Sourdough Bread

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Sourdough bread is a journey, creating a live culture, therefore, it needs regular attention to keep it alive. Once you get into the rhythm of baking sourdough bread, the phrase "this sourdough starter is 15 years old..." will make sense.

I am new to sourdough bread (4 months in), so I am not an expert. Yet. I've tried my hand at bread baking over a lifetime, with some successes and mostly failures. Until recently. The sourdough method filled in the gaps of my understanding of yeast, crust, and gluten. Now my bread successes outnumber my failures.

Regardless of my experience, baking and eating this bread is the joy of having fresh baked bread all of the time.

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Sourdough bread starter

Begin your journey with sourdough bread starter. You can buy it and follow the directions on the package or be adventurous and start your own. You will need a 1 quart container with a lid, 2 tablespoons of flour, and 2 tablespoons of water.

For the container, a yogurt container works. I prefer a 1 quart glass canning jar. This way I can see what's happening, and the sour starter taste is free from plastic esters and problems occurring from teeny tiny pits that will form in the plastic over time and collect unwanted bacteria.

Wash and dry your chosen jar, with unscented Liquid Soap Refill. It is very important to me that my bread tastes like bread alone, free from any detergent odor or taste.

Add 2 tablespoons of flour and 2 tablespoons of drinking water. Gently stir with a chopstick. Place the lid on top of the jar, so it simply sits there. The air space between the lid and jar is a necessary component. I leave my lid askew, so it's slightly tipped. The air that goes inside the jar in that tiny space, is filled with yeast and good bacteria that will activate the sugars in the flour to create your starter. 

I use organic white wheat bread flour, which has a slightly higher gluten content than all purpose flour. Most sourdough recipes I have come across are made with All Purpose Flour.

Andy's starter is a mix of my starter and I feed his with other flours such as buckwheat and chickpea. These flours have enough sugars to form a spongey starter, but they do not have any gluten, so sometimes I feed this starter with wheat bread flour. 

Note: I am not a fan of gluten free bread flours. They contain refined starches and high sugar grain flours to mimic gluten. Many are too sweet for people who need to watch their sugar intake (like Andy).

Andy's starter on the left and Wendy's starter on the right
Andy's sourdough starter: Organic white bread flour, organic toasted chickpea flour, and organic buckwheat flour
Wendy's sourdough starter: Organic white bread flour

The rubber bands are to mark the starter growth.

Feeding the sourdough bread starter

I like to feed both starters twice a day. 2 teaspoons flour and about an equal amount of drinking water. Gently stir with a chop stick. Use a rubber spatula to get all of the starter off of the chop stick.

In the photos above you will see crust on the jars. I scrape that off and put it back in the starter. If it's hard, I use a knife to scrape it off. If I have just fed and stirred the starter, I scrape off the hard stuff and leave it on top of the starter until the next feeding. Wash your chopstick and rubber spatula, with Liquid Soap Refill right away so they are simple to clean. The starter will harden and need to be chipped off if you let it sit for more than a few minutes.

You will see bubbles forming. The smell will move back and forth, over time, from sour to sweet as your starter grows. When the jar is full or almost full, I bake bread. I've noticed the starter responds better to cooler temperatures.  

If you have an active kitchen make sure there is at least 6 feet between sourdough starter, plants, and fermenting vegetables. These all burp and fart and you don't want them to eat each other's gasses before they dissipate.

When I first started my sourdough starter, I fed it for 2 weeks before it was fermented enough to use for bread. Give yourself and your starter enough time to get big and bubbly. One week should be enough time, given the exact right conditions in your kitchen. This includes gently stirring in its food, so the gasses stay in the starter, instead of popping the bubbles and releasing the gasses (yeast). You want the yeast to release in your dough. My 1st few weeks I stirred too fast and strong, letting out all of the gasses instead of leaving them in. 

After my starter was established and grew more quickly, I can bake bread every 5-8 days. 

How to clean your banneton liner

While your starter is growing, collect your bread baking tools. I bought one baguette banneton, which is a rising basket. I also bought a few linen banneton liners. If you're a sewer, you can make these out of medium weight, tight weave linen. 

The white round cloth, pictured below, is a banneton basket liner for a round loaf of bread, like the one in the center photo. If I'm making a larger loaf, I only have small liners, so I use the red linen dish towel as my liner. Sometimes I'll use parchment paper. 

To clean them, I shake out as much flour as I can, outside if possible. I wash these by hand, using the Liquid Soap Refill, right in the kitchen sink, while I'm cleaning up and doing dishes. 

I take my rising bowl (any bowl will do), and put 1 squirt of Liquid Soap Refill in it while it's filling 1/2 way with warm water. Put in your banneton liners and swish them around, while squeezing them in the water to thoroughly wet them and fill them up with the soapy water. Rub the floured sides together vigorously, squeeze and swish a few more times. 

Let the liners soak for anywhere from 30 minutes to hours, depending on what else you're doing. 

To rinse, drain out the water and squeeze out the banneton liners. Fill the bowl up with clean water, swish and squeeze a few times, and drain. Repeat this 2-3 times.

Squeeze out as much water as possible and hang the bannaton liners to dry right on your dish tack or over your sink faucet. When they are completely dry, put them away until your next bread baking day.

Bread baking tools and care

Banneton basket liner
Sourdough bread baking tools
Bread lame and LiXTiK Lip balm

Many people use a dutch oven for baking sourdough bread. There is such a thing as a bread cloche, that looks like it would make this step very easy. There are also special dutch oven style pans for baguettes and different shaped loaves.  

I have a few methods that I use, with a variety of cast iron pots and pans that I already own. I flip them upside down over the bread that is on a sheet pan on top of a piece of parchment paper. I recommend reading the chapter on breads in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Even though she doesn't write about sourdough, there is a lot of information about flours, pans, techniques, etc. I also got a lot of info from watching Mike's youtube videos from Pro Home Cooks. I blend what I've read, watched and learned by baking my own bread, to come up with my method.

How to make a bread Lame

What is a bread lame, you ask? It's a razor blade knife for making your cuts in the top of the bread right before you put it in the oven. I've tried spare razors that I had from my art studio. I also tried kitchen knives I thought were sharp enough.

This tool is very important and gets little discussion. They are also a moderately priced tool to purchase. If you are a woodworker or know of one, I would recommend making one that fits your hand perfectly. Andy made mine and it's fabulous.

When using any old knife or razor, your cuts are never deep enough, sharp enough, or continuous enough and the bread doesn't even have a chance to bloom properly.

Andy bought double edge straight razor blades at a hair supply store. They are very thin and extra sharp. He then made a handle that he finished with LiXTiK Lip Balm, which gives it a lovely smooth finish that will not leave a taste on your bread from some mineral or linseed oil. He simply rubbed the lip balm on the handle and buffed it in. My lame makes expert cuts, with little effort.

Sourdough recipe thoughts

Before we get started, I must clarify that this technique I am developing is for a 100% bread flour, which is hard red wheat. You can substitute any flour, which will result in variations of how much starter, flour, and water in order for the dough to get the proper rise.

These are my terms for best describing what to look for in your rise. A proper rise is when the dough is "strong", and it is rounded on the top and pulled away from the sides of the bowl. A "weak" rise is when the dough is flat and sticking to the sides of the bowl. An "exhausted" rise is when the dough is actually concave in the bowl and may even show popped bubbles. 

You will make this dough in a few steps. You can plan to make this bread, by tucking time slots into your day to complete the steps.

Step 1 is a 2 hour rest period. So plan on mixing your dough and doing something else for 2 hours.

Step 2 also is a 2 hours step, but you will mix the dough every 30 minutes (20-45 minutes is ok). 

Step 3 is an 8-12 hour rise called the long rise.

Step 4 is baking the bread.

Many sourdough bread recipes are in weights instead of volumes. I have tried both and have come up with a recipe in volumes. 

 The percentages of water to starter to flour are different depending on whether you are using all purpose flour or bread flour, or white flour or wheat flour. They are different still for a gluten free or partially gluten free bread. 

All purpose flour is a 50/50 mix of hard red wheat and soft white wheat. This mimics European hard red wheat, which has a lower gluten percentage than American hard red wheat. Soft white wheat has a lower gluten percentage and a higher natural sugar percentage. 

My recipe and technique that I am developing is for a 100% hard red wheat flour. I think some "bread" flours are mixed red and white wheats, but the white wheat is lower than 50%. The reason I think this is, when I have made bread using "wheat bread flour", that doesn't specify which wheat is in the ingredients, the bread has a slight cake like quality compared to 100% red wheat flour which is much springier.

Check your sourdough starter 

Farmers and Artisans in Snyder, NY Bakery and grocery. Good Food Matters

On bread baking days, I will not feed my started within 3-5 hours of using it. Make sure it's got nice air bubbles, that you can see on the top and through the sides of your jar. The top of the starter should be rounded. If it's not like this feed it, possibly with very little or no water and wait a few hours to see if looks better.

Sourdough Recipe Step 1

Let's begin! This part includes a 2 hour rest period.

Step 1: Expand the flour. 

3 cups hard red wheat bread flour

1 1/2 cups room temp drinking water

I wash and dry my bowl and my hands, before I begin. Place the flour in a 3-5 quart bowl and add the water 1/2 cup at a time. Mix each time with a rubber spatula or rubber bread scraper. The gluten will begin to form strands. Depending on your flour, you will want to add the last 1/2 cup of water a little bit at a time. 

At this point I run my fingers along the edge of the spatula or scraper to remove all of the dough, and mix the dough by hand, while it's still in the bowl. I very gently knead the dough to encourage the flour particles to expand instead of being pressed together.

This is a tricky part, where you will develop a feel for the dough. You are looking for a light, soft, moist dough that is only a tiny bit sticky. If the dough is tough, wet your hands and mix in more water a little bit at a time.The gluten should begin to be stretchy and a little bit sticky pulling away from your hands, while you are kneading it. Many recipes say kneading isn't necessary, but I found with my chosen flour, it makes a more consistent dough.  

Make the dough round and place it in your bowl. Place the bowl in a plastic bag, or cover the bowl with something that will hold the moisture in the bowl. Cover the bowl with a dish towel. I place it in a spot somewhere in my house that's between 70-75 degrees F.

Let it sit undisturbed for 2 hours.

Sourdough bread recipe Step 2

Step 2: Add the starter.

Wash and dry your working surface, and your hands. Sometimes I use my countertop and sometimes I use my cutting board. Take a small amount of flour and spread it out on your clean work surface and dust your hands.

Carefully remove the expanded dough from the bowl, and place it on your work surface. Press a well in dough and carefully add 1 cup of your starter.

Wash and dry your bowl and leave it to dry while you complete this step.

I have measured the starter and then put it in the bowl, but I didn't like how much of the natural yeast I lost to the air. So I now pour the starter directly into the dough well. This will take practice to eyeball 1 cup. It's definitely not an exact thing, which I am comfortable with. If you can't handle this kind thinking, by all means measure out 1 cup and place it in the dough well.

Place 1 teaspoon salt on your starter. Gather up the sides of your dough bowl over the starter and salt and gently begin the blending process. The dough will become sticky. Use the scraper to scrape the dough off your work surface and mix it into the dough. This is not a gentle process, but try to be as gentle as possible so as the yeast releases from the starter it goes into the expanded flour instead of into the air. 

Evenly distribute the starter and salt, but take care to knead it as little as possible. The dough will not be smooth and uniform at this time. It will be a lumpy, sticky ball.

When the starter is evenly distributed, form a ball. Roll the dough ball in a small amount of flour so it is very slightly dusted. Dust your bowl with a small amount of flour. Place the dough with the seam side down in the bowl. Put the bowl back in the plastic bag and cover with the dish towel. Place in a 65-70 degree F spot and let it sit for 30 minutes or so.

Step 2 Rise 2

Take the dough out and place it on your clean work surface that is dusted with a small amount of flour. Dust your hands with flour and gently pat the dough into a rectangle about 6-8 inches long by 4-5 inches wide. Look at the photos below to fold it correctly. 

Roll the dough back up, dust with flour and place it back in the bowl. Cover and let it rest for 30 ish minutes.

You will notice the dough will become more uniform with each rise. It may increase a little or even double in size during each 30 minute rise. What's happening is the flour is absorbing all of the starter, it's yeast and moisture, and the salt. It kinds of blends itself. With each rise, the dough should become more stretchy.

Repeat this process 2 more times.

Form your sourdough loaves

This is a small recipe and will make 2 small loaves, which are easily managed. You can mess around with shapes and sizes as you get to understand how this dough works with your chosen flour and the environment of your kitchen.

You can make 2 round loaves, 2 baguettes, 1 batard or 1 large round loaf. It depends on what baking pans you have, your oven type and how adventurous you are.

A dutch oven or deep cast iron skillet is a very handy tool for getting the bread to bake correctly. I've used a casserole dish also. Depending on which "pan" I'm going to use, will depend on the loaf shape I choose for this next step.

I need to perfect my method before purchasing the "correct" dutch oven or french bread pans that are little ovens you place inside your oven. By doing it with what you have, you will really learn about your skills and the dough so when you are ready to purchase bread pans, you will get the ones right for you.

I also have a lot of old cast iron pans that are used for bread baking, but are not the latest style. I also have a 100 year old cast iron baguette shape loaf pan that is missing the cover. So I turn it upside down over the bread. It works very well, but is tricky to maneuver when it's 400 degrees.

Andy's grandmother's cast iron deep skillet. It is likely 100+ years old
deep ceramic bowl that I use as a banneton, with a round loaf linen banneton liner.
A glass food storage container that has a glass lid. It's the shape of a bread loaf pan and it is lines with an oval linen banneton liner.

Pictured above is Andy's grandmother's cast iron deep skillet with cover, a deep round bowl with a floured liner in it and a rectangular glass storage container with a floured liner in it. 

I use this cast iron pan for both shapes separately.

To form your loaves, dust your work surface with flour, and gently place your dough on the surface. Cut the dough in half and shape each loaf. 

Line your rising baskets. I have one actual baguette basket called a banneton. For the other shapes, I use what I have. If you do not have linen banneton liners, you can use linen dish towels or even parchment paper. Flour the liners generously, and rub the flour into linen liners. You will get a feel for how much flour to use after a time or 2 (or 10). 

I use the same method of folding the dough during the short rises. For the round loaf simply place the rolled dough in the banneton. For the long loaf or batard, roll it out so it will fit on your banneton from end to end. Be gentle rolling so the dough remains fluffy. Place the batard seem side up.

Generously dust the tops and sides of each dough loaf with flour, cover with a plastic bag and a dish towel and set aside in a 65-70 degree F spot for 8-12 hours. You can do this at night and bake in the morning or get it all ready before you head out for the day. What ever suits your schedule. If you're going to be gone for a long time, you can even let it rise in the refrigerator. I have never done that.

The longer it rises, the more soughdough taste you will make. I wait till it rises to the correct size, which is about triple. Sometimes it takes 12 or 15 hours. This long rise could take longer than other baker's recipes, because of my 100% red wheat bread flour, my room temperature is too warm, or any number of reasons. I don't mind. This takes the pressure off to get it baked. I'll get to it as time allows. 

Baking sourdough bread

Step 4: Baking the sourdough bread. 

This is the moment you've been waiting for. It's exciting. 

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. If you are using cast iron pans or ceramic casserole dishes, preheat these too.

Leave your bread in the bannetons until the oven is at temp and you are ready to transfer the loaf into the baking pan. This is a very tricky part and you can deflate the loaf when moving it, so take care. If you do deflate the loaf a little when moving it, it will still taste great, so proceed anyway and bake with confidence!

I have a transfer plate (regular dinner plate) or wire rack to remove the dough from the banneton. 

Parchment paper definitely helps. Place the parchment paper on your top of your banneton and the transfer rack on top of that. Carefully flip the banneton upside down so the weight of the bread is on the parchment paper and rack and gently place this on your work surface. Carefully lift off the banneton with the liner, so the liner peels off. Take care to not tear the dough. If you do tear the loaf, this will deflate the loaf slightly. Proceed and bake it anyway if this happens. I have my dough scraper ready to help separate the liner from the dough.

Quickly brush off the excess flour and save it to feed your starter. Brush it off the parchment paper. Take your dutch oven out of the oven carefully. I turn on my oven fan and open some windows to avoid setting off the fire alarm when I remove the skillet or casserole lid. Place the loaf inside the pan. Make your swift cuts with the lame. You can use a very sharp knife or razor blade. I couldn't get good cuts until Andy made my lame. Practice.

Cover and place the bread in the oven. Bake for 25 minutes. This is when your cuts should expand and bloom. Do not open the pan and peek. Have patience. Open the oven, and remove the lid and continue baking for another 20-30 minutes. Sometimes I take the loaf out of the pan entirely for the last bake. 

It is ok to take the pan out of the oven, remove the lid and put it back in the oven. Be as quick as possible when doing this. 

If you do not have any parchment paper, bake without it. Use a regular cookie sheet style baking pan. I have 1/2 sheet baking pans with rolled 1/2" high sides. If you do not have parchment paper, brush the excess flour off the loaf, and lightly oil the baking sheet pan.

If you have a proper dutch oven with a shallow skillet bottom and domed top, this will be very easy. If you have a deep skillet or regular dutch oven, it is a bit tricky. 

I have done this in a variety of ways. I noticed that the bread bakes best if I put the bread on parchment, on the cookie sheet with the skillet upside down over the loaf. It's tricky to take it off but it makes the best loaf.

Repeat the baking process with your 2nd loaf. Enjoy your sourdough bread journey! Of all the loaves I've made so far, the center one below is the best one. See how the cuts bloomed?

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I'm perfecting my bread baking skills and recipes. I try different techniques, flour blends, recipe alterations, and rise times, just to name a few.

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