well. Otherwise, it may crack with the sudden temperature change. With this method, you can create steam by 1. preheating the oven and stone with an empty baking pan with lava rocks in the bottom of the oven, then add hot water and/or ice cubes to the pan after sliding in the dough (on parchment paper) onto the baking stone. Or 2. cover the dough with a stainless steel bowl to hold the steam and allow the dough to rise one last time (oven spring). I would spray the oven with water a few times in the first 10 minutes of the baking time. Or 3. throw a few ice cubes or a little hot water directly on the oven floor.

STEP BY STEP AND TERMS

INITIAL MIXING – Place the starter and water in a bowl and mix to break up the starter. Add the flour and mix until you have a rough, shaggy dough, making sure the flour is all incorporated.

FIRST REST (AUTOLYZE) – this is to allow the flour to absorb the water and makes the dough manageable. It is usually done before the salt is added, but I find my method of adding everything in the first step easier.

STRETCH AND FOLD – pull the dough up on one end, and fold and press it down onto the center of the dough, turn the dough a quarter turn and repeat 3 more times. This is done around 4 times, every half an hour or so.

BULK RISE – takes about 6 – 12 hours. This is when you wait for the dough to double in size. I usually just leave it on the counter overnight. Remove dough from the bowl gently to preserve the bubbles created.

SHAPE – divide dough if necessary, and shape into the boule, batard, loaf, or rolls you would like it to be.

BENCH REST – rest the shaped dough for about 15 minutes, then reshape to it’s final shape. If using a banneton, place the dough in a generously floured banneton and cover with a slightly moist cloth, shower cap (yes this works!), or plastic wrap.

SECOND RISE (RETARDING) – after shaping, the dough needs time to double in size again. If you have to extend the rise time, refrigerate the dough to slow down the rise. You can leave the dough in the refrigerator overnight or while you are at work (around 8 hours). Remove the dough from the refrigerator before you preheat the oven to allow the dough to come to room temperature.

SCORE – this is for more than decorative purposes although I admit that I admire beautiful scoring. This helps steam escape and allows the dough to open up where you scored instead of just bursting where ever it can.

BAKE – Make sure the oven is preheated and at the temperature suggested by the recipe you are following before starting your timer. Check for doneness at the minimum time.

COOLING – make sure you allow the bread to cool down before cutting into it. Otherwise, the texture will turn gummy. I cannot resist warm bread so I often do not follow this myself! 😊

BAKING ON WEEKDAYS/WORK DAYS

If I bake on weekdays or days that I work, I tend to start the night before. My timing goes like this:

1. I mix the dough before dinner. Cover and let it sit to autolyze while we enjoy our food.

2. Stretch and fold before doing the dishes, and again after the dishes are done. Then I prepare breakfast/lunch next day. Stretch and fold again after. Tidy up the kitchen a little then another stretch and fold. This is not a strict requirement for me as I’ve done as little as 2 stretch and folds and the bread still turned out good. Don’t stress if you only got 2 in.

3. Then I let it sit on the counter all night.

4. The next morning, I would roughly shape the dough and cover, let it rest while I get breakfast ready.

5. Reshape the dough to it’s final shape, and place in a banneton, if using, cover and into the fridge it goes to proof while I’m at work. When I come home form work, I get it out of the fridge and onto the counter.

6. After about 20-30 minutes, preheat the oven, then score and bake! Tada! I tailor it to my schedule instead of the other way around! Sometimes, I put a baking tray with chicken pieces, potatoes, carrots and onions, seasoning and olive oil on the top shelf to roast while the sourdough bakes. Dinner is done at the same time!

GOOD TO KNOW

  1. Steam in the beginning of baking allows your bread to expand as it softens the crust enough to let the dough grow without bursting. Scoring (cutting the dough right before placing it in the oven) is not only for decorative purposes, it also helps guide the expanding dough. It allows the dough to open up at the scores instead of bursting anywhere the pressure is forming.
  2. The easiest method I have found to help with steaming is simply baking the bread in a covered, oven proof vessel. It can be a dutch oven, a clay pot (Romertopf, Emily Henry), a Pyrex bowl and pie plate combo (make sure it is made of borosilicate glass and heat only to temperature stated), or even enamel roasters. This eliminates the need to create steam by lava rocks, chains, ice cubes, and spray bottles. It uses the steam created by the baking bread to help soften the crust in the first few minutes until it sizzles off.
  3. If you neglected your starter in the fridge for a few weeks, you might notice a layer of dark liquid on top of it. This is called “hooch” and can smell like alcohol. I always remove this layer and the very top layer of my starter, take some starter from the bottom and transfer it to another clean container. Then I start with regular feedings of 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water until my starter is revived. Some advice to stir the hooch back into the starter to add a more sour flavor to the starter but I never did.
  4. If all you have left is about a tablespoon of starter, that is okay too. Just feed it until it doubles and produces a lot of bubbles.
  5. Feeding: my starter is a 100% hydration starter, meaning it is equal parts flour and water. By volume, it is 1/2 cup water and 1 cup flour. I try to feed the starter at least once a week, removing half the amount before feeding, and leaving the fed mixture at room temperature until doubled, 4-8 hours. It is then ready to use or if not using, refrigerate until needed.
  6. The half removed before feeding is called a “discard”. However, you need not discard it as there are numerous recipes using discards to make waffles, pancakes, cakes, etc.
  7. DRY YOUR STARTER FOR FUTURE USE, BACK UP, OR SHARING: Use a parchment paper to line a baking pan. Spread a thin layer of active starter over the parchment and let it air dry until brittle. When completely dried and brittle, break into small pieces. You can leave it as is or run through a blender to get a more powdery texture. Place 1 tablespoon portions in a ziplock bag and store in a cool, dry place. This is the easiest way to share them with friends too.
  8. TO REACTIVATE YOUR DRIED STARTER: Start in the morning if possible. Add the contents of the ziplock bag to 1/4 cup all purpose flour and 2 tablespoons water in a jar. Stir, cover loosely and leave in a warm area for about 6-8 hours (top of the refrigerator is perfect). After 6- 8 hours, add another 1/4 cup all purpose flour and 2 tablespoon waster in the jar and cover loosely. Leave for another 6-8 hours in a warm area. This time, add 1/2 cup flour and 1/4 cup water to the jar and mix well. let sit overnight. Next day, discard half of the starter and repeat feeding until it doubles in size.
  9. Rubber band – very useful if you like marking the starting volume on your sourdough container to help you know when it doubles. Just use a rubber band!

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