Sourdough Baking for Beginners

Anyone can bake bread with instant yeast in a bread machine, but I find such countertop conveniences rob all the romance out of fresh-baked bread. While I utilize a few modern devices when baking, my process attempts to honor the way human beings baked bread for millennia.

In this post, I share basic lessons for sourdough baking that worked in my home in Memphis. Let me be clear: I am an amateur baker. A quick tour of my sourdough accomplishments proves this fact. I profess no advanced craftsmanship, artistry or expertise in baking. I intend this post to help beginners feel less intimidated or anxious about sourdough baking.

I began baking sourdough bread without any commercial instant yeast over a year ago. At the beginning of my sourdough adventure, I found myself overwhelmed with resources on the internet. When I tried to follow someone else’s recipe with different flours, my bread always turned out differently than the loaves of my online tutors. Last weekend, I offered to share some of my sourdough starter on Facebook. I received many requests for tips on how to bake with sourdough from those who asked for starter.

Keeping starter is like keeping a low maintenance pet. Love your pet by feeding it. Your starter will die without food. Until you develop a routine, you may benefit from setting reminders on your smartphone calendar to ensure the good health of your starter. That being said, sourdough starters become resilient over time. Earlier this year, I neglected to feed starter for more than three weeks. I thought all might be lost, but my starter recovered after a few feedings.

I hope you find joy in sourdough baking. Part of that joy comes from sharing our successes (and even failures) with fellow bakers. Let me know how your sourdough adventure unfolds.

Essential Tools for Sourdough Baking

The following basic tools make my life easier as a sourdough baker. You probably own many of these items and can start baking sourdough bread with a few more minor investments in your kitchen.

  1. Sealable glass jar with metal clasp lid. Any air tight container can be used to store sourdough starter, but I have had bad luck with plastic containers. The carbon dioxide gas released by the yeast when feeding on the flour produces high pressure which can cause plastic container tops to pop open with sometimes messy results. Sealable glass jars with metal clasp lids and rubber seals keep the contents under pressure and allows for the best fermentation conditions.
  2. Kitchen scale. Any scale will do, but be aware of the maximum load of your scale when weighing ingredients in heavy glass or metal containers. I’ve had to start over when the ingredients for bread weighed in a heavy glass container topped out the capacity of the scale. I use lightweight plastic cups for most of my measuring to avoid this problem. Don’t forget to zero out your scale for the container (like me).
  3. Kitchenaid stand mixer. My Kitchenaid mixer makes my baking life worth living. I could build muscle in my arms and shoulders if I kneaded by hand, but the resulting back pain simply isn’t worth it. I spend a little time kneading by hand after using the mixer so that I can become one with the dough. There may be other manufacturers of stand mixers out there, but the Kitchenaid tops my list.
  4. Elastic plastic wrap food covers. My friend Charles “Chaz” Fowler gave me a package of this plastic wrap innovation a few months before I started baking. I consider these food covers a gateway tool to sourdough baking addiction. These handy elastic food “condoms” perfectly protect rising dough in a bowl or proofing basket.
  5. Dough cutter/scraper. For those moments when your dough clings to the counter like Michelle Visage to RuPaul’s rising star, a pastry dough cutter/scraper comes to the rescue.
  6. Banneton proofing basket. I own oblong and boule shaped proofing baskets made of soft wood, but I prefer the oblong shape for baking bread. I find it easier to cut consistently-sized slices of bread from a loaf shaped in an oblong basket.
  7. Rectangular baking stone. Sourdough bread bakes perfectly on a preheated baking stone. If you already own a round baking stone for pizza, use it. For my long loaves of bread, I prefer a rectangular shape.
  8. Spray bottle of water. When baking sourdough bread, I spray water on my loaf before placing in the oven and again after 10 minutes of baking. The water sprayed on the loaf surface forms a crisp outer seal which retains moisture in the loaf and prolongs the shelf life of your bread.
  9. Sharp knife or razor blade. Patterned scores adorn the prettiest loaves of sourdough featured on Instagram, magazines and blogs. A sharp knife or razor blade makes these top surface patterns possible for the sexiest sourdough loaves.

It's a two-loaf #sourdough #bake today.

A post shared by Jonathan Cole (@placeatthetabledotnet) on

Basic Ingredients for Sourdough Baking

Home bakers need only three ingredients to make amazing sourdough bread:

  • Flour
  • Water
  • Salt

That’s it! No instant commercial yeast or other ingredients needed.

For beginners in Memphis, I recommend using King Arthur’s All-Purpose Flour (red bag) or Bread Flour (blue bag). Most grocers and supermarkets in the Memphis area carry these two high quality King Arthur flours. Bread flour comes from hard wheat harvested in the spring. All-purpose flour comes from wheat harvested in the fall. King Arthur’s Bread Flour contains a high protein percentage than All-Purpose Flour.

When I first started baking, I used all-purpose flour to feed my starter and bake bread. I recently began using bread flour for starter and noticed better gluten development. Better gluten development means better traps in the dough for the carbon dioxide released by the natural yeast and more airy texture when the dough bakes.

Chlorinated tap water interferes with the growth of the natural yeast and bacteria in the fermentation. Many bakers will advise you to use filtered or deionized water for baking, but Memphis tap water can be great for baking. Pour tap water into a mostly covered pitcher and leave on the counter overnight at room temperature. Most of the chlorine in the pitcher evaporates through the open spout within 24 hours. Chlorine problem solved.

I use table salt or kosher salt when baking which enhances the flavor of bread.

Creating Starter

Sourdough bakers can easily find a fellow baker to share starter (also called levain) without creating their own starter, but I recommend that beginners try creating their own starter for the experience.

Creating Sourdough Starter

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • One bag of King Arthur Bread Flour
  • One large, partially covered pitcher of tap water, dechlorinated at room temperature for at least 24 hours

Directions:

  1. Pour 150 grams of flour and 150 grams of water into a sealable glass jar with clasp lid. Mix together into a consistent batter with a wooden spoon and seal the jar. Leave on the kitchen counter or in a cupboard at room temperature away from sunlight.
  2. After 24 hours, pour out half of the starter. Add 75 grams of flour and 75 grams of water. Mix together into a consistent batter with a wooden spoon and re-seal the jar. Leave on the kitchen counter or in a cupboard at room temperature away from sunlight.
  3. Repeat step 2 for the next 4 days.

On the sixth day, the starter is ready for baking. If not ready to use the starter for baking, continue to feed your starter every day as described in step 2.

Starter Maintenance Recipe

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

I rarely bake more than one loaf of bread a week. To save time, mental energy, and flour, I recommend storing your starter in the refrigerator. I will often wait for 7-10 days to feed my starter when refrigerating because the lower temperatures reduce yeast activity. I take my starter out the refrigerator and feed it the day before I plan to bake.

If storing at room temperature, feed your starter daily.

Ingredients:

  • One bag of King Arthur Bread Flour
  • One large, partially covered pitcher of tap water, dechlorinated at room temperature for at least 24 hours

Directions:

  1. After feeding your starter, place glass container in the refrigerator for up to 7-10 days.
  2. Pour out half of the starter.
  3. Add 75 grams of flour and 75 grams of water. Mix together into a consistent batter with a wooden spoon and re-seal the jar. Return jar to the refrigerator if you have no plans to bake with it.
  4. Repeat step 2 with 7-10 days.

Pro-Tip: Instead of discarding half your starter, start a new colony for a friend in a new container and follow step three.

Since I work Monday through Friday, baking on the weekend is easier for me. The following guide for start and end times to will help you plan your weekend around baking bread. While it sounds like baking is consuming all your time, it really isn’t. Most of the time, your dough will be resting or rising. The guide is based on the full process described in the Sourdough Recipe recipe that follows this table.

Weekend Time Frames for Sourdough Baking
Start Time End Time
Friday Sunrise Saturday Sunset
Friday Sunset Sunday Sunrise
Saturday Sunrise Sunday Sunset

 

Sourdough Bread

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Print

I recommend that beginners follow this recipe for their first few loaves to build confidence. After using all white flour (all-purpose or bread), I started adding some whole wheat flour to my bread recipe. I often use 300 grams of white bread flour and 200 grams of whole wheat flour (total of 500 grams) to add a rich texture and flavor to my bread. Using all whole wheat flour with the time frames described below will result in a denser and less airy texture.

Ingredients:

  • 300 grams starter
  • 500 gram King Arthur Bread Flour
  • 10-12 grams table or kosher salt
  • 250 grams tap water, dechlorinated at room temperature for at least 24 hours

Directions:

  1. Pour out half of the starter from sealable glass container. Add 150 grams of flour and 150 grams of water to the glass jar. Mix together into a consistent batter with a wooden spoon and seal the jar. Leave on the kitchen counter or in a cupboard at room temperature away from sunlight for 10-12 hours
  2. Measure 300 grams of starter into a Kitchenaid mixing bowl. Add 500 grams flour, 250 grams water and salt to the bowl. Place bowl into mixer and knead dough with dough hook attachment for 10 minutes on setting 2 (low setting).
  3. While the dough is in the mixer, replenish your starter with 75 grams of flour and 75 grams of water. Seal your starter and return it to its normal resting place.
  4. Move dough from bowl to kitchen counter. The dough should be pliable and not sticky enough to require added flour for the counter surface. Knead the bread by hand for about 5 minutes. Shape dough into a ball, place into mixing bowl and cover with an elastic plastic wrap food cover.  Allow dough to rest on the counter away from sunlight at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  5. Smear a few tablespoons of flour along the bottom and edges of the proofing basket. The dry flour will prevent your loaf from sticking to the bottom of the basket later.
  6. Remove dough from mixing bowl. The gluten structure should make the dough pliable and stretchy. Pull and stretch the dough with both hands into an elongated bar no less than 1 inch thick. Fold outer thirds of the bar on top of each other over the center. Gently press dough on one end of the rolled dough into the countertop with knuckles. On the opposite open end of the roll, begin gently and gradually folding the dough into a new roll toward the knuckled end. When finished rolling, the knuckled end should form the bottom of the roll beneath the loaf. Check out the video at the end of this post in which Tom Herbert of Hobbs House Bakery in the United Kingdom demonstrates this step. 
  7. Loosen the base of the loaf from the countertop with a dough scraper. Turn loaf over 180 degrees so that the crease faces up, gently stretch the loaf to roughly equal the base length of the proofing basket and place loaf in basket.
  8. Cover the loaf in the proofing basket with an elastic plastic wrap food cover and allow the loaf to rest in the refrigerator for 10-12 hours. This step allows the flavor of the sourdough to develop complexity and richness. If you’re in a hurry, skip to step 8.
  9. Move the loaf from the refrigerator to the kitchen counter. Allow loaf to rise for 4-6 hours until the dough rises just below the domed surface of the plastic wrap cover.
  10. Heat oven with baking stone on middle rack and small oven-safe bowl of hot water on a lower rack to 465 F.
  11. Remove baking stone from oven. Remove plastic wrap from proofing basket and turn loaf onto the baking stone. A few gentle taps on the back side may be necessary to loosen the loaf from basket. This step always makes me anxious. Without enough flour in of the base basket, the dough will stick to the basket (This step becomes easier with practice). When the dough is placed on the stone, you may incise shallow scores the top surface of the bread with a sharp knife or razor blade. Spray the top of the loaf with water and move the baking stone immediately to the oven. Spraying with the loaf with water fosters a nice crisp seal on the outer layer of the loaf which allows your bread to keep without going stale for up to one week.
  12. Bake for 10 minutes. Turn baking stone 180 degrees inside the oven. Spray loaf with water again. Bake for another 20 minutes.
  13. Remove baking stone from oven. Use oven mitts to move bread loaf to a wire cooling rack. Allow bread to come to room temperature for 3-4 hours before slicing. The loaf will lose moisture and grow stale more quickly if sliced while still warm.

Store your loaf of bread in an airtight bread or cake box for up to one week. Sourdough bread tastes lovely when toasted with butter and topped with flakes of kosher salt. Grill chopped onion and shredded cheese in between two buttered slices for a crispy-gooey treat. Toward the end of loaf life, make French toast or croutons for soup or salad.

In the following video, Tom Herbert of Hobbs House Bakery shows how to roll and shape your loaf for the proofing basket (starting at 8:17):

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