I’ve been baking sourdough bread for about six years now, but it’s only recently that I feel I’ve reached a point where I’m comfortable trying to impart what I’ve learnt to others.
When I first started baking sourdough, I was following recipes to the letter, which has always been the way I approach the kitchen; great for desserts, but it hinders the development of true learning if you obsess too much on the detail; you fail to learn what’s really going on. As a result, I was missing subtle cues, variables like weather, flour quality, starter strength and so on that are often only briefly touched upon in sourdough blogs and online recipes, but can have a big impact on the final outcome. Living in Sydney’s Inner West, temperature and humidity can vary wildly, even in a 24 hour period, and something as simple as getting hold of good quality flour could be challenging (not any more though ;-).
It was only when I started making my dough in a temperature controlled environment (the shop), and using premium baking flour (again, from the shop) that I was able to isolate many of those variables, and in doing so, learn how to make consistently good sourdough bread. So, this post is my attempt to impart some of these learnings, in the hope that I can inspire some of you to give it a bash. Aside from the reward of seriously delicious, fresh, home-baked bread, the process is undoubtedly a therapeutic one that brings a level of satisfaction I find hard to put into words.
What you need
There are so many accessories for sourdough baking that, if this is your first foray into this world, you can end up spending a shedload on accoutrements that you really don’t need. In many cases, you can use things you may already have for which there is a baker’s equivalent that has been specialised for the purpose of baking bread. So here is a list of the baker’s accoutrements, and their everyday equivalents you can use instead that you may already have…
- A dough scraper – this is basically a flat, rectangular piece of plastic or steel, usually with a handle along one of the long edges, that you use to cut and manoeuvre your dough on the bench. I’m not really sure what you could use instead of this, but they’re pretty easy to find, and cheap.
- One, or ideally two mixing bowls; stainless steel is best.
- A small, silicone spatula.
- A few clean tea-towels.
- A baker’s lame; I use a “UFO lame”, but if you have a small, very sharp knife (e.g. a paring knife) this will suffice.
- A lined proofing banneton; you can get these from places like Banneton Man, but a colander that you have lined with a clean tea towel will serve just as well.
- Ideally, you want to bake your bread in a lidded pot or cloche; I use a cast iron baker’s cloche, but if you have a camping Dutch oven, this will work just as well. Failing that, you can simulate the conditions inside a cloche/Dutch oven using a deep baking tray full of water; more on this later.
- A couple of good sized jars for you starter and levain; old pickle jars are a good size; the jar for you starter should be at least 500ml, the one for your levain can be a little smaller.
- A set of kitchen scales. You can do things with cup measures, but flour ‘densities’ can vary hugely (a cup of wholemeal vs a cup of white flour won’t weigh the same) so I strongly recommend investing in some scales.
One of the magical things about sourdough, is the complexity of flavour from just 3 ingredients, flour, water and salt. Sadly, the complexity comes from process; you can’t just chuck ’em all in a bowl, mix and voila!
That said, the key ingredient that will likely have the biggest impact on the quality of your sourdough is the starter. This is actually a form of ‘scoby’ (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast), a living, breathing culture from the naturally occuring bacteria and yeast in the flour and surroundings that, when active, creates carbon dioxide that leavens your bread, and lactic and acetic acids that flavour it. Put simply though, it’s just flour and water, usually in a ratio of 1:1, that has been allowed to ferment over time.
Most sourdough bakers will have a starter that they maintain by feeding regularly, only using a small amount each time they want to bake. Some starters (or “mothers”) can be years, or even decades old (mine is a couple of years old now).
Feeding your starter means simply adding flour and water; usually you add in the ratio 1:1:1, i.e. for every 100g of starter (say), you add 100g of water, and 100g of flour.
There is a plethora of blogs and YouTube videos on how make your own starter, so I won’t go into it here, but many of these will say your starter can be used in as little as 5-7 days from first mixing; in my experience it takes at least a couple of weeks to get a starter that is sufficiently strong to give a good loaf; that said, if your starter is doubling after a feed, give it a go!
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume you have 20g of a good quality starter that has been kept in the fridge and hasn’t been fed for a few days. This is what you would get if you purchased our starter, but of course, if you have your own, that works too!
The only other ingredients you will need are good quality flour, water, and salt. To make a 640g plain white sourdough loaf, you will need the following;
- 20g of starter
- 10g + 30g of whole rye flour
- 10g + 30g of wholemeal bakers flour
- 20g + 60g + 250g of tepid water
- 390g of premium bakers flour + extra for dusting
- 10g of salt
- some fine flour (I use tapioca flour, but a cornflour or potato starch works too) for dusting your proofing basket
For the mathematically inclined, this will make about an 800g dough (with 20g of starter left over for the next loaf), but when baked, much of the weight in water will be cooked out (about 20%), giving you a final loaf of about 640g.
Ok, so let’s get started. You will need to plan your dough preparation. Let’s assume you want to bake your bread first thing on a Sunday morning. That means you will need to attend to the dough for most of Saturday. To be clear, you only need to attend to it a few minutes at a time, but at regular intervals of 30 mins to an hour, depending on ambient temperature and humidity*.
- On the Friday night, just before you go to bed, create a levain for your loaf; put 20g of starter in a clean jar and add 20g of tepid water. Mix well, then add 10g of rye and 10g of wholemeal bakers flour. Mix, scrape down the side of your jar with a silicone spatula so all the levain is nicely gathered at the bottom of the jar, and leave overnight on the bench.
- Saturday morning, around 8am, check your levain; it should have risen overnight. Feed it again, this time with 60g of tepid water and 30g of rye and wholemeal bakers. Again, scrape down the sides to tidy the jar, and mark on the jar (or use a rubber band) to note the level of the levain.
- Periodically check on the level; it should at least double in size somewhere between 4 and 8 hours after you fed it, depending on the ambient temperature. Once it has at least doubled, and has a distinctly rounded dome on the top, it’s ready to use…
- Carefully scrape all but 20g of the levain out of the jar and into a clean mixing bowl. (Return the 20g to the fridge for your next loaf.) Add 250g of tepid water and lightly whisk with a fork to break it up nicely, before adding the premium bakers flour and salt. Carefully mix (with a wooden spoon, spatula or your hands) to incorporate all the flour, salt water and levain into a shaggy dough. Be sure there are no dry bits of flour left. It should look a little like this…
If you have a second clean mixing bowl, you may want to transfer it to this now. Cover (I use on of these, but a damp tea towel will suffice), and set aside for an hour. This is the start of fermentation, known as a “fermentolyse” (a portmanteau of fermentation and autolyse).
- Knead your dough for about 5-6 minutes using the Rubaud method; this simulates a scoop mixer by scooping up and dropping the dough, incorporating air and developing gluten strength. You can see how to do this here. Once finished, lift the dough up in the middle with both hands so that the ends tuck underneath and place back into the bowl. Cover and leave for another 30 minutes.
- Repeat the previous step. At the end of this, the dough should start to look quite smooth and stretchy. Cover and leave for another 30 minutes.
- You’ll now perform a series of coil folds. I recommend 5-6 sets, about 30 minutes apart. For each set, do the following;
- Wet your hands under the tap, then, using both hands, lift up the dough from just below half way down, so that the top third drops over the top of your hands and tucks underneath, then place back down into the bowl, coiling that top third underneath the dough.
- Turn the bowl through 180 degrees and repeat.
- Turn the bowl through 90 degrees and repeat.
- Turn the bowl through 180 degrees and repeat.
- Pinch any fermentation bubbles you see forming on the surface of the dough (most likely in the latter sets) to pop them, before covering. I shot a video of one set of coil folds to show this process. You can take a look at it here.
- By the end of the 5th or 6th set of coil folds, the dough should be pretty smooth and silky, and possibly starting to swell a bit. It’s now probably around 4.5 to 5 hours since you first combined all the ingredients into the dough, and while you may have noticed the dough increase in size, there’s still a bit more to go, so just leave the dough to ferment a bit longer; maybe another hour or two.
- Your dough should now have swelled up quite a bit; time to pre-shape. Lightly dust a clean benchtop with some baking flour, and, with wet hands, carefull lift the dough out of the bowl and flip it onto the dusted bench so that the top of the dough lands face down. Carefully tease the dough out a bit into a rough rectangle, then starting at the top left, gently pull the top left corner up and then diagonally across the dough before sticking it to the right side, a couple of cms from the top. Repeat with the right corner across to the left, then work your way down to the bottom of the dough, alternating left and right, until you reach the bottom. Then carefully pull the bottom of the dough up and gently roll it up to the top. Using your dough scraper, gently tuck the dough in at the base to create some tension on the surface of the dough, lightly dust the top of the dough with some bakers flour, and then cover with a clean tea towel and leave for 30 minutes. I’ve made a wee vid of how I do this here.
- While the dough is resting, prepare your proofing bowl by dusting a clean tea towel (or your banneton cover) with fine flour and rubbing the flour right into the tea towel/cover. Then place the tea towel/cover into your colander/banneton. This will ensure that when you tip your dough out to bake, it won’t stick to the tea towel and tear.
- After the dough has rested, use your dough scraper to carefully flip the dough onto it’s top, and repeat the shaping process from step 9. You should find the dough is a little tighter this time, a sign you’ve built some tension into it. Once nicely shaped, use the dough scraper to gather it up, and in a single movement, flip it upside down into your proofing basket, then carefully ‘stitch’ the dough together from top to bottom, alternating between left and right and pinching from the edge of the underside of the dough and gently pulling it up and over into the middle so it sticks there. This helps build further surface tension on the top of the dough so that it holds it’s vertical shape when baking.
- Cover with a clean tea-towel, then put inside a re-usable plastic bag and place in the fridge to retard overnight. This allows the dough to develop flavour, as well as rise a little more, but at a much slower rate. Note that fridge temperature can vary from the top (warmer) to the bottom (coldest), so if you think your dough may already have fermented quite a bit (e.g. if it’s been a hot day), then place in the bottom of the fridge.
- On Sunday morning, place your baking pan into the oven and pre-heat to 250C. Once at temperature remove the pan and take your dough from the fridge. Carefully tip the dough out onto the centre of the pan, and using your lame or sharp knife make a score in the shape of a stretched S right down the middle of the dough. Don’t be afraid to score deeply; you should aim for 1-2cms deep. If you have a cover, replace it and return to the oven. If not, return to the oven, and place a second, deep tray beneath your dough, and carefully add boiling water; this will generate steam as the dough cooks, inhibiting crust development and allowing the dough to rise. Reduce the Bake like this for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, if you have a covered pan, remove the cover. If not, just open the oven momentarily to release any steam and close again. Reduce the temperature to 210C and bake for a further 10 minutes.
- Once out of the oven, leave to cool for at least an hour before cutting otherwise you will end up with a very gummy inside!
*I’ve assumed a cool-ish spring or autumn day in Sydney for these timings; things might take a little longer in winter (e.g. you could take 40-50 minutes between coil folds if your kitchen is cold), and in the midst of a sticky hot summer, things may happen a lot faster (e.g. 20 minutes between coil folds, and pre-shape earlier), so adjust timings accordingly!