When historians look back on the current pandemic, they won’t just discuss the rise of Zoom or politicizing masks, there will be discussions on sourdough breadmaking. What really made it so popular during this time? Was it the shortage of yeast, something to do while sheltering in place, or our survival instincts kicking in?
Whatever the reason, I’m one of those new sourdough bread bakers. Over on my personal Facebook page I’ve been posting photos of my adventures in sourdough bread making. But I am hardly alone. You will find countless YouTube videos and blogs on the subject—many from far more experienced bread makers than me.
But this morning my cousin Cindy sent me a private message asking some questions on my sourdough bread baking, something she is now giving a try. I was going to simply answer her in email, but then thought, this might make a good blog post. Like I said, mine is just one of the many voices currently talking sourdough bread. Consider this post a successful beginner’s perspective. This blog post is really for Cindy, but you are welcome to keep reading if you want.
For those who have somehow missed all those articles on sourdough starter and have no idea what it is, sourdough starter is the leavening agent for the bread. It’s what makes it rise. When making bread you might use something like yeast, baking powder, or in the case of sourdough, sourdough starter.
One reason sourdough bread appeals to the survivalist, all you need is flour and water to make it. And unlike yeast and baking powder there is no expiration date; it will last indefinitely, as long as you feed regularly.
Cindy got her starter from the King Arthur site, while I made my own. There are countess starter recipes online. When making mine, I combined 150 grams whole wheat flour to 150 grams of lukewarm filtered water in a glass jar. I loosely covered and left in a warm spot in the kitchen. I say loosely covered, because it will expand, eventually doubling in size and if you cover your jar tightly, your jar might turn into a mini bomb.
Let it sit for two days, and then on the third day, feed it daily for about a week, or until your starter gets bubbly and alive. To feed, you remove half the starter, which is called discard, and then feed what remains in the jar. If I have 150 grams left remaining in the jar, I feed by adding 150 grams of all-purpose flour and 150 grams of lukewarm filtered water and stir well. Loosely cover and leave in a warm spot. Repeat each day.
Just because I use whole wheat flour the first day, and feed with all-purpose flour the rest of the time, does not mean that is the only way to do it. In fact, some bakers insist rye flour makes a better starter. I am simply sharing what works for me. If you feel adventurous, there are countless sources out there.
What to do with the discard? I simply move it to my “discard” jar. I then use the discard in other recipes, such as pancakes, waffles, or banana bread. I store my discard in the refrigerator in a sealed jar. If any “hooch” develops on it or the starter (which is a liquid) I simply pour it off and dispose of. I have never had a problem with mold. But if fuzzy mold develops on the starter or in your discard jar, I recommend throwing it out. Fortunately, I have not had that issue.
It takes about a week to make a starter. You will know when it is ready when it bubbles and doubles in size. I test mine before baking, by gently dropping a bit of the starter in a glass of water. If it floats, it will rise my bread. But the starter will not stay bubbly and double in size for long, it will drop down, and if you drop a bit of starter in water, it will sink, which means it won’t rise your bread. That’s why it needs to be fed regularly and only used to make sourdough bread when active.
Many people feed their sourdough starter twice a day. I don’t. In fact, I keep mine in the refrigerator and feed once a week. When I am ready to bake, I pull it out, feed it, and leave it on my counter or put it in my proofing box at a controlled temperature, until it doubles and bubbles. Sometimes I need to feed it twice within 24 hours to get it going.
So why do you have to discard? To make room in the jar. Sometimes, if I plan it right, there is no discard, because I remove most of the bubbly active starter from the jar to bake my bread, leaving just enough starter to feed. I’ve done this when baking more than one loaf at a time.
Bakers often name their starter. Mine is Madeline, after my paternal grandmother who was an amazing cook. My sister named hers Auntie Margaret, after our aunt who loved to bake.
Okay, that’s enough on starter. But like I mentioned, there are countless sources out there you can explore to get more information on sourdough starter.
Wait, I lied. There is one more thing I want to say about starter. When necessary, move your starter to a clean jar. Maybe that’s why I haven’t had a mold issue because I regularly move it to a clean jar.
Tools for Sourdough Bread Making
Like everything, having the right tools makes it much easier to accomplish your goal. These are the tools I currently use, and frankly, they make my sourdough bread making so much easier. Not everyone uses these tools, but like I mentioned earlier in this post, I am sharing how I do this.
You will need a glass jar to store your starter. I also put a rubber band around the jar as a way to measure its growth after a feeding.
When making bread, I weigh all the ingredients in grams.
Instant read thermometer
I use this to make sure I don’t get my water too hot when feeding my starter or making my dough. I like to keep the temperature in the high 70s or low 80s. A quick note on water, I’ve read chlorinated water, like city tap water, can inhibit the starter. So use filtered water or let it sit on the counter for a while so any chlorine can evaporate. I typically fill a glass measuring cup with filtered water and pop in the microwave for about 30 seconds to get at the desired temperature.
I bake my bread in a cast iron Dutch oven.
Before placing my dough in the Dutch oven, I set it on parchment paper, and place it with the dough in the Dutch oven.
When I first started, I just used a bowl covered with a floured dish towel. For my birthday my sister bought me the Proofing Basket kit (you can get one on Amazon) and I love it!
The kit I recommend includes the Danish Dough Whisk, the Bread Lame (which is basically a razor blade cutter for scoring the top of the dough), a bench scraper and of course the proofing baskets.
I frankly don’t know how I lived without the Danish Dough Whisk. I love it! When first making my sourdough bread I mixed using my hands. (I don’t use my Kitchenaid mixer when making sourdough bread). But now, I use my Danish Dough Whisk.
The bread lame makes it easier to score your dough before baking, and the bench scraper helps you move your uncooked loaf while preserving its shape.
Baking the bread!
Once again, there are countless sourdough recipes out there. This is simply the one I use. When making the recipe I’ve used all-purpose flour, half all-purpose flour and half whole wheat flour, and bread flour. My personal preference is bread flour.
One thing you need to work out is the timing. Sourdough bread making is not hard. It really does not take much of your time, once you get the hang of it. BUT the process takes a long time. Frankly, I think the most difficult thing about making sourdough bread is working out the timing of each step.
Since your starter needs to be at its prime for successful bread, bubbly and double and floatable, you need to strategically feed the starter so it will be ready when you mix your dough. I typically pull mine from the refrigerator the night before, feed, and then feed again early the next morning, so I can start my bread in the early afternoon.
In a bowl add:
150 grams starter
300 grams warm water
25 grams olive oil
500 grams flour
10 grams sea salt
I mix ingredients with my Danish Dough Whisk. When it comes together, I use my hands to combine in a dough ball, and then place in a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a damp rag, and let rest for an hour in a warm spot in your kitchen.
An hour later, you are going to pull your dough, which is basically grabbing one side, stretching, and then folding over itself, and then moving around the loaf, repeating. When stretching, you don’t want to tear. I recommend looking up some YouTube videos on this process.
This pulling only takes a few minutes. Re-cover, and then let set another hour. After an hour, do the pulling stretching again, and then cover and let set another hour and repeat the pulling stretching. I do this about four times.
Remember when I said the biggest thing about sourdough was timing? Well, after your last pull and stretch, it has been about 4 ½ hours since you mixed up your dough. Now you need to let that pulled and stretched dough rise for another 6-8 hours. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and set in a warm spot. Depending on when you started, you might be working into the night.
I have another “tool” that I use for this process, a proofing box. Some people put their dough in an unlit oven, I use a proofing box where I maintain the temperature at around 82 degrees. But my sister bakes wonderful sourdough bread and doesn’t have a proofing box.
After my bread finishes this first rise, I put it in the refrigerator to finish and bake the next day. You can leave your bread dough in the refrigerator for up to two days, before the final “proofing” rise and baking.
When I am ready to bake my bread, I pull it out of the refrigerator, and roll it out on my floured board. I gently flatten it, fold into a ball and then place it in a floured proofing bowl. I cover it and let it rise for about two hours. Before the two hours is up, I place my covered Dutch oven in my oven and pre-heat to 500 degrees.
After the two hours of rising, I roll my dough from the bowl onto a piece of parchment paper—a size that will fit into the Dutch oven. The top of the dough will have the imprints from the proofing bowl and a dusting of flour from the proofing bowl, giving it a nice design and shape. I take the bread lame and slice the top of the bread. Some people get creative in how they slice the top of the bread.
Carefully insert the dough (cradled in parchment paper) in the Dutch oven. But be careful! The Dutch oven is hot! Re-cover Dutch oven and turn the oven down to 400 degrees.
Bake for 30 minutes in the covered Dutch oven at 400 degrees. Then remove the cover from the Dutch oven and bake for 20 more minutes in the uncovered Dutch Oven.
Remove from the oven, and gently (and carefully) remove bread from Dutch oven and place on a cooling rack. Let it cool before slicing. This is important! It is tempting, but do not cut into bread right from the oven!
After my bread cools, I typically cut the loaf in half, and then freeze half, as we don’t go through an entire loaf fast enough for it to stay fresh.
So that is about it! Once you get down the rhythm of making sourdough bread, I think it’s fairly easy. And frankly, I don’t see myself ever buying store bought soughdough again, even after the pandemic ends.