sourdough bread: a beginner’s guide

sourdough bread: a beginner's guide | theclevercarrot.com

In 2013, my culinary resolution was to learn how to bake bread.

I researched, tested and baked countless loaves with both good and bad results.

My journey began with a yeasted ‘no-knead’ recipe, and eventually worked my way up to the holy grail; sourdough bread.

Sourdough is unique because it does not require commercial yeast in order to rise.

It’s made with a fermented culture of flour and water, or a ‘starter’ which acts as a natural leavening agent.

Sourdough is known for its characteristic flavor (ranging from mild to strong), chewy texture and crisp crust. From a health standpoint, it dominates when compared to standard loaves. The naturally occurring acids and long fermentation help to break down the proteins and gluten, making it more digestible and easy for the body to absorb.

And it tastes darn good.

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In this tutorial, I will attempt to explain the sourdough making process based on my personal experience.

There is no kneading involved and you do not need a bread machine.

The information is divided into sections for easy reference. If you’re a recipe anaylizer like me, you have come to the right place!

And now, I present the longest post ever…

sourdough starter | theclevercarrot.com

The Starter

Simply put, a sourdough starter is made from flour and water.

The combination attracts wild yeast and bacteria from its surrounding environment, creating a culture of microorganisms that will naturally leaven your bread. It must be kept ‘alive’ with regular feeds (equal parts flour + water) to maintain its strength. A well-fed, active starter is characterized by numerous bubbles, a puffy or ‘spongy’ texture and growth that doubles in size.

Where to Obtain a Starter

All sourdough starters are different. They can be made from scratch, purchased online, or if you’re lucky someone will share a portion of their starter with you. Starters range from thick to thin in texture and can be made with a variety of flours. I use two different starters; one is homemade and the other was a gift from my friend Celia. She dried a portion of her starter and mailed it all the way from Sydney, Australia.

How To Use Your Starter

Begin by removing your starter from the fridge. If a dark liquid has formed on the top, simply poor it off. This is called ‘hooch’ and forms when your starter has exhausted itself and needs to be fed or ‘refreshed.’

*Note: even without a dark liquid present, all starters must be fed before baking sourdough bread.

How To Feed Your Starter

If you have a very large amount of starter, begin by creating a levain. This is an offshoot of your original starter. To a bowl, add about 1/2- 1 cup of your starter (the exact amount will vary depending on how many loaves you want to bake- be flexible and experiment with the amount). The next step is to feed your levain.

For feeding, the type of flour you use will vary depending on the type of starer you have. For my starters, I use 2 tbsp bread flour + 2 tbsp whole wheat flour + 1/4 cup water. Mix well with a fork to combine. Leave your levain out at room temperature, covered. Don’t forget to feed your original container of starter and place it back into the fridge.

*Note: once your starter is active, and you add it to your recipe, you might have some levain leftover in the bowl. This is normal. It can be used for additional recipes including muffins, cakes and other baked goods. Or, simply discard.

When To Use Your Starter

Your starter is ready to use when numerous bubbles appear on the surface, the texture is puffy (like roasted marshmallow fluff), and it has doubled in size. It should smell ‘fruity’ and not like gym socks.

If you are still unsure, perform the float test.

FLOAT TEST: fill a glass with water and drop a teaspoon of starter into the glass. If it floats, it’s ready to use. If it sinks, give it an additional feed.

For best results, time the float test when your starter is at its peak height (before it falls and needs to be fed again).

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The Dough

Add everything (except the salt) to a large bowl. Squish the mixture together with your hands until all of the flour is absorbed. The dough will look rough and shaggy.

Let the dough rest or ‘autolyse’ for about 30 minutes, or up to 1 hour.

TIP: for best results, weigh all of your ingredients using a digital kitchen scale. Use bread flour for better gluten development and overall texture.

AUTOLYSE: resting period by which the flour hydrates and gluten begins to develop. Strong gluten = good bread. Your dough will be easier to shape after autolyse.

*In general, autolyse can range anywhere from 15 minutes up to 4 hours depending on the type of bread you are making and your personal baking schedule. I find that a minimum of 30 minutes works best in this particular recipe. 

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The Salt

After autolyse, add the salt to the dough.

Sprinkle with a tiny bit of water to help it dissolve. Lift and fold the dough over itself several times, squishing with your hands to incorporate. The dough will tear slightly as you fold, and the salt will not fully dissolve. Don’t worry- this is normal.

*A note on salt- although there are varying opinions on the subject, adding salt before autolyse will tighten the gluten, which is why it is recommended to add it after the dough has had time to rest. However, I’ll be honest with you – I’ve thrown it in with the rest of the ingredients out of sheer laziness with very good results. You be the judge.

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Bulk Fermentation

Cover your bowl with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel. Leave it in a warm, sunny spot to rise. This initial rise is called ‘bulk fermentation’ and is very important to the development and strength of the dough.

Your dough is ready when it no longer looks dense, and has increased in volume about 1 1/2- 2x its original size. This can take anywhere from 3-12 hours depending on the temperature of your ingredients, the potency of your starter and surrounding environment.

TIP: allow the dough to rise in a bowl or clear container with measuring marks. You can visually track its growth and won’t be tempted to rush the process.

BONUS TIP: during bulk fermentation, you have the option to perform a series of ‘stretch & folds’ to strengthen the dough. Simply gather a portion of the dough, stretch it upwards and then fold it over itself. Rotate the bowl 1/4 turn and repeat this process until you have come full circle. Do this every 30 minutes for 2 hours. Although this step is not mandatory, it will increase the total volume of your bread.

*Because sourdough bread does not contain commercial yeast, it takes considerably longer to rise. In the summer months, it can take anywhere between 3-4 hours @ 85 F whereas in the winter, about 6-12 hours @ 55 F. It is very important to watch your dough and not the clock. It’s ready, when it’s ready. 

sourdough bread: a beginner's guide | theclevercarrot.comsourdough bread: a beginner's guide | theclevercarrot.com

Cutting + Shaping

Before you begin, divide your work surface in half; lightly flour one side (for cutting) and leave the other half clean (for shaping).

Remove the dough from the bowl, and place it onto the floured section so that it does not stick.

Cut the dough in half to make 2 loaves, or leave it whole for a single loaf.

TIP: you do not need to ‘punch down’ the dough; it will gently deflate as you fold and shape it (as described below).

To shape, use a bench scraper to move your dough to the non-floured section of your work space (if there is too much flour present, it will be difficult to shape- brush away any excess). Gather the dough, one side at a time, and fold it over into the center. Flip the dough over and place it seam side down. Using your hands, gently cup the sides of the dough and rotate it, using quarter turns in a circular motion. You can also pull it towards you to even out the shape. Repeat this process until you are happy with its appearance.

*When shaping, the idea is for the dough to catch enough surface tension on a non-floured area in order to create a tight ball. 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

sourdough bread: a beginner's guide | theclevercarrot.comsourdough bread: a beginner's guide | theclevercarrot.com

The Vessel

I bake my sourdough in a Dutch oven(s).

The pot traps in heat and moisture which is essential to baking good bread. These elements play a key role in how the slashes will open up or ‘bloom’ and the Dutch oven helps to control this process. So, unless you have a professional deck oven with steam injectors, this happens to be a very reliable alternative. Go Dutch.

*In the past, I’ve tried baking on pizza stones and cookie trays with no luck. My bread would tear at the bottom and sides. I used various steaming methods to remedy this, however I found them to be very cumbersome and not realistic for everyday use. Nothing worked; the lack of moisture in my oven quickly hardened the outside of the bread before it had a chance to fully rise. As a result, it caused my bread to ‘blow out’ (as they say). Using a Dutch oven is a great solution.

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Second Rise

After shaping the dough, generously coat the bottom of your Dutch oven(s) with cornmeal.

Place the dough inside where it will need to rise again (please read tip below- it’s important).

This time, the dough will rise for a shorter period, about 30 minutes- 1 hour. It is ready when the dough is slightly puffy and no longer dense. Again, factors such as the temperature of your dough and surrounding environment will effect the growth rate.

TIP: this particular dough is considered to be ‘low hydration’ which means it does not contain a lot of water. They are easy to handle and hold their shape very well. That’s why I do the 2nd rise directly in the Dutch oven; it does not spread out.

On the contrary, if you are working with a high hydration dough or if you add more water to this recipe, it might spread out like a pancake due to the increased moisture content. This is normal. As an alternative, instead of doing a free form second rise (as indicated above), place your dough in a cloth lined basket or shallow bowl. I use a small pyrex mixing bowl. It will contain the dough and hold its shape properly.

OVEN SPRING: achieving a good rise requires some effort. Please refer to *note below.

SLASHING: right before your bread goes into the oven, make a slash about 2-3 inches long in the center of the dough; this allows the steam to escape and the dough to expand. You can use a serrated knife or bread lame. I use a very sharp ceramic pairing knife.

*It is important not let the second rise go for too long. This can be difficult to judge. 30 minutes- 1 hour should be sufficient but you will need to experiment and make adjustments if necessary. An over-proofed dough will have exhausted all of its strength, and your bread will not get the boost it needs to produce a nice, round loaf. 

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Baking

Preheat your oven to 450 F. Place your bread into the oven (lid on) and reduce the temperature to 400 F. Bake for 20 minutes. When you remove the lid, your bread will be pale and shiny. Continue to bake (uncovered) for an additional 40 minutes or until deep, golden brown. Keep in mind that all ovens are different; you might have to make minimal adjustments to these temperatures.

TIP: during the last 10 minutes of baking, crack open the oven door. This allows the moisture to escape, leaving your bread with a crisp crust. Or, remove the bread from the pot and let it bake directly on the rack. The latter produces a more crisp crust.

BONUS TIP: you can also take the internal temperature of your bread to double check that it is done. For sourdough, it should read about 205 F.

When the bread is ready, remove it from the oven and transfer to a wire rack. Cool for at least an hour before slicing. Don’t cut too soon or else the inside will have a gummy texture! Patience…

*I used to preheat my Dutch oven before baking, but I have found that this is no longer necessary. When coated with cornmeal, my bread never sticks to the bottom and the crust is always crisp. This saves on both time and energy.

sourdough bread: a beginner's guide |  theclevercarrot.comsourdough bread: a beginner's guide |  theclevercarrot.com

CONGRATULATIONS!! You’ve made it to the end!

Just one last thing- baking sourdough bread is more than just a recipe… it’s an understanding. You’ll notice that there are similar recipes out there and yet no two loaves look alike. The process is all about method, timing and personal touch. Use this tutorial as a guide and make your own adjustments as you go. Once you’ve established a baking schedule (see mine below) the process becomes an imminent rhythm. In the end, you will have created your very own masterpiece that is the ultimate reward.

And don’t forget to eat your mistakes.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

WINTER WEEKEND BAKING SCHEDULE

Bread baking is all about timing. Here’s what I do for weekend sourdough –

  • Friday Evening: remove starter from the fridge and pour off any liquid from the top. Scoop some into a bowl, give it a feed and cover. Leave on the counter overnight.
  • Saturday Morning: check the starter- if it’s alive and bubbling, time to make the dough. If not, give it another feed (this is common). Remember to use the water test mentioned above if you’re unsure.
  • Saturday Afternoon: make the dough. Leave on the counter to bulk ferment overnight. The cool winter temperatures slows down the rising process so don’t worry about it billowing over. In the summer, I would bulk ferment overnight in the fridge.
  • Sunday Morning: cut and shape the dough. Place in Dutch oven for second rise. Slash. Bake. Cool. Eat.

*This post was inspired by the lovely Fig Jam + Lime Cordial, Tartine bread, and my epic failures in bread baking. I hope this tutorial finds you well. 

sourdough bread: a beginner's guide
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
This is a low-hydration recipe, meaning it will yield a 'tight' crumb (small holes). It is great for sandwiches and toast.
Author:
Serves: 1-2 loaves
Ingredients
  • 5.35 oz / 150g active, fed starter
  • 8.80 oz / 250g water, preferably filtered
  • .90 oz / 25g olive oil
  • 17.65 oz / 500g bread flour (not all purpose)
  • .35 oz / 10g fine sea salt
  • fine ground cornmeal, for dusting
*6 quart Dutch oven
** This recipe was tested with King Arthur, Gold Medal + Pillsbury bread flour
Instructions
  1. To make the dough: In a large bowl, combine the starter, water, olive oil and bread flour. Squish everything together with your hands until all of the flour is absorbed. Rest (autolyse) for 30 minutes.
  2. Add the salt + ½ tsp. of water (to help it dissolve). Lift and fold the dough over itself several times, and squish with your hands to incorporate. The dough will tear slightly as you fold, and the salt will not fully dissolve. Don't worry- this is normal. Work the dough as best you can until it comes back together into a rough ball. At this point, you shouldn't feel any grains of salt beneath your hands.
  3. Bulk fermentation: Cover your bowl with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel. Leave it in a warm, sunny spot to rise. Your dough is ready when it no longer looks dense, and has increased in volume about 1½- 2x its original size. This can take anywhere from 3-12 hours depending on the temperature of your ingredients, the potency of your starter and surrounding environment. I make my dough in the afternoon, and leave it to rise overnight. See my Winter Weekend Baking schedule (in post above) for more details.
  4. Stretch & folds: During bulk fermentation, you have the option to perform a series of 'stretch & folds' to strengthen the dough. Simply gather a portion of the dough, stretch it upwards and then fold it over itself. Rotate the bowl ¼ turn and repeat this process until you have come full circle. Do every 30 minutes for 2 hours. Although this step is not mandatory, it will increase the total volume of your bread.
  5. Cutting & shaping: To cut and shape the dough, divide your work surface in half; lightly flour one side (for cutting) and leave the other half clean (for shaping).
  6. Remove the dough from the bowl, and place onto the floured section so that it does not stick. You do not need to 'punch down' the dough; it will gently deflate as you fold and shape it.
  7. Cut the dough in half to make 2 loaves, or leave it whole for a single loaf.
  8. To shape, use a bench scraper to move your dough to the non-floured section (if there is any flour present, it will be difficult to shape- brush away any excess). Gather the dough, one side at a time, and fold it into the center. Flip the dough over and place it seam side down. Using your hands, gently cup the sides of the dough and rotate it, using quarter turns in a circular motion. You can also pull it towards you to even out the shape. Repeat this process until you are happy with its appearance.*See note below.
  9. Second rise: Coat the bottom of your Dutch oven with cornmeal. Place the dough inside for a second shorter rise, about 1-2 hours. It is ready when the dough is slightly puffy.
  10. Slashing the dough: Right before your bread goes into the oven, make a shallow slash about 2 inches long in the center of the dough. Use a bread lame, a sharp pairing or serrated knife.
  11. Preparing the oven: When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 450 F.
  12. Place your bread into the oven (lid on) and reduce the temperature to 400 F. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the lid, and continue to bake (uncovered) for an additional 40 minutes or until deep, golden brown. Keep in mind that all ovens are different; you might have to make minimal adjustments to these temperatures.
  13. During the last 10 minutes of baking, crack open the oven door. This allows the moisture to escape, leaving your bread with a crisp crust.
  14. You can also take the internal temperature of your bread to double check that it is done. For sourdough, it should read about 205 F.
  15. Cooling: Remove the bread from the oven, and cool on a wire rack for at least an hour before slicing. Don't cut too soon or else the inside will have a gummy texture!
Notes
*When shaping, the idea is for the dough to catch enough surface tension on a non-floured area in order to create a tight ball. If there is flour present, it will slide around...and drive you nuts.