This post is a presentation of the essentials of sourdough bread baking, a collation of information I’ve acquired through months of inhabiting artisan bread baking forums, reading books by the bread gurus and – most important of all – trying many different sourdough bread recipes. Consider it a short-cut to your own wide wonderful world of artisan sourdough bread baking at home. Hopefully, I’ve included everything you need to know to get started.
If you haven’t been following this series of blogs on the sourdough bread movement, you might like to check out my previous post and have a listen to the ABC Regional Radio podcast embedded therein. Compelling stuff.
But why bother with home baked sourdough bread, you might ask, when there are now sourdough bakeries aplenty? That’s a question that could yield a book, but I’ll cut to the chase.
No commercial bakery can match the variety available to the home baker. In the 9 months I have been baking, I’ve averaged 2-3 bakes per week, and of those, most have been different breads. Multi-grain loaves of whole wheat, spelt, rye, barley, semolina, oats; simple pain au levain; breads based on classics from master bakers in Europe, the US and even Japan; humble white sandwich bread; ciabatta; stollen; Swedish limpa; bananabread; bagels; panettone far better than any I’ve bought; ale barm bread; walnut bread, pancakes, naan, pizza… all sourdough-based and almost all from recipes made freely available on artisan bread forums in the spirit of sharing and support that is typical of the amateur baking tribe.
Home bakers bake on a small scale, and thus are able to afford premium quality organic flours that would be economically unviable for commercial operations.
The equipment required is cheap and basic, and most kitchens will already have almost everything. You do NOT need a breadmaker – in fact, it’s better without one.
Making your own sourdough bread is nowhere near as time-consuming as you might think. The process is quite forgiving and can be manipulated to fit your schedule.
The hands-on time involved is minimal – a bit of hand mixing, less than 5 minutes shaping, and the average bake takes 30-45 minutes. I don’t even knead (there’s a far quicker, easier and IMO better option – the stretch-and-fold. More details below).
It is thrilling to bake your own beautiful bread! There are pleasures to every bake that you never tire of: the wonderful aroma that fills the house during the bake, the rising of the dough, the first exposure of the ‘crumb’ (inside of the bread) when you cut your initial slice – and best of all, the first taste. OK, I’m obsessed, an addicted breadhead, but I am far from alone. The artisan bread baking forums are full of folk like me! Start baking, and the odds are it will change your life as it has ours. There is something grounding, calming, and deeply satisfying about baking bread. Mystical even. But this is supposed to be a practically orientated post, so I’ll resist the calling to move into philosophical mode.
The Basics of Sourdough Bread Baking
OK, to business. How do you get started? With a starter!
A starter is a wild yeast culture made from flour and water. It’s a natural leaven – otherwise known as ‘sourdough’ – for making bread and other naturally yeasted baked goodies. Once it’s active, you can store it in the fridge between bakes. Take it out and feed it up when you’re planning to make bread. Then put it back in the fridge. Or, if you’re baking very regularly, just keep it out and fed.
There are numerous ways to begin a starter. It took me some time and a few methods to get mine going. It was mid-winter, and I blamed my first failed attempts on the cold ambient temperatures (12-18C in kitchen). As it turned out, the temperature was not a factor – my refined fine-ground rye flour was. As soon as I switched to quality organic whole-grain rye flour in combination with plain white flour, voila!
Here’s the method that was successful for me:
What you will need
1. White flour (no additives, but any good supermarket brand will do)
2. Rye flour (whole-grain, preferably organic)
3. Water (preferably filtered)
4. A clean glass bowl or large jar
5. Digital scales
Add to the bowl:
Stir until well-combined, set aside on kitchen countertop for 24 hours.
As per Day 1. In other words, you’re doubling your ingredients in the container, and leaving the mixture for another 24 hours.
As per Day 2 (getting a sense of déjà vu?)
Discard all except about a tablespoon of the starter mixture (if possible compost it, or use it in pancakes rather than trashing it). Mix in 100g water, 70g white flour, 30g rye and leave for 24 hours.
As per Day 4. More pancakes for breakfast!
You might notice some bubbles forming, and an acetone-like odour. This is good! Discard all but 1 tablespoon and feed again as per Day 5. Leave 24 hours.
Continue to discard and feed your starter daily as per days 4, 5 and 6 for at least another week.
Your starter is ‘active’ when after 24 hours it has doubled in volume, and is light, airy and of a mousse-like consistency. It is now ready to use for baking sourdough bread! Use it when it has peaked (8 to 12 hours after feeding, depending on your room temperature – the warmer your room, the faster it ripens).
Note: In warm summer temperatures, you will probably need to feed it twice per day, or even three times, to keep it in premium ripe condition.
Taking Care of your Starter
You don’t need to keep discarding starter mix. Once you have an active starter, when you’re not intending to use it just store it in the fridge in a glass jar with a screw-on-lid. Take it out and feed it for a day or so before using – this will wake it up and get it nice and ripe again. You can leave an active starter for several weeks in the fridge. If you find a smelly liquid has formed on top (called “hooch”), just stir it in and feed the starter a few times. It will soon spring back to prime health.
Some bread recipes require plain white flour starters, or 100% rye starters, or other flour combinations. You don’t need to keep separate starters. Once you have an active one, you can easily convert it by feeding it a few times with the flour or flour combination specified in whatever recipe you’re following. It’s probably best not to radically change its feed to begin with though. Eg: if you have a plain white starter and want to convert it to 100% rye, first feed introduce 30% rye with 70% white, then increase the proportion of rye gradually over the next few feeds until it is 100%.
The same applies for different hydrations. You might want to try a recipe that uses a 75% hydration starter. If your stored starter is 100% hydration, just drop the water proportion to 75% of the flour content for a few feeds. Simple!
Don’t be impatient, as I was. I was so eager to get going, I convinced myself that a few bubbles and an acetone-like smell were signs that my starter was ready. It was not. Without enough healthy yeast to leaven the dough, it won’t rise and your bread will be compact and flat. Ah dammit, here’s a pic of my inglorious first bread attempt – known in baking circles as…
If you’re not sure your starter is ready, it probably isn’t. The signs of an active starter are unmistakable and obvious: it will double in size, or more, within 8-12 hours (maybe up to 16 hours in very cold conditions), be light and mousse-like in texture, and aerated with bubbles.
Where does the yeast come from?
Debate rages endlessly. Some insist that yeast spores are floating around in the air, others that they are in the flour. The latter explanation has scientific backing. Me? I don’t care. It’s romantic to think that the yeast spores you invoke when you begin your starter are the same ones that the ancients used to make the very first breads, borne in the air down through the centuries, but my money’s on the scientists. Whatever, this really is a case of ‘build it and they will come.’ For me that’s magical, wherever the little beasties heil from.
Some folk use expensive electric mixers, but I mix all my dough by hand (using a dinner knife to stir). And whatever recipes might specify, I’ve never encountered a dough that couldn’t be hand-mixed. So, up to you, but I wouldn’t be buying a Kitchen Aid or similar. All you need is:
That’s it! You can spend more if you like. Bannetons, brotforms, couche linen and other professional bakery equipment give panache to your breads, but you can get by perfectly well without them.
I prefer premium quality organic flours. You can afford the best as a home baker, but it’s not about bucks for me. I love quality flavoursome breads. Why would I compromise flavour, or my own baking, by using supermarket flour? You can if you choose, though. It will work fine, and you’ll still be turning out far better bread than you can buy from most commercial bakeries (or from many boutique sourdough bakeries!). It just won’t be as good as it could be…and that’s unbearable for people like me.
You’ll need a variety of flours. Start with a basic store of the following:
As you get more adventurous in your bread baking, you’ll probably want to seek out some spelt flour, durum semolina, barley flour, oat flour…the list goes on.
Any potable tap water will suffice, but I prefer to use filtered water.
I use cheap sea salt (‘cooking salt’), without iodine or anything else added to it.
Some Bread Baking Terminology
Don’t get spooked by the jargon. You’ll pick it up bit by bit as you engage in the artisan bread baker forums, but here’s a short list that might help initially:
There are many ways to make good sourdough bread. You will develop your own preferences as you move through a few different recipes. My technique varies for different breads, but I usually adapt recipes to allow an overnight ‘retardation’ of the dough in the fridge after bulk proving (or, more usually for me, after post-shape proving – I often bake my shaped bread straight out of the fridge). I find overnight retardation fits my schedule well, and has the added bonus of developing flavour by slowing down and extending the fermentation process. You may prefer to mix your dough and bake your bread on the same day. As a home baker, it’s your choice!
The following steps are a brief summation of the process I use in most breads:
When I began baking bread, I didn’t pay any attention to shaping. After the bulk proof, I would just dump the dough into a bread pan, pat it benevolently to even up the surface, and that was that. If I was making a boule (round loaf), I’d form the dough into a ball with cupped hands and transfer it to a plastic-bag-lined round casserole bowl. I soon learned that the result of not shaping your dough properly is often a very irregular crumb with wonky features you don’t want – such as tunnels and caves. Here’s a video demonstrating correct shaping techniques (there are lots more, covering any shape of loaf you might wish to make – do a search):
Once you’ve shaped your dough, you need some sort of mould to put it in that will retain the shape you’ve so lovingly given it while it proves. Pros and perfectionist home bakers use bannetons, brotforms, baskets and couche linen, which I see as a needless expense, since I’m happy with my breads having a rustic look. In the best tradition of the home baker, I improvise with teatowels, colanders, baking paper, bricks or blocks of wood – whatever works! If you are interested in my home-grown strategies to overcome a lack of pro equipment, let me know in the Comments (no private emails, please) and I’ll do a follow-up post on this.
As mentioned, almost all the recipes I’ve tried have been courtesy of amateur artisan bread bakers posting on bread baking forums. There really is no need to buy books if all you’re after is recipes. There are some very well-resourced and skilful home bakers out there, who are ever-willing to share their knowledge. Peruse some of the many artisan bread blogs or forums and you’ll find any number of tantalising recipes, some based on classic breads made famous by acclaimed professional bakers, some developed by the posters themselves.
Here’s a good one to start with; it’s an easy dough to work with and the bread is one of my favourites:
Norwich Sourdough Bread
Every Friday, breadheads submit pics of their latest baking triumphs to YeastSpotting! – something of an institution among home bakers. Well worth checking, as the pics are usually linked to the posters’ recipes.
Below are links to my favourite artisan bread blogs and forums. Google and you’ll find many more. And although you don’t need to splash out on books, you’ll probably want to read the gurus once full-blown bread-baking addiction begins to take hold – see recommended texts below.
This expansive work of Hamelman’s is widely acclaimed as the bread ‘bible’. Written for professional and amateur bakers, it is detailed and technical at times, and many of the recipes are not sourdough based. Nevertheless, Hamelman’s writing is a joy, and this hard-cover classic is highly recommended for anyone seriously into artisan bread baking.
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread
Peter Reinhart is another of the American gurus whose name and recipes come up all the time on artisan bread forums. This is his seminal text, and is well worth having. As with Hamelman, extremely well written. Gorgeous photographs. Again, though, only a minority of the recipes are sourdough.
The Handmade Loaf
Lepard is English, and the breads he covers are all European in origin. Makes for interesting reading and the photography is choice. Some good sourdough recipes, although most call for commercial yeast. His ale barm bread is one of my favourites. This book is far simpler in its treatment than the others I’ve recommended here, and more directly geared to the home baker. A good one to start with.
Note: If you’re Australian-based, you’ll find that these books are available from Amazon at prices way lower than those local retailers are asking. As always, the more you order at one time, the cheaper the shipping works out. And yes, the above are affiliate links, which means I get a small commission if you click on them and then order. I refuse to monetise this blog with Google Adwords etc, but given the ridiculous amount of time I’ve put into this post I felt justified in embedding these Amazon affiliate links on this occasion. But go ahead and bypass them if you wish to order without dropping a few miserable shekels in my begging bowl. Your karma…
I have bought all my bread books through Amazon, with the exception of Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf, for which I got a better deal through the UK online seller, The Book Depository. It’s worth checking their prices against Amazon’s, as they have free shipping. Most of the time, their prices are much higher for US published books, though, even factoring in Amazon’s shipping charges.
There you go then. Everything you need to get started. What are you waiting for?