Earlier this year, on February 7, 2019, I began my Sourdough Journey.
I begun by making a sourdough starter from scratch, consisting of just all-purpose flour and water. I had no real idea of what I was doing (just a few instagram videos from Jenna Fisher), so it took a few weeks, but eventually I had a wonderful, active starter (who I named Paul).
Eventually I tried a sourdough loaf, and it was really sour, but pretty! To be honest, this was probably my best attempt at scoring so far, although the loaf was very under-proofed and didn’t rise in the oven.
My second attempt went much better! Look at that crumb! And it wasn’t so sour!
I started baking each weekend, until the warming weather made it harder to justify heating up the house and giving up my Saturday to stay home and mix, fold, and shape all day.
To be honest, I love baking sourdough. It is so easy and requires just a few ingredients. With a little care, you can regularly achieve great results. There are millions of dedicated sourdough bakers in the world with great advice. My favorite part, however, is trying to improve an aspect of the sourdough, and seeing how that changes the resulting loaf. I was really proud to improve so much between loaves one and two!
I have gotten into a good routine with my sourdough, and I wanted to take photos and write down the process during this final, somewhat cool weekend.
For anyone just starting their own sourdough journey, or considering beginning one, there are a few tools you will need, and a few it is nice to have.
You need to have a scale, digital or otherwise. This is essential for keeping the sourdough starter alive, and for baking consistent loaves.
You will also need to have a bench scraper. Technically you could use a spatula or similar tool, but sourdough is so wet that really…you need a bench scraper. I can’t imagine baking without it.
Finally, you really need a dutch oven. If you have one with enamel, be aware that it will be in the oven at 500°F. Some dutch ovens can’t withstand that temperature, so double check to be sure yours can. I have an inexpensive Lodge dutch oven, and it does great. Another note for those with enamel: don’t let it get wet when it is hot! The enamel will shatter. 500°F shattered enamel is not your friend. As with the bench scraper, you can make due without the dutch oven if you must, but you will need to find a way to create a lot of steam in your oven to achieve a good crust.
Additional helpful tools include clear glass or plastic containers to hold your sourdough starter, a thermometer, plastic scrapers, proofing baskets, and a bread lame. All very worthy of investing in, but you can bake without them.
Let’s get started!
I keep my sourdough starter in the fridge, so on Thursday morning, take it out and feed it as usual. I reserve 50g of my starter, and add 100g of water and 100g of unbleached all-purpose flour. To help it out, I feed my starter warm water when first taking it out of the fridge. I find that it helps it bounce back sooner.
Feed again on Thursday night and Friday morning, as usual.
On Friday night, make your levain, and feed and re-frigerate the sourdough starter. The levain is similar to the sourdough starter, but this will be directly used in the bread dough. Every recipe you find will direct different ratios and ingredients to be used in the levain.
For my sourdough levain, I use 40g of starter, 80g of water, and 80g of unbleached all-purpose flour. I use King Arthur, or occasionally the Trader Joes brand. Leave the levain to rise overnight.
In the morning, it should have tripled in size. If it hasn’t, leave it longer, or consider starting over with a more active starter.
Gently mix the levain with 650g of water using your hand. There will still be small clumps, but this will help it mix into the flour more evenly.
Measure out 900g of flour…
And add the water/levain mixture.
And mix! Make sure all of the flour is incorporated. It should give you a rough, very sticky and shaggy dough.
Leave this for around an hour. It will grow in size, but at this stage we just want to hydrate the flour. This is called the autolyse stage.
Once ready, mix together 40g of water with 18g of salt, and add this to your dough. This will make it very wet, so just pinch everything together until the water is absorbed.
Now, you will fold. Grab one side of your dough with both hands, and fold it over to the other side. Do this on all four “corners.” Do this until the dough begins to come together and smooth out – between one to three times. I did mine twice.
Now, put the dough into a warm place to begin rising. Do another set of folds every twenty minutes until it passes the windowpane test, which should take between 2-3 sets. Do one set at a time.
The windowpane test will help to determine when the gluten has developed enough. You should be able to take a large pinch, and slowly stretch it until you can see daylight through the dough before it breaks. Do not knead the dough in this recipe. The proofing and folds do all of the work for you.
Once you are done folding, leave your dough for another three to four hours, depending on how warm it is. If you are baking in the winter, give it four hours. In the summer, three.
Your dough should have risen significantly in this time. I forgot to take a photo, but my dough filled the large bowl.
Next, dump out your dough on a well-floured surface…
I was doubling my usual recipe, so this is a LOT of dough!
Now you are going to pre-shape. Use the bench press to divide the dough in half, and gently scrape under the dough while pulling it towards you. After a minute or two, you should have a cute little round ball. Do the other half of the dough, then cover and leave your two loaves to rest for thirty minutes.
Now comes the shaping. You can find instructions online to shape a batard, but for a boule, use the bench scraper to flip the ball over. Pull one side to the ball to the other, tuck up the sides, and roll. Put this into the proofing basket, smooth side down.
Note: If you don’t have a proofing basket, put a clean kitchen towel into a medium-sized bowl and thoroughly dust with flour.
Those air bubbles are what we’re looking for!
Next, cover and put into a warm place for two hours, or into the fridge overnight. I find that the dough develops a pleasant slightly-sour taste if I use the fridge-route, but the dough gets bigger if I leave it in a warm place for two hours instead.
I’ve had plenty of loaves proof to a larger size than this, but this is okay too.
While the loaves are proofing, preheat the oven to 500°F with the dutch oven inside. To help the bottoms of the loaves not burn, I also put a baking sheet on the bottom shelf to better distribute the heat.
Once preheated, leave for thirty minutes to fully get up to temperature.
When ready to bake, put the loaf on a sheet of parchment paper, score with a lame, and put into the dutch oven (with the lid on). Lower the temperature to 475°F once the dough is in, and bake for 25 minutes. Once the timer goes off, take the lid off the dutch oven and lower the temperature to 450°F for 10 minutes, or until the desired color.
Beautiful! My scoring skills are not great, but I am ordering the amazing wiremonkey lame and expect they will quickly improve.
If I was stuck on an island, I could eat avocado toast using this…for the rest of forever.
And that’s it! With a little attention, a few ingredients, and a lot of time, sourdough is within your reach.
Next fall/winter, I plan on focusing more on temperature and crumb. Sometimes I have a great crumb, and others (like today)…not so much. Temperature is a huge factor of sourdough baking, so I plan on playing around with it in the future.