Once you’ve got an active sourdough starter you need to know how to bake with it. Many recipes use sourdough for flavour, then add commercial yeast to get the rise out of the bread. However, if you want to bake truly amazing sourdough bread, then you need to learn a few simple sourdough bread techniques.
I’ll start with some basic sourdough information (courtesy of Brad… who does have his PhD. in electrical engineering… hence the tendency towards precision. I will admit that I only ever approximate things, and it usually works out for me!)
Basic Sourdough Information:
- Every sourdough culture is unique. Humidity and temperature can also affect your bread. When following a recipe, you may need to rise for longer or adjust the amount of water, etc. As you become a seasoned sourdough baker you will learn to use the recipes as a guideline, then use your intuition to do what feels right.
- Precision is important for consistency. To be consistent you need to weigh your ingredients and make sure they are at the right temperature. If you have a very scientific mind, then you could keep a diary to track exactly what conditions work the best for you and your unique sourdough culture.
- Always bake sourdough bread in a hot oven. Preheat your oven as hot as it can go. Think of all those lovely wood-fired pizza ovens in Italy.
- Try to keep the bread covered for the first 30 minutes of baking to provide an even heat and to keep the bread from crusting during the initial cooking. A cast iron dutch oven (affiliate link) is ideal. It can be preheated in the oven so the cold bread dough gets instant heat when placed in the dutch oven.
- Brad’s favourite sourdough baking book Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish. If you want to make amazing artisan breads at home, then I highly recommend getting a copy of this book.
1. Hydrate the Flour:
Mix your flour and water first, then allow them to sit for 15-30 min before adding any other ingredients. This allows the flour to fully absorb the water and activates the enzymes in the flour. If other ingredients are added right away then the flour will harden before the enzymes are activated.
Usually, the dough is very dry, since a lot of the liquid is be provided by the sourdough starter. Rub the flour with your fingers to make sure that it is well mixed.
2. The Pincer Method
After 30 minutes it’s time to add in your sourdough culture, salt and most other ingredients. This is tricky because it involves mixing wet sourdough starter into a dry flour mix. Do this by hand using a technique that involves folding the dough and pinching through the folded layers of the dough to cut in the added ingredients.
Here is the dough ball that has been pinched.
Fold the dough in half and pinch again.
Repeat this process a number of times until the dough is well mixed.
3. Stretch and Fold the Dough
Unlike commercial yeast-based breads, sourdough should not be kneaded. Instead the sourdough should be gently stretched and folded in order to develop the gluten and incorporate air into the mixture.
Brad does this with thoroughly wet hands so that the dough doesn’t stick to him. He grabs a handful of dough, pulls it gently to the side and folds it over top (as shown in the photos below).
Brad folds the dough 2-3 times, then allows the dough to rest for at least 30 minutes before repeating the folding process 2-4 more times. The exact timing of the folding doesn’t really matter, so feel free to head off to work and forget about folding your dough.
You know you’re doing it right if the dough goes from being sticky to a firm ball by the time you’ve finished. At the end of 12 hours at room temperature the dough is usually well fermented.
4. Forming Loaves
After the 12 hour ferment, gently lay the dough on a well floured counter and cut it into the number of loaves you’re planning to make.
Then you need to gently coax the dough into into a ball without ever kneading it or pressing down on it. The goal is to avoid breaking any of those delicate air bubbles that you have made. Brad cups the dough in both hands and slowly rolls it into shape.
After forming the dough you need to cover it and set it aside for the final rise.
We often do this final rise in the refrigerator, which slows the fermentation down so that we can bake bread the next day. It can also improve the flavour of the dough.
Now you’re ready for the recipes!