Sourdough Bread Baking Guide

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I don’t care about the backstory, just take me to the details of the recipe!
 

Sourdough: chewy, stretchy, super thin crust, holes that trap melted butter and salt gloriously.  Covid-19 has seen a resurgence and dramatic increase of interest in this mysterious, wild-yeast-fermented bread. I’m lucky to have gotten into it just a couple months before the pandemic hit, and as many people have been asking me for my recipe, I figured this was a good place to lay it all out.

There are a lot of tie-ins between natural wine and sourdough. One of the yeast strains that gives sourdough fermentation its life, Saccharomyces cerevisiaeis the same yeast that lives on the skins of grapes, and that is so critical in the natural wine fermentations we treasure so much. In fact, the starter I made contains the yeast sediment from the bottom of a bottle of Joe Swick‘s City Pop pet-nat, which has now reproduced itself hundreds of times over to make loaf after loaf. 

There are many resources online and in books that will tell you how to make sourdough. I honestly found it completely overwhelming at first and I didn’t feel like any one guide I used showed me every single step to do, along with pictures and/or video of what the dough should look like at every stage. What you really need to do is develop a sense for how the dough looks and feels at each stage. The videos that show the dough at each stage exist in massive quantities online, and I found myself struggling to collate them and know which one to watch when and at what minute marker to skip to at the right time. I’ve attempted here to do all that work for you.

The pictures and videos are not my own, and those who publish this content are doing fantastic work, so I really think you should visit each of their sites or buy their books. But during the pandemic shutdown, sometimes you just want to cut right to it and get some bread baking in the oven! Wherever possible I have cued up the videos to start at exactly the moment that shows the technique I need you to see. Major shoutouts need to go to Jennifer Latham of Tartine, Full Proof Baking, and Dan the Baker for their videos. When you’re ready for the deep dive on how all this works, please watch them; they are amazing at what they do.

Making sourdough is a rabbit hole you may find yourself falling into. Before you know it, your Instagram search page may be full of pics and vids of dough and loaves and nothing else. There’s really no end to how far you can go with this. But even if you get it all wrong, the fresh baked thing you pull from the oven will taste heavenly, even if it is flat as a pancake. My first bake looked like this:

 

 
 
 
 
 
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And now I’ve gotten it to this:

 

 
 
 
 
 
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But eventually I’d love to get to this ridiculousness:

 

 
 
 
 
 
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So as you can see, this whole thing is a journey we’re all on. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and have confidence that whatever you pull out of the oven is going to be healthy and delicious!

 

Materials you will need:

A Sourdough Starter: You can make your own, buy one online, get some from a friend, or June Wine Bar is giving away free starter, with delivery available in Brooklyn via Caviar

An Oven: It needs to reliably heat to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and it’s probably worth checking that it’s calibrated correctly with some kind of an external thermometer. I have this one and it’s awesome

A Scale: You don’t want to be bothered with measuring cups. Baking by weight and what’s called baker’s percentages is the way to go. Any kitchen scale will do, as long as it can measure in grams

A Dutch Oven: To get a nice crust on the bread, you need steam. In olden times, the village would seal the door to the communal brick oven with some raw dough, which produced a bit of steam on its own that helped the bread crisp up. Professional bakery ovens inject steam during the baking process. For the home cook, a Dutch oven will seal up the loaf for the first half of the bake, using the dough’s own moisture to provide the steam. 

This Lodge cast iron Dutch oven works just fine and is only $20. Sometimes it smells the house up a bit when it gets really hot, as it smokes a bit like all cast iron does. But it makes great bread.

If you want the really high end experience and want a new family heirloom, Le Creuset is the gold standard. Your great-grandchildren will be enjoying its use, if we still need ovens and food replicators haven’t been invented yet.

A Bench Scraper: All the cool kids use this stainless steel rounded one.  

Bannetons: These are the baskets the dough proofs in overnight. You probably want 2 of them. This one comes with a scraper that’s handy in getting the dough out of whatever container it’s being mixed in.

Bulk Fermenting Container: This can be anything large enough to hold your dough. Some people like rectangular containers like this bus tub, while others like something square like this Cambro container. It will definitely change how your dough turns out, but it’s a bit of mystery to me how. You probably already have something lying around your house you can use. If you don’t have a lid, you can just throw a towel over it.

Flour: You’ll need all purpose flour and whole wheat flour. You can get into all kinds of cool artisanal flours if you want, which will change the taste and how the dough comes together. This is a rabbit hole to dive into after you’ve mastered the basics. You’ll also want some rice flour to dust your bannetons so the dough doesn’t stick to them.

Scoring: You can use a lame (pronounced “lahm”) if you want, but I just use a regular razor blade. I don’t understand the lame thing at all.


Plastic Scraper:
One of these actually comes with the bannetons I linked to above. You’ll need this to get the dough out of tight corners.

 

The Recipe

This will make 2 loaves of bread.

  • 1000 grams flour (100%)- At a blend of 90% all purpose white and 10% whole wheat. I don’t use bread flour. As I mentioned above, there are all kinds of cool flours out there that will change the taste of your bread and make it awesome for sure, but I’m keeping things simple here for you with flours that are more easily available.
  • 750 grams water (75%)- at a temperature of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit- you can use your handy thermometer to check this and yes, the temp of the water is very important. You will use 700 grams of this water initially, then the remaining 50 grams a bit later.
  • IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT HYDRATION- The amount of water you use is referred to as the hydration percentage. This recipe is for a 75% hydration bread. The dough will be easier to work with at that level. I personally liked the results much better when I pushed my dough to 85% hydration, in other words I added 800 grams of water to start, and 50 grams later on. Experiment for yourself and see what you like.
  • 250 grams of active young starter (25%) – (see the next section on this)
  • 20 grams of salt (2%)

That’s it! Isn’t it amazing how little actually goes into this amazing bread? Bakers like to use baker’s percentages, which I’ve given in parentheses above. All this means is if you want to increase or decrease the amount you make you can just multiply appropriately. So for example if you want to use 4000 grams worth of flour, you take 75% to determine you need 3000 grams of water (75% of 4000).

 

It’s best to think of things on a schedule. I usually start in the morning. 

10:00am

Feeding Your Starter

It takes several hours for your starter to work on the new flour you’ve fed it, so this is the first thing you do. I can tell you that I’ve seen people recommending using that starter anywhere from 2 to 12 hours after you’ve fed it, and I’ve tried many variations on that and honestly found no difference whatsoever in the final product.

I’m going to assume you already have a starter. If you made your own and waited 3-4 weeks for it to get strong enough, nice work! If you got some starter from someone else, you’re ready to rock.

When you want to feed your stater, you need to weigh what you already have. Let’s say you have 75 grams of starter. You should feed it at a 1:2:2 ratio to start, of starter:flour:water. The flour needs to include some whole wheat or rye flour at some level.  To keep things simple, I recommend a blend of 50% white and 50% whole wheat flour. This is really important, the whole grains have a lot more material for the yeasts to grab onto, you won’t get a very active starter if you don’t have enough wheat in there. So in this case you would have 75 grams of starter, 75 grams of white flour, 75 grams of whole wheat flour, and 150 grams of water. Stick it in a container that has a good amount of room for it to expand, and mark where it started with a rubber band. This video shows this entire process. At the 51 second mark she has a nice chart that shows this feeding ratio and a schedule.

2:15pm

Mix in the Levain

Remember that starter you fed at 10am? Now it’s called levain! Also, remember that extra 50 grams of water we didn’t add to the flour in the beginning? We need that too, and the salt. So add to the dough:

250 grams levain (starter)

50 grams water

20 grams salt

Get in there again with your hands and mix it all up. Something like this works:

 

2:25pm

Light stretch and folds

You’re going to pull the dough around a bit here to start to build some strength. Dump it out of the vessel you’re using and use the plastic scraper to get it all out. Check out the video:

2:30pm

Lamination

We need to build more strength in the dough. This will allow it to be very springy in the oven, creating the big holes and what we call open crumb that is so desirable. I haven’t perfected lamination yet, but you can see the ideal here in the following clip. What she doesn’t tell you is that she has misted the heck out of the counter to get it super wet so the dough doesn’t stick at all. You should also have a bowl of water you can dip your hands in to so the dough doesn’t stick to your hands. Shake your hand off so they’re just moist, you don’t want to introduce too much water into the dough:

2:30-6:30pm

BULK FERMENTATION

This is the period where the cool stuff starts to happen. During this 4 hour period we will perform 6 stretch and folds every half hour and then let it rest for another hour at the end. 

Put the dough back in the container and cover it with a towel.

3:00pm

First Stretch and Fold

Just do what she does here:

3:30pm

Second stretch and fold

 

4:00pm

Third stretch and fold

 

4:30pm

Fourth stretch and fold

 

5:00pm

Fifth stretch and fold

 

5:30pm

Sixth Stretch and fold

 

6:30pm

Let it rest for an hour and it’s done!

 
Or hopefully it is. It should look something like this:


If it doesn’t have big bubbles and it hasn’t doubled in size, you probably need to wait longer. This has never happened to me.

6:30pm

Pre-Shaping

Dump the dough out on your work surface. Then use your bench scraper to cut the dough in half to start forming your two loaves. This is where things really start to get tricky. I’ve watched lots of different videos to get tips on this process. One important thing is to definitely keep your hands wet during this time so you don’t stick to the dough, BUT not too wet, or you’ll remove the dough’s ability to stick to the work surface, which is essential. I find this guy’s video to be the most helpful in terms of the motions you need to use to form the dough ball into the right shape (you can rewind a bit if you want to see how he cuts the dough:

There’s a lot of ways to do this. I find it highly satisfying to watch Dan the Baker pre-shape. He has soooo much dough to work with. Fun right?

 

 
 
 
 
 
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He’s extremely fast at it. It takes me several goes at it to get into a nice round ball. This will get easier as you practice more. Now it’s time for the:

 

6:40pm

Bench Rest

Let the pre-shaped loaves rest for 20 minutes. During this time they will flatten out a bunch. They should look like this at the end of the resting period: 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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While the dough is resting, prepare your bannetons by dusting them super generously with a mix of whole wheat and rice flour. This will prevent the dough from sticking when you dump it out.

7:00pm

Final Shaping

This is another thing for which there are many different techniques, but most people like to sprinkle the loaf with flour on the top. You want to get enough flour on there so that none of the wet dough will stick to your work surface. Then you scrape the dough off the surface, flip it over with the floured side down, and then do one of these techniques:

Dan the baker has a nice simple shaping method at minute 3:12 of this video:

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Jennifer Latham of Tartine Bakery has another, more “weavy” method here, skip to minute marker 1:30 for the good stuff:

 

 
 
 
 
 
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And Full Proof Baking has another method that’s a bit more like rolling a cigarette:

So you can see there are many different ways to achieve a nice round ball. Pick one and stick with it. I recommend watching that video right before you do it every time for a while until you memorize it. After you’ve shaped it, drop it gently into your well floured banneton, cover it with a towel, and stick it in the fridge overnight. You’re done for the day!

 

Next Day

9:00AM

Preheat your oven to 500 with the dutch oven inside. When the oven is preheated, remove your banneton from the fridge. I like to use parchment paper, so I lay the paper on a pizza peel, and invert the banneton on top of the paper. Pat on the back on the banneton so the dough comes out. Remove the dutch over from the oven and move the parchment paper-holding dough to the cast iron. Now you’ll need to score the dough before it’s baked. I like to make a nice simple curved slash right down the middle of the loaf. I’m really bad at this, but you can watch all kinds of cool videos of people doing it and maybe get better than me. It is important that you go a good 1 inch deep though otherwise your loaf will burst at the sides and get really ugly as it bakes. Here’s a really fancy scoring video:

What I like about this video is the way the dough reacts when cut. If your loaf doesn’t hold its shape like this one does, when you score it, it will really blob out to the sides and not hold it’s shape. The sides you cut will just kind of blob back together also. All the work you did with lamination and stretch and folds and pre-shaping and final shaping were supposed to build a lot of strength to the dough, enough so it really holds together. So if it doesn’t react the way the one in the video does, you know next time you need to work the dough even more than you did before. Again, this is an ideal and one I certainly haven’t mastered yet, so give it time. 

 

10:00am BAKE!!

Cover the loaf with the other half of the dutch oven and bake it for 20 minutes. Some people say to reduce the temp to 450 right after you put it in, I prefer to just leave it at 500 the whole time. Set a timer for 20 minutes.

 

10:20am

Remove the Lid

After 20 minutes, remove the lid and leave the loaf inside. Now you finally get a chance to see how your work paid off? how much did it spring up, how big a rip did your scoring open up? 

10:40

Take out the Loaf

Now it should have a nice golden dark color. You should see little bubbled blisters all over the surface. This is one of my bakes where you can really see that color and blistering:

Now you need to let it rest for at least one hour. I know it’s really tempting to cut it open right away, but it’s actually still cooking inside right now so cutting it open will completely destroy the integrity of the crumb you worked so hard to create. Patience please!

11:40

Finished!

Slice away! Post a pic to your instagram! Don’t forget the cross-section pic, so everyone can see your crumb!