A fresh sourdough out of the oven is a thing of beauty. The learning curve for working with sourdough is steep but rewarding. This is the article I wish I read when I started: it will save you time, but more importantly it will save you from sad, deflated dense breads. Ready? Here we go:

Overview

All breads include four basic ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. There are two additional, equally important but rarely mentioned ingredients: time and temperature.

The key to having control over the sourdough baking process lies in understanding the relationship between the amount of yeast, time and temperature.

When the dough is first mixed, the yeast starts consuming the natural sugar and starch in the flour and multiply. This process is called fermentation. The more starter you use, the faster the fermentation process will take. The dough temperature also impact fermentation sped – the higher the temperature, the faster the dough will ferment and rise.

Faster fermentation results in lighter flavour. Slower, colder fermentation yields more complex flavours and slightly more sour bread. There’s no right or wrong here, the constraints are the flavour you’re seeking and the amount of time you have.

Tools

Before you start, make sure you have the necessary tools. You can certainly try baking bread improvising with whatever tools you have at home, however, these will make your life much easier.

Ingredients

All the quantities in a bread recipe are represented as a percentage of total flour. This method is also called a “Baker’s Percentage“. This makes it easy to scale the recipes up and down.

Another important concept is hydration, specifically the ratio of water to flour. Higher hydration breads are light, fluffy and airy with open crumb, but they are harder to work with. The humidity in the air, the altitude of your kitchen and your flour choice all contribute to how far you can push the hydration, but 75% in this recipe is a high yet still manageable starting point for experimentation.

Finally, a key ingredient is “bread flour”, which has a protein content of minimum 12g and therefore able to build strength and hold its shape better than all purpose flour.

The quantity below makes a reasonably sized bread for 2 people.

WeightIngredientBaker’s Percentage
400gBread Flour100%
300gWater75%
100gYeast (Sourdough Starter)25%
8gSalt2%

Instructions

As discussed above, the exact timing depends on a few factors such as maturity and amount of starter in the dough, the room temperature, etc. That said, the instructions below are a good guideline for starting in the morning and having the bread ready for dinner.

TimeStepDescription
11pmFeed StarterFeed your starter the night before baking
7amAutolyseMix flour & water, keep covered for 45 mins
7:45amMixAdd starter and salt, mix well, cover
8amStretch and FoldStretch and folder every 20 minutes, 3 times
9amBulk FermentationLet dough rest covered until bubbly
2pm Bench RestLet rest for 30 minutes on the counter, uncovered
2:20pmShapeShape into a boule or a batard
2:30pmProofProof in proofing basket
3:30pmPreheat Oven245c with the dutch oven inside
4pmBake25min covered, 25 min uncovered
5pmCoolRest on counter with air circulation
7pmSliceSlice and eat, keep rest in freezer

Recipe

Autolyse

In a medium sized mixing bowl, mix flour and water, and knead into a shaggy dough. It will be slightly sticky and not exactly smooth. Then rest covered with a damp kitchen towel cloth for 45 minutes.

This process is called the autolyse, and it helps the flour to slowly hydrate. This also helps the dough to gain strength by forming gluten bonds. Salt slows down gluten development, which is why it’s omitted at this stage.

The dough looks like a shaggy mess during autolyse and it’s perfectly normal.

Mix

Once the autolyse is complete, add the salt and the starter into your bowl and knead until the dough is relatively smooth, around for 6-8 minutes. There are a couple of   techniques such as “rubaud method” and “slap and fold” that you can research, but the good old kneading on the counter is sufficient for this recipe. Once the dough starts looking smooth, cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Stretch and Fold

The ability of the dough to hold its shape is referred to as “strength”, and it’s a result of well formed gluten strands in the dough. The stretching and folding of the dough aligns, extends and strengthens these gluten bonds.

To do this, lightly wet your hand and hold the dough from one side. Lift up and stretch as much you can without tearing the dough, and fold it onto itself. Turn the bowl clockwise 90 degrees and repeat. Do this until all you’ve done all 4 sides, cover with towel and let it rest. Repeat this process every 20 minutes until the dough starts to hold its shape and resist stretching, about 3 times over the course of an hour.

Bulk Fermentation

This is the main part of the process where nature does her magic and you can go do your errands. The yeast in the dough consumes the nutrients in the flour, expanding and rising the dough in the process.

As the fermentation continues, the dough expands and little gas bubbles start to form.

You’ll know when the dough has risen visibly (usually around 50%-70%) and has visible gas bubbles mostly around the edges.

Bench Rest

When the bulk fermentation is complete, slowly release the dough from the bowl onto a counter with a wet hand, being careful not to burst any gas bubbles. Using the bench scraper or your hands, lightly shape into a round ball and leave uncovered for 20 minutes. At this point, your dough should mostly hold its shape. If it flattens out like a pancake, redo this step.

Shape

Lightly flour your surface and flip your dough with the bench knife onto the floured surface. Extend the top end of your dough and fold back onto center. Extend the right end and fold onto center. Do the same for the left edge, forming an envelope. Finally roll the bottom part of the dough on top of the previously folded edges. Using your bench scraper, drag the dough around to build tension. Gently transfer to a proofing basket that’s dusted with flour.

Final Proof

During this stage, the dough goes through one last round of fermentation and expands slightly over 1-2 hours. The basket helps the dough retain its shape. To test whether it’s sufficiently proofed, lightly flour your finger and poke the dough: if it bounces back immediately, it’s under-proofed and you need to let it rest longer. If it doesn’t bounce back at all, it’s over-proofed and you’ve pushed fermentation too long. If it bounces back slowly, it’s ready to bake! Preheat your oven with the dutch oven inside to 245c towards the end of proofing.

Bake

Carefully transfer the dough from the proofing basket into the hot dutch oven, and try not to burn your hands in the process! Using a parchment paper makes it easier to transfer the dough. You can use a razor to score the dough with a 45 degree angle to control how it opens up and expands in the oven.

Bake for 25 minutes with the lid on. After 25 minutes, take the lid off, reduce heat to 235c and continue baking for another 20-25 minutes, until the bread takes a dark brown color. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely, usually a few hours.

Tips & Tricks

  • Play around with introducing different flours in small quantities to experiment with  flavours. Whole wheat, rye, spelt are all great options. Keep in mind that each flour behaves and holds water differently.
  • Resist the urge to add flour if the dough is sticky. Learn to love the dough the process.
  • During shaping, handle the dough as little and as quickly as possible.
  • Once you’re comfortable with the base recipe, consider adding dried fruits, seeds and nuts to expand your sourdough bread portfolio.
  • The best way to keep the fresh bread is sliced, in a zipper bag in the freezer. You can transfer straight from the freezer into the toaster and have fresh bread for up to a month!