How’s your baking coming along? As you know, I have one favorite bread recipe I recommend (I wrote about it here) as well as another one I found on YouTube, and I was able to replicate with great success.
If there’s one thing I have yet to do when it comes to bread, that would be sourdough. I avoided this topic for the longest time possible, and when I dug into the literature, I found it confusing, contradictory, and frankly intimidating. This is why I was very excited when my foodie friend Marina told me that she had perfected her sourdough making, and had prepared information for me to share with my readers. What transpired was the following Q&A, which we both hope you will find useful 🙂
What piqued your interest in making sourdough bread?
Let me start off by saying that I don’t claim to be a sourdough expert. My intent here is to share my learning process in which I failed multiple times, followed various experts’ advice, and finally found what worked for me. That said, the final result is a beautiful, crispy loaf of bread unmatched in freshness and quality to any bread I’ve bought at specialized bakeries around Chicago for an outrageous price that varied anywhere between $9-15 per loaf.
But to answer your question, I always find myself interested in cooking things with few ingredients. Somehow, through some natural chemistry and the way that certain ingredients coalesce, the final result makes me think of myself as some kind of a mad scientist creating magic in a kitchen. There are only three simplest ingredients in a sourdough (water, flour, and salt), but it’s so tricky to get the technique and the timing of the process right that there’s a multitude of expert advice which becomes confusing to follow. In devising my experiments, I tried to control for all but one factor which would indicate its effect on the process. Being as inquisitive as I am, I need to get down to the why, the reason why one method works and another doesn’t.
What are those factors?
Glad you asked!
Starter: I made my own following 1:1:1 ratio. Let me explain.
Day 1: Mix 50g of water with 50g of flour (25 g unbleached all-purpose with 25 g wheat flour combination worked best for me). Cover with a light lid and let it sit in a warm spot for a day.
Day 2: Add another 50 g of water and 50 g of flour. This is called a “feeding.” Let sit in a warm spot for a day.
Day 3: Discard 100g of the starter and add 50 g of water and 50 g of flour again. This is how you end up with 1 part starter, 1 part water, and 1 part flour. Warning: the mixture may look spoiled and smell unpleasant, but it’s all the bacteria doing its job. This is a fascinating process, because instead of using yeast, you’re creating the process of fermentation by using just two ingredients! And apparently, wheat has more germ to keep the bacteria nice and fed, that’s why adding some wheat helps!
For the remainder of the process, keep repeating day 3 until your starter matures, meaning it at least doubles in size while in a warm spot. It took me much longer than the recommended-by-many 7-9 days, but the process sped up when I started incorporating wheat flour along with the all-purpose flour.
You’re talking grams. Is a kitchen scale necessary?
Absolutely! Because of the various densities of water vs flour, you can’t substitute a kitchen scale for a measuring cup. If you’re serious about succeeding, please invest in a kitchen scale. It doesn’t need to be expensive.
What about the actual baking process?
Once your starter is ready, and it’s at its peak activity (at least doubling 3-5 hours after feeding in a warm spot), hopefully you have a couple of hours on your hands 🙂 The actual handling time is much less, so don’t be scared away by the lack of time.
Ingredients for one loaf: mix 400 g of flour (300 g of unbleached bread flour and 100 g of wheat flour combination worked best for me), 250 g of water and 10g of salt in a mixing bowl. Let it sit for about 30-45 minutes for the gluten to start developing. They call it autolysis. By the way, when my bread wasn’t rising as it should, I read that salt can slow down the proofing, so I tried to either add it later in the process or skip it altogether. However, that didn’t fix the problem of low rise, so I stopped blaming the salt and started adding it in the beginning!
Incorporating the starter: After 30-45 minutes, add 100 g of starter and start incorporating it by poking the starter into the dough. It’ll be very sticky, and that’s OK. Let sit in a warm spot for 30 minutes.
Folding: After 30 minutes, water your hands so they don’t stick to the dough as much. Grab one corner of the dough and pull at it to stretch it without tearing it. Fold it to the opposite side like an envelope. Do the same to the other three imaginary sides of an envelope-dough. Repeat 4-5 times. Let sit in a warm spot for 30 minutes. Repeat the entire folding process three more times. While I also experimented with kneading the dough with my hands, slapping it against the counter, mixing it in a standing mixer for 10-15 minutes, the technique above worked best for me.
Shaping: After folding the dough for a total of 4 times in 2 hours, you’re ready to shape it. Prepare a banneton basket generously sprinkled with flour. Don’t be afraid to use a lot of flour, it’s better than having the dough stick to it, and you can always brush the excess off later. Many recommend rice flour, but all-purpose flour worked for me. Drop the dough onto a smooth counter. Some recommend oiling your hands or dusting the counter to prevent the dough from sticking, since it’s still wet. I tried it all, but just putting water on my hands before handling the dough worked best for me! Fold the corners the way you did previously, envelope style, 2 or 3 times. Use a scraper to lift the dough off of the counter and into your hands so the bottom remains smooth. Drop it into the floured banneton, cover with a plastic wrap, and keep in the refrigerator overnight.
Check for readiness: In the morning, your dough should be about double in size. You can check for readiness by poking your finger at it. If it springs back slowly halfway, it’s ready. If it springs back quickly all the way, it’s over-proofed. And trust me, I’ve been there. I was getting frustrated with my bread not rising to a desired degree, and it turns out I was so focused on proofing the bread that I ended up over-proofing it! I hope you learn from my mistakes.
Baking: Preheat your oven to 500F along with whatever baking dish you’re using. Beware, thin baking sheets can cause the bottom of the bread to burn at this temperature! I use a cast iron deep pan. Once preheated, dust your baking sheet with flour. Then, quickly invert your banneton with sourdough over the baking dish. If it was floured enough, it should come right off. The dough will have signature ridges from the banneton. Dust off any excess flour. Use a bread lame or a sharp serrated knife to score the sourdough at 45 degree angle in a single motion. Have fun with it, many come up with their signature scores! Cover the dish with a lid and bake at 500F for 20 minutes. Covering the dough ensures that there’s some steaming in the baking dish from the dough, which helps prevent the crust from becoming too firm too quickly and the bread from rising. Uncover the dish, lower the temperature to 450 degrees, and bake for another 20-25 minutes. Go by the color of the loaf, not the exact time. It should be golden brown. Once it cools, you can knock on the bottom of the loaf and hear a hollow sound. That means you’ve done it right 🙂
Afterwards: Place the loaf on a cooling rack. Make sure the loaf is completely cooled down before cutting into it, and enjoy!
In retrospect, what was the key to a successful sourdough?
I think failing and trying again is the key. I got lost in all kinds of expert advice on the internet, so actually doing it, failing, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t did the trick. I approached the process as an experimenter, trying to control for all the factors before deciding on what to change. The only thing I couldn’t control for is that with every try, I probably had a more mature starter, since I had to keep feeding it. Which brings me to this point – the key is to have a mature starter. Nothing else can make up for it! While it’s satisfying to do it all from scratch, if you don’t have 2-3 weeks to achieve the right maturity, get it from one of your local quality bakeries.