What is better than homemade sourdough bread? We have always loved the crispy crust and tangy crumb of a well made loaf of sourdough bread, and decided to learn how to culture our own starter and make our own bread. What we found in our research was that maintaining a starter and using it for bread baking (and other delicious things!) is relatively easy. If you have flour, water, salt and an oven, you can keep your family stocked with fresh sourdough bread every day.
This post is not about the initial process of making starter. For a good resource in creating your own starter from flour and water, we recommend Mike Avery’s website/blog SourdoughHome.com.
Making Leaven from Starter – The Final Build
Our starter is a thick and paste-like concoction of flour and water and wild yeast. We maintain it by feeding it once a week (with 1 part flour and 2/3 part water), and then storing it in a beverage refrigerator at approximately 50 degrees. When we want to bake bread using the starter, we start with the thick starter, but we feed it with equal amounts of flour and water, which makes the resulting mixture more like pancake batter. This pancake batter-like mixture is called Leaven.
- 3 T. Sourdough Starter
- 150 g Water at room temperature
- 150 g All Purpose Flour
The night before (or at least 4 hours before), prepare the Leaven. Put the Sourdough Starter in a bowl or other container that you can cover, add the Water and stir with a spatula to disperse. Then add the All Purpose Flour and stir with a spatula, scraping the sides to fully incorporate all the ingredients.
If you want to make the bread the same day, you need to do this step in the morning and leave the bowl on the counter for 3-4 hours to give the Sourdough Starter adequate time to become Leaven. If you are baking the next day, you can let the mixture rest on the counter for an hour or so, just to give the yeast time to become active, and then place the covered bowl in the refrigerator overnight. Make sure and pull it out of the refrigerator one hour before you start the bread making process the next day.
Preparing the Dough (for 1 Loaf)
- 250 g Leaven (no more than 48 hours old – the longer it goes, the more sour the bread. Longer than 48 hours makes it too sour and too dense)
- 350 g Water at room temperature
- 500 g Flour – Use 250 g Bread Flour and 250 g All Purpose Flour for traditional sourdough bread, or use 200 g Bread Flour, 200 g All Purpose Flour and 100 g Whole Wheat Flour for whole wheat sourdough bread.
- 25 g Water at room temperature
- 9 g Sea Salt
- Transfer the Leaven to a large mixing bowl. The Leaven will be bubbly and fluffy.
- Add the 350 g of Water to the bowl of Leaven. Stir with a spatula or a dough whisk to disperse. We use a Danish Dough Whisk (Available from Breadtopia)
- Add the Flour. Stir with a spatula or a dough whisk to combine into a shaggy dough. Make sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to incorporate all the flour.
- Cover and let rest for approximately 30 minutes, but no more than one hour.
- Add the 25 g of Water and the 9 g of Sea Salt to the bowl. Use the dough whisk or your hands to fully incorporate the salt and the water throughout the dough. The dough will become a little wet, but do not add flour.
Bulk Fermentation – Letting the Wild Yeast Do the Work
- Cover the bowl. Alternatively, you can transfer the dough to a covered rising container. Let rise for 30 minutes. We use either a 4 or 6 quart, round or square dough rising container – We prefer the square container, because it is easier to fit into a typical refrigerator. (Available at Amazon or at most restaurant supply stores – don’t forget to buy the lid! They are sold separately.)
- After 30 minutes, use a spatula or your hands to stretch the dough and fold it in to itself. Scoop along the edge of the container and pull the dough toward the center, Work your way all the way around the container. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.
- Repeat Step 7 at least three more times – until the dough has increased approximately 30 to 50 percent, and has a springy texture that will hold a shape. It may take longer than two hours, but you will learn what the dough is supposed to feel like – just do a stretch and fold every 30 minutes until it is ready.
If you do not have time to do this process, you can cover the container and put it in the refrigerator until the next day (but no more than 18 hours). The yeast will have time overnight to ferment and build up its gases. Make sure and remove the dough at least one hour before proceeding to the next step so that it returns to room temperature. Some people think that the texture of the bread is affected by doing the extended refrigerated bulk fermentation – We have found that the bread is almost as good as doing the stretches and folds every 30 minutes, though it is a little denser.
- After at least two hours of stretching and folding the dough every 30 minutes, scrape the dough onto a floured surface. Sprinkle flour over the top of the dough, cover with a cloth and let rest for 10 minutes.
Shaping and Proofing
- Begin shaping. After the 10 minutes, pat the dough with your fingertips to make it slightly flatter. Take care not to press the bubbles out of the dough. Then, take each edge and pull it toward the center, folding the dough in on itself, creating tension and making a ball. Sprinkle more flour on the work surface, then flip the dough so it is sitting on the folded seams and the smooth rounded surface is facing up. Cover with a cloth and let rest for 10 minutes.
- During the rest period, prepare the container for final proof. You can use a proofing basket or even a colander lined with a smooth floured cloth. We use a banneton (a proofing basket) because it leaves an interesting and rustic flour pattern on the surface of the bread. (Available at Amazon)
You can also make other shapes. Dividing the dough, We made these oval shapes recently that are perfect for a dinner for 3-4 people. We just let them proof on a floured counter. The key is to make sure that the surface of the bread is taut – you need surface tension to have a good texture in the baked bread.
Baking the Bread
- Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Convection is helpful but not necessary. Set the oven racks so that one is on the lowest level, and one is set at lower middle level. Place the baking container inside the oven on the lower middle level. You should bake in a heavy sided covered container – cast iron or stoneware is the best. Ideally, you want the bottom section of the container to be shallow, like a skillet, and the upper section of the container to be deep, like a pot. We use the Lodge Logic Cast Iron 3 Qt. Combo Cooker. (Available on Amazon)
- Place another heavy skillet on the lowest level shelf, below the baking container.
- After the 10 minutes rest, tighten the dough ball to make sure there is tension on the surface. Transfer the dough ball to the rising container, rounded side down. Cover the exposed surface with a cloth and let rest and rise for 45 minutes.
- Get a very sharp knife or a bread lame ready. We use the bread lame from Breadtopia. Make sure you have oven gloves that are suitable up to at least 500 degrees – the oven and the cast iron get VERY hot!
- Get a cup of ice and set it on the counter, near your oven.
- After the 45 minutes, wearing oven gloves, carefully pull the lower shallow section of the baking container out of the very hot oven and set it on a trivet on the counter.
- Flip the dough ball into the shallow lower section of the hot baking container – this is tricky! You are dealing with a very hot skillet! Immediately use the sharp knife or baker’s lame to score the surface of the dough. This allows the gases in the baking bread to escape without exploding the bread – and gives you the opportunity to develop a signature appearance for your bread. Wearing oven gloves, grab the deep upper section of the baking container and cover the dough.
- Put the covered container back into the oven, then dump the ice into the second heavy skillet on the lowest level shelf and immediately close the oven door, allowing the oven to fill with steam. Turn down the temperature to 450 degrees. Bake for 18 minutes.
- After the 18 minutes, wearing oven gloves, open the oven and carefully remove the skillet of hot water and discard the water. Then remove the deep upper cover of the baking container. Close the oven and set a timer for 13 minutes.
- Keep your eye on the bread – it should be browned, and may even get dark brown edges near the scoring. Do not allow it to burn, but do not pull it out too soon. You can take its temperature (wear oven gloves!) – the center should be approximately 198 – 200 degrees when it is finished. It should be finished approximately 13-18 minutes after you have removed the cover, depending on your oven and the size of your bread.
- When the center of the bread has reached 198-200 degrees, pull it out and immediately transfer it to a cooling rack. Cover with a cloth. If serving immediately, let it rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting.
About Bread Storage and Serving Later:
- Never put bread in the refrigerator because it ruins the texture and dries it out faster. If you can eat the bread within 2 or 3 days, leave it out at room temperature. Wrap it in a smooth linen cloth, then put it into a plastic sealed bag, carefully pushing as much air as possible out of the bag. The cloth helps keeps the surface of the bread from getting moist.
- If you cannot eat it within 48 hours, you can freeze part of a loaf or whole loaves for several weeks. We have stored bread for as long as 8 weeks and it has been fine. Wrap the bread in freezer paper and then put it into a plastic sealed freezer bag, carefully pushing as much air as possible out of the bag.
- When you are ready to serve the bread, pull out the frozen bread and unwrap it. Place it on a cooling rack and cover with a smooth cloth. Let it sit for an hour to come to room temperature.
- Whether using bread baked in the previous couple of days or bread you have defrosted, you should next wrap the bread with aluminum foil and heat it in a 350 degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes. You can cut the bread after removing it from the oven. The aluminum foil helps keep the crust from getting too hard, and helps to make the bread interior moist.
We have researched online and in books and have done many experiments with baking sourdough bread. Our primary inspiration for techniques and recipes has been Chad Robertson’s book Tartine Bread. For troubleshooting, starter development and other recipes, We have often referred to Mike Avery’s website/blog SourdoughHome.com.