Sourdough Bread

sourdough loaf on cooling rack

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, sorry about that.)

This is what works for me. You may 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.

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, 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 (I’ve got three different types of whole wheat flour and they are utterly different from each other) 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 in the right ballpark. 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, at least when you start out. Pretty soon you’ll get used to the process and won’t need to refer to written notes or books.

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

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.

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. There are a million recipes for making your own starter but I haven’t tried any so I can’t really recommend any particular method. They mostly take a week of daily feeding to get them going. 

You can keep a starter in the fridge in a Tupperware type container for a month or two without feeding it. Some people claim you can keep it for years. Some people recommend things you can do to maintain a starter for longer periods, but frankly if you don’t bake more than once a month then probably sourdough is not for you.

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.

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 loose 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

Imagine you want to make a medium sized loaf using 500g of flour. If I don’t know how the flour behaves I start with a minimum volume of water being ⅗ the weight of flour (this is 60% hydration). So in total I want 300ml water. (Note 1g water = 1 ml). There’s some flour and water in the sponge and a bit of water to dissolve the salt, so you take these off the totals to get the amount that you need to add to the mixing bowl.

Update 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. So the first recipe below has 60% hydration, 1.4% salt, and the flour content of the sponge is 15% of the total flour content. The second recipe differs from the first in that the flour content of the sponge is 12.5% of the total flour content. Which means the second recipe will have different results from the first. I am now experimenting with far higher proportions of sponge which seems to yield better results in some cases, including better spring (the rise in the oven) and better flavour.

StageFlour gWater mlSalt g
Starter2525
Sponge (add)5050
Salt157
Mixing bowl425210
Total500300
Weights and volumes of for one medium loaf

Imagine instead you want to large loaf using a total of 600g flour. So you’d need ⅗ (60%) of 600ml water = 360ml.

StageFlour gWater mlSalt g
Starter2525
Sponge (add)5050
Salt158.5
Mixing bowl525270
Total600360
Weights and volumes for 1 large loaf

Certain flours need more water than others, so you might know that you need at least 70% 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. I use cooking salt, which has no additives and therefore is more salty than table salt.

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.

Stretch and fold* the dough, rest for 20 minutes. Do this 3 times (or fewer, or more).

*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 on an oiled baking sheet 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). Slash the top of the loaf with a sharp 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.

I also sometimes bake bread in a cast iron loaf tin, this seems to need quite a bit longer in the oven.

Update A lot of websites talk about bulk ferment and proofing as two separate processes. I think this comes from professional bakery processes. I’ve found that there’s no real need for the bulk ferment stage, I just do a few stretch and folds, leaving 20 minutes between each, and then proof in the fridge for 12-18 hours. I’m fairly sure 24 hours would be OK too but I’ve not tried it. I get the impression that proofing in the fridge slows the yeast action in favour of other bacterial action, which is a Good Thing in some way.

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 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.

I read that most bread is cooked when it reaches 88C. Seems to work well.

Update The amount of salt depends on what I’m baking, but I now tend to default to 1.5%.

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