Sourdough Made Easy


DIY Sourdough Starter and Bread Made Easy

What is Sourdough Bread?

Sourdough Bread is the first known naturally leavened {a substance that causes dough to rise}, fermented bread that uses naturally-occurring yeast and bacteria for both rise and flavor. Sourdough has been around for more than 3000 years!

The fermentation of starches/sugar by the natural yeast in the starter releases CO2, which causes the bread to rise {leavening action} and the fermentation action of lactobacillus bacteria releases acetic and lactic acids, which in turn cause the characteristic flavor of sourdough bread and also provide a natural measure of preservation of the bread {it totally lasts longer than regular bread!}.

What's Different About Sourdough?

All doughs contain some bacteria but they don't all have Sourdough's characteristic flavor because in traditional bread the commercial yeast outnumber the good bacteria. Both compete for the sugars and the commercial yeast wins out, the bacteria don't have a chance to produce the acid by-products that add to the depth of flavor. In true Sourdough bread, the yeast and bacteria are balanced, a symbiosis is achieved.

What is a Sourdough Starter?

Flour, water, natural yeast and beneficial bacteria. A starter is a community of microorganisms that naturally live on the surface of grains and in the air. The yeast breaks down some of the sugars from the flour and the bacteria feed on some of the byproducts from the yeast and create and acidic environment that provides the amazing flavor of true sourdough. The acidic environment in your starter also prevents mold and other bacteria from reproducing, which is why a starter can be maintained at room temperature without 'going bad' {with regular feedings, more on that in a sec}.

Sourdough Starter is nothing more than a piece of loose dough in which the yeast is continually reproducing with the help of regular 'feedings' of fresh flour from you!

“Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread. Without it, it's flat.” ~Carmen McRae

sourdough starter

Why Bake Your Own?

The list is seriously endless, the process of learning to make sourdough is an amazing adventure and the taste cannot be beat! It's a longer process than with commercial-yeast leavened bread {the wild yeast in sourdough is less vigorous than commercial yeast} but unlike commercial bread, in sourdough the yeast and bacteria are balanced and you end up with a much deeper, more complex flavor.

A few benefits of sourdough:

-Gluten is broken down (some people with gluten sensitivity have found they can eat real sourdough)

-The fermentation that occurs makes more nutrients available to your gut

-Naturally helps to preserve the bread with no commercial chemicals

-Lower glycemic index (less of a blood sugar spike in your blood after eating it compared to commercial)

-Breaks down phytic acid (phytic acid can prevent absorption of many minerals)

Many commercial sourdough breads are just regular bread with commercial yeast and chemical flavoring added to mimic the taste of true sourdough, without any of the fermentation and health benefits of it.

“A lot of us think that sourdough is a style of bread, but what sourdough is, is the traditional way that bread was made until only about 100 years ago.” ~Michael Pollan

Obtaining Your Starter:

In order to bake wonderful, naturally leavened {aka risen} Sourdough bread, you need a live starter, you have three options here:

  1. Hit up a friend or family member who has one (even if they're across the country, they can dehydrate some of their starter and mail it to you!)

  2. Buy a starter online from places like Cultures for Health or King Arthur Flour

  3. Make your own from nothing but flour, water and time!

Let's go over making your own starter from scratch! {It's not that hard, I promise}

DIY Sourdough Starter:

Making your own starter from scratch requires no fancy ingredients or equipment....but it does require something challenging for many of us - patience!! I can take time {days to a week or more} to get to a strong starter from scratch but after that the upkeep is simple.

Gather your equipment and ingredients:

  • Glass jar or container (a regular canning jar works well)

  • A kitchen towel, coffee filter, etc: anything that will cover your container but still let air out, I've found the plastic caps they sell for canning jars work well, I just don't tighten it completely.

  • Wooden or plastic spoon

  • Good unbleached flour (whatever you'll be baking with is best, I have made starters from white flour, bread flour, whole wheat and a mix of white and whole wheat).

  • Un-chlorinated water (you can either filter your water or let it sit out uncovered overnight to give the chlorine time to evaporate).

The Steps:

Day One:

-Start with chlorine-free water. (Chlorine in treated water can kill the yeast you're trying to cultivate)

-Mix together a 1:1 ratio of water and flour {the exact amounts don't matter, but you don't need a giant amount, my active starter is about a 1/2 cup total}. You're aiming for pancake-batter consistency.

You may see other posts/articles online that suggest using grapes, commercial yeast, raisins etc to kick-start your sourdough starter. I have never used these methods, you don't need them, the yeast already exists in the environment and on your flour.

Lingo: what you are making here is a 100% hydration starter.

Day Two and Beyond:

Remove half of your starter and discard it. Now 'feed' your remaining starter with half flour and half water until it's about the same amount you started with. {you don't have to be super precise here, I never measure exactly how much water/flour I add, I just eyeball it so it's the right consistency and volume}

You want the consistency to be similar to pancake batter:

sourdough starter consistency

Continue these daily feedings {leaving it out on the counter during this time} until you have an active starter. How do you know? You'll start to see bubbles in the mixture and the starter will increase in volume overnight {thanks to those bubbles} and fall the next morning as the bubbles dissipate. Once your starter about doubles in size/volume overnight {or about 12 hours after feeding} and looks nice and puffy when it's at peak size, then you have a starter that will leaven {rise} bread. **You may miss when your starter is at its biggest, look for some starter clinging to the sides of your container, or place a rubber band around the container when it at its smallest so you know for sure it's rising.

Lingo: when your starter is at it's biggest size it's considered "active". You will see some recipes tell you to add an "active" starter, this is what they mean.

Active Sourdough Starter

The final test: if your starter can pass what's known as the 'float test' it's good to bake with. **Note: the float test is done when your starter is most active {bubbly and about double in size/volume, before it falls back down, about 12 hours after feeding} because that's when you'll use it to bake, when it's most active.

Lingo: The float test: drop a spoonful of your starter in a glass or bowl of water, if it floats it's ready!

Feeding and Maintaining your Starter:

Now that it's active you can either bake with it or put it in the fridge to let it 'sleep'. You can maintain a starter at room temperature but you will need to feed it every day, so unless you're baking frequently with it you may want to put it in the fridge, and in that case you only need to feed it once a week.

Feeding:

As when making your starter, discard about half the starter and add equal amount of flour and water to bring it back to the original volume, which does not need to be a lot, at about pancake-batter consistency or slightly thicker. If you are keeping it in the fridge, after feeding, leave it out for about an hour to wake up a little then put it back in. {There are some ideas at the bottom of this post that you can do with that discarded starter}

If you are going to bake with it: check the recipe to know how much starter you'll need! Mix enough flour and water in your starter for more than the amount the recipe calls for {again, at a 1:1 flour:water ratio} so that you have enough for both the recipe and to retain some aside so you always have starter on hand.

Generally {and especially if your starter is kept in the fridge between feedings}, you'll need to 'feed' your starter, and up the volume to what you need for the recipe, the night before you're going to bake with it.

*If you keep your starter in the fridge you may notice a dark liquid on top forms in between feedings - just pour it off and feed as usual. Keep it out on the counter after you feed it if you're baking the next day.

Lingo: that liquid is called the 'hooch' and forms when your starter has just about ran out of food. It may be light (as below) to dark in color.

sourdough starter with 'hooch' on top

Baking Sourdough:

Gather your equipment/supplies:

  • Flour, Salt {bread salt or pink himalayan works best}, Chlorine-free water

  • Active sourdough starter

  • Glass bowl

  • Wooden spoon

  • Plastic wrap {shower caps work well for this}

  • Sharp knife or bread lame

  • Mixer (optional)

  • Dutch oven (optional)

  • Digital kitchen scale (optional - I won't bake without out one now, but if you're just starting out you can make due without it, just stick to recipes that include ingredients by volume, but if you keep baking consider getting one and going with recipes by weight, it gives you a better end product in my opinion).

The Basic Steps (I'll include a recipe I love below)

1. Mix the flour, water and your starter (or your pre-ferment [see below]) in a bowl or mixer

-It helps the starter disperse better if you mix it with the water then add the flour

-Use room-temperature water

-Just mix until it's a shaggy wet mass

sourdough after the initial mix

2. Let rest for 30-60 minutes, cover the bowl with plastic during this time.

Lingo: this is called the 'autolyse' it gives enzymes in the flour time to start to breakdown the gluten, this will shorten and make kneading your dough easier. The starches will also start breaking down into simpler sugars, this is the food for the yeast which will allow them to produce CO2 and subsequently cause your dough to rise.

3. Add the salt and mix again by hand or in your mixer for a few minutes.

4. Cover your dough with plastic wrap {a plastic shower cap works well} and place it in a warm spot, perform a series of stretch-and-folds {optional, see below}.

  • Not too warm: on your counter if the kitchen is warm, in the oven with just the light on if it's cold in the kitchen. Around 76 degreed F is considered optimal.

  • Let it rise until it about doubles in size {sometimes it will only increase in size by less than that, but it should increase in size}.

  • The time this takes will vary, the recipe you use is a good guide, it will rise faster in warmer environments. Don't let it rise more than double what you started with without moving to the next step.

  • Don't try to rush this step by making the environment hotter, you need it to take some time to properly develop the flavor of the bread.

Lingo: this is the 'bulk fermentation' or 'initial rise' stage, typically 'proofing' refers to the final rise of the bread after it's shaped into a loaf, but you'll see it used for this stage as well in some recipes/articles.

  • Stretch-and-fold (optional). Including these will improve the texture and final strength of your dough. You can perform these in the bowl you're bulk fermenting in or on your counter.

How to:

  • In the bowl: grab a corner of your dough {reach down past just the top edge} and pull and tuck it into the center of the dough mass. Rotate the bowl and do this 4 times for each 'corner'.

  • On the counter: gently spread your dough mass on the counter into an approximately square shape. Pull each corner, one at a time, into the center of the mass.

  • Perform these stretch-and-folds every 30-45 minutes for 3-4 times total while your dough is rising.

5. Form the dough into its final shape and let rise again {second rise AKA proofing}.

  • Place the dough on your counter, a little flour may help prevent sticking.

  • Note: try to keep the flour on the outside surface only of your loaves {this will help form the characteristic crust on the bread when baking}.

  • If the recipe calls for it, divide the dough into 2 equal sizes, or leave whole.

  • Form the dough into a ball(s), cover with plastic and let rest for 20-30 minutes on your counter.

sourdough dough formed into loaves

  • Shape the dough into its final shape(s) and place in a container for the final rise, upside down {you want the bottom of the loaf facing up for this part}.

  • Container choice: some use formal 'bannetons' or 'brotforms' {a coiled willow basket} or baskets lined with cloth, if you're just starting out I've used a glass bowel with a kitchen towel lining it. You want something that will allow a little rise upward, but not outward, so that the loaf maintains its shape {when rising, sourdough rises in all directions, you want to control this final shape}.

  • I recommend your first few loaves, sticking with a simple round loaf shape, or boule. The recipe I'll include below will be for a low-hydration {low water content, easy to shape}. Higher hydration doughs don't hold their shape as easily and can be hard to form when you're starting out as they're very sticky.

  • There are many methods to shaping your loaf {see 'Tips and Tricks' below}, the key points are to create surface tension, keep any additional flour on the outside of the loaf only, and don't be too aggressive/don't over-work the dough, you don't want to totally loose all of the gas that has built up in the dough while it's been rising.

Lingo: Banneton/Brotform: a coiled cane basket used to help the dough hold its shape during proofing and impart a spiral design on the outside of the loaf. Boule: fancy French term to describe a round sourdough loaf. Hydration Level (high/low/specific %): this simply refers to the ration of water to flour. Your starter will likely be closer to 100% hydration (if you feed and water in equal amounts, and will be pretty runny, similar to pancake batter). Your dough will also be a certain hydration level, depending on the recipe. Lower hydration doughs are less sticky and easier to work with, they also hold their shape better. The trade-off with lower-hydration doughs is the "crumb" or the characteristic holes inside the bread, they will be smaller with lower-hydration bread.

sourdough bread final shaping
  • This final rise time will depend on the recipe you use, the ambient temperature, and the hydration of your dough {how wet or dry it is}. It will typically be 2-4 hours. At this point you can also put your dough in the fridge overnight and bake it in the morning {aka long ferment, increases the slightly sour traditional sourdough flavor}.

  • When your dough is ready, pressing your finger into its surface should leave a dent behind {if it springs back, it needs more rising (aka proofing) time}.

  • If your dough is left to rise for too long {over-proofing} it will not rise nicely in the oven. This may take some trial-and-error at first until you know what properly proofed dough should look and feel like.

6. Baking

  • You need steam!

  • You can achieve steam in the oven in a few ways: by using a vessel with a lid {I use a Dutch Oven} and remove the lid halfway through the bake. Or by placing your bread on a sheet or stone and placing a pan of water in the oven when the bread goes in.

Cast iron dutch oven, 5 quart

Image source

This is the dutch oven I use, they're by far my favorite way of baking my bread.

  • Preventing sticking:

  • Your bread may stick to your pan and tear when you try to remove it, to prevent this you can: use parchment paper, dust the bottom with cornmeal, or if using a Dutch Oven pre-heat it when the oven is warming up.

  • Scoring/Slashing:

  • Before you bake the dough, make a few cuts in the top of it. This helps the rise in the oven and gives the steam an exit route from your bread. Just use a very sharp kitchen knife, if you bake often you can purchase a bread lame, but it's totally optional.

  • Oven Temperature:

  • Follow the recipe, but generally sourdough is baked at a high temperature, at least 400 degrees F.

The Recipe:

Adapted From: Basic Country Bread in Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson-->buy this book! Seriously it's a great Sourdough book with amazing pictures and great recipes (ps I get no monetary kick-back or benefit if you do buy the book, I just really think it's a great book!).

I've altered this recipe to make it a lower-hydration (less water, easier dough to work with) dough. I've also eliminated the Leaven/Pre-Ferment (more about this after the recipe) to give more flexibility in baking the same day if your starter happens to be active at that time.

Makes 2 loaves.

Tools:

-Mixing bowel (you can use a stand mixer if you want to)

-Kitchen scale

-Mixing spoon

-Plastic wrap or shower caps

-Something for your final dough to rise in once formed (can use a kitchen bowl with a dishtowel in it, or get fancy and get a cloth-lined basket or brotform.

-Bench scraper

-Knife or lame

-Dutch oven to bake the bread in (optional, can use a pizza stone or something similar and put a pan of water in the bottom of the oven). You don't need the water if you use a dutch oven.

Ingredients:

-Warm water: 700 grams

-White bread flour: 1000 grams

-Whole wheat flour: 200 grams

-Salt: 20 grams

-Your active starter: 200 grams

Process:

1. The night before (or that day if you know your starter gets to the active stage pretty quickly, or already is) you're going to bake, you want to feed your starter with enough flour and water to increase the size so you have enough for this recipe and to save some for next time. You will need 200 grams of your starter. Feed with a 1:1 ratio of flour:water.

2. Put the warm water in a bowl (700 grams) and add 200 grams of your starter. Mix until incorporated.

3. Add the flour: 1000 grams white and 200 grams whole wheat.

4. Autolyse (let rest in the bowl, covered) for 40 minutes. While resting mix your 20 grams of salt with 50 grams of warm water.

5. After resting, add the salt/water mixture and incorporate into the dough (either use a dough hook in your mixer or mix by hand).

6. Now it's time for "bulk ferment", or initial rise. During this time the dough should increase in size in your bowl (a lot of recipes say 'double in size' but I rarely find that to be the case, about 30% bigger is enough). It usually takes (depending on the temperature in your kitchen) about 3-4 hours. This is the crucial time, check on your dough after 1-2 hours, you don't want it to over-ferment (rise too much) or you won't get a good rise in the oven ("oven spring"). Don't let it more than double in size before moving to forming the loaves.

7. During the bulk ferment is when you are going to do your stretch-and-folds (see above) every 30-45 minutes for 3-4 times total while your dough is rising.

8. Now it's time to form the loaves! You can either lightly flour the counter, or the dough itself once it's on the counter. The biggest objective here is to keep the flour on the outside of the dough only and not incorporate it into the rest. If you have a bench scraper, you don't need flour. Cut the dough in half and form each half into loose round balls.

9. Cover the rounds of dough with plastic wrap and let sit on the counter for about a half hour.

10. Now form them into their final shapes. As I said above under "forming the loaves":

Gently shape into a ball and place it into your cloth-lined, flour-dusted basket, or whatever you're using for the final rise (a glass bowel with a clean dishtowel in it (dusted with flour) works well when you're starting out. *Remember, Sourdough rises up and out, so you need a container that will control the outward rise so your loaf shape is maintained and you don't end up with a big pancake shape. You can easily form your ball (aka boule) by pulling each side into the center, flipping it over, then using your hands to push it around and toward you on the counter to tighten the dough on the top of the loaf (you don't want flour on the counter at this point, you want the balls to stick a little). DO NOT "punch down" the dough as with many commercial yeast bread recipes - with Sourdough you want to handle it as little as possible in the final stages so you don't over-deflate the air bubbles that formed during the bulk fermentation. Dust each loaf with flour and flip them upside down into your final proofing container.

11. Cover the loaves and leave them for their final rise: about 2 hours.

This final rise time will depend on the recipe you use, the ambient temperature, and the hydration of your dough {how wet or dry it is}. It will typically be 2-4 hours. At this point you can also put your dough in the fridge overnight and bake it in the morning {aka long ferment, increases the slightly sour traditional sourdough flavor}. When your dough is ready, pressing your finger into its surface should leave a dent behind {if it springs back, it needs more rising (proofing) time}.

12. Pre-heat the oven to 450*F (with your dutch oven in it if you're using one).

13. Dust your pizza stone, pan, or dutch oven with cornmeal, or use parchment paper and once the oven is ready, turn the loaves over into your vessel (remember when they are in the container for their final rise they are upside down).

14. Make a few slashes in the top of the loaves with a sharp knife and put them in the oven (allows steam to escape and improves the rise of the bread).

15. If you're NOT using a dutch oven, add a pan of water to the bottom of the oven now and bake for 40 minutes. If you ARE using a dutch oven, no need for the additional water, just bake for 20 minutes with the lid on and 20 minutes with the lid off.

The Pre-Ferment :

(aka the Levain, Leaven, Poolish, or Sponge):

The only thing we haven't talked about so far is making a Leaven. Technically a leaven is anything that causes your bread to rise, but in the world of Sourdough Bread, it's a very precise mixture of a small amount of your active starter, flour and water.

Some recipes will call for a pre-ferment, some will not. Either way, the night before you want to bake is the time to increase the volume of your starter so you have what you need for the recipe.

It is mixed together the night before you're going to bake and when recipes call for it, they will tell you exactly how much of each ingredient to add, for the starter it will typically be only about a tablespoon! It's technically a pre-fermentation of what will be part of your final dough.

The Leaven is usually only different from your starter in that it is mixed together with more specific ratios of flour and water, contains less active starter in it, and it is usually higher hydration (more water than flour, more liquid), which supposedly allows more sourdough flavor to develop in your final dough.

The Leaven may differ from your starter in: hydration (how runny it is, how much water compared to flour is in it), the types of flour in it, the amount of active yeast/bacteria are in it and is left overnight on the counter to rise and ferment.

Tips and Tricks!

For a more intense sour flavor:

-After the initial bulk ferment/rise, after you have shaped your dough into its final shape, place in the fridge overnight and bake the next morning {aka long ferment}.

-Maintain your starter with 50% white and 50% whole wheat flour

-Add some whole grain flour to your recipe {average about 100 grams}

General Tips:

-Weigh all your ingredients

-Perform 3-4 'stretch-and-folds' during the first/bulk ferment/rise

-Best to under-proof rather than over-proof during the final rise (the rise after you have formed the dough into its final shape)

-Use a cloth-lined bowl or basket to contain the final shape during the last rise

Inadequate Rise in the Oven {flat and/or hard loaf}:

-Not long enough initial rise prior to forming into final shape

-Starter was not active enough/at peak activity

-Dough was handled too much during shaping

-Weigh your ingredients

-Over-proofed during the second/final rise (left to rise too long)

-Your dough was too wet (too much water or your starter was too runny)

Forming The Loaves:

-After the initial 'bulk' ferment, dump your dough onto your counter and let it rest for 20-30 minutes.

-While the dough is resting, make sure you cover it with plastic wrap or a shower cap.

-Gently shape into a ball and place it into your cloth-lined basket, or whatever you're using for the final rise (a glass bowel with a clean dishtowel in it works well when you're starting out. *Remember, Sourdough rises up and out, so you need a container that will control the outward rise so your loaf shape is maintained and you don't end up with a big pancake shape.

-You can easily form your ball (aka boule) by pulling each side into the center, flipping it over, then using your hands to push it around and toward you on the counter to tighten the dough on the top of the loaf.

-DO NOT "punch down" the dough as with many commercial yeast bread recipes - with Sourdough you want to handle it as little as possible in the final stages so you don't over-deflate the air bubbles that formed during the bulk fermentation.

What to do with the Leftover Starter:

Here are some ideas to use the starter you discard at each feeding. Discarding some is necessary, otherwise you'd end up with a giant container of starter!

There are a ton of recipes on the web and Pinterest that use discarded starter. Basically anything that you don't need the starter to make it rise is game! Some things I've made with our discards:

  • Sourdough crackers

  • Pancakes

  • Banana or Zucchini bread

  • Crepes

  • Waffles

  • Muffins

  • And my favorite: I keep the leftover 'discards' in a container in the fridge and when I have enough, make and freeze pizza dough!

Happy Baking!

Thanks for reading,

#sourdough #sourdoughstarter #sourdoughbread #naturallyleavenedbread #DIYSourdoughStarter

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