When I worked at Martha Stewart, life was all about 101s. Chicken 101, spring cleaning 101, container gardening 101 — there was a robust guide to the basics of any endeavor you could imagine. So in the spirit of the good ole days, here is my 101 guide to making sourdough bread.
Step 1 — Starting with a Starter
It all starts with a starter. A combination of flour, water, salt and yeast from the air (natural yeast) makes this bubbly, active, smelly, wonderful mixture that you use some of for each loaf of bread. [Many types of bread use dry active yeast packets that are activated by warm water (or warm milk) and a wee bit of sugar.] In my option, the best description of a natural starter is in the Tartine Bread book:
“Developing a starter begins with making a culture. A culture is created when flour and water are combined, and the microorganisms — wild yeasts and bacteria present in the flour, in the air, and on the baker’s hands — begin to ferment spontaneously. After fermentation begins, the baker ‘feeds’ the culture regularly to ‘train’ it into a lively and predictable starter.”
To make a starter, make a 50/50 mixture of bread flour (which is higher in gluten than all-purpose flour) and whole-wheat flour. Take a small deli container, fill it halfway with warm water (imagine tea that is drinkable in temperature) and add a handful of the flour mixture. Mix with your hands until all the flour is incorporated and you have a batter that feels like a thick milkshake. Then cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, put it in a cool spot, and let it hang out for 2-3 days. Check it after 2-3 days to see if any bubbles have started to form. If they haven’t, let it rest for another day or two. When it starts to form bubbles and to smell like stinky cheese, it’s ready.
*Important note: Where you live makes a big difference! I live in San Francisco, which is said to be the ideal climate for sourdough because the temperature is never too hot or too cold, and there is always some humidity in the air from the proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The more you play with dough, especially sourdough, the more you will become familiar with how climate affects every aspect of the process — especially the starter. So don’t worry if your starter isn’t active right away, and don’t freak out if it’s very bubbly after only a few days. Be patient! Let the starter do its thing and take as much time as it needs to get going. Making bread is very much a science, but it also requires a good gut instinct and attention to the environmental factors around you.
Step 2 — Feeding Your Starter
Feed it daily! Use equal parts water and flour (to start, use half bread flour and half whole-wheat flour) and add it to the starter, and mix with your hands. For daily feedings when I’m not making bread soon, I usually use about 75 grams of water and 75g of flour. Use a food scale to measure. Then just let it be and try to keep it warm. On the next day, dump a lot of it out (about 3/4 of it) and then feed it again, with equal parts flour and water. If you can, try to feed it at the same time every day (for example, every morning when you’re eating breakfast or every night when you’re cooking dinner). This will help you remember to feed it and help it get on a schedule. Think of it like a baby. The starter has yeast and bacteria, so you want to keep the yeast winning over the bacteria. The more you dump out from the previous day, the less bacteria that stays around. You can alternate feedings of the 50/50 flour mix and just bread flour. Essentially, whole-wheat flour will activate it more than white flour, so if you’re not making bread anytime soon, it doesn’t need a lot of whole wheat. When it’s a happy starter, it will be stretchy, bubbly, and full of holes. When it’s an unhappy starter, it will be liquidy, flat, have very few bubbles, and will start to smell sour. If it starts to get unhappy, just dump even more of it out for its next feeding.
Step 3 — Making Dough
After a few days of feeding it, you can start making bread. But no worries if you don’t want to make it right away! Just keep feeding the starter daily and it will be ready for you whenever you are ready for it.
When you’re ready to make dough, you’ll want to give it TWO feedings the day before you make the dough. One in the morning and one at night. They can be bigger feedings than usual (about 150g each flour mixture and water). On the morning you’re going to make dough, you want to do another big feeding. Then let it sit for about 3 hours and you’re ready to start. The starter needs to be super active when you make the dough.
Here’s the basic recipe I’ve been working off of. I’d suggest that you start with this recipe and then once you get comfortable with it, you can start varying the flours (and the water, as needed).
BASIC SOURDOUGH RECIPE
- 300g whole-wheat flour (30%)
- 700g bread flour (70%)
- 250g starter (25%)
- 700g water (70%)
- 25g salt (2.5%)
Put the flours, starter, and almost all of the water (about 650g) together in a big bowl and mix them by hand. Make sure every bit of flour is incorporated. It will be sticky! Let it rest in the bowl covered with a kitchen towel for 20 minutes. This is called autolyse. Then add the salt, the rest of the water, and up to another 50g of water depending on the dough. It should be a wet dough, so keep adding water and massaging it in until it just can’t take anymore. A lot of factors will affect this — how humid it is outside, how warm or cold the temp is, etc. So you just need to go with your gut and add water until it has had enough.
I included percentages — these are called bakers percentages. Bakers use a 100% scale to create recipes like this. The percentage of water is important, it’s called the hydration percentage. [Tartine uses a very wet dough, and Chad goes into this in detail in the Tartine Bread book. Most people are scared of wet doughs but it’s one of the reasons why their bread is so great.] The flours are also based on percentages. Once you’re ready to vary them, you just need to make sure that they always add up to 100%.
Once you make the dough, you’ll fold it every 30 minutes for 2 hours. Then let it rest for 1 hour. Then shape it, put it into a bowl or basket lined with a kitchen towel, and let it rest for another hour before putting it into the fridge to continue rising overnight. Specific instructions and photos are all in my primer.
Step 4 — Baking the Dough
Once again, all of the details are in my blog post about making dough. The key is to make sure your oven is hot enough, and baking the dough in a cast-iron covered pot (aka Dutch oven) is essential. You could bake sourdough without it, but it will be very difficult to get the same results. You’ll need to fill a spray bottle with water and spritz the inside of the oven every few minutes in the first part of baking to simulate the steam that you would have gotten from the pot.
When your buns come out of the oven, it will be very tempting to eat them right away — but try to resist! It’s very hard to cut fresh, hot bread so if you can wait even an hour, you’ll enjoy a sturdier piece.
A few tools that will come in handy:
- A digital food scale
- A large bowl (for making the dough) and two medium-sized bowls (for proofing the shaped dough); or you can be fancy and buy the proofing baskets that professional bakers use
- A bowl scraper
- A dough scraper
- A bread lame (for scoring the dough)
- A cast-iron covered pot — these range from high end (and pricey) to every day (and affordable). If you’re going for the Rolls Royce of Dutch ovens, buy a 5 1/2-quart Le Creuset Dutch Oven. If you’re just starting out and want a good quality model that’s a bit more budget friendly, the Lodge Cast Iron Combo Cooker will definitely do the trick.