Simply Sourdough: Starting from Scratch

Sourdough bread is a miraculous alchemy of flour, water, and salt. For many, the process of making sourdough from scratch is a journey of patience, learning, and reward. Sourdough is unique because it doesn’t require commercial yeast to rise. Instead, it relies on a fermented mixture known as a ‘starter’ that contains wild yeast and bacteria.

Understanding the Sourdough Starter

A sourdough starter is the heart and soul of the sourdough bread-making process. It is a simple mix of flour and water that captures wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria from the environment. Over time, this mixture ferments, creating an active culture that can be used to leaven bread.

Creating Your Own Starter

To make a starter, you need:

  • Whole grain flour (e.g., whole wheat or rye) for the initial mix, as they contain more nutrients for the yeast and bacteria to feed on.
  • Unchlorinated, lukewarm water to keep the mixture hydrated and active.

Day 1: Mix equal parts of flour and water in a jar or a plastic container. Cover it with a cloth or a loose-fitting lid (to allow the culture to breath) and let it sit at room temperature.

Day 2-7: Feed your starter daily with equal parts flour and water. Each day, discard half of the starter before adding the new flour and water. This feeding process encourages a strong and healthy sourdough culture by providing fresh food for the yeast and bacteria and keeping the acid levels in balance.

As you maintain your starter, you might notice it beginning to bubble and rise, indicating that the wild yeast and bacteria are active. Once your starter reliably doubles in size within 4 to 6 hours after feeding, it’s ready to be used for baking.

Caring for Your Sourdough Starter

Maintaining your starter is crucial for consistently successful sourdough baking.

  • Feeding: If you bake often, keep your starter at room temperature and feed it once a day. If you bake less frequently, store the starter in the refrigerator and feed it once a week.
  • Consistency: Keep the consistency of your starter the same each time you feed it. This will help you achieve predictable results.
  • Hydration: The ratio of water to flour can affect your starter’s activity. A 100% hydration starter (equal parts flour and water by weight) is standard, but some bakers adjust this for different results.

Sourdough starters are resilient. If you neglect your starter, you can usually revive it with a few consecutive feedings. Don’t be afraid to experiment with feeding schedules and quantities to get a sense of what works best for you.

Mixing Your Sourdough Bread Dough

With a mature, active starter at hand, you’re ready to mix your sourdough bread dough. The basic ingredients are simple:

  • Your active sourdough starter
  • Flour
  • Water
  • Salt

The quality of flour makes a significant difference in the texture and flavor of your bread. Choose high-quality, unbleached, and unbromated flour. Bread flour, with a higher gluten content, will give your bread a stronger structure and chewier texture.

Autolyse: The First Step

The autolyse process is a rest period for your flour and water mix (before adding the starter and salt) which helps in gluten development and enhances flavor.

Step 1: Mix flour and water in a large bowl until no dry flour remains. Rest this mixture for about 30 minutes to an hour. This step is optional but recommended.

Step 2: After the autolyse, add your active starter and salt to the mix. Use your hands or a dough scraper to integrate everything into a rough dough.

The Art of Bulk Fermentation and Folding

After mixing, the dough undergoes bulk fermentation. This is when the starter goes to work, fermenting the dough and contributing to its rise and flavor.

  • Place the dough in a large, lightly greased bowl.
  • Keep the dough at a consistent, warm temperature, ideally between 75°F – 80°F (24°C – 27°C).
  • During the bulk fermentation, perform a series of gentle folds: Reaching under the dough to lift and fold it over onto itself. This builds strength in the dough.

The bulk fermentation can last anywhere from 3 to 5 hours or more, depending on the dough’s temperature and the activity of your starter.

Shaping and Proofing

Once the dough has risen and has a billowy texture, it’s time to shape and proof your sourdough.

Shaping Your Dough

Gently turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into a round or oval loaf. Creating surface tension on the outside of the loaf will help it maintain its shape while baking.

Proofing the Loaf

Proofing is the final rise before baking. Place your shaped dough into a well-floured proofing basket or a bowl lined with a clean kitchen towel.

  • Cover the dough to prevent it from drying out and proof it until it’s puffy and has increased in volume. This can take anywhere from 1 to several hours, depending on the temperature and dough composition.
  • The proofed dough should feel light and airy. A gentle poke with your finger should leave a slight indentation that slowly returns.

Some bakers prefer to do a cold proof in the refrigerator, which can last anywhere from 12 hours to a few days. This long, slow fermentation develops a more complex flavor and can help with the scheduling of baking.

Baking Your Sourdough Bread

Baking is the stage where you get to see the transformation of your fermented dough into a beautiful, crusty loaf of bread.

Preheating Your Oven and Baking Vessel

Preheat your oven to a high temperature, usually between 450°F – 500°F (232°C – 260°C), along with your baking vessel (like a Dutch oven) for at least 30 minutes before baking.

Scoring and Baking

Before placing your dough in the oven:

  • Scores are added to your dough. This means making shallow cuts on the surface, which allows the bread to expand in controlled ways.
  • Transfer your dough carefully into the hot baking vessel and cover it with the lid to trap steam during the initial phase of baking.
  • Bake with the lid on for about 20-30 minutes, then remove the lid to develop a golden-brown crust.

Your bread is done when it has a rich color and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Let it cool entirely on a wire rack before slicing to let the crumb set.

Finishing Thoughts

Starting your journey into sourdough baking from scratch can be a wonderfully rewarding experience. It’s a craft that requires attention to detail, an understanding of the ingredients, and a bit of intuition. Through practice, your skills will grow, as will your appreciation for this ancient form of bread making.

Remember that every starter is unique, and the process of making sourdough bread allows for a lot of personal touches based on your preferences, schedule, and the environment you’re baking in. Don’t be discouraged by hiccups along the way; sourdough is forgiving and versatile.

Whether it’s the tangy aroma that fills your kitchen, the crackling of the crust as it cools, or the first bite of your freshly baked loaf, the pleasures of sourdough are many. Happy baking!“`html

Frequently Asked Questions

What do I need to start making sourdough bread?

To start making sourdough bread, you will need the following basic ingredients and tools: flour (a combination of white and whole grain is common), water, and salt for the dough. Additionally, you’ll need a starter, which is a mixture of flour and water that has been allowed to ferment and cultivate natural yeasts and bacteria. For tools, you will need a mixing bowl, a kitchen scale, a dough scraper, a towel or plastic wrap for covering the dough, a baking vessel like a Dutch oven, parchment paper, and a razor blade or sharp knife for scoring the loaf.

How do I create a sourdough starter?

To create a sourdough starter, mix equal parts flour and water in a jar or container. Cover it loosely with a towel or lid that allows airflow, and let it sit at room temperature. Feed the starter daily by discarding half of it and adding fresh flour and water. Within a week, the mixture should begin to bubble and have a pleasant tangy aroma, indicating it’s ready to use in baking.

How long does it take to make a sourdough loaf?

The entire process of making a sourdough loaf can take between 24 to 48 hours, depending on various factors such as the room temperature, the activity of your starter, and the length of time you choose to ferment the dough. This includes the time needed for making the leaven (part of the starter mixed with flour and water), mixing the dough, bulk fermentation, shaping, and final proofing before baking.

Why is my sourdough not rising?

If your sourdough isn’t rising, there could be several reasons: the starter might not be active enough, the dough could have been underproofed or overproofed, the fermentation temperature may have been too low, or the gluten structure wasn’t developed properly. Make sure your starter is bubbly and passing the float test before using, and try to maintain a consistent warm temperature during fermentation.

How do I know when my sourdough is ready to bake?

Your sourdough is ready to bake when it has risen sufficiently and has a slightly domed shape. A simple test to see if it’s proofed is to gently press into the dough with a finger. If the indentation springs back slowly and leaves a slight impression, it is ready. If the dough springs back immediately, it needs more time. If the indentation doesn’t spring back at all, the dough might be overproofed.

Can I use all-purpose flour for sourdough bread?

Yes, you can use all-purpose flour for sourdough bread, but the type of flour can affect the flavor and texture of your bread. All-purpose flour has a lower protein content than bread flour, which may result in a loaf with a slightly denser crumb. For best results, you can mix all-purpose flour with whole grain flours, such as whole wheat or rye, to add flavor and improve the bread’s structure.

How do I store my sourdough bread?

After your sourdough bread has cooled completely, store it in a bread box or wrap it in a linen cloth or paper bag for up to 3 days at room temperature. Avoid storing it in plastic bags or airtight containers as this can make the crust soft. For longer storage, you can freeze the bread in airtight bags for up to 3 months, and thaw at room temperature when ready to eat.

What are the health benefits of sourdough bread?

Sourdough bread has several health benefits: it is easier to digest due to the fermentation process, which also reduces the phytate levels, making it more nutritious. The lactic acid bacteria present in sourdough can improve the bread’s glycemic index, making it better for blood sugar control. Additionally, sourdough bread often contains prebiotics, which are beneficial for gut health.