Of all the skills that I’ve pick up during this quarantine period, sourdough making has probably been the most useful, most fun and honestly the most delicious. Being an introvert, I haven’t been all that affected by staying indoors and it’s helped me to discover different things to do and also rediscover old hobbies. Sourdough making is most definitely a new hobby but it’s one that I’m going to be continuing moving ahead.
Currently, I make about one loaf of bread a week and it’s really the highlight of my week if I’m being honest. It’s a lengthy process that requires attention and love but the results are A+ every time. Today I thought I’d go through my journey and some things that I’ve learnt along the way. I’m not going to go through a full recipe or provide one because I’m certainly not an expert and there are countless helpful articles and Youtube videos about sourdough online. But I do have 2 months of experience (and a dozen of great loaves!) in my pocket and being a scientist, I did a lot of background research, so I thought this post might be helpful in clarifying some things that you might see in other recipes.
Stan the Sourdough Starter
I made my own sourdough starter, who is called Stan, and every loaf he has produced has been fantastic. A sourdough starter is just equal parts of flour and water mixed together and regularly fed so that it is bubbly and active. Stan is maintained with half rye flour and half all-purpose flour, so he has a delicious rye flavour to him. My standard feeds are usually 70g starter + 70g water + 70g flours, which I’ve found to be a good amount because it means I have enough discard to use for things like sourdough crumpets but it’s not a huge amount of waste if I just discard it into the bin.
Stan lives permanently in my fridge unless I need him for a loaf. I generally take him out between 12-36 hours before mixing my bread dough, depending on how much time I have and how many feeds I think he needs before he’ll be lovely and active for use. I usually have a little bit of washi tape stuck to Stan’s jar so I can tell how much he has risen after I’ve fed him. He’s usually good to use in the bread dough once he’s doubled in size.
The bread dough
Creating the bread dough usually takes about 5-6 hours from mixing all the ingredients to getting the dough into a bread proofing basket (which I then put into the fridge to proof overnight). It seems like a long time but there’s not that much active time that I have to spend with the dough. Also, seeing how the dough develops and changes from a shaggy mass to a smooth and puffy ball is absolutely fascinating and still mindblowing to me everytime.
The leaven is what is used to make the dough rise. Sometimes, my leaven just a bit of Stan, my starter. Other times, I put a bit of Stan into a separate jar and feed it with different types of flours (mostly just 100% rye) to create a leaven. This allows me to change up the flavour of my bread without changing up too much of the flours in the actual dough. People often recommend doing the ‘float test’ to see if your leaven is active enough. I usually skip this step because if I use a leaven with lots of rye flour, it will drop like a brick regardless. I try to just judge based on how much the leaven has risen and whether there are lots of bubbles in it.
When mixing together my dough, I usually use bread flour with some wholegrain flour. After mixing together the flours, water and starter in a bowl, I leave it to sit (covered) for about 30 minutes to let the flours fully hydrate before adding salt. After 30 minutes, I add sea salt and a small amount of water and let it sit for another 30 minutes before stretching and folding it to build its gluten structure.
Bulk fermentation is essentially the dough’s first proof takes about 3-4 hours and I usually stretch and fold the dough in the bowl every 40ish minutes while bulk fermentation happens. The stretching and folding gives the dough structure. During bulk fermentation, the dough starts expanding a little bit and bubbles start to form as it ferments. I usually try to make sure that I don’t let it overferment during this stage and I move on to the next step when I start to see fermentation bubbles.
I do two different shaping stages: pre-shaping and final shaping. Once bulk fermentation is done, the dough gets tipped out of the bowl (with lots of encouraging from a bowl scrapper!) and I do a series of small folds to “pre-shape” the dough. I always make sure that the pre-shaped dough then sits (covered) on the bench for 30 minutes to relax before I touch it again. The key is not to fiddle with it too much. Once 30 minutes is up, I do another series of folds to get it into the final shape that I want before lifting it up and putting it into a banneton or proofing basket, with the seam side up. The basket helps the loaf to hold its shape and it works fantastically once it’s floured. I usually use cover it with rice flour, so that it doesn’t get absorbed into the loaf. Once the dough is in the basket, it then gets covered up and put into the fridge to continue proofing overnight.
Overnight proof and final proof
Having the dough in the fridge slows the proofing down and means that lots of flavour can continue to develop without fear of overproofing the dough. I always proof my dough overnight (or longer) in the fridge so it has at least a good 8 hours to develop its flavour. An hour before I’m ready to bake, I take the dough out to do a final proof. Mine’s usually almost imperceptable to the eye but it might rise or puff up a bit in the time that it spends outside of the fridge. I never leave it to do its final proof for more than an hour in case it overproofs.
Scoring and baking
I’m still not great at scoring, probably because I haven’t managed to find the right blade for me. I haven’t tried anything too fancy yet because of my terrible scoring. I usually just do a nice line down the loaf.
I bake my sourdough loaves in a cast iron casserole pot. Mine’s from Le Creuset and even though it’s super expensive, it works extremely well. It has a metal knob handle so I don’t have to worry about it melting and the pot itself can withstand the heat that I need to bake my sourdough loaves at (250 celcius). You can get cheaper pots or combi cookers to bake your loaves in, as long as you have a lid to trap steam in. It’s important that there is steam during the first half of baking time, as the steam helps the loaf to rise.
(excuse my pink penguin pj pants)
After about 20-25 minutes, I take the lid off to release the steam and bake it for a further 20-25 minutes (depending on how bold I’m feeling) to develop and darken the crust. I tend to push it as far as I dare because I find that the crust is nicer when it’s baked for longer.
Once the bread is out of the oven, I transfer it to a rake to let it cool. It’s super important to let it cool completely before cutting into it because the steam that is trapped inside the bread is actually still cooking and setting the crumb. I try to leave mine for at least two hours before I cut into it. It’s difficult but it’s so important.
And there you have it! This post was more in-depth than I had planned but I just want to share all of my sourdough knowledge so that you all can go out and make your own! It’s honestly just so much better than storebought bread.
Stay safe and keep baking!
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