Sourdough bread has a bit of a bad reputation for being difficult to master. Unlike the classic white loaf, that uses instant or cake yeast, sourdough is truly alive. I think it is the starter more than the actual bread that people find the most cumbersome at first. For me, it was more about hydrations and proving times. I wanted that Instagram-worthy loaf. Large air pockets, perfect crust, beautiful scoring. This is my sourdough journey.
A little bit of culture
Sourdough gets its name from the sour flavour that a good starter imparts upon it. A good sourdough starter contains not only active ‘wild’ yeast but, also, a host of good bacteria. Most important, after the yeast (of course) is a strain of bacteria called lactobacilli. Lactobacilli is a pro-biotic that converts sugar to lactic acid. It is lactic acid that gives your starter and resulting sourdough loaf its characteristic tang. That’s the second thing that puts people off: bacteria.
I have spoken to people in the past who have asked whether sourdough is safe. My answer is always the same: Of course it is safe, people have been baking bread this way for centuries! People hear bacteria and instantly think of the bad kind. In the first week of fermentation, a sourdough starter will go through a number of changes. The different strains of bacteria wage war on each other, the pH balance of the starter continues to increase. As the starter becomes more acidic, most strains of bacteria die off. What you have left is raw power and flavour!
Talking of power… My first batch of starter was particularly potent. Not only was it strong, but I put it in too small a container. After about 48 hours of feeding, I woke up one morning to find a large puddle of starter on the kitchen work surface. It smelt strong, and it was a pain to clean up! Take my advice: use a jar/container that is at least three times as bigger as the starter when first mixed. You will thank me later!
In addition to making a mess, the first time I made a sourdough starter, I made a lot! It seems that many recipes require you to make much more starter than you would ever need in a household environment. I got to the point where I was tipping more of it away than I was using! I say the first time because I gave up on making sourdough loaves for a while as I just wasn’t getting the results I wanted and decided to take a break. Rather than store my starter or put it into hibernation, I threw it away. (A silly thing to do.) My recipe for a simple sourdough starter accounts for volume (so you do not make the same mistakes I did!)
So, I had a sourdough starter that was healthy: rising consistently and responding to feeding well. Now the important part in my sourdough journey, to actually make a sourdough loaf. I tried following a recipe I found on the internet but it something was wrong. My loaf was like a frisby and the texture was close! I had proved the loaf in a banneton as suggested, I proved it for how long they suggested, I kneaded it well… And there lay the problem (or, at least, in part!)
After watching numerous videos on how to bake sourdough, I found the consensus to be that you should autolyse the dough; that is, to let it rest so the proteins in the flour can break down and then fold it regularly over a number of hours whilst it proved to ensure the gluten chains remained intact. You see, the longer you leave dough, the more the sour flavour develops but the gluten slackens. My recipe for a ‘basic’ sourdough loaf follows this method: folding over the course of a number of hours before proving overnight in the refrigerator (so it doesn’t over-proove whilst the flavours develop.)
I had the technique. Now came the other tricky part: hydration. They say that cooking is an art whilst baking is a science. This is entirely true in the case of sourdough. If you want the perfect loaf of sourdough bread then your hydration levels/ratios need to be exact. I start with a 100% hydration starter. I then weigh out the other ingredients to change the ratio. Ideally, you want to hit between 71-74% hydration and there are handy calculators online that show you how to work this out. Or… you could use my recipe!
What’s the score?
Earlier, I said sourdough was a science; however, there is one part of baking sourdough bread that facilitates our inner artist: scoring the loaf. Scoring is all about controlling the rise of your loaf so that it rises up and cracks where you want it to rather than the sides, etc. A classic ‘design’ is to make a deep score from top to bottom, slightly off-centre, and attacking the dough as a 45 degree angle. The angle is important. If the blade is at a 90 degree angle to the dough, it will spread but not open. 45 degrees is the optimal angle to create an ‘ear’.
Talking of blades… There are lots of options out there for lames, razors, knives, etc. to score your loaf with. A lame can be invaluable, but I like to just use a clean craft knife blade. It works well.
Something else you will come across in your sourdough journey is the idea of baking in a ‘dutch oven’. That is, to bake your loaf in a cast iron pot with the lid on for the first 15-30 minutes of baking time. The idea is that this oven within and oven traps in steam to allow the loaf to really rise before the crust sets hard.
Personally, I don’t see a huge difference. If you’re baking a round loaf then I don’t see any reason not to but if you’re baking baguettes or a lozenge-shaped loaf then try not to worry too much. Another way to ensure a softer crust is to wrap the still warm loaf in a tea towel when it comes out of the oven.
Now I’ve got the basics down, I am focusing on ways to make sourdough more accessible and less time-consuming. I am currently developing a recipe that requires less folding, and takes less than 24 hours to get from start to finish. Interested? Subscribe to my Newsletter to be the first to hear when the recipe goes live.
Until then, I will also be focusing on flavourings and additives (the good kind… fruits, spices, etc.) that can be added to make sourdough even more special.
I love sourdough, and my sourdough journey is far from over, but I cannot wait to share with you the things I discover. Try them out, and let me know what you think!