Making a Sourdough Starter and Baking Your First Loaf of Sourdough

With the advent of Covid-19 there’s been a shortage of yeast and a rise of folks asking for sourdough starter. My Facebook feed has been awash with posts regarding sourdough, and thus far I’ve mailed starter to one person, and have had two others email me about sourdough! I’d love to write this gorgeous detailed post with all of the dos and don’ts of sourdough, but I am not an expert. I spent two years baking sourdough baguettes before letting my starter die, and taking a four year hiatus. Now I’m back, and have been using a new starter for two years. Rather than pretend I am an expert, I wanted to share with you the resources I’ve used along the way, interspersed with some of my own tips. One key thing to remember with sourdough is each starter will differ in yeast cultures, will have varying rates of activity, smells, and tastes, so don’t be discouraged when you first get started and your experience isn’t the same as someone else’s.

Making a starter is easy, and if you’ve got the patience, you should have a bubbly active starter between seven and fourteen days. If you’re impatient, you can order some online, but between ordering it, waiting for it to ship, and taking several days to feed and revive it, you’re still looking at a week to use it. I should also mention that sourdough starters can take on the yeasts from it’s environment, so don’t spend top dollar on a San Fransisco sourdough starter and expect it to be the same starter a year form now! It will be “Insert your location’s name” starter. (At the time of writing, I am working on obtaining the official source for this information.) Did you know most starters have yeasts that are predominate on the baker’s hands that made it? So every traditionally baked sourdough will contain a little piece of the baker that made it! Made with love ❤

As an aside: I am obtaining a dehydrator on Monday which will allow me to dehydrate “living foods,” and I can start shipping my starter in earnest! Email me at humble_hills_farm@yahoo.com for info!

Making a Starter

I religiously use King Arthur for many of my bread recipes, including how to make a starter! Here is King Arthur’s Sourdough Starter Recipe. While I followed the methodology in its entirety, I halved ingredients from the beginning and fed using 50 grams of water and 50 grams of flour, and that is still the feed ratio I use today. I felt it was a tad less wasteful, especially in the early days when you must discard starter. Do not bake with starter discard that is in the early stages of developing or it will have an off taste. There was a good two days in the first week where mine smelled like athlete’s foot! Off smells are normal as the yeasts and bacteria are sorting themselves out. By the second week, mine developed a lovely yeasty aroma much like yeast breads you’re familiar with. I started mine in a mason jar covered with a reusable lid twisted down only enough to keep it from being knocked off. Please, please, please use a kitchen scale. Measurement by volume is wildly inaccurate, and even when looking at weights, grams are more accurate than ounces (1/10 of an ounce is equal to 4 grams). Finally, whenever possible stick with unbleached flours and filtered water (I use water from my Brita filter).

After a week or two, when that heavenly yeasty aroma is present, and you can feed your starter and it reliably bulks up, nearly doubling in volume, your starter is ready. At this point, you can either feed it daily (although depending on the starter and how warm your kitchen is, some folks report needing to feed twice daily), or pop it in your fridge and take it out to feed it once a week. If it’s been refrigerated and you want to bake with it, it’s not a bad idea to plan to feed it twice to make sure it’s nice and active. If you choose to not refrigerate it, you’ll find you soon have more starter than what you know to do with! If you’re feeding it daily, you either need to use up at least half the starter in a recipe, or discard half the starter prior to feeding. You use well fed and active starter for bread recipes. For “discard” recipes you’re using the inactive, unfed starter that is tossed before feeding.

Personally I try to keep only a small amount of starter to limit any discarding so that I never have to discard or feel pressured to bake with any discard, but that kind of management takes practice and is based on how often and what you like to bake. I keep roughly 1/4 of a cup, and feed 50 grams of water and 50 grams of unbleached white flour or a blend of 50/50 whole wheat and white flour. At this point, I know how much starter I will need for each recipe and plan feedings accordingly.

For example, the recipe I use the most calls for 227 grams of sourdough starter. If I feed my small 1/4 cup amount with 50 grams each of water and flour, that’s only 100 grams, so I usually feed it twice equaling 200 grams. This means I’m always short 27 added grams, so every couple of weeks, I’ll also feed it after I remove the 227 grams of starter, to add back an extra 100 total grams of flour and water. My preferred recipe using 227 grams, but some may use as little as 27 grams of starter! If I’ve decided I only wanted a small amount I’d only need to feed it once, and plan future feedings around the fact that I have a small excess. I’ve learned this naturally in time, but in writing this post I found that King Arthur has a guide for this too! They explain things so much better than I do: A Smaller Sourdough Starter.

So after using your starter, you can either feed it again, or pop it straight in the fridge to take out and feed within a week. If it has been refrigerated, it will take longer to become active post feeding if you plan on using it. If you want to put it back in the fridge, you still need to give it at least four hours to actually eat some of the feed before putting it back in the fridge. Here is more info on feeding and maintaining your starter.

Here’s a time lapse of my starter bubbling away after a few hours of feeding. Bubbles are actually very slow!

Baking Your Bread

Making the starter is the easiest part. For me the challenge has been baking that perfect loaf! A recipe is only as good as the technique you use for rising, shaping, and baking. Over the years I’ve used different rise times, rising techniques, and baking techniques, and I’ve used most of them with great success! Your methods should ultimately come down to what you have available in your home. There’s rarely a need to go buy fancy tools if you don’t want to!

The First Rise

After weighing out and mixing your ingredients for a good three or four minutes, cover your bowl and let it sit for about thirty minutes and knead again for another few minutes. If a recipe calls for mixing all but the starter and salt, followed a rest, before adding remaining ingredients and kneading, this known as autolyse. For myself, I find mixing it all at once is and letting it rest before kneading again is the easiest, but opinions differ as to which method is best. Regardless allowing the dough to rest, you’re largely eliminating the need for a long kneading period. Over kneading can result in a bread lacking in flavor and poor crumb quality.

After kneading the second time cover the bowl, and allow the bread to rise. Unlike with commercial yeast, it’s rare for sourdough to double in size, but it should still be noticeably larger. During this period, you have the option to perform a series of stretch and folds to improve the strength and integrity of the dough. This is basically grabbing the dough, pulling it, and folding it in half a couple of times. It can take sourdough anywhere from four to eight hours to achieve a good rise.

Some recipes may instruct you to place the dough in the fridge for a longer ferment time. This will increase the tanginess of the final bread product. Some recipes may recommend this during the first or the second rise after the dough has been shaped. I have not practiced this much because I am impatient.

Shaping the Loaf

Once your dough has risen it’s time to shape the dough for its second rise. There are many ways to shape and bake your loaf. I prefer the classic boule. Here is King Arthur’s guide to shaping a boule.

Using a Proofing Basket and Transferring Bread to the Oven

My preferred rising method is a proofing basket. Don’t have one? That’s okay. I line a small round colander with a flour sack dish towel which has been heavily seasoned with flour. To do this, lay your towel flat and massage some flour into it. Gently lift it, place it into your colander, and sprinkle with a little more flour. The amount needed takes some practice, but you want enough that your dough doesn’t stick to the fabric, but not so much that your bread is completely encrusted with flour. Now take your shaped boule and place it seam side up in the proofing basket. This is done so that when you flip the bread out of the basket, the seam will be down for baking.

Once it’s in the basket, let it rise for three to four hours or until the dough has increased in size.

Once it’s reading for baking if you go to remove it from the flour sack towel and the dough is sticky, just gently work the fabric away from the dough. Most of the times it’s not a disaster!

There are so many ways to bake the bread, so King Arthur also has an excellent guide for three methods of transferring your dough to a baking vessel. I’ve used all three with success, but unfortunately for me I found their article after learning through trial and a lot of error.

Here’s my shaped loaf in my DIY proofing basket. Full disclosure, I messed up and put the seam side down first! It was still a yummy loaf though. 🙂
Scoring the Bread

Before popping your bread in the oven, you need to score it. Scoring is cutting the length of the bread to encourage steam to escape where you want it to. If you don’t score the bread, chances are the steam will build and cause a blow out in which your bread is grotesquely misshapen. It would still be edible though! Once again King Arthur comes to the rescue with the article on how to score bread. Another disclosure: I don’t use a fancy scoring knife, which does limit my cuts to a simple “X”. I simply sharpen my kitchen knife, spritz a bit of oil on it, and make the cut. You’ll never achieve the same results, but I feel my loaves are just as lovely. Scoring blades unfortunately dull quickly so this is my personal choice on the matter.

Steam in Bread Baking

Have you ever noticed how store bought bakery loaves have lovely little blistery bubbles all over the bread and have an earth shattering crunch when you bite in to them? To achieve this type of crust you need steam. Hands down the best way I’ve found for achieving this is to bake the bread in an enclosed capsule, either a dutch oven or a baking stone covered with a cast iron pot. King Arthur has a great article for achieving steam in your home oven, including the dutch oven method. I usually modify any recipe to accommodate the dutch oven baking method!

Basic Bread Recipe

So now that you’ve made it this far, here’s the recipe I use the most often: Extra-Tangy Sourdough Bread. For your first few loaves, or a small household, I recommend cutting the recipe in half that way it’s not a total loss if you blunder up your first attempt. I’m two years deep, and I’ve made a lot of blunder loaves! All still edible though, no worries. This recipe is highly flexible, and I often increase the whole wheat. Increasing the whole wheat absorbs more moisture, making a drier bread, so I strongly recommend sticking with the recipe until you get familiar with it. When you’re comfortable, then you can start making minor adjustments.

My starter prefers a longer rise time so typically I take my starter out of the fridge on Saturday morning, feed it and feed it again before bed around 9:30 PM. On Sunday morning I wake up, mix my bread, and I let it rise for six to eight hours. The dough is usually mixed around 7 AM. I typically perform series of stretch and folds 1-2 hours. This is optional but helps build better dough strength. Around 2 to 3 PM the dough is shaped and placed in the proofing basket. Around 6 to 7 PM the dough is ready for the oven! Yes, we eat dinner late! Alternatively you can let your dough rise overnight, you just won’t be able to do the stretch and folds. Really, it’s fine. You won’t notice much of a difference! I typically bake on a baking stone preheated to 450 degrees F and covered with a dutch oven which was also preheated. Please don’t set a cold dutch oven on a hot baking stone or you will have regrets! Bake at 450 covered for 15 minutes and uncovered for 10-15 minutes. Don’t forget to let your bread cool! This allows the flavors to really develop. Finally, ENJOY the fruits of your labor!

The finished loaf! This is the Extra-Tangy Sourdough recipe from King Arthur. It rose overnight for eight hours, was shaped and had a second raise my DIY proofing basket (seam-side up this time!) for four hours. I baked it on a baking stone covered with a cast iron pot. Both were preheated in the oven at 450 degrees F, and baked covered with the pot for 15 minutes and uncovered for 10-15 minutes.

Final Thoughts

The reality is no two starters are the same. What works for me may not work for you. Don’t get discouraged if you goof, just learn and move on! There is a reason why commercial yeast became popular: it’s consistent! Sourdough isn’t consistent and takes a lot of pre-planning, but boy is the end result worth it!

I’ve never written anything like this. Sourdough is almost a world of its own and there is so much research out there! If you would like me to clarify, elaborate, or answer any questions, please feel free to comment or shoot me an e-mail. I feel this post is like a painting: the work is never really done!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: