Baking bread is good for the soul and the only thing better than baking bread is eating it. I absolutely love bread. I love the history of bread, the regional differences, middle eastern flat breads, Italian ciabattas, crispy French baguettes, and more than anything else a super tasty sourdough.
Sourdough seems to be more popular than ever right now and rightly so. Who wants to eat some bland, bleached, mass produced sliced loaf when you can have something which tastes fabulous? Sourdough has health benefits too. The slow fermentation process that gives sourdough its depth of flavour, also makes the bread easier to digest as well as releasing more nutrients from the grains than bread made with dried packet yeast.
But how difficult is it to make? Well the good news is that making sourdough is a reasonably simple process. It needs a little preparation and some lead in time, but good sourdough can be made with only three simple ingredients: flour, water, salt.
In this guide we’re going to explain all the bread baking tools that you need to get started on your road to sourdough greatness and first….
How to make a sourdough starter
If you are going to bake bread regularly then are a few items that will help you on your way. You can pick these up quite cheaply online or from specialist cooking shops, but you can also improvise without some of these items.
Scales – a set of scales is a must have. The one thing I’ve learned about baking is that precision is needed. Unlike with other forms of cooking, being gung-ho with quantity estimations tends not to end well with baking
Proofing basket – I have a few of these in different shapes, but a round proofing basket with a cloth liner is best if you are starting out as I find round loaves easier to shape. You can improvise with a large bowl and tea towel.
Dough scraper – a scraper becomes a bread makers best friend, especially when dealing with stickier doughs as it minimises the need to use your hands when moving dough from bowls or shaping.
Baker’s lame – a lame is a slashing tool for scoring the bread. Scoring allows the bread to expand during the oven spring (when the bread rises rapidly after it goes into the hot oven). It also allows you to carve some creative patterns into your bread. You can also use a very sharp knife or razor blade for this.
A kilner jar or two – I use these for managing my sourdough starter but any sealed container will do the job. These should be able to hold up to 1 litre of liquid.
Sourdough starter is gloopy mix of flour and water that naturally ferments and has been helping humans to leaven bread for over 5000 years. Flour and water are mixed into a paste which then traps natural yeast microbes and bacteria from the air. These break down the sugars in the flour, which in turn releases carbon dioxide which gives the bread its bubbles and makes it rise. Another by-product of this process is lactic acid which gives the bread its sour tang.
Creating a starter from scratch is a simple process but takes a few days to get up and running. Once your starter is healthy you can keep it active by regularly feeding it with fresh flour and water, or you can put it into hibernation by leaving it in the fridge. I’ve had my sourdough starter for a few years now and its going stronger than ever.
Ingredients and equipment for sourdough starter
400g of strong bread flour
425ml of tepid water
2 x kilner jars with lids or similar containers.
Day 1 – Combine 50g of flour and 50ml of water in a jar and mix until no dry flour remains. Loosely cover the jar with the lid and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day 2 – Pour 50g of the starter mixture into a second jar and discard the remainder. Add 50g of fresh flour and 50ml of water to the mixture and stir until no dry flour remains. Loosely cover and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day 3 – The starter should be starting to show some activity by now. You may see some little bubbles starting to appear in the mixture, but it probably won’t be rising too much in height yet. Pour 50g of starter mixture into a clean jar and discard the remainder. Add 50ml of water and 50g of fresh flour to the mixture and stir. Leave at room temperature with a loose lid for 24 hours.
Day 4 – Repeat as day 3
Day 5 – The starter mixture should be starting to see some activity now. It will be starting to smell slightly sour and should be crawling up and down the jar as it bubbles away but don’t worry if not. Today you are going to up the feeds to twice a day, approximately 12 hours apart. The timing does not have to be exact but try and feed in the morning and in the evening. Repeat the measures as in previous days; 50g of starter into a clean jar, with 50ml of water and 50 g of flour and mix well.
Day 6 – Pour 125 ml of water into a clean jar, add 75g of starter, and 100g of flour and mix well. If you have any rye flour then split the flour with 50g white, 50g of rye – rye works particularly well in starters. Mark the mixture so you can track how much it is rising. I put an elastic band at the height of the starter and then track where it is around 6 hours later. If the starter doubles in height, then you are good to use it in your sourdough loaf. If not, then just keep going for another few days with the twice daily feeds.
Now that you have a healthy starter you are ready to make bread, but you can keep this ticking over by refreshing the starter by following the measures in day 6. However, as most people are not baking every day then you might prefer to put your starter into hibernation. To do this put 62ml of water, 38g of starter, and 50g of flour (half white / half rye if you have it) into a clean jar and put into the fridge with the lid on. When you are going to bake again, get your starter out of the fridge, allow to warm up for 12 hours, and then restart the twice daily feeding process for a couple of days until you are ready to bake. If you are going months without making bread, then you can put your starter in the freezer and then thaw out when you need it. However, I often leave mine in the fridge for weeks at a time and can always revive it relatively easily. The liquid my separate so that a thicker mix sits underneath dark coloured water, but once you mix it up and refresh the starter it will get going again.
Next…. a beginner’s guide to actually baking sourdough bread
Sourdough bread sounds like it could be complicated to make but, it’s quite simple. All you need is flour, water, salt, and time. With sourdough it’s all about playing the long game with a slow fermentation process which deliver the flavour, and time is something that we all have at the moment. You’ll need some days to develop a good sourdough starter that will leaven your bread as well as imparting a lovely acidic flavour, and we’ve explained how to develop your starter in the previous post.
The taste is the reason why we make sourdough bread. Sure, there is something cathartic, and therapeutic about making bread, but the reason why we chose sourdough over a plain loaf is for that fabulous flavour. The acidic tang is created as a by-product of the natural fermentation process. A well-developed sourdough starter will slowly breakdown sugars and release carbon dioxide that helps the dough to rise, as well as releasing lactic acid which helps develop the flavour.
Flour, water, salt. That’s all you will need for this recipe where I’ll also explain some of the simple techniques that you will need to create a lovely sourdough loaf. As you develop skills and gain confidence you can expand your repertoire, adding more elements such as caraway and fennel seeds to create a fabulous rye sourdough, or fresh green olives and oil for an Italian inspired bread. However, we’re going to start with this simple recipe below which creates a lovely sourdough loaf.
500g of strong white bread flour (if you have any spelt flour than use 100g of this and 400g of white but 100% white will do)
355ml of tepid water
16g of fine salt
160g of sourdough starter
Energy 230 kcal
I’ll explain the method below with timings, but you can adapt these to suit your needs. Most of the timings involved are aimed at giving your bread time to develop, so you can more these about or slow things down by putting your dough in the fridge at some stages. But let us assume that we have a lazy weekend where we will prepare our bread on Saturday to bake on a Sunday ready for a late breakfast. I’ll explain the techniques you need below but I advise having a look at some of the fabulous sourdough bakers on YouTube for their tips on how to stretch and fold or how to shape bread.
9.00am Refresh your sourdough starter as explained in our starter guide above.
12.00pm In a large bowl, or ideally a large square container with a lid (30cm x 30 cm x 15cm would be perfect) mix the flour and the water together. Mix this all together with a dough scraper or silver spoon until all the dry flour is absorbed. Leave the dough in a rough ball, cover with the lid or cling film and leave for 3 hours at a warm room temperature.
This method of mixing the water and flour is called autolyse and is a useful technique for beginners as it makes the dough easier to handle. Gluten development starts as enzymes in the flour are activated, which for you and me just means that dough becomes more pliable and will not stick to your hands as much.
3.00pm Put some water in a bowl and dip your fingers in this each time you touch the dough. In your container, gently stretch out your dough into a rectangle. You should be able to feel the change in the dough as it allows you to stretch it quite easily, and it should feel quite wet. Pour in the sourdough starter and then fold each edges of your dough back over its salted middle, until you’ve made a square block.
3.30pm Stretch out the dough once again into a square and our the 16g of salt onto the flattened-out dough. Fold the edges back over and into a square block of dough and leave covered for 30 minutes for the salt to absorb.
4.00pm – 6.30pm Stretch and fold (and maybe the odd slap). Stretching and folding the dough is a technique designed to strengthen the dough and to make the bubbles in your bread more evenly spread.
Again, wet your fingers before touching the dough to avoid it sticking to you too much. Now you want to stretch your dough a little more vigorously. With both hands stretch one side of the dough as far as it will let you, shaking it a little as you go, then fold the dough back over itself. If you are working with a square container then turn it 90 degrees and repeat the action with the next edge. Repeat this action on each side two times.
Cover and leave the dough to rest for 30 minutes and then repeat the stretch and fold process 3 to 4 times. You can also do this on a clean work surface and introduce slap and fold action for your final two iterations. Don’t be tempted to add any more flour at this point and you should have a wet and slightly sticky dough. Use your dough scraper and a little water if things get too sticky.
6.30pm Shaping the dough. Scrape the dough out of your container using your dough scraper onto a lightly floured surface. Flour your hands and shape the dough into a boule. Flatten the dough out a little and then pull all the edges of the dough up onto itself into a ball, then flip it over so that the seam is underneath. Then pull the dough towards you 5 cm or so by pulling the underside of the far side of the dough towards you. Tun 90 degrees and repeat 5 or 6 times. The idea is to create tension on the top of the surface of the dough. Leave to rest for 10 minutes and then repeat this exact same process, flipping the dough back over, pulling the edges up into a ball, turning the dough back over, and then pulling it towards you a few times. As above videos can show you this technique better than I can explain it, but you will pick it up quickly and realise ones you are done.
6.40pm Generously flour the lining of your proofing basket. Ideally you will do this with rice flour, but I usually manage this with a combination of white flour and semolina flour. Flour the top of your boule so it is not sticky and then put into the proofing basket seam side up. Cover with a plastic bag and put into the fridge.
Today you are going to bake the bread. I usually cook my bread in a large cast iron casserole dish with a lid. These are great as they help keep the shape and self-steam the bread. The next best thing is a pizza stone but if you have not got one of these then an oven tray will do the job. If you are not using a lidded cast iron dish, then you’ll need to get some steam into your oven. The best way to do this is to pour some boiling water into a deep oven dish and put this in the oven just before your bred goes in. The steam helps to give your bread a great crunchy crust.
8.00am Put the oven on full heat with the cast iron pan, pizza stone, or oven tray in the oven.
8.45am Get the bread out of the fridge. It should not have risen too much more than the night before. Lightly oil some baking paper and put oil side down on top of the proofing basket and then turn over onto the work top and gently lift off the basket. Be careful if the dough is stuck to the liner anywhere.
Score the dough with a lame or sharp knife. Do this with a swift action. You can work on creative bread scoring designs as you build confidence but a simple cross will do for now. Speed is of the essence here as you need to get the bread into the oven before it loses any shape.
Lift the bread into the cast iron pan with the paper or onto the pizza stone / oven tray. Put into the oven and drop the heat down to 240°C for about 30 minutes. Don’t forget the water if using the pizza stone / oven tray and if cooking in the cast iron dish remove the lid after 20 minutes. After 30 minutes drop the heat down to 225°C and then cook for a further 12 minutes but do check it.
The bread should be a lovely brown colour and the scored edges should be starting to caramelise. If it looks like this then it is done, if not leave in for a few minutes more.
Remove the bread from the oven and leave to cool on a raised rack. It should be cool enough to eat after 90 minutes but leaving it a little longer is better. Once it’s ready I cut the whole loaf up, eat some now and immediately freeze the rest. I can then have lovely sourdough toast whenever I want. Smother with butter, honey, oil, turn into bruschetta or however you have it but most of all enjoy!