Getting Started on Sourdough
Hello and congratulations for rising up to the sourdough occasion!
Before I delve into the details of this delicious tangy loaf, let me make it clear that this type of bread baking is a process. The very first time that I set off on a determined sourdough journey, I was knocked off my feet not once, not twice, but three times before I was able to pull something out of my oven that even remotely resembled something edible. So if at first you don’t succeed, try again. And again. And maybe again. Sourdough is a variable creature that reacts differently depending on the air quality, the ingredients, and even the temperature of the room. It truly is a living being, so treat your sourdough baby with all the patience and care that you would a human baby. Sourdough parenthood is a challenge at times, but I assure you that the love and care you put into the process will be apparent in the finished product.
Let me also preface this post by saying that I am by no means an expert sourdough baker or baker in general. I mess up in the kitchen a lot. I have had more than my fair share of creations that have gone straight from the oven into the trash can. Failure is a part of the process. It’s frustrating, yes, but we can learn each time we make a mistake and fine tune our technique for the next time around. It’s a humbling process to say the least. That said, if you ever discover new tricks and tips along the way from other places on the world wide web or just from your own kitchen experience, never hesitate to share them! I want this to be a creative space for every baker out there to share their bread wins and to ask for help, too! We are all sourdough students in this big baking world.
So first thing’s first, what is sourdough? I’ve read a lot of literature on the topic, but I think this source does a good job of portraying the information in a digestible (ha! bread puns) way.
The true defining factor of sourdough is the starter. This elusive component is simply made of flour and water but an endless amount of factors can influence how these two ingredients combine to (hopefully) create a live and active culture for raising your bread. In my own experience, I never had any luck creating my own starter from scratch. The process takes at least two weeks, and that two weeks may be a fruitless endeavor if one of the elements (air, water, flour, etc, etc, etc) is out of wack. But don’t let this discourage you if you’re down for the challenge! Personally, I took the millennial route and ordered a sourdough starter from Amazon. (I purchased this one). Unlike my homemade counterpart, this little wonder helped me to make a successful loaf on the first time around. Alternatively, if you are lucky enough to have a friend or family member in your life who already bakes sourdough, you can ask them for a portion of theirs. It truly is the best gift a friend can offer, in my humble opinion. You could also inquire about purchasing a small portion of starter from a local bakery if you are in proximity to such a treat.
On measuring: Now I’ve grown up in the States using the imperial system for all things in the kitchen and elsewhere, but when it comes to sourdough, I strictly abide by the metric system. I purchased a little food scale on Amazon. You don’t have to get anything fancy, as an inexpensive scale will do. Weighing your ingredients allows you to get more accurate measurements and thus will further set you up for sourdough success.
On Ingredients: Whether you are using a sourdough that you ordered from the internet or a little bit from a friend, you will need to feed the starter equal parts flour and water. (I wasn’t kidding about this parenting thing!) When I was first reading up on starters, I was advised to use only filtered bottled water, as some of the minerals can have an effect on the rising process. Personally, I’ve had no problem with tap water, but if you have hard water, I would recommend using bottled for sourdough. In terms of flour, I am a King Arthur Flour loyalist, but other unbleached flours will most likely work as well. Just make sure that your flour is fresh (flour has an expiration date—a fact of which I was not aware until I started baking bread!) and not enriched/bleached/etc.
On Activating the Starter: When I first received my little packet of live sourdough starter in the mail, I immediately spooned out the sticky flour mixture into a large mason jar with a wide mouth lid. I fed it 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water and stirred it to combine. Then, I loosely screwed on the lid and waited for 12 hours. After those 12 hours, I discarded about a spoonful or so of the starter and repeated the process, this time with 50 grams of both flour and water. Repeat this process until you have a bubbly starter that doubles in volume after about 6-8 hours. When this occurs, your starter is active and ready to bake!
**It is important to note that these measurements are not strict guidelines. Depending on how much bread you are planning to make, you can add as much or as little flour and water as you desire.
My Personal Sourdough Routine: I bake bread about once a week, so I don’t feed my sourdough starter everyday. Initially I was just feeding my starter every 12 hours, but I was going through copious amounts of flour and wasting an awful lot of starter. So after I made those first few initial loafs, I began to feed my starter 30 grams of both flour and water a day or two before I was planning to bake (discarding a little before feeding as mentioned above) until it was active and ready to leaven my bread. Then I baked my bread as usual, spooning out my starter with the rest of the ingredients for my loaf. I fed my starter again with the 30 grams of flour and water and stored the jar with a loosely screwed on lid in the fridge for the next 4-5 days or so until I was ready to start feeding it again for another loaf. I now follow this regime dutifully and it works like a charm.
The baking process for sourdough is notoriously long. There is kneading and proofing and autolysing and shaping and scoring. These steps can be labor intensive and time consuming. All of that being said, I cannot recommend Emilie Raffa’s Artisan Sourdough Made Simple cookbook enough. Her knowledge on the topic of sourdough is immense, and her recipes are nothing short of genius. They are relatively low-knead and are conducive to even the busiest of schedules, as Emilie even provides a time frame for when the steps should be done for maximum efficiency and ease. Her classic sourdough recipe is my go-to loaf. Her Sunday morning bagels are another personal favorite.
I’ve also heard amazing things about the Tartine method, but I have yet to try it myself.
The Zingerman’s Book is another cookbook that has several bread winners inside. With the brick and mortar located just a 5 minute walk down the road from my homely abode, I haven’t yet braved their bread recipes because they just do it so well in house. My goal for 2019 is to give their San Francisco Sourdough a try, so I’ll be reporting back on that soon.
On Baking Tools: Once you’ve selected your recipe, you’re going to need a few essential baking tools. Although a lot of sourdough resources cite a banneton or a proofing basket as a necessity in the baking process, I started off by using mixing bowls lined with flour-dusted kitchen towels and had no problem. You also don’t need a lame in order to score your bread. A sharp bread knife with do the trick just as well! However, a dutch oven is a must. In order to get a crisp crust with that gorgeous sheen, you need to create steam, and unless you have a fancy professional kitchen-grade baking oven, you’re not going to be able to achieve it without the help of a sturdy, heavy bottomed pot with a lid. I love Le Creuset, but TJ Maxx and Homegoods often have more affordable options, too!
Sourdough is an endlessly complicated topic and I have by no means even scratched the surface of all of the intricacies of this process in this little post. So if you have questions, ask away! You can comment on this post, leave me an Instagram DM, or email me. Like I said, I’m not an expert but I am more than happy to pass along my own experience to hopefully shed some light on your own baking. I would also LOVE to see the success stories, too, so if you need a bragging bread buddy, send along an image of your loaf. Now let’s get baking!