Introduction to Sourdough Baking
We hope you enjoyed your class hosted by Matt from One Mile Bakery in Hale. Matt is passionate about sourdough and wants to make it accessible and approachable for home bakers. The notes below are a follow up to what we did along with some basic recipes and techniques to practice and develop at home.
Sourdough has become incredibly trendy in recent years and you only need to Google it to see the amount of (often conflicting) advice/terminology out there. The reality is much simpler: this is how people baked before commercial yeast, making a wild yeast culture of flour and water instead. It can be tricky to get started (making a starter, baking your first few loaves) but after that, a world of really exciting baking opens up. There is nothing complicated about baking sourdough: the only difference between it and baking yeasted bread is that each stage takes longer. However, you can manage these stages to fit into even the busiest lifestyle, as much of the time sourdough takes involves little or no effort from you.
A couple of things to bear in mind. Firstly, with commercial yeast, you get predictable, re- liable results. Sourdough is much more fragile and responsive: for example, ten degrees difference in air temperature will make an enormous difference to how it develops. It will rarely rise with the vigour of a yeasted loaf, but it will outclass them on flavour and digestibility. Secondly, you may well hit more problems than you ever would with yeasted loaves in the early days but you will, with practice and observing your starter, work it out. That process is part of the sourdough joy.
There are a few terms used for the same thing with sourdough baking and it can be con- fusing at first. The sourdough starter (flour and water mixed and left to ferment with naturally occurring yeasts and lactobacilli) is variously called a levain (in France, but it’s widely used by some English speaking bakers), a leaven, a poolish, biga (Italian) and also ‘wild yeast’. I refer to it always as a starter, but you may see these other terms in recipes.
How to Make a Sourdough Starter
I will give you some starter to take home, but to start your own, do the following:
Day 1: Mix 25g white/whole wheat/spelt/rye flour and 25 g warm water in a Kilner jar or large lidded Tupperware container.
Days 2-5 Repeat. You should by day 5 see some bubbles and the starter should smell sweet and yeasty after you’ve fed it. If you have bubbles and a sweet smell, you have a viable starter (congrats!) – it’s time to give it a name! If not, try one or two more days, but if it smells bad (dry cleaner, paint stripper, nail varnish remover, toxic) and/or is mouldy, dis- card and start again. This stage only costs pennies, really, and once you get a starter on the way, it’s a doddle to manage.
Storing/Refreshing a Starter
With the starter I’ll give you, and any new ones you make, the place to store them is the fridge, unless you want to bake sourdough every day. They go to sleep in the fridge, and don’t look great but they are fine. Two options:
If you want to bake once a week or intermittently, keep your starter in the fridge. Refresh (i.e feed) for two days before you want to bake (do this at night, 24 hrs apart, to bake on the third morning, 12 hours or so after feeding) in a plastic container with a lid and room enough for the starter to rise and bubble. They can get very lively at the peak of their refreshment cycle: my rye starter has removed its lid several times!
If you want to bake through the week, keep starters on your worktop, feeding every 12-18 hrs. Watch the cycle and observe when starter flattens out/goes sharp smelling: feed now. If you do this and don’t bake every day you will soon amass enough starter to fill a swimming pool, so for most home bakers, keeping starters in the fridge is by far the best option. (Note: adding a ladleful of your starter to yeast- ed baking improves the flavour of your loaves brilliantly).
The golden rule is mix 50/50 flour/water (don’t mix flour types as they behave differently; you can mix them in the flour you add to it at the next stage. Whatever amount
you are dealing with, you want the starter to be like thick cream, so try roughly 50g starter with 100g of flour and water to begin with.
THE KEY THING TO REMEMBER AND OBSERVE IS THAT YOUR LOAF WILL BE DETERMINED BY THE HEATLH AND LIVELINESS OF YOUR STARTER. A SLUGGISH STARTER WILL GIVE YOU DISAPPOINTING LOAVES. YOU WANT LOTS OF ACTIVE BUBBLES AND TO START BAKING JUST PAST THE PEAK OF YOUR STARTER’S RISING/BUBBLING UP.
Key stages of sourdough baking
The key stages of sourdough baking are the same as yeasted baking: mix ingredients, knead, first rise, shape, second rise, bake. Some recipes use only these stages for sour- dough and some add in a couple of other stages to help build more structure (and more holes!). I have put together the best of these into a process we’ll practice today:
Leave to autolyse for 30 mins (60 mins for wholemeal/spelt if you can)
Knead without salt (8 mins)
Add salt & knead for 2-3 mins
First rise (including stretching and folding the dough each 30 mins for at least 4-6 hours [2-3 in class], rotating the bowl and turning the dough over each time)-
Second rise (in banneton, tin, or on a floured tray) – ideally overnight in the fridge or for 2-4 hours at room temp, depending on temperature
For the class, I’ll reduce the timings on some stages and you can do this too if you need to at home but with sourdough, the longer you take with the stages, the more flavour and air (those holes again!) will develop. Remember also that you can put the dough into the fridge overnight or all day for its second rise: this produces a very slow second rise which improves the flavour too, and means you can bake when it suits you.
House White, Rye and Spelt Sourdough – This is a gorgeous, simple loaf and a great way to learn the basics of sourdough baking.
Ingredients (this makes a loaf suitable for a 1kg banneton/proving basket)
- 100g white sourdough starter (refreshed 12 hours before; 50g starter and 150g each flour and water; put any excess back in your fridge container. If you need more starter for your recipes, simply increase the amount you feed with that 50/50 mix of flour and water)
350g strong white flour (organic stoneground if possible)
- 100g spelt or wholemeal flour 50g dark rye flour
325g tepid water
Mix starter and water in a large bowl, and whisk lightly. Add the flours, mix and make it into a shaggy, rough, wet dough.
Cover with shower cap or cling-film and leave for 20-30 mins to autolyse (Optional).
Turn onto your work surface (do not flour this) and knead for 8-10 minutes until you feel dough change to silky, elastic and non-sticky.
Add the salt to the dough and mix this in by kneading for another 4-5 minutes.
Put back in bowl, cover and leave in warm place for about 3 hours (4 in cooler kitchen). Every hour, pull and fold dough as we practiced in the class. You can do this for another hour or two if you have time; it won’t harm the dough and the flavour/air will improve.
Lightly dust your work surface with flour, knock back the dough and make a rough circle shape. From here, shape into a ball, dust the top with flour and cover with a tea towel for 20-30 mins.
Gently knock back dough again, then roll and scrunch into a tight ball. Shaping is something that improves a lot with practice. Place onto a floured tray or into a floured banneton (proving basket) seam-side up or bowl lined with floured linen tea towel and leave to prove for 2-4 hours (or overnight in the fridge).
45 mins before you plan to bake, turn your oven on to its highest setting.
Do the poke test: gently press a finger about a centimetre into the dough: when it pings back within a minute but leaves an indentation, it is ready to bake.
Turn onto a tray lined with semolina flour if using a banneton/bowl, then slash the top. Spray with a water spray (or 20 mins earlier, put a metal/roasting in bottom of the oven and fill with a cup of boiling water).
Bake at hottest temperature for 10 mins, then turn oven down to 220 degrees, Gas 7 and bake for another 20-25 minutes. Check loaf; it may need longer: you want a caramel crust and hollow sound when you tap the bottom of the loaf.
Cool on a wire rack.
Caraway Rye Sourdough Ingredients
- 350g dark rye flour
150g white flour
2tsp caraway seeds
250g rye sourdough starter (8-12 hours after a feed) 400g tepid water
Mix everything together then knead lightly for 2-3 mins; leave for an hour. Shape into a round and place in a floured proving basket or shape into a rectangle/log and place in a greased 2lb tin: this only has one rise (2-3 hours) until risen by one and half times. Bake in a medium oven (200/Gas 6) for 40 minutes or until it sounds hollow when tapped. Do not cut on the day of baking: this is best 2-3 days after baking and keeps really well.
- Wholemeal Sourdough
200g refreshed starter (any type of flour starter – we’ll use white)
300-325g warm water 350g wholemeal flour 150g white flour
10 g salt
(Alternative: Walnut & Raisin; Apricot and oat; fig and pistachio; use spelt in place of the whole- meal; add seeds/nuts; etc)
Follow the recipe and process for the white loaf, but let this one rest for longer in the autolyse stage (an hour is good – this is because the wholewheat flour absorbs more water and behaves rather differently).
You can also experiment with the balance/mix of flours: use 50/50 white and wholewheat for a lighter loaf, or try this mix with spelt and white.
Pain au Levain
- 250g strong bread flour
- 100g wholemeal flour
- 50g dark rye flour
- 1tsp salt
- 150g sourdough starter
- 250-300g warm water
Follow process as with other loaves, autolysing for 30 mins if possible. Look for near doubling of the dough in both rises.
Swedish Sourdough Crackers
110g strong bread flour
85g plain or 00 Italian flour 55g dark rye flour
25g wholemeal flour
20g wheat germ 7g salt
8g caraway seeds 140g water
45g sourdough starter
Mix as with other loaves, knead and then leave in a covered bowl overnight, ideally, in the fridge, or leave out at room temperature for 3-4hours. Portion the dough into ten pieces, roll out into crisp breads, prick the dough, place on baking trays, spray with water and top with seeds/rock salt etc. Bake at gas 8 or 220 degrees until 10 mins, until golden brown.
This makes 6 large bagels:
200g white flour
50g wholemeal flour
50 rye flour
200g white or rye starter, refreshed 20g honey or caster sugar
130g tepid water
Mix everything together and then knead for 10 minutes. Cover with a shower cap and then leave for 2-3 hours or until doubled in size. Lightly flour your work surface and then cut your dough into 6 pieces: roll each into a small log and then roll out into a longer log of approx 12-15 cm, which you then shape into a bracelet, lightly pinching the two ends together. If you have time, cover and leave for another hour or two, then poach in water that’s been brought to the boil and just take off of the boil – add a couple of tablespoons of caster sugar or honey to the water. Poach each bagel for about 40 seconds, flipping it over in the water if it doesn’t turn over itself, and then drain, glaze with beaten egg or oil, and decorate with seeds of your choice. Bake in a hot oven (Gas 8/220) for about 15 minutes.
Harry’s Walnut & Raisin Sour
One of our most popular loaves.
220g rye sourdough starter (1:1 hydration) 200g water
1tbsp of honey
300g strong white flour
50g dark rye flour 10g salt
Mix starter, water and honey.
Add flour. Mix to a rough mixture. Autolyse for 15-30mins.
Add salt and lightly knead with wet hands until everything is incorporated. Rest for 30 minutes.
Stretch and fold every 30 minutes. Repeat 4 times.
Final stretch and fold, add raisins and walnuts and mix until evenly distributed. Rest for 60 minutes.
Shape after 60 minutes.
Then the usual 2 to 6 hours until fully risen. The rye starter is usually pretty quick.
Bake at usual max for 10 minutes and then turn down to 200°c for 20 minutes. Watch if it browns too quickly because of the honey and fruit. Turn down by 10°c if needs be.
Earl Grey Spelt Sour
400g spelt flour (or wholemeal)
200g starter (wheat or rye)
300g Earl Grey tea, at body temp (experiment with other teas/liquids) Proceed as with other loaves, but knead for 12-15 minutes.
There are a huge amount of books on baking now, and many of them include a few pages dedicated to sourdough. You’ll find a huge variety in approaches, techniques, recipes and managing a starter (some books use very odd ratios of flour and water – using 50/50 works and you can always easily work out how much flour and water you are working with). Some books follow the no-knead approach (Dan Lepard most famously) and you may want to try this – and others have an idiosyncratic approach (Richard Bertinet has his own unique kneading style). What you can do, though, is use their recipes and adapt to the technique you like best – you can use the approach we’ll take today to any recipe, or try other techniques like no-knead and see how you get on. I’ve worked out my own way with sourdough, and you will too.
I think the most user-friendly book for starting out with sourdough is How To Make Sour- dough by Emmanuel Hadjiandreou. The pictures are great (including pics of a sourdough starter on each day) and the text/recipes are clear. Bear in mind that he follows the no- knead approach – simply use his recipes with our kneading technique or give no-knead a go!
Tartine Bread by Chad Roberston is slightly more advanced (it uses higher hydration levels) but it’s a great read about a sourdough-obsessed baker and the recipes are I think the best of any book – fantastic flavours and ideas, and there are lots of recipes for using bread, too, so it’s a general cookbook. I found it a really inspiring read, and use his recipes all the time.
Crust by Richard Bertinet is also excellent – again, his recipes are superb and he’s a user- friendly writer.
One website to recommend: www.weekendbakery.com is a fantastic online resource. It’s not all sourdough but they have great recipes and really helpful pics and videos of things like shaping techniques etc. Plus they aim this at home bakers who bake once a week, hence the name – they give great timing guidelines. They even make the San Francisco sourdough (takes four days) a realistic project for a busy home baker.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the course today, and that it inspires you to try sourdough baking at home. The great thing about baking generally, but sourdough in particular, is that even if your loaves take a while to perfect, they all taste fantastic toasted with butter. Nothing is nicer, when you’ve baked it yourself.