How to Make Sourdough (And a Starter!)

With COVID-19 keeping us all indoors and making supplies scarce for some things, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to make sourdough.

Having been making sourdough for years now, I thought I would write a little tutorial on how to make both a starter and a basic loaf of whole wheat bread.

Sourdough is SO EASY- once you get the hang of it! So grab a scale and bowl and ingredients, and follow these simple guidelines.

Feed it lots!

Starter needs to be fed daily and a LOT! You will find a lot of recipes for starter where they say to use a certain amount at a time and then eventually remove some. Here’s why:

For starter to thrive, it needs to have enough food to constantly be eating, or it will burn out and starve. For example, if there is 25 grams of starter in a jar, you would feed it a MINIMUM of 25 grams EACH of water and flour. Now there is 75g total of starter in the jar. At the next feeding, you would need to feed it a MINIMUM of 75g EACH of flour and water. This would now leave you with 225g of starter.

As you can see, this means you will have a LOT of starter FAST. Which is why you must remove some of the starter from the jar. Eventually, you just run out of room! The stuff you remove, called Discard, can be added to all sorts of muffin, pancake, and even other bread recipes to use it up.

Feed it whole grains.

Starters need nutrients too. So make a whole wheat starter, or rye starter! The only caveat to this is that you need to have some whole wheat or rye in your final bread recipe… or you should anyway. The starter will be used to being fed a certain kind of food, so if your bread recipe doesn’t have that food in it, it might have a harder time rising.

Wait until it’s really bubbly!

I get it, we want bread now! Sourdough is a waiting game and meant to be leisurely. It’s not stressful, really! So you need to let nature take it’s course, which means you may be waiting a week or so before the starter is active enough to use. Starters rise and bubble at different temperatures depending on the room temperature. If your room is 23 celcius or so, it’ll rise pretty decently. If it’s less than that, it’ll be slower to rise.

But don’t rush it! If your starter hasn’t doubled in size before use, it will NOT give you a good rise in the loaf! Feed it more! And if you want to encourage it, keep it in a warm place, like inside an oven with the light on, or on top of a warm appliance (I’ve had mine on top of my computer before and had great results!)

Don’t stress about how much to feed it!

Generally, starters are called “100%”. This means that they’re made of equal parts (BY WEIGHT) of flour and water. This relates to something called baker’s math, which for this post I won’t get into. Basically, flour is always 100% in a recipe, so when you have as much water as flour, it’s also 100%.

But starter’s don’t NEED to be 100%. Frankly, you don’t need to measure how much you feed your starter, you can eyeball it! Just put in some flour and enough water to make it mix together. A dryer starter will do well with less frequent feedings and give you a more tangy result, sometimes TOO tangy. It’s all up to preference and, frankly, what works for you.

Just so long as you feed your starter more than it already has in the jar, you will get a happy starter!

Use it at it’s peak.

For me, this can be about 12-24 hours after feeding depending on how cold my room is. At it’s peak, it will pass a “float test”, meaning there are enough bubbles in it that when it’s dropped into water, it will float. This means it’s active!

Open crumb in my Turmeric, Lentil Rosemary loaf

Now that that’s all out of the way, here is how I make and keep my starter.

I get a clean large jar with a screw top. I put in a couple heaping spoons of whole wheat flour, and add just enough warm (NOT HOT) water to mix it into something just a touch looser than something akin to a muffin or biscuit mix: It doesn’t quite hold it’s shape, but close.

Then I just let it sit for a day. The next day I feed it again as I did above, but adding a little extra flour and water.

I repeat this process until I run out of room in my jar, at which point I take all but a few tablespoons out of my jar and put it in the fridge to bake with later.

NOTE: DO NOT LET YOUR JAR GET MORE THAN HALF FULL AT FEEDING TIME. If your starter decides to become active, it WILL overflow!

Once the starter doubles in size after every feed, it’s ready to use! Here’s a basic recipe for a small loaf of whole wheat bread. I start the process by feeding my starter the night before, and in the morning I start the mixing process and am usually baking a loaf in the evening.

Ingredients:

  • 250g All purpose or Bread flour (bread prefered)
  • 250g Whole Wheat flour
  • 350g water
  • 100g starter
  • 10g salt
  • Optional: 2 tablespoons of vital wheat gluten (this helps add more gluten to the dough, thus helping it’s structure hold, since this is a whoel wheat loaf)

Mix all your flours (and vital wheat gluten, if you have it) and salt together in a bowl. Add the water and mix just enough for all the flour to get wet. Let this sit (called Autolyse) for an hour or so.

After this period is done, add the starter by pouring it on top of the flour mix. Now the messy part: Using your hands, dimple the starter into the mix by pressing it into the dough with your finger tips, and then start squishing it all together.

At this point, you’re just trying to get all the starter mixed into the dough the best you can. in the process, you will also develop some of the gluten, which is good! Once the dough is just too hard to handle like this, after a few minutes of mixing, cover it and let it rest.

Happy Loaf!

ALTERNATIVE MIXING METHOD: If you have a kitchenaid mixer and want to just get this thing done, you can also mix everything in there for about ten minutes. If you do this, skip the next paragraph and go straight to letting it rise.

There are countless videos online showing how to mix sourdough loaves. The most common one for starters is the Stretch and Fold. Basically you leave your dough to sit for a half hour or so at a time before returning to it to develop the gluten while it rises (called the Bulk Fermentation). Then You reach under the loaf (with wet hands, to help it not stick to you) and pick it up from the bottom, stretching that piece up and over the loaf. Do this a few times from different angles, and then let it sit for another half hour. Do this 3-4 times before letting it rise on it’s own.

After Letting it sit to rise for a few hours (in a warm spot preferably), it’ll get bigger. Maybe not doubled in size, but certainly close. At this point you need to “preshape”. Do this by doing another GENTLE stretch and fold to release it from your bowl, and gently turn it out onto a floured counter.

Do a little tuck on the sides so the top of the loaf is nice and tight, then let it sit half an hour on the counter. After this “bench rest”, you get to shape your dough! Again, youtube is your friend for the kind of shape you want. Sometimes it’s just rounding and tucking again and letting it rise on the counter if it’s especially stronger, but if you see it “pooling” or spreading a bit, get a towel and large bowl and flour the hell out of that towel.

Pick up your shaped dough and put it UPSIDE DOWN into the floured towel and bowl (ALTERNATIVE: Put your shaped loaf into a regular loaf pan ro rise, which may be more reasonable for many people).

Cover and proof for about an hour or two. It’s ready when you poke it lightly and the mark you leave doesn’t bounce back very much. If it bounces back quickly, it’s not ready. if it almost collapses, it’s overproofed!

As it begins to rise, start preheating your oven. Alternatively, if something has come up and you can’t bake it, stick it in the fridge! I often do this anyway, giving it at least an hour in the fridge, as I find that it helps the loaf maintain its shape once I turn it out into my clay baker. Wetter loaves especially benefit from this. Putting the loaf in the fridge will stop the rising process but also help it get a bit tangier over time. This is called “retarding”.

Now, back to baking:

Bread needs HEAT! Often loaves are baked at 500F and on stone. Not everyone is comfortable doing this, but aim for at least 450F.

In terms of pans, I use a clay baker, but dutch ovens are also great. Both need to be preheated with your oven. If you don’t want to get fancy, you can use a regular baking pan or loaf pan.

AGAIN, YOUTUBE IT! So many options are out there, but if all you have is a cake pan or bread loaf pan, it’s fine!

Once your oven is good and hot, find the sharpest knife in the kitchen and give your loaf a good slash. Bakers use a Lame for this, and it’s to probvide the loaf with a “breaking point” for the crust to spread as the bread expands in the oven. If you don’t do this, you’ll get random cracks and explosions in the bread, which can look cool too, but bakers like to control this to allow for adding designs.

Once your bread is ready to bake, stick it in and bake for about 40 minutes, or until well browned.

Let it cool out of the pan completely before slicing.

There are a lot of variables in baking bread, which can be overwhelming. the key is to just pick a technique and stick to it until you master it! A lot of it is done by feel (for me anyway), and there are often mistakes made, it’s a learning curve for sure. But in these days with limited yeast available in store and not wanting to go shopping more than you need to, making bread from scratch is a rewarding experience, and even a bit therapeutic!

This post was made pretty hastily, so if you are confused about anything, feel free to comment and ask for more clarity!

That Ear!

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