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Sourdough doesn't fit with our "gotta have it now" society. Even at its simplest, it still takes days to go from first impulse to finished loaf. It can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. You can work it around your schedule. It can be active or lazy. You can make lots of bread or a little bread.
My friend, Michelle, loves to bake bread. Over the years, she has mastered bread, especially sourdough. Michelle was willing to share her notes on how she is able to make a wide variety of sourdough recipes without fuss.
The first step in making sourdough is to make a starter. From the starter process onward, you will hear the term “hydration.” You get hydration from the baker’s percentage. The hydration of a starter or a bread recipe is the ratio of flour to water. It is based on the mass of the flour. A dough made with 100g of flour and 90g of water is a 90% hydration dough. Measurements are made using grams. Basing the ratios on volume measurements will not work. A kitchen scale will be the easiest way to measure ingredients. Otherwise, convert from grams to volume measurements. 1:1 volume measurements are not the same. You’re going to have more flour than water by volume in a slurry of 25g flour and 25g water.
To keep it simple, make a 100% hydration sourdough starter. Mix 10g rye flour, 40g whole wheat flour and 50g water in a container. You can also use 50g whole wheat or white flour. Rye flour adds more of the classic sourdough flavor. You can grow your starter in anything so long as it is covered to keep out hair, dust, bugs, etc, but it is not air-tight. A jar covered with cloth or plastic wrap will work. You could loosely wrap your container in a produce bag. A plastic sandwich container will work. Work with clean hands and utensils, because otherwise you could encourage bad bacteria to grow.
Where you live will affect how fast a starter gets started. In Oregon, it may take 2-3 days. In Georgia, it may be fermenting by the end of the day.
A good starter smells tangy. It smells like sourdough. A starter gone bad smells fruity, weird and rotten, and it will get a film on top of it. That is when you know your sourdough has died.
You should feed your starter for a few days in order for it to develop the flavor of sourdough. A day-old starter is usable, but it might not give you the flavor you’re looking for.
Typically, starters are fed twice a day. Once in the morning, and once in the evening. You can feed it at whatever ratio you want and as much as you want. How much you feed and discard depends on your end goal. For simplicity’s sake, we will keep to a 100% hydration starter as the default, so when you feed it, use the same amount of flour as water. Changing the ratio will change the hydration of your starter. This may be desirable in the future if you make a recipe that needs the starter to be at a different hydration than 100%.
On the first feeding, add the same amount of flour and water that you used when you made the starter. In our example, our first feeding is with 10g rye flour, 40g whole wheat flour and 50g water. When you’re first starting out, keep the starter on the counter. You want it to be warm so that the yeast will ferment. Keeping it in the fridge will make fermentation take a lot longer.
For subsequent feedings remove a hearty spoonful of starter first. Then feed using 25g water and 25g total flours. The discarded starter can be thrown away or used in recipes. This amount of feeding, twice a day, is good if you’re making bread about once a week. How much you discard in a feeding depends on how much starter is your end goal. Discarding starter is just to keep it from growing like crazy. The only things you need to know for how much to keep are if you have enough for the recipe and what the hydration is. For reference, many recipes call for 16g of starter. Over time, you will get a sense of how much starter you need.
If you are baking bread less frequently than once a week, put your starter in the fridge and feed it once a week. When you are refrigerating a starter, feed it more than you would on the counter. If you would feed it 25g flour and 25g water at room temperature, feed it 50g flour and 50g water in the fridge, no matter how much you take out.
If you feed it a lot, it will grow a lot, especially if you’re not using it in recipes. If it expands to the point where it pushes the top off the tupperware, that means your starter is very active! In general, if your starter is fermenting, it will expand. If your starter is in a clear container, you can see air bubbles forming. This is a sign that it has started fermenting, and it is doing okay.
You want to feed it until you see it rising consistently. Once it’s reacting consistently, you can trust that it will raise your bread.
Michelle prefers to follow bread recipes.
If you add more starter to a recipe than it called for, omit flour and water based on the hydration. If you added 20g extra starter at 100% hydration, you’d hold back 10g from the amount of flour the recipe calls for and 10g of the water.
If you’re feeding 25g flour, 25g water, you could up that to 50g flour and 50g water before making a recipe. Keep enough to cover the bottom of a sandwich tupperware. You can get a lot more scientific about how much starter you keep, but it’s easiest to judge by looks. You could even use all of your starter but what’s left clinging to the container, feed it with flour and water, and that residual starter will help the flour and water ferment.
If your recipe calls for a lot of sourdough starter (100g or more), feed more. Once you add that extra flour and water, it will all be starter in a couple of hours.
If replacing granulated yeast with sourdough, it doesn’t matter too much how much starter you use, but keep it to 20g or above to make sure you add enough. Give it more time than what’s in the recipe as well. Sourdough takes longer than added yeast.
A “stiff” starter is lower in hydration, usually about 80%.
For a rye starter: take a blob of the existing starter and feed it using only rye flour.
For a starter with a different hydration, say 80%: take a blob of the original starter (if you want to keep your primary starter at 100% hydration) and feed it with 80% of the amount of water you usually would. If you usually feed 50g flour and 50g water for a 100% hydration starter, feed it with 50g flour and 40g water for an 80% starter. Most likely, this feeding will use however much flour and water is needed to reach the amount of starter called for in the recipe. If the recipe calls for 100g starter, this will be a 100g feeding. This is not going to be mathematically perfect since you do have some 100% hydration starter in there, but we’re keeping this practical.
If you’re using sourdough to replace granulated yeast in a recipe, when you first mix everything together, you want to let it rest for 20 minutes to let the wheat start absorbing the water. This is letting the dough “autolyse,” and it will help with kneading as the dough will be less sticky. For sourdough recipes, that autolyse period may be 30-40 minutes, or even an hour. After autolyse, knead. If making a no-knead recipe, fold the dough and put it in the fridge. Put the dough in the fridge overnight, then let it do a really long rise the next day, 4-6 hours. You could even go 6-7 hours for a rise. Then put it in the oven.
For a 6-hour rise bread, shape it before the 6-hour rise period. Take it out of the fridge, shape it, and put it in something to help it keep its shape. Loaf shape goes in a loaf pan. For a boule, put a bowl over it so it keeps that bowl shape. If you have the money, you could use a proofing basket, but a bowl will do.
Adding yeast cuts the rise time. You wouldn’t have to let it rise overnight in the fridge. More rising time gives you more flavor, with both sourdough and added yeast, so air on the side of letting it rise longer.
You want steam in the oven when you bake the bread. There are many ways to do this. After letting the oven come to temperature and fully heat up, you can throw a cup of water on the oven floor when you put in the bread. Shut the oven door. 5 minutes later, throw in another cup of water. Do that every 5 minutes for 15 minutes. Then leave the oven door closed and let the bread be. This will help it get a really shiny crust. You want to work quickly while the oven door is open.
Other ways to add steam include throwing in ice cubes, spraying the inside of the oven with a squirt bottle, or soaking 2 hand towels and placing them in the oven in baking trays. Heating a Dutch oven, throwing in the bread, and keeping on the lid will let the bread generate its own steam. 15 minutes later, remove the lid to the Dutch oven and let it finish baking without steam.
Bread is done when bread is done. You can bake it at pretty much any temperature. Hitting it with heat and steam initially will start to develop the crust, then you can work on the inside. Heat the oven higher than you want it at first, add the steam for 15 minutes, let it bake for 15 more minutes at the higher temperature, then drop the temperature to finish the bake.
Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart
Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson
The different kinds of starters, including poolish, biga and levain.
Controlling the temperature during the rise.
The effect of dough hydration on bread texture.