Baking your own sourdough bread – tips and tricks and common mistakes to avoid – Part 2

I know I am not the only one who has been using the various lockdowns over the past year to either start baking sourdough bread, indulge in having more time to bake sourdough bread or try to up their sourdough game. So it is unsurprising that my first post on tips and tricks and common mistakes to avoid when baking sourdough bread is continuing to prove (huh!) extremely popular. 

Thanks to Covid-19 I have been working from home exclusively since mid-March. That in turn has given me the time to bake sourdough bread 2-3 times a week – in short, I have had ample opportunity this last year to improve my sourdough game. So it was about time I shared a Part 2 to my original post. If Part 1 was about demystifying sourdough bread and some of the associated lingo, the idea behind this Part 2 is to provide a roadmap through the confusing mess that baking sourdough bread can be once you get started – where every single recipe you look at seems to call for different types of flour, different ratios of starter to flour, some recipes calling for your starter to be fed only a few hours before you start your dough and others asking for it to be fed up to 1 day before preparing your dough, different hydration levels, proving times, etc. and set you up for success and continued improvement as you bake more and more loaves of sourdough bread (because one thing is clear, you never stop learning when it comes to sourdough!).

First things first. There is not a single ‘right’ way to make sourdough bread: Once you start baking your own sourdough bread, add the books from different authors to your bookshelf, start reading various blogs on sourdough bread baking and fall down an instagram rabbit hole following the sourdough hashtag, 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 when it comes to sourdough bread. But if you persevere, you will find what works for you, the type of sourdough bread you like and your schedule etc. So don’t be discouraged by the initial overload of information!

For me, the single most important lesson when it came to baking sourdough is to think of a successful loaf of sourdough bread similar to what it’s like when an orchestra, after months of rehearsing, performs a musical masterpiece in front of an audience, with each player contributing to the final success (and that standing ovation) but also where a single wrong note can scupper the whole thing. What I mean by that is that sourdough bread is a system with many different constituent parts, each of which plays an essential contribution to the final outcome . 

For a successful loaf of sourdough bread you want to make sure that you manipulate all of the different parts just so. But as with many things, success is not a static thing – sure, a severely underproofed or overproofed loaf of bread won’t count as success, but different people have different views of what is good bread – some are forever hunting huge ovenspring and a fluffy crumb with big holes whereas others prefer a tighter crumb. Similarly, some feel that sourdough isn’t real sourdough bread unless it has a pronounced sour taste. Understanding all of the different components, the role they play in the final outcome, and how to manipulate them to achieve your desired outcome is thus crucial for setting yourself up for success. 

So let’s break it down – we’ll start with the ingredients but then look at other factors (and some people might in fact also call these ingredients) that also play a crucial role:

Flour: Anyone who has ever attempted to bake a glutenfree cake but ended up with a soggy and dense sad brick instead will have some inkling that the type of flour you use might have something to do with the appearance and consistency of your final bread – whether you end up with perfectly fluffy focaccia with big air pockets or the much denser grain and seed-studded loaves so popular in Scandinavia. The key differentiating factor is gluten, the generic name for a range of proteins found in a range of different grains, including different kinds of wheat flours like spelt or emmer but also rye flour. 

Now once you start checking bags of flour for their nutritional numbers, you will notice that the gluten/protein content of different flour types can vary greatly, easily from 10-15 per cent. At the lower end of the spectrum are things like cake flour where the low protein (and hence low gluten content) will help achieve a more tender crumb. The flipside of that is that it is considerably harder to bake good sourdough bread with this type of flour. Here in Europe I rarely see flour with a protein content of 13 per cent or more, but I understand that is not unusual for certain wheat varieties in the US and Canada. When it comes to sourdough baking, try and err on the side of flour with a higher protein content. 

One other thing to bear in mind is that not all gluten is made equally. As you start moving beyond the bags of wheat flour you might have used at the beginning of your sourdough journey and start experimenting with flours made from ancient grains like spelt, emmer or kamut for example, you might notice that your bread dough does not behave the same way. Especially if you use spelt flour, you might notice that the dough is on the one hand a lot more flexible (meaning you can stretch it further when handling the dough, especially when it comes to shaping) but you might also notice that it doesn’t seem to hold its shape so well, and your finished loaves might come out flatter and have less ovenspring than you are used to. 

(You might also notice other changes, e.g. that the dough seems drier with the same amount of water and that it ferments faster than you are used to – both of those are likely due to flours from ancient grains often being sold with more of the bran left in the flour, i.e. they are more wholegrain than the all purpose wheat flour you might be used to baking with). 

Water: In the preceding paragraphs I have used the terms gluten and protein interchangeably. But to be correct, it’s actually water that turns two types of protein found in a variety of grains (glutenin and gliadin) into gluten. In activating the gluten in your dough, water obviously plays a key role in turning a bag of flour into delicious loaves of sourdough bread. But both the quantity of water (and whether you add it all in one go or not) and the temperature of the water you are using plays an important role in the bread you are baking.

You might already be familiar with the term “high hydration” and bakers proudly showing off their high-hydration loaves on instagram. If not, “high hydration” simply refers to sourdough bread made with a high amount of water (in baker’s percentage terms, i.e. as a percentage of total flour weight) – typically we think of high hydration as 70 per cent or above, meaning 700ml or more for 1kg of flour. 

Now, if you have already tried adapting recipes for all purpose flour using wholegrain flours, you may already sense that “high hydration” can be a bit misleading and that the same amount of water can result in very different outcomes depending on what flour you use. And this is to do with the fact that different types of flour have different absorption rates when it comes to water – wholegrain flour absorbs more water than all purpose flour. 

So now it may make more sense how some bakers may share their experience of trying to “push” the hydration levels of different flours on instagram, i.e. trying to bake the same recipe several times using the same flour but slowly increasing the water amount to see how much water the flour can take. (And if you are wondering how to know where to draw the line, again, there is no absolute rule – the more experienced you become, the better able you will be at handling wet dough and building enough dough strength to get decent ovenspring even from a wet dough. But all things being equal, if you are pushing, say above 80 per cent hydration, and your dough feels soupy and impossible to create any tension with and your final loaf is on the flattish side, there is a decent chance you may have simply used more water than that particular flour can handle.)

Now, there are ways of pushing the hydration level of bread by not adding it all in one go – e.g. if you are familiar with the Tartine recipe for a basic country sourdough, you will have noticed that the recipe calls for adding a final 50ml of water to the dough once you add the salt. For some reason it’s easier for flour to absorb a large amount of water if it doesn’t have to absorb it all in one go).

While the amount of water is only one of many factors that affect the final consistency of the bread you are baking, it is true that, as a rule of thumb, the more water you are using the looser and fluffier the crumb will be. 

One other crucial point is the temperature of the water – if you are using warm water, this can help speed up the fermentation process if the ambient temperature in your kitchen is too cold (which is the case for me in my kitchen in the winter). Similarly, some people use cold water in summer to slow down the fermentation process when their kitchen is otherwise too hot. 

Salt: Salt performs two important roles when it comes to baking sourdough bread. Firstly, it’s there for the flavour of the finished bread. While all of Tuscany seems to survive on unsalted bread, to me that is a sacrilege and all good bread should be seasoned with an appropriate amount of salt (which is typically considered to be 2-2.5 per cent of total flour weight – meaning that for every 1kg of flour you would add 25g of salt). But salt is not just there for flavour, salt also helps manage the fermentation process. In fact, the addition of salt slows down the fermentation. Which is also why salt is typically added after the flour, water and sourdough starter have been mixed together – to give the starter a headstart. What this means is you can also play with when to add the salt when you make your recipe. E.g. in the summer you might want to add the salt right away to help slow down the fermentation a bit. By contrast, in winter you might add the salt a little later, to give your starter more time to start its magic. 

Starter: Once you have managed to create an active starter culture (or borrowed one from a generous sourdough aficionado friend), there isn’t anything standing in the way of baking a delicious loaf of sourdough bread. But even when it comes to the starter, there are a few things to bear in mind. Many sourdough bakers emphasize the importance of starter maintenance, i.e. regular feedings to make sure your starter is in perfect health when you want to bake, and a few rounds of refreshments when your starter has been hibernating for a bit in the fridge. But that is somewhat simplistic – every starter is unique, and the environment of every starter is unique. 

Over time you will notice that your starter will do its own things – e.g. it may quickly come back to live after a seemingly long hibernation in your fridge, or maybe it takes a few days more to come back to live after a period in the fridge. If need be, you can speed this process up a little bit, e.g. by using warm water and/or keeping your starter somewhere warm while it comes back to life. You will also start to learn to pay more attention to how quickly your starter is at its peak and thus ready to bake (and how much this differs depending on the water to flour ratio you use – e.g. 1:2:2 vs 1:5:5 for example, or how this differs between summer and winter). Armed with that knowledge and knowing when you want to start baking your next loaf, you can then calculate backwards to when you need to mix your leaven for your bread dough. 

You might have also already read somewhere that some bakers recommend multiple refresh feedings of a starter that’s been kept in the fridge for a while to “reduce acid load” of the starter. Again, there are two goals here. One is to avoid an overly sour flavour. The other one is linked to the fact that a too acidic starter is not conducive to a light and fluffy crumb since it can degrade the gluten in the dough. 

One further thing to bear in mind is that how much leaven you use in your dough (i.e. what percentage of pre-fermented flour you add to the dough) also plays a role when baking sourdough bread. Simply put, the higher the percentage of pre-fermented flour you add to your dough, the faster your dough will ferment. Something you might consider beneficial in winter but maybe less so in summer! But regardless of the time of year, this is another variable you can play with depending on your schedule to speed things along or slow them right down.  

Temperature: I already briefly touched upon the importance of temperature when talking about the role water plays in sourdough bread baking. But it’s not just the temperature of the water (or of the other ingredients) that matters, but also the ambient temperature or where your dough is proofing. Anything below 23 degrees or so, and things will start slowing down considerably. 27-28 degrees seem to be the sweetspot for me and anything above that and things start going a bit out of control – e.g. your dough might ferment so fast you might not have enough time to properly develop dough strength. Again, a high ambient temperature is not a disaster, since you can manipulate things by using cold water or even a refreshed starter that’s been in the fridge (or even place your dough in the fridge for a bit to slow things down). On the flipside of things you might proof your dough next to the radiator or in the oven with the pilot light switched on or next to a bowl full of boiling water.

Process: The final, but probably the most important element when it comes to successfully baking sourdough bread is the process itself, i.e. all the different steps you follow from when you start mixing together the different ingredients to bake your final loaf. Again, there are various parts to this, which I will touch on briefly. Mastering every single one of these is crucial to sourdough success – and what I mean here in terms of success is a loaf that was neither visibly under- nor overproofed, that had good gluten development, that was shaped correctly (neither too tight nor too loose) and that has good ovenspring and nice browning and a thin but crunchy crust:

  • Autolyse: Autolyse is referred to the part of the process where once you have mixed your recipe’s flour and water such that there are no dry bits remaining you cover your mixing bowl and set this aside for anything from 30 minutes to overnight (in the latter case, many bakers recommend adding the recipes salt as well to avoid any undesirable enzymatic processes happening in the dough). Why do we do this? This not only helps the flour properly absorb the water (which, as you may have noticed already when baking with wholegrain flours, can take a while), but it also kickstarts the gluten formation in the dough. So unsurprisingly autolyse is a key element of many recipes for “no knead” sourdough or recipes calling for hand-mixing the dough – you simply let time take over what your standmixer (or your elbow grease) might otherwise achieve! As a rule of thumb, the more wholegrain flour there is in your recipe, the longer the autolyse should be. My sweet spot at the moment is 2h. You might be wondering why the autolyse is done without the starter – the short answer is that the moment the starter is added to the other ingredients, this starts the fermentation process and you are then “on the clock” so to speak. 
  • To knead or not to knead: I keep on going back and forth on whether or not to knead (whether by hand or using a standmixer). Kneading high hydration sourdough is not only messy but also pretty hard going. A standmixer certainly comes in handy. And it makes the process very easy for turning out consistent loaves of bread with decent gluten formation and ovenspring. But the more I used my Kitchenaid to knead bread dough, the more I missed the tactile experience of doing it all by hand. So for now I have gone back to mixing by hand and developing dough strength by hand as well, the way I first learned how to from the Tartine series of books. To develop dough strength, Tartine recommends a series of stretches and folds during the bulk rise. As a beginner this was a bit hit and miss for me. But recently I came across two other techniques for building dough strength which I have since adopted with great success: coil folds and lamination. Both techniques are nicely demonstrated in this video but in short, coil folds involve repeatedly lifting the dough from its container and letting it coil underneath itself; lamination involves slowly and carefully stretching the dough out into a rectangle on a lightly moistened countertop before folding the dough back over itself into a small round. Together, these techniques are great for developing dough strength, even mixing dough by hand and otherwise skipping kneading entirely. 
  • Handling sticky dough: This one, I am afraid, simply takes time. The more you get used to handling wet and sticky dough, the better you will get at handling it without ending up with your hands covered entirely in sticky dough. The same goes for shaping sticky dough. Over time you will develop a certain lightness of touch – you will still need to wash your hands frequently when making bread, but it won’t be quite as messy as in the beginning. 
  • Shaping and pre-shaping: The best tip I can share is to a) watch a lot of videos on shaping bread (it always helps to see how a professional or at least a seasoned home sourdough bread baker shapes their loaves and also gives you a sense of the many different ways of doing it there are). As a rule of thumb I also find that if I am kneading the dough using my standmixer I can typically skip the pre-shaping and go straight to final shaping. By contrast, if I am mixing by hand, I find that pre-shaping is often a welcome final opportunity to give the dough some further strength before the final shaping; 
  • Time: You may have already come across the idea that you should watch the dough and not the clock – what is meant by that is that the dough itself is best able to tell you when it’s ready to be shaped or baked, and not the clock. Whichever way your starter or dough behaved last time will only tell you so much about how things will play out this time around – maybe there was a sudden drop in temperature or you are in the middle of a heatwave, maybe you weren’t quite so good about starter maintenance since you last baked bread etc. In short, learn to read the signs of your starter and your dough – they are really the best indicator of where you are in the process. 

Last but not least, it’s probably fair to warn you that every once in a while you will bake a terrible loaf of bread, so terrible in fact it might go straight into the bin. As frustrating as it is, it happens. So below are some troubleshooting tips for those times you think you did everything right and yet get a loaf closer to a frisbee in shape and a crumb that looks nothing like those soft and airy loaves you see on your instagram feed every day. This list of troubleshooting tips really boils down to one question – what was different today from the last time I baked (a successful) loaf of sourdough bread?

  • Did I use different flour? (In particular, did I use more or less wholegrain flour, swap in a flour with weak gluten like spelt, or use some glutenfree flour like buckwheat?)
  • Did I use an active starter or could it have used a couple more refreshments? 
  • Is it a lot warmer or colder? (How has the weather changed?)
  • Did I use warmer or colder water? Did I use more or less water? (If I changed the flour I used, e.g. more or less wholegrain flour, did I account for that in the total water amount?)
  • Did the dough seem slow to proof?
  • Did the dough start holding its shape more and more during bulk proof or did it continue spreading into a soggy mess in between folds?
  • Did the dough never develop the same volume it usually does before final shaping / baking?
  • Did the dough seem overly sticky or wet while shaping? 
  • Did the dough hold its shape well when shaping?

These are some of the questions I ask myself when things don’t go according to plan and they usually help me identify where things went wrong and set me up for success again as of the next loaf. 

And here comes my final tip – that of using a notebook. This is a tip I picked up from Sarah Lemke (or ‘Biggie’), the head baker at De Superette where I did my first sourdough course a few years ago: keep a notebook where you keep some notes every time (or as often as you remember) you bake a loaf of sourdough bread, noting down not just the recipe you followed but also information like how often your starter had been refreshed, whether you used warm water or not, the temperature that day, the different recipe steps and how long they took (e.g. did you do an autolyse? If so, was this before or after adding the starter?), how you mixed the dough and whether you kneaded the dough (by hand or using a standmixer), proofing times etc. Also make a note of what the loaf looked like once baked, how much ovenspring there was, how open or dense the crumb was etc. Also note down anything you noticed that seemed like an important lesson (e.g. if the starter was only refreshed once or twice after a week in the fridge and your dough was very slow to proof, you might jot down that you need 3 or 4 feedings to get your starter out of hibernation).

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