A tender crumb, a golden-brown crust, an intriguing smell, and an amazing taste—baking with sourdough is a project in craft, beauty, and nourishment, and mysterious blend of many conditions—the grain’s soil and natural environment, the premises where the grain was processed, the baker's environment and attitude, and, of course, the tools that are used in order to produce the best sourdough bread.
Here's what I use to make great-looking, delicious sourdough bread at home:
When I made my first sourdough starter ever four years ago, observing all the bubbles along the sides and at the bottom of the jar was an inspiring experience. After all these years of baking, sourdough starter still amazes me every day with its growth, power, and resilience. Using glass jars to store your starter enables you to check on your starter’s activity. What's more, I like glass jars because they are easy to clean and are also a safe inert (that is, nonreactive) material to use.
Plastic Dough Scraper and Stainless Steel Bench Knife
These two are a must for efficient dough handling. With a plastic dough scraper, you can scoop the dough out of the bowl without deflating it too much and scrape the dough off your fingers (very handy when working with sticky flours like rye or einkorn). Before you use it, rinse it with water to prevent the dough from sticking to it.
A bench knife is more robust than plastic scraper and it is used for lifting, moving, cutting, and pre-shaping the dough. Handling the bench knife is simple, only requiring a bit of practice; start using it and you will soon handle dough like a ninja. Wash them well after each use and store until the next baking.
"Freestyle" sourdough bread baking—that is, making the bread by feel rather than measuring the flour and water exactly—can be fun and very liberating to express yourself. However, if you’re searching for consistency in your baking, an electronic digital scale is worth your money. I like to measure everything that goes into my bread, from flour, water, and salt to sourdough starter and other add-ons. A few things to remember while measuring: Flour is considered the main ingredient in sourdough bread baking; the proportion to flour of all the other ingredients is called the baker’s percentage, and the water-to-flour ratio is known as the dough's hydration level.
When purchasing a digital scale, pay attention to the following features: It should be lightweight, sturdy, easy to clean, and able to hold at decent amount of weight. The number should be visible while a big bowl is on the scale.
Handling dough can be very messy from time to time, requiring a frequent wash of your hands (especially if you also want to take photos of your new baking creation). If you are someone who feels you can never find a dishtowel when one is most needed, an apron is a way to go. Cotton or linen aprons are one of my favorite kitchen accessories, as they make me feel decisive, stylish, and like a wise, experienced housewife. Additionally, you can store tools in the apron's front pockets.
Bread rising baskets are used to support the soft dough while it is rising; they help the loaves hold their shape and structure when you put them into the oven. I purchased my first bread rising basket a few months after my jump into sourdough baking. Before then, I improvised with different glass and plastic bowls, and while improvising can be a great temporary solution, the material of the container should allow the dough to breathe during its rise. Rising baskets can be found in different shapes (round, oval, oblong) and materials like cane, wicker, or wood-fiber.
Before using the rising basket, sprinkle it with water and generously dust it with whole grain flours or line it with a kitchen cloth (which you also dust with flour). This will help flip the dough out cleanly.
Remembering the taste of a pizza baked in wood-fired oven lead me to purchase a granite baking stone in the early months of my sourdough baking adventure. The main feature of a baking stone is that it mimics the effect of brick ovens by being able to regulate and hold a lot of heat evenly, which is perfect for pizza and bread baking, as it helps to yield a dark and crunchy crust. A baking stone should be warmed and cooled together with the oven to avoid thermal shock and fracturing of the baking stone or steel. Clay baking stones are often less expensive than granite ones.
When my first sourdough pizza ended up looking like a calzone, I realized I needed a pizza peel urgently. Whether you use it for pizza or bread, a dough peel (aluminium or wooden) will allow you to perfectly and quickly slide the dough onto the hot baking stone. Before putting a pizza on a peel, make sure you dust it with flour or cornmeal to prevent the dough from sticking to it. When sliding bread on a baking stone, you can also put a piece of parchment paper underneath it. Dust off or wipe your peel with a wet cloth after use.
When I started with sourdough baking, I thought sourdough bread with crispy crust could only be baked in cast iron Dutch oven. I was wrong: Years later, I use baking tins and baking trays as much as Dutch oven. I like to choose between high-quality enamel and handmade ceramic vessels in different shapes and sizes. If taken care of properly, they will last a lifetime.
I use tins to bake mostly sandwich and swirl breads, and trays for focaccias and cinnamon rolls. In order to get a crunchy crust when baking in tins and trays, introduce steam in the first minutes of baking by preheating another, separate tray on your oven's lower rack. When you load in your bread, throw some ice cubes or hot water on the tray. The water will evaporate and produce steam, and create a crunchier crust.
Cheap razor blades that can be purchased at any cosmetic or hardware store are an efficient tool for scoring (slashing) the bread before baking. By scoring the dough, you can spur your creativity by creating a signature bread decoration. But most importantly, you can control how, in which direction, and how much the dough expands in the oven. The expanding of the dough in the oven is also known as the oven spring. The depth and the angle of the scores you make will produce different results and will also affect the magnitude of the oven spring.
If you find that holding the razor blade between your fingers feels too dangerous, mount it on a simple wooden handle (like a coffee stirrer, for example) or use any other scoring tool, like scissors or a very sharp knife. Scoring is the prettiest when the dough has been perfectly fermented.
A uniform, nice-looking, and untorn slice of sourdough bread is what I imagine to be a perfect slice. Investing in a sharp bread knife with a serrated edge is something you will never regret buying. Your serving plate will look more delicious and charming.
Share your own sourdough bread baking tips with us in the comments!