Baking your own sourdough bread – tips and tricks and common mistakes to avoid

With close to 10 events under our belt, there are two constants to the Two Kitchens Brussels Supperclubs & Cooking Classes (aside from Kaja and myself that is): homemade sourdough bread and a compound butter to suit the season or theme of the event (e.g. for our recent Brunch we prepared a Bloody Mary Butter).

More than once already I have been asked by our guests for my tips and tricks when it comes to baking sourdough bread. And while I feel nowhere near qualified to talk about how to bake sourdough bread, I do have plenty of thoughts to share on what not to do, what mistakes to avoid and where to go for further information. And yes, this is a mammoth post if there ever was one, but once you start talking sourdough bread, it is difficult to stop!

First things first, below are some key terms to help you make sense of this whole sourdough baking business:

Sourdough = For those of you completely new to this, sourdough bread is bread that is made solely from water and flour (plus salt) and does not contain any commercial yeast. That being said, sourdough bead is not completely yeast-free since it is made with naturally occurring yeast that is added to the dough in the form of a sourdough starter, also called Levain or leaven.

Sourdough starter, Levain or leaven = Like sourdough bread itself, a sourdough starter is typically made from nothing but flour and water (more on that below) and serves the same purpose in bread-baking that commercial yeast does, i.e. it helps the dough rise. There are stiff starters and more liquid ones, and different recipes will call for different types. I only really keep a liquid starter around (i.e. one made with equal amounts of water and flour, also called a 100 per cent hydration starter) since that is all I need for the recipes I make.

Refreshing/feeding:

  • A sourdough starter is a bit like living with a pet. Meaning you need to feed it (in this case flour and water) to thrive. Many recipes will either ask for a recently refreshed/fed sourdough starter or give you specific instructions on how to refresh your sourdough starter and how many hours in advance of preparing your bread dough you need to do this. I typically use all-purpose flour or a mix of all purpose flour and wholemeal flour to refresh my starter. Sourdough aficionados tend to have very strict rules on what they use to refresh their starter and may well keep a separate rye starter from a wheat starter and a separate all purpose wheat starter from a wholemeal wheat starter etc., but to start your sourdough journey, a single starter is sufficient.
  • At the moment I am baking very regularly, both for myself but also for our supperclubs and cooking classes, so I always want to make sure my starter is ready to bake. That means I currently feed it once a day using the following ratio: 20g starter (you discard the rest or use it for other recipes) to 40g flour and 40g lukewarm water (some recipes will call for much bigger amounts of flour and water but that only results in lots of discard, see below). Note that since your starter will be much more active in warmer summer temps, once the thermometer hits around 25 degrees I usually switch to the following formula: 10g starter, 40g flour and 40g water.
  • When I travel or am not baking much, I just keep my sourdough starter in the fridge and will feed it once a week. Once I am ready to pick up a more regular sourdough-baking schedule again, it then only takes me a few days for my starter to become active and ready to bake again. However, don’t panic in case you ever forget your sourdough starter at the back of the fridge, it will only take a few extra feedings to come back to life – it is almost impossible to kill a starter. That being said, if you find your starter changing colour, grow anything fuzzy or smell off (rather than sweet and fruity, milky, vinegary or alcoholic), then it’s better to start over since that would be a sign of things growing in your sourdough starter that you don’t want anywhere near it!.

Discard = As I mentioned above, each time you feed your sourdough starter, you only take a small amount of the starter and mix it with fresh water and flour. The remainder of your sourdough starter is referred to as the ‘discard’. Some people simply throw this away but that is a shame since you can easily add it to a number of recipes, replacing part of their flour and liquid content. E.g. you can add it to pancake batter, scone dough, crumpet batter, flatbread doughs (it makes outstanding naan!) etc. and there are plenty of recipes online with tips and tricks on what you can do with your discard.

Retard = Many recipes will call for retarding the shaped loaf in the fridge. This simply means that the final or second bulk proof is done in the fridge over a longer period (since the colder temperatures in the fridge will slow down fermentation considerably). There are a couple of benefits to this: (i) it stops you from having to rush home from work or get up in the middle of the night to bake bread and (ii) the longer and slower proof gives the bread a more pronounced flavour than when you bake it the same day.

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Do I need any specialist equipment?

The short answer is: not really. There are plenty of things that will make your life easier if you regularly bake sourdough bread but if you have a well-stocked kitchen you might not even have to buy anything in particular. That being said, here are the three things I consider vital to homemade sourdough success:

  1. Dough-scrapers: I like having both a soft plastic one (great for removing dough from your mixing bowl, to help with shaping the dough and also to just clean out mixing bowls) and a hard metal one (great for dividing dough, also great for shaping and perfect for cleaning hardened bits of dough or sourdough starter off your countertop).
  2. A cast iron pot: When it comes to baking bread, temperature is important, especially oven temperature. One reason sourdough from places like Tartine has such great ovenspring (i.e. rise) is that their ovens can get extremely hot. Sadly, the same is not true for most conventional kitchen ovens, which tend to max out at around 250 degrees Celsius. At the same time, conventional ovens are not particularly efficient at distributing heat. One way to deal with this is to bake your loaf in a pre-heated cast iron pot. I like this Lodge combo cooker. A cast iron pan is a great addition to any kitchen and this makes baking sourdough bread extremely easy. You simply pre-heat the combo cooker in the oven, once ready to bake you place the dough in the bottom half (i.e. the frying pan side of the combo cooker) and close it with the other half of the combo cooker. This is much easier then trying to carefully lower your floppy dough into a cast iron pot like a Lecreuset without burning your knuckles!
  3. Rice flour: Whether you proof your bread in a banneton or a kitchen- or linen-lined bowl, to prevent the dough sticking, you want to dust your banneton or whatever you are using with rice flour. Different websites or books will recommend simply using flour or a mix of flour and starch but I have always found rice flour to work best. It is extremely absorbent (and much more so than other types of flour) so even if you retard a very wet dough for 15-20 or so hours in your fridge, the dough will not stick.

Now, let’s take a look at some tips and tricks for baking your own sourdough bread:

  1. Making your own sourdough starter only requires 3 ingredients: The easiest way to start making your own sourdough bread is for someone to share a little bit of their starter with you. Failing that, you can make your own. While there are plenty of recipes for making your own sourdough starter using things such as crushed grapes or fresh pineapple juice or raisins, all you really need is flour and water (plus a little bit of time). The last time I had to create a new starter from scratch I was able to bake great bread with it within a week. Here is a helpful post on creating a sourdough starter.
  2. There is not a single ‘right’ way to make sourdough bread: Once you start baking your own sourdough bread, you will quickly notice that there seem to be a million different ways of getting it right and yet there also seem to be a million different ways of messing things up. But if you persevere, you will find what works for you, so don’t be discouraged by the overload of information.
  3. Be gentle with yourself.
  • Stick to lower hydration recipes at first: For the last few years there has been a lot of talk of high hydration sourdough bread, thanks in large part to the popularity of these types of sourdough loaves from Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. How much water sourdough contains is typically expressed in percentage terms compared to total flour weight. So dough made with 1kg flour and 700g water will have a hydration level of 70 per cent. And 70 per cent or above will typically be considered ‘high hydration’. While such high hydration loaves typically result in a very open and chewy crumb with a very thin yet crunchy crust, the downside is, the dough tends to be stickier and thus more difficult to handle for beginners. Also, hydration percentages can be misleading. As you will discover as you start to experiment with different types of flour, not all flour is equal when it comes to absorbing water (wholemeal flour is often described as particularly ‘thirsty’ given its ability to absorb a lot of water). So while you are getting the hang of baking sourdough bread, stick to recipes requiring no more than 70 per cent hydration. If you do venture into higher hydration, there are plenty of resources online, including videos, on how to handle higher hydration loaves and how to shape the sticky mess they can be.
  • Leave ancient grains for when you have a handle on the basics: Ancient grains like spelt, einkorn or khorasan are having a bit of a revival at the moment. And that is fantastic – they each have their own unique flavour profile (with khorasan beautifully buttery and one of my favourite flours to bake with). That being said, they can be a bit trickier to handle and often have either less gluten or a weaker type of gluten than more conventional flours. What that means is that it’s trickier to give the dough the same kind of strength you can with other doughs, meaning you might end up with quite flat loaves, which can be a bit disheartening. The same goes for wholemeal flours. Delicious and nutritious, again, building strength is trickier (since the added bits of bran in wholemeal flour effectively act like little scissors cutting through your carefully built network of gluten strands).
  1. The easiest way to learn how to bake sourdough bread is for someone else to teach you: It goes without saying that while you can learn everything you need to know about sourdough baking from reading books, watching youtube videos etc., nothing can really replace having someone experienced teach you. However, I would highly recommend trying your hand at baking a few loaves before you do a course. What I found most useful about the course I did a few years ago at De Superette was all the troubleshooting advice I got from Sarah (‘Biggie’) Lemke who also helped me work out a baking schedule that fits around my fairly long working hours. I don’t think I would have gotten the same out of this course had I attended it as a complete sourdough novice.
  2. Be gentle on your kitchen sink, dishwasher etc. This is a tip I learned during my sourdough course with Biggie. Try and clean your mixing bowls and utensils as much as possible (that is where those doughscrapers will come in handy as well!), before putting them in your dishwasher and dump any of bits of dried dough or excess flour in the bin and not the sink so you don’t end up accidentally clogging your pipes!

Below is a list of my favourite resources for all things sourdough:

https://www.theperfectloaf.com/

http://www.wildyeastblog.com/

http://www.mydailysourdoughbread.com/

My favourite books on sourdough bread-baking are Tartine and Bien Cuit. I have also heard good things about Sarah Owen’s book 

Let’s bake!

So with that in mind, below is the method that currently works for me, plus a typical timeline for a same day sourdough loaf and one that includes retarding the dough in the fridge overnight.

Ingredients for one loaf

500g flour (e.g. – 400g all purpose flour (ideally a strong bread flour) plus 100g wholemeal flour, kamut, einkorn, spelt or rye; if I want to add buckwheat flour, which gives a nice and nutty flavour, I typically only use 25-50g buckwheat flour and 450-475g all purpose flour)
75g starter (ideally refreshed 10-12h before)
12g salt
350ml plus 50ml water (in the winter I use fairly hot water, around 40 degrees Celsius to counter-act the cold temperatures in my kitchen, in the summer I will start with room temperature water)

Directions for same day sourdough

To bake sourdough the same day I make the dough (e.g. if I bake during the weekend), I typically mix the dough around 9am in the morning – to do this simply whisk together the 350ml water plus the starter and your flour. I then set this aside for ca. 30 mins to 1h for the flour to absorb the water (this is referred to as ‘autolyse’).

Around 9.30 or 10am I will then add the salt plus the remaining water. You can either try and dissolve the salt in the water or simply scatter the salt over the dough followed by the water. To mix the salt into the dough I briefly knead the dough until the water appears largely absorbed.

Until I am ready to shape the dough, I perform the following folds every 30 minutes or so: lift one end of the dough, stretch it a little bit and fold towards the middle of the dough. Rotate your bowl by 90 degrees and repeat. Continue until you have completed one circle. In between your folds, keep your bowl covered so the dough does not dry out. You should also try and keep your dough somewhere warm. E.g. in the oven with the pilot light on, or next to a heater, on top of the fridge or tumble dryer etc.

Once the dough has increased in volume by around 1/3, so around 2pm or 2.30pm or so depending on room temperature, pre-shape the dough. To do this, simply lift the dough out of your bowl and onto a lightly floured surface. Similar to the folding you did earlier, lift one end of the dough and fold it towards the middle. Repeat this with the remaining three corners of the dough. Do this a couple more times until the dough starts to feel less stretchy. Flip the dough seem side down, cover and set aside for 15 minutes.

For the final shaping, flip the dough seam side up. Gently stretch your dough to flatten it slightly. Then fold the bottom part of the dough towards the centre, followed by folding both the left hand side and the right hand side towards the centre. Then fold the top towards the centre. Flip the dough seamside down. Using a dough scraper held at about a 30 degree angle, carefully pull the dough towards you working in a circular motion until you have a nice taut skin.

Dust a banneton or a bowl lined with a kitchen towel generously with rice flour, then carefully place your dough seam-side up inside it. Cover and set aside somewhere warm to proof until the dough is well-risen and will only spring back slowly if you poke it with a finger. Depending on your room temperature this will take anything from 3-5 or up to 7h.

1h before you want to bake, pre-heat the oven and your combo cooker at its highest setting.

Carefully place your dough seamside down into the bottom part of your combo cooker. Slash the dough a few times with a sharp knife before closing the combo cooker and placing it in the oven.

After 20 minutes turn the temperature down to around 210 degrees Celsius.

After a further 10 minutes, carefully remove the lid and continue baking the bread for another 20 minutes or until the bread has a nice dark crust and sounds hollow when tapped from underneath.

Let cool completely (if you can resist), before cutting into it.

Next day sourdough

This is the method I follow if I want to bake bread during the week. The process is by and large the same as for the same day sourdough bread with a couple of small tweaks:

  • I will refresh my starter first thing in the morning, so around 7 or 7.30am
  • I mix the dough around 7pm
  • I will shape the dough around 11pm-12pm and leave the dough sitting on the counter until I go to bed
  • The next morning I will pre-heat the oven as soon as I get out of bed, so around 6.30-7am and take the dough out of the fridge
  • I will then bake the bread around 7.30 to 8am.

 

 

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