Made from Scratch

Making Good Sourdough PART II
photo by John Rockwell - The finished product. When serving loaves to my students, I like to pre-cu

continued from the May 2017 issue...


Since I began making sourdough bread a couple of months ago, I have made around 100 loaves in my small home kitchen. I give away a lot of loaves, and I’m always asked, “What’s your recipe?” Unfortunately, bread, cheese, and beer—any living food—is not about the recipe. These “living” food products are more about developing a process. That process includes more than “amounts” of ingredients—it also includes time, temperature, and perhaps most important in bread, the handling of the ingredients. After loaves and loaves have been made, you gain an instinctive idea for what the food is “doing” at any given time: has the dough risen enough? Is it ready to shape? Is it properly proven? The details of that process are what create the product—not the ingredients.

Sourdough bread is relatively inexpensive to make. When not figuring for equipment, the price for good raw materials (unbleached/unbromated enriched bread flour) can be under $1 per loaf—a lot less if you use bulk bleached bread flour, and a little more if you use specialty or organic grains. The idea of making a 17-cent loaf using bulk bleached flour is tempting until I remember that the whole reason for making something at home is so we can make something of better quality—something more digestible, and without the additives the food industry thinks we need to make a food product “pretty.” Even at $1 a loaf, the few extra cents is worth it when considering you’re providing something better for your family and friends. When considering similar artisan breads run anywhere from $5-10 per loaf in specialty bakeries, it’s still quite a deal.

Tools can be a small expense. Though not required, these make breadmaking easier, especially if you’re like me and you want to bake on a regular basis, or bake in bulk:

•     kitchen scales (this is absolutely essential, actually) ($20-30 at any superstore)

•     food-grade square containers with lids and plenty of space left over for storing dough (about $5 each)

•     bannetons—stairstepped wicker baskets for proofing (about $10-15 each)

•     a Dutch whisk—a strong wire-whisk designed for incorporating water and flour (about $10-20)

•     some kind of oven-safe cloche--an inverted bowl, roasting lid, or Dutch oven for steaming bread (spend as little as possible, or buy $500 Le Creuset Dutch ovens—up to you!)

•     a stone or roasting platform pan that can be enclosed by the cloche

•     a bread lame—razor tool for the quick scoring of dough ($10-20)

•     plastic scrapers ($5-10)

•     rice flour and corn flour (Cost varies; I use Bob’s Mill brand—dependable and high-quality)

•     parchment baking paper for easy loaf movement during and after the bake (Get the cheap superstore off-brand and ignore the “420 degree maximum” warning.)

Initially, I was confused by the variety of recipes for sourdough. Everyone seems to do it differently. I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important principle to use is that my breadmaking process should fit my schedule--like the men and women of the prairie in 19th-century America, one shouldn’t have to readjust life. I’m going to share my process here, but keep in mind it’s not the only way to get from flour to loaf.

Prepare your starter

If you’re making starter for the first time, you begin with equal weights flour and water and let it sit. After a couple of days, discard half, and then “feed” it with equal weights of flour and water for about a week. Once the starter is going (rule of thumb is it doubles in visible size hours after a feeding), it can be stored on your counter or in the refrigerator, discarding and feeding it the same way every two to three of days. Typically I will feed my starter about eight hours before mixing dough. For every two loaves, I need about a cup (200 grams) of active starter. I’ll usually do my feeding before I leave for work in the morning, and it takes about two minutes. I use large Ball jars and keep the lid very loose just in case it rises very high.

Flour weights: the “recipe”

To form the dough, I use a grams scale. In a stainless steel, glass, or very large tupperware mixing bowl, I dump 1,000 grams of bread flour (high-protein). If I’m using whole wheat--white or “red”--I usually mix anywhere from 10-30% into my dry flour (700 grams white, 300 grams whole, for example). The more whole wheat you use, the more the sharp bran will “cut” the glutens, yielding a slightly denser loaf. For me, the trade off with whole wheat is getting a loaf that is more visually appealing—because the gluten strands are clearer when the loaf “pops” in the oven—and of course the bread tastes better. I’ve used 50% whole wheat with success, but that will make for a very dark loaf (if you’re using red).

Hydration, incorporation, autolyse

Hydration is the ratio of water mass to 1,000 grams of flour. If you use 750 grams (mL) of water, you have a 75% hydration dough. At home, it is possible to use pretty low hydrations (60% range), but keep in mind that hydration is counterintuitive--lower hydration doughs will not be as manageable and easy to shape, nor will they have as much oven spring. I find that whole wheat soaks up more water, so if I want a more manageable dough, I must use at least a 70% hydration dough. While the mixing bowl is still on the scales, I add the water and the 200g of starter. The final weight of the contents ends up being around 1,950 grams.

When I began doing this, I incorporated the starter into the water and then added the liquid into the flour. I would mix by hand. This was too messy for me, and I found two tools that helped immensely: a Dutch whisk and a plastic dough scraper. A Dutch whisk makes incorporation a snap, and I can now incorporate all dry matter in seconds, scraping down the flour stuck to the edges with the bread scraper.

Once incorporated, you must let the dough rest for 30-45 minutes--breadmakers call this autolyse. I have worked with dough many times where it initially feels underhydrated and firm, but 30-45 minutes later is perfectly manageable and relaxed. This hydration and manageability is essential in developing gluten--without gluten development, the dough will have trouble holding the air exhaled by the yeast.

Salt and “stretch and fold”

The rest of the breadmaking process is a process where the dough is stretched and relaxed as layers of air are built into the dough. Salt inhibits yeast, so it isn’t incorporated until this part of the process. At the first stretch and fold I add 22 grams of untreated salt--pickling/canning salt is best because it has no de-clumpers or additives. I simply stretch one corner to the opposite corner and flip the dough. It is hydrated, so it reincorporates into itself. I stretch every hour for about three or four hours, or until the dough feels “pillowy” to the touch.

Obviously shaping, proofing and baking are next, and these are an art form in and of themselves, because they will determine how the loaf “moves” when it is placed into a hot oven. Next month I will discuss these very important last steps of the process in making great homemade sourdough bread.