Wouldn’t you love to be able to make a beautiful loaf of sourdough bread, but found the prospect too complex, confusing and time consuming? Wouldn’t it be also great if you could integrate it seamlessly into your already busy life? This blog describes a process for making sourdough bread that, if you follow it more or less correctly, will yield a rich, complex, nutty, flavourful sourdough each and every time.
I’m preparing this as an online accompaniment to a sourdough bread workshop I am doing for my food coop. I’d like to see lots more people doing sourdough, and, I’m a teacher by profession. Even though I may be far from an expert on bread, I can at least teach it.
A basic sourdough loaf begins with 4 elements: starter, flour, water, and salt. That’s what you can see and measure. What you can’t see is the complex microbial community that also lives, grows and changes in it – until its baked, that is.
The starter starts off as flour and water, but growing in it are important living bacteria species of probiotic Lactobacillus as well as yeast – Saccharomyces cerevisiae. These microbes are present in the flour to begin with, but need water to activate them. The rise in the sourdough comes from the yeast producing carbon dioxide, as well as evaporating water being trapped in the loaf. Meanwhile, the lactobacillus metabolizes sugar to provide that distinct nutty/tangy flavor.
Since the yeast and bacteria are responsible for all that happens, it’s important to understand life from their point of view. They are very simple little one celled organisms and they don’t have a lot of needs. Their main need is food and temperature. In the case of sourdough, their food are the starches and sugars in flour but they need water to release and activate them. The yeasts and bacteria grow best at different temperatures. Sourdough yeasts can grow and develop in a in a wide range of temperatures from 10C to 35C. Their optimum range is between 25-30C When they are baked, they die off after about 45C degrees. The variety of lactobacillus bacteria present tend to prefer higher temperatures. Most people prefer room temperature as this often provides a good time window for the rising. It also gives the bacteria more time to develop, and thus a more complex, nutty flavour.
In the picture below (left) you can see the two yeast cells on the left budding, the one at the bottom has just separated. The picture on the right shows lactobacillus bacteria in their colony.
Here’s a video of yeast reproducing.
We can use this information to effectively control our sourdough times, and taste. For example if we want to have a faster rise it can go on top of the fridge, or in a slightly warmed oven. If we want it to take longer, – if we want our bread to rise while we’re away at work for about 9 -12 hours might be an idea to put it in the coolest spot in the basement.
The taste can be manipulated too: leaving it at room temperature and going easy on the refreshing will encourage the lactobaccili bacteria and give a tastier loaf. Likewise, increasing the amount of starter will achieve a similar result.
The starter is the most important key to great sourdough. Its the home to numerous micro organisms including the yeast. Its responsible for both the rising and the taste. Through its care, you can manipulate it to achieve different results.
mixing the starter refresh
Starters can be made easily: 150g (approximately 1 cup) of fresh organic whole wheat flour and 250g pure water (1 cup) mixed together, in a covered one litre glass jar will at room temperature will start bubbling in a few days. Ideally use organic whole wheat flour and unchlorinated unflouridated water (as these chemicals will kill them). Once it is bubbling, pour off all but a cup of it, and refresh it with the same amount of flour and water. Do this one more time after it bubbles up again, let it develop, then refrigerate. This stabilizes the culture and it should be already for use at that point. Once started and maintained, you should not have to do it again.
Initially its important to see how long your refreshed starter takes to fully bloom. Put a piece of vertical tape on your jar and note the time and temperature of its rise. This will give you vital information about your starter characteristics. In my case, its 8 hours at 22C. What that means is that when I put a new loaf together, it needs to do its bulk rise and proofing all within that 8 hour window. This will assure me of a successful loaf with great oven spring. It also means that I can likely retard the rising to 9-12 hours by keeping the bulk rise conditions at a lower temperature – say 17-18C. This could be done by placing my bulk rise bowl inside a larger bowl partly filled with ice water. (Experimentation would, of course be needed! )
Taking care of your starter
Keep your starter in the fridge – especially if you want sourdough to be reliable and easy to maintain. At this temperature, it remains not quite dormant yet ready for use. If you keep your starter at room temperature it’s going to be very active until it starts dying off and you will be spending a lot of energy refreshing it. It can remain viable in your fridge for up to a couple of months. Always keep at least a cup of starter available. When you have about a cup left, refresh it with 1 cup (150g) flour and 1 cup (250g) water. Occasionally you’ll need to give it a spa treatment: (at room temperature) pour all but a cup off, refresh, let it grow, and repeat the process.
Now consider the food for the starter and think about it from the yeast’s perspective. Let’s say we have 100 grams of starter and you feed this hundred grams of starter 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water. From their perspective they’re going to look at that and ‘say’ “Seriously like I’m going to finish this in no time flat! I need way more!”
On the other hand if you had only 10 grams of starter and you feed it 200 grams of flour in 200 grams of water it’s going to get really excited: “Wow this is like so much food I just can’t wait to chow down and get into it and reproduce like crazy and move like crazy and make all kinds of carbon dioxide gas.” (which is responsible for the rising and the holes in your bread).
So the learning here is:
- if your starter is getting a little old, use less of it, not more.
- If you want to use more starter to make a tangier bread, make sure it has been well refreshed and is at its peak of bubbliness. This can be done by refreshing only some of your starter (half cup each of starter, flour and water) and using most of that for your loaf.
The whole rising cycle
This great diagram (below) from http://www.classofoods.com/page1_3.html shows the evolution of the yeast and bacteria in the bread. (You may need to click on the image to see it clearly.) Ideally, you want to do the bulk rise for most of its exponential growth phase, the final rise at nearly the end of that phase, and into the oven as it’s nearing the height of it. This is hard to do – we can’t exactly build in a scale to show how much ‘food’ is left for the yeast – and it will take practise. If you do not let it fully develop, it is underproofed and will seem gummy. If it’s overproofed, you will not get any oven spring – that magic lifting it undergoes in the oven. It might even fall. With practice, you will get to know your starter, and your local conditions well.
The lag phase is seen initially in the bulk rise: you look at it and nothing appears to have happened.
In the exponential growth phase it expands. Ideally it should be proofed and baked in this period.
If it reaches its stationary phase or beyond – too late – sorry. Its way overproofed.
Baker’s percentage and Hydration
Baker’s percentage: Usually percentages add up to 100 – except for bread. The weight of the flour you use is always 100%. All of the other ingredients are expressed as a percent of the weight of the flour. Thus if you have a loaf that has 1000 grams of flour and you add 20 grams of salt, the baker’s % would be 2%. Every single ingredient in your bread can be expressed as a Baker’s Percentage. If this 1000g loaf had 20g salt, 600g water, and 50g starter, the Baker’s Percent for the whole loaf would be 167% (100+60+2+5).
Hydration hydration is the wetness of the dough, the ratio of the flour to the water expressed as a percentage. It’s the weight of the water divided by the weight of the flour. If you’ve got a 1000g loaf (100%) and you add 600 grams of water (600/1000) = 60% hydration. In the starter, 250g water/150g flour gives a 166% hydration.
Final bread hydration is usually anywhere between 60% to 85%. 85% gives you a very wet dough, but one in which the yeasts will appreciate the extra water medium. Even 1% makes difference in hydration. From this discussion it should also be clear that you need to weigh your ingredients, ideally using an accurate scale. My personal go-to ideal hydration for an everyday pan loaf is 66%.
Over the past couple of years my reliance on excel to make sense of the data in my world and my urge to make good bread have resulted in the development of a planning application for any yeasted bakery product. While it will make ready sense to anyone used to Google sheets or Excel, I believe it is friendly to those who are not so comfortable with it.
The worksheet has a variety of tabs along the bottom that correspond to the type of baked good you want to make. The ‘LOG’ tabs enable you to keep track of what you have done, something that is always useful until you really get the hang of it.
Its simple to use: you can only change the yellow cells. Changing these will change the formulas telling you how much flour, water and salt to add. All the other cells are locked, so you can’t destroy it accidentally.
My sense is that if this is a tool you find useful, you will probably want to download it as an Excel file, or make your own google sheet copy. Downloading to Excel will remove all the cell protection.
Beyond some basic kitchen gear such as mixing bowls, spoons, jars, oven mitts and of course a stove, here’s the other gear you need.
- A scale: good electronic scales are widely available at hardware and kitchen stores. Make sure it can take up to 5kg. Once you start using it you will come to appreciate the consistency it gives you in your cooking.
- A good breadpan: thick, no rust. Have at least one that is the size of a pan loaf you want to make.
- 1L glass jar – preferably wide mouth. This is for the starter beast in your fridge.
- pastry brush: to oil the pan, spread toppings or egg white before baking
Good to have
- Electronic kitchen thermometer: Until you get completely used to your oven/bread/timings, you need to be sure the baked bread is at least at 190F/88C
- Pizza stone: It means that the bottom of your pita/pizza/boule/batard hits a very hot surface when it goes in the oven ensuring more even cooking and a great crust on the bottom. It must go in before you turn the oven on.
- Pizza peel: to move things on and off the pizza stone easily
- Parchment paper: used under pitas, batards etc. makes their transfer in and out of the oven really easy. It also saves you on the cleanup.
- Bread scraper: to help with stretch and fold, clean your surface, help your bread out of the pan
- Water spritzer: Spritzing the loaf after its been in the oven a few minutes helps the crust get nice and crunchy.
- Baguette couches to rise and bake baguettes
- Other bake pan sizes
- Proofing baskets and cloths: the bread is proofed in these and turned out onto the pizza peel
- rising bins: These are large plastic bins many pro bakers use for bulk rising a lot of dough.
- a lame – an old fashioned razor blade to slash the bread. Sharp knives, serrated knives work well too.
Other foodstuff to consider:
While you can make a very simple bread with only flour, salt, water and starter, you inevitably will want to consider other additions:
- oil to brush on the pans
- egg white to brush on top
- wheat germ, any kind of grain, small seed, sunflower seeds either mixed into the dough during your stretch and fold or as part of the crust
- herbs/spices/garlic/cheese (as in making a herbed foccacia for dinner)
- If you can do this… refresh the starter you need for your loaves: the amounts of water flour and original starter are built into the hydration table. Do this 6-8 hours ahead of mixing. This will assure you of a well refreshed starter.
- Plan out what bread(s) you want to make using the hydration table. The same dough can be used to make several different products.
- If your starter is highly active and you want more of a sourdough tang, use more starter – as little as a 3:1 ratio to the flour. If it is a little older, you may want to use less – up to 20:1. Doing this will somewhat delay the proofing time.
- Thoroughly combine and mix flour, water and starter together.
- Wait 20 minutes. This wait period is called the autolyse. The flour is hydrated, fermentation begins, the proteins stretch out, the gluten has a chance to begin its development in the absence of salt.
- Add in the salt: 2% of the weight of the flour. The salt is critical to toughen up the dough and slow down the fermentation.
- Knead until well combined, put in a bowl with a wet cloth, noting the temperature you are rising it in.
The beginning of the bulk rise
The Bulk Rise (AKA fermentation)
- Let it rise until it is almost doubled in size – but not more. When you gently press it it should indent, not collapse, and slowly spring back. Depending on the temperature, this will take between 3 and 18 hours. At room temperature this will be between 6-9 hours. Initially you’ll need to explore parts of your own environment to identify ideal times/locations.
- You can stretch and fold the dough once or twice in this period. This removes gasses from the dough, allows the yeasts and bacteria to become acquainted with other parts of the colony (and maybe more food) and helps the dough rise evenly.
- The dough cannot have finished its full rising at this point, otherwise it will be overproofed by the time it hits the oven.
Shaping the dough and proofing
- Remove it from the bowl and knead using the stretch and fold technique.
stretch one corner of the dough…
and fold back to centre….
- Let it rest while you prepare your pan(s) (assuming you are making a couple or more bread products).
- If you are making more than one loaf, divide it into however many loaves/pitas/buns etc. then begin a second stretch and fold with each one that culminates in them being in their final shape. Use your scale: loaves and boules are typically 800-1000g, baguettes: 400g, buns and pitas: 100g or so.
- Shape your final loaves. Youtube is a great resource for observing specific techniques for specific kinds of breads: Loaf pan, boules and batards, baguettes
- You more than likely will want to include crust toppings. Here are some ideas:
- Its always a good idea to brush on oil if you are using a pan.
- a variety of grains, nuts, and seeds always go well
- working garlic, herbs and cheese into a baguette gives an excellent dinner side
- corn flour or regular flour as a dusting on the top or bottom works well
- White egg wash will glisten up the top
- oil or melted butter brushed on the top browns it nicely too.
sesame buns on parchment paper
- Slashing is critical: a thin cut on the crust allows the bread to expand well in the oven (oven spring). See either Youtube or this Food 52 entry.
- Use parchment paper for anything going on a pizza stone. It makes it so much easier!
- Let them proof for between 1-2 hours, until they have begun to rise and will slowly spring back after being gently poked.
- bake your loaves using these general guidelines. Finished bread should be between 190 and 205 F:
- for an 800g loaf – 450F/232C for 12 minutes, 425F/218C for 12 minutes, 400F/204C for 12 minutes
- Pitas take about 3-4 minutes at 450F/232C, preferably on a baking stone
- Baguettes and buns take between 12-20 minutes at 450F/232C: the bigger the loaf, the more the time.
- Due to the fact that your oven drops 30 degrees every time you open the door, I prefer to cook my different kinds of loaves separately.
- Remove from oven and their pans and allow them to cool for at least 30 minutes.
Fitting sourdough into your busy life
Integrating sourdough into a busy working life is perhaps the biggest barrier to starting it in the first place. It appears to be too complex, the timings do not fit in well with your wake/sleep/go to work schedule. I’d argue that this can be worked around if it is truly something you wish to do. Here are some ideas:
- When beginning it, do your initial tries when you are not going to work. Use the hydration table log to record your changes and observations, and to get a feel for it.
- Identify some of the following:
- What time of day do you want it to appear out of the oven? (set this as your goal)
- When are you not around in your house?
- When is your usual sleep/wake cycle?
- Keep in mind:
- Initial mixing takes about 15 minutes over a half hour period.
- You do not have to be around for the bulk rise
- The final proofing will take between 2-3 hours from beginning to the end of baking, of which you will be actively attending to the bread for between 10-30 minutes depending on how much you are baking
- Think creatively of various places in your house that are either warmer or cooler, ranging from a warmed oven (heat to its lowest temperature, then turn it off) to your fridge. Even within your fridge there will be cooler and warmer areas. Basement floors can be really useful if you are in a house.
- If you completely blow it and either under or overproof it, and you know it, pitas or pizzas are incredibly forgiving, and you will still be more than appreciated for the result.
- If you are using refrigeration, you will need to bring things up to room temperature for at least part of the time to enable a good fermentation to happen.
- Make a plan that takes into account the needs of the bread and your own time needs and commitments. Try it out, reflect – talk about it with other bakers either near you or on the forums noted below – you will find a solution! Here is an example of this kind of plan, for someone who is around in the evening, but at work between 6:30AM and 6:00PM, and given an 8hr starter cycle (which may be different for you).
- Upon getting home from work, refresh your starter.
- In the evening, plan the loaf or loaves that will be cooked the following evening,
- Before hitting the sack, mix the flour, water and refreshed starter. After 20 minutes, add salt, knead for a minute, and refrigerate with a damp cloth over it.
- First thing in the morning, take it out, do a little bit of stretch and fold, and leave in a place that is not more than about 20C. Go to work.
- Return from work; stretch and fold, prepare loaf or loaves, leave them in a nice warm place (if you want hot bread with dinner) to cut down the proofing time to an hour or less. Prepare dinner, finishing with baking your bread.
I’d like to point out some really important resources: This blog and the workshop I am giving are but door openings into the magical wonderful world of sourdough. There is so much more to know, and to experiment with.
- The Fresh Loaf is a really thorough and comprehensive site with its own very interactive discussion forum wrapped into it.
- Northwest sourdough is the work of Theresa Greenaway, a West Coast sourdough expert baker. The work I am presenting to you is directly derivative of her work. In her 4 volumes on sourdough she authoritatively covers all the possible uses from breads to quickbreads and cakes. I would strongly recommend getting all four of her books.
- Related to this is the https://www.facebook.com/groups/perfectsourdough/ which has a faithful following of both expert and newbie bakers.
- And another facebook sourdough group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/360136781918/
- Wild Yeast is another baking blog focused on sourdough
- The Tartine Loaf is legend on the west coast and this you tube shows you how. This loaf was the focus of Michael Pollen’s AIR chapter in Cooked, also an excellent read.
- Bread science is expertly covered by Emily Beuhler in her book of the same name.
- Check out the Lactic Acid in Sourdough article for a technical but easy to read explanation of the chemistry of it all.
- The Clever Carrot is a blog of similar scope to this one – well described.