Beginner Sourdough Bread

What is this

I’ve been baking sourdough bread for a few months so I’m by no means an expert. I’ve written this blog mostly as a response to people asking me what I do, and also to keep a record for future reference. It is meant as a description, not a prescription, and it’s continuously out of date as I evolve my approach.

Who is this for

You’ve probably got some experience in baking bread (other than using a bread machine) and you know how to knead dough, how to judge when dough is risen and when bread is ready to be taken out of the oven. If not, Paul Hollywood has some great recipes.

What I’ve tried to do is cut through the verbiage that is out there on blogs and youTube and get to the absolute basics of sourdough bread. And I’ve written down here what I do based on that. I’ve been amazed at how simple and easy it is, and also a bit amazed about how much I have felt the need to write. There should be enough information here to get you started with sourdough.

This is what works for me. You will find different ways. Experimentation is good. Absolute failure is rare. Also, when trying new things, I’ve repeatedly thought that my recipe has failed. The result, though less than perfect, has mostly been delicious. All of it has been edible. None has been chucked away.

Update There is far more to making a loaf of sourdough bread than I have discussed here. So if you know what you are doing and what I’ve written is obvious to you (or more likely obviously wrong to you), then you are probably too advanced to be reading this. In that case, I recommend you read Open Crumb Mastery For The Intermediate Sourdough Baker by Trevor J Wilson. I am not going to continue to update this post with more and more sophisticated discussions, because it’s all there in Trevor’s book.

Water

If you read sourdough websites, they all say don’t use chlorinated tap water. This certainly doesn’t apply in Bourne End. Tap water is fine. But if you have a water filter, by all means filter the water first.

Flour

I’ve got three versions that I make (so far); white sourdough (which has about 50g wholewheat for added flavour), 50/50 rye, and 100% wholewheat. The 100% is a bit heavier than the others but the flavour is way deeper. Also it’s way more nutritious. If you want to read about the health benefits of sourdough, there’s a lot of good stuff in the book Do Sourdough (of which I’ve read the first chapter, the rest is rather too fussy for me).

NB If you’re making white bread you need strong white flour. But you know that or you wouldn’t have read this far, would you?

There are all sorts of different flours with different properties and you’ll see a lot on the webz about ash, grade, how much gluten they contain etc. That is really important if you’re making 1000 loaves a day and have customers waiting. If you’re baking at home you can afford a bit of trial and error, and finding your own way.

The important thing is to pay attention to what the your dough is telling you and treat it accordingly. Think about how stiff/loose/sticky you want the dough to be, which depends on the amount of water you add. Different flours require different amounts of water. Pay attention to when your dough has risen and is ready for the next stage*. This also depends on how stiff the dough is, and different flours behave differently. Let your dough be your guide, not the recipe.

*UPDATE My current practice is to form and proof overnight in the fridge and bake in the morning (that might be 18 hours or so). No judgement made, it just gets banged in the oven. And the sponge stays ready for a long time and it doesn’t take a lot of judgement to see when it’s ready, so that’s hardly a fine judgement either.

Sourdough is slooooow compared with active yeast. Don’t rush it, wait till it’s ready. It needs that long ferment in the fridge. It will reward you with far better flavour and consistency than you’ll get with active yeast. If you’re in a hurry, I recommend not to bother with sourdough.

Quantities

Most of the websites and recipe books are specific about the quantities and times required but in reality there’s a huge amount of flex. So I treat the numbers as being +/- a small percentage. However, it’s worth weighing everything to make sure you’re aiming at the right target, even if you’re off a bit. It helps if you have electronic scales that you can put a bowl on, and then zero it, so that you see only the weight of what you’re adding. However, the amount of water that you add to the dough can change every time, so it’s not a good idea to adhere slavishly to recipes. If the dough is too stiff, add more water. If it’s too sticky and soft, add a bit more flour.

It is worth keeping records of the quantities and times that you use, versus the results that you get. Note any changes that you might want to try next time.

The process below is just what I do. It’s not a religion and you can vary it no problem. See what works.

Temperatures

Just a note to say that our oven is weird, in terms of temperatures. For medium temperatures it runs 20-30C hotter than the nominal temperature. But when you get to nominal 200C or thereabouts, it sticks at 230C. So I’ve been carefully setting the temperature at different values between 200C and 230C, and now that I’ve got an oven thermometer I’ve found out that these make absolutely no difference to the actual temperature. The loaves seem fine anyway. So now I’m thinking high (somewhere around 200-230C) and medium (somewhere around 150-170C) and not worrying about it any more than that.

Casserole Dish / Dutch Oven

I started off baking the bread in a casserole dish (dutch oven) which gave good results, but requires you to have special equipment if you want to get a good shape to the bread. I don’t feel like buying anything non-essential in this moment of emergency.

So I’ve moved on to doing the final rise on a baking sheet, and I put some water in a baking tin at the bottom of the oven to give a bit of steam. It works just as well.

Update I have an old cast iron griddle pan that I used to use for pancakes, and I dug out an old wicker basket (which could well have been a proving basket) that I inherited from my grandmother, so I’m now lining the basket with a well floured dampish towel and proving the dough in there. To bake, I preheat the griddle on the hob, sprinkle with a bit of semolina, drop the dough onto the griddle, slash it and shove the griddle into the hot oven, pour some boiling water into a tray.

Update I kept finding that the dough was sticking to the wet towel and when I put the loaf on the griddle, so I succumbed and got a woodpulp brotform which completely solved the problem. Cover the brotform and the dough well with flour.

Starter

Beg some starter from a neighbour, or if you’re desperate or in a hurry you can order a sachet of dried starter from here. If you’re a personal friend then ask me and I’ll send you some dried starter that you can reconstitute. There are a million recipes for making your own starter but I haven’t successfully tried any so I can’t really recommend any particular method. They mostly take a week of daily feeding to get them going. 

I keep about 50g of starter in a Tupperware type container in the fridge and I only feed it when I’m about to make bread. I’ve found that you need to feed the starter at least once a week or it goes off. And if you aren’t baking once a week, probably sourdough is not for you.

Baking

Day 1, evening: 

Weigh the starter from the fridge and add equal quantities of wholewheat flour and water to make it up to 100g. Mix and leave in a small covered bowl. Doesn’t have to be a specially warm place, but make sure it’s not specially cold. When you get to the main dough, if it’s too warm the dough may rise too fast and lose all that slow-fermented goodness.

Day 2

Make A Sponge

The Sponge (or Leaven or Poolish or Preferment or Biga) consists of some amount of freshly activated starter, plus some amounts of flour and water, that are left to ferment for some amount of time before making the bulk of the dough. In the morning, combine 50g of starter, 50g flour and 50g water. Return the remainder of the starter to the fridge for next time. If you’ve got it right, you’ve got 50g of starter in the fridge and 150g of sponge in the bowl. If you’ve not got exactly 50g of starter, doesn’t matter, that’ll sort itself out next time.

Update I’m now experimenting with higher proportions of sponge in the dough. So you could read that as “combine 50g starter, <n>g flour and <n>g water ….. 2n+50 g sponge in the bowl”.

Cover the sponge and leave to mature, minimum 3 hours or maybe a lot more. When it’s ready there should be bubbles in it, it should smell tangy and a bit alcoholic and if you poke it, the hole remains, doesn’t spring back. If it’s not ready, wait.

Update I’ve not yet managed to leave the sponge too long so that it collapses, but I’m sure it’s possible, especially in warm weather. So do keep an eye on it.

Calculate

People express formulae for bread in terms of baker’s percentages. Each of these is expressed as a percentage of the total weight of flour. See Sourdough Formulae for the percentages I use. Here’s an example for 100% wholewheat sourdough at 70% hydration, 1.6% salt and 50% sponge.

StageFlour gWater mlSalt g
Starter2525
Sponge (add)275185
Salt1510
Dough300195
Total600420

Certain flours need more water than others, so you might know that you need a different hydration for a particular flour. You need to adjust these quantities accordingly. It’s good to be able work these things out rather than depend on a fixed recipe which can’t respond to what’s going on in the kitchen at this moment.

Mix flour and water

When the sponge is about ready, mix the rest of the flour and water in a large mixing bowl. Don’t knead it. If the dough is stiff, measure and add more water until it is reasonably soft and loose. If it is too loose, add a bit more flour. Write down what you do.

Cover with a damp towel and rest for 20 minutes. This gets the enzymes started, before you start the kneading process. You will see this referred to as autolyse. (I’m a bit hazy on how long you need to autolyse for, but 20 minutes seems to have worked fine so far.)

Dissolve the salt in the water.

Add the sponge and the dissolved salt to to the flour in the mixing bowl. With water on your fingers, mix the sponge and salt with the dough. Leave for 20 minutes.

Update I have now taken to combining the sponge and the dough ingredients (apart from the dissolved salt) to autolyse for about 30 minutes, before adding the dissolved salt. I mix in the salt by pinching, not kneading or stretching,

When thoroughly combined, stretch and fold* the dough, rest for 30 minutes. Do this 3 times (or fewer, or more). Don’t overdo the stretching and folding.

*I strongly recommend that you watch this video. It changed my life.

Form

Form the dough into a ball by repeatedly and gently stretching the dough from the top to the bottom so your hands reach underneath and touch. Turn by a few degrees each time. Place bottom side up in a well floured brotform or proving basked and cover. Leave in the fridge to rise. In the morning, put a baking tray in the bottom of the oven and heat to 230C (200C for a white loaf). If you’re using a dutch oven, that should go in now.

Update Recently, when it was time to bake I found that I had plenty bread left from the previous bake, so I kept the formed loaf in the fridge for a further 24 hours, making roughly 42 hours. The resulting loaf didn’t spring all that well, but the flavour was considerably enhanced and the crumb was excellent.

When the oven is up to temperature, if you’re using a griddle pan, heat it on the hob to a high temperature. Sprinkle coarse semolina on the griddle pan (or base of the dutch oven) and turn the loaf out of the brotform onto it. Slash the top of the loaf with a serrated knife. Put the bread in the oven, and pour boiling water into the tray. For white bread, bake for 30 – 35 minutes, turn oven down to 170C after 20. For whole wheat, bake for 50 – 55 minutes, turn down to 170C after 20 minutes. Towards the end, check the internal temperature of the bread using a food thermometer. It’s ready when the centre of the loaf is above 88°C.

Update Although I determined I wasn’t going to buy any special equipment for this, I’ve found that for new combinations of flour / process / baking method, it’s hard to tell when the bread is done. So I’ve acquired (at very little expense) an electronic probe thermometer and an oven thermometer (I don’t trust the thermostat on our oven). Also a miniature silicone rubber spatula for handling the starter.

Update Most bread is cooked when it reaches 88C, except 50% rye which seems to need 98C.

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