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My personal adventures in breadmaking began two years ago when I came across a beautifully scored loaf of sourdough on Instagram. It was a work of art, an edible work of art, and I was inspired to learn how to make my own. It took several tries before I was able to figure out what I was doing wrong, but I hope you'll be able to learn from my mistakes as I guide you through the process.
One unexpected discovery was the rhythm that comes with making sourdough. I usually only make one loaf a week, but even just the weekly repetition of feeding the sourdough starter and using my hands (no stand mixer needed!) to create something nourishing out of only flour, water, salt, and wild yeast has proven to be grounding.
I started my sourdough journey by asking a friend for some of her sourdough starter discard (I’ll explain what this is later), and borrowed Flour Water Salt Yeast and Tartine Bread from the library. I highly recommend both these books for deeper dives into the hows and whys of making bread. In addition, two really good online resources are The Fresh Loaf website and the Breadit subreddit. They both welcome newbies and offer good suggestions and critiques, often with pictures.
Aside from the technical know-how it offers, one of my favorite parts in Tartine Bread is the chapter where the author gave his starter and recipe to 4 different people and followed up, months later, to see how it was working for them. All four had ended up adapting the recipe to their own schedules and equipment, and all four were still making terrific homemade bread. I love that story because it motivated me to keep baking, even when my loaves weren’t turning out as I hoped.
The practice will pay off. After producing a few loaves, you’ll start to become familiar with the parts of the process that you just can’t learn from a book or online tutorial. Things like how your starter smells when it’s happy, what your dough looks and feels like when it’s ready to be shaped, and how deeply to score so that your loaf doesn’t burst.
My bread recipe is loosely based on the country loaf recipe from Tartine Bread, and uses techniques I picked up from Flour Water Salt Yeast. I feed my starter the morning I want to bake. It takes about half a day for it to get fully active (depending on how in/active your starter is, yours may take longer or shorter—this is another one of those lessons you can’t learn from a book but from practice and observation!). After the starter has doubled, I add the rest of the ingredients and do a few rounds of folding over the next 3 to 4 hours. I'll then shape the dough, place it in a banneton, and let it complete its final rise overnight in the fridge. The next morning, I'll preheat the oven and take the dough out when the oven is ready, score it while it's still cold, and bake it. It takes me about 24 hours from start to finish—but you could expedite the process by doing the second proof for a few hours at room temperature instead of overnight in the fridge. My dough ends up being about 73 percent hydration (i.e. 73 percent of the dough by weight is water), which for me hits the sweet spot of being wet enough to produce an evenly open crumb, but still easy to work with.
While you don’t need need many of these things, they will make the breadmaking process much, much more enjoyable, and put you that much closer to a successful loaf.
The only Dutch oven I own is actually an oval one and not wide enough for the round loaves I make, so I came up with another solution for trapping the steam in: I bake my bread on a preheated baking stone and invert a stock pot over it. With my limitations, I’ve found this to be the best way to trap the steam needed to produce a nice crust. There are other ways to create steam in the oven—one source suggests using a Super Soaker to shoot water onto pre-heated rocks and chains in a pan on your oven floor—but if you rolled your eyes after reading that sentence, then you get why I’ve stuck with my method.
Before you can make any sourdough bread, you’re going to need a good starter, sometimes also known as levain. There are many instructions for how to create your own from scratch (after all, it’s just flour and water), but this can take several days or even a few weeks. I strongly advise you save yourself the trouble and ask your friends, local bakery, or a neighborhood forum for some of their sourdough discard. I’m always happy to give away my starter discard, because discarding is actually part of the starter maintenance routine. If you can’t find anyone to give you some discard, you could request some of “Carl’s Starter” or buy some online (I’ve heard the starter from King Arthur Flour is pretty reliable).
To keep your starter active and strong enough to leaven a loaf, you’ll need to feed your starter periodically. To do this, discard the majority of it and add some more water and flour. Mix well, cover, and let sit until it gets bubbly and doubles in volume. I feed my starter with a 50/50 mixture of all-purpose flour and whole-wheat flour, and an equal amount of water by weight (for example: 25 grams of all-purpose flour, 25 grams of whole-wheat flour, and 50 grams water). Some people do this daily, or even more than once a day, but since I really only make bread once a week, I keep my starter in the fridge in between bakes, and just feed it the morning I want to bake bread. If I am traveling and have to miss feeding it for over a week, it’s no big deal: I simply do a few rounds of feeding until it starts smelling and acting like I'm used to before I use it.
The initial mixing of the flours and water is called an autolyse. You are essentially allowing the flour get fully hydrated, gently, which in turn encourages gluten formation. Some recipes call for the sourdough starter to be added only after the autolyse, but I find that it’s easier to incorporate into the warm water during the initial mix.
You’ll notice that there is no traditional kneading found in the recipe, just two rounds of mixing (before the autolyse and when the salt is added) and then multiple rounds of “stretch & folds”. I like to use a wooden spoon for the first mixing but you can also use your hands if you like. It is more important to use your hands when incorporating the salt because then you can feel when the salt has fully dissolved. To help keep the dough from sticking to my hand, I wet it occasionally, which also helps with dissolving the salt.
The term “stretch & fold” refers to the process of pulling a section of the dough away and then folding it over, which builds structure and strength in the dough. Each time I “stretch and fold”, I do it four times—from each “corner” of the dough—rotating the bowl 90 degrees each time. I then let the tightened ball of dough rest for 30 minutes before repeating the four stretches again. After each set, I flip the dough over to keep the tension of the last stretch and fold. Instead of a single session of intensive kneading, the repeated stretch-and-folds and rests are how we encourage proper gluten formation.
In the recipe, I give a general guideline of 3 hours for this initial rise (also called the bulk ferment). This may differ depending on how warm or cold your kitchen is and how active your starter is. Supposedly, one way to tell if your dough is ready to be shaped is that when you poke it, it will spring up halfway but I personally haven’t had the greatest success with that test. Instead, I judge by how the dough looks and feels. You should be able to see a few air bubbles dispersed throughout (it helps to have a clear or translucent container too) and the dough should feel puffy and aerated.
When the dough is ready, it’s time to pre-shape. This means turning the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, performing a stretch and fold, and flipping it over so that it resembles a half-dome. Cover the dough (I usually just invert the mixing bowl the dough came out of over it) and allow to rest for 20-30 minutes. This is another good test to see if the dough is ready for shaping because when you uncover the dough after the rest, it should still have mostly retained its shape instead of becoming more of a pancake. If that happens, flip it over and try another stretch and fold and repeat.
For the final shape, I dust the top of the dough with a little more flour, flip it over, and give it a final stretch and fold. Then I stretch and pull together two opposite corners that have formed from the resulting “square” and make sure they stick together before repeating with the other two corners. This should be enough to get you a mostly round and taut shape. Gently transfer the dough seam-side-up to a floured, round banneton, and cover with a shower cap or large reusable plastic bag.
At this point you have two options. You can continue to let it rest at room temperature for another 3-4 hours before baking, or you can slip the covered banneton into the fridge, let it rest overnight, and bake the next morning. If you have the time, I highly recommend the second option because the extended fermentation will deepen the dough’s flavor, and it will be easier to score.
To prevent your crust from cracking haphazardly when baking, you’ll want to score the loaf, which just means using a sharp object to cut the outer layer before it goes in the oven. Many people also use this as a chance to add a decorative flair to their loaves. You can use a knife, scissors, or even the blade of a food processor—but my preferred instrument is a razor blade. If you prefer not to pinch a bare razor blade between your fingers, you can use a lame (pronounced “lahm”) to hold it. My favorite lames are the Wire Monkey UFOs that Tyler Cartner makes.
Most people are scared of scoring and won’t cut deep enough to allow the bread to expand in a controlled manner. I found that it takes practice to figure out just how deeply to score to produce the effect you want, and it really helped me to watch other people scoring their loaves. Check out the #breadscoring hashtag on Instagram for some good examples.
From my own experience, the two most common mistakes are under-proofing the dough and not shaping the dough properly. It’s not always easy to tell when the dough is done proofing, but you’ll certainly know once you’ve sliced the baked loaf open: there will be large holes on top and the crumb on the bottom will be quite dense. One reason for this may be that your sourdough starter wasn’t fully active enough. To encourage activity in your starter, try feeding it the night before you want to make your dough, and then again in the morning (I often do this in the wintertime because the room temperature is cooler than in the summertime). Another reason why you may have ended up with a flat loaf, is that you shaped the dough before it was fermented enough. Next time, try mixing and proofing your dough in a clear or translucent bowl. That way,you can not only feel for air bubbles in the dough as you’re handling it, but can visually confirm that there are enough air bubbles in the dough before you move to shaping.
With regards to properly shaping the dough, you want to handle it as little as possible, yet ensure that the outer layer is tight enough that you get a good oven spring (a term used for the explosive rise in the oven). If the dough is too slack, the loaf has a tendency to spread outwards instead of upwards. If you handle the dough too much, you risk tearing the dough or losing the precious air bubbles inside. It really helped me to watch videos of other people shaping their loaves. I’ve learned so much from watching the shaping videos that @trevorjaywilson and @darnlarn post on Instagram.
I learned about these mistakes the hard way, but instead of being discouraged, these missteps only motivated me to keep tweaking this recipe until I could eventually, consistently bake a loaf that rose significantly and had an even, open crumb. I can’t wait to hear about your journey—highs, lows, and all!
For the starter:
About a tablespoon of sourdough starter (I use a 100 percent hydration starter with 50/50 all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour)
100 grams lukewarm water, about 80°F
50 grams all-purpose flour
50 grams whole wheat flour
Use a spoon to mix the starter with the warm water in a small clear container (I use an empty Talenti jar). Add the flours and mix until no dry bits remain. Let sit in a warm spot until it has doubled in volume, usually about 4-6 hours depending on how active your starter is, and how warm the environment is.
You can check to see if the starter is ready to bake with by dropping a spoonful into some cold water. If it floats, the starter has built up enough gas and is ready to be used. Weigh out 100 grams into a large bowl and place the rest of the starter in the fridge until next week.
For the bread:
100 grams active starter
350 grams warm water, about 80°F, plus more for your hands
450 grams all-purpose flour
50 grams whole wheat or spelt flour
10 grams kosher salt
rice flour, for dusting
Autolyse: Use a spoon to mix the active starter with the warm water. Then add the flours and mix until no dry bits remain. Cover and let autolyse in a warm spot for 25-40 minutes.
Sprinkle the salt evenly over the top of the dough. Wet one hand thoroughly and dribble some water over the salt to start dissolving it. Using the hand that's wet, grab about a quarter of the dough, pull it up and fold it over the top of the dough. Rotate the bowl 90° and repeat 3 more times until the salt is completely encased. Squeeze the dough a couple of times to break it up, flip it over, and smush it back together again before repeating the stretch and fold process. Repeat the squeeze, rotate, stretch, and fold process until the salt is fully dissolved and incorporated into the dough, wetting your hand whenever the dough starts sticking to it again. Cover and set the timer for 30 minutes.
Bulk fermentation: When the timer goes off, wet your hand again and do another 4 stretch-and-folds, rotating the bowl 90° each time. After the last fold, turn the dough over so that the seam is underneath. Cover and set the timer for another 30 minutes. Repeat this every 30 minutes for a total of 3 hours. At this point the dough should be much airier, relaxed, and have risen a bit. If the dough doesn’t seem slightly aerated when you handle it, consider letting it rest for another 30 minutes before pre-shaping.
Pre-shaping: Flour a work surface and gently transfer the dough onto the floured surface. Grab a quarter of the dough, stretch it up and fold it over, then repeat 3 more times on the other corners of the dough to create a taut surface underneath. Dust the top with a little more flour and then flip it over. Use a bench scraper or your hands to gently tuck the sides under and form a half dome. Cover and let sit for 20-30 minutes. In the meantime, dust the banneton with rice flour so that your dough won't stick to it.
Final shaping and overnight proof: After the dough has rested, lightly flour the top and flip it upside down with the bench scraper. Apply another set of stretch-and-folds then pull the opposite corners together to form a round shape. Use the bench scraper to quickly transfer the dough seam-side-up into the banneton. Cover (I use a shower cap) and place in the refrigerator for about 12-14 hours.
Place a Dutch oven or a baking stone and stock pot in the oven and preheat to 475°F. When the oven is ready, take the banneton out of the fridge and invert the dough onto a large piece of parchment paper. Dust the top with some rice flour if you want some definition to your scoring pattern. Wipe the excess flour off and use a lame or razor blade to score the loaf.
Using the parchment paper as a sling, quickly transfer the dough into the preheated Dutch oven or onto the baking stone. Cover with the lid or stock pot. Reduce the oven temperature to 450°F and bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, carefully remove the lid or stock pot and continue to bake for another 20-25 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned. Listen to the bread crackle as it cools, and try to wait until it is fully cooled (at least an hour) before slicing.