Baking bread is an incredibly satisfying experience. It requires a bit of planning, time, and effort, but the reward is amazing.
Obviously, you already know that, because everyone has already learned sourdough baking during the beginning of the pandemic. Either way, I’ve been wanting to write this up for myself for a long time now. I began baking bread a number of years ago and worked at it very consistently throughout 2019. Through a lot of trial and error, and watching countless YouTube videos on baking, I have learned a lot and am still learning.
I try to rely less on consistency and precision, and instead on basic cues and high-level understanding. It allows me to keep the process enjoyable without forcing myself to become a disciplined baker and eat bread constantly (as much as I’d love to be able to do that…)
My goal here is to impart a basic recipe and template for how to bake sourdough. It assumes you already have a starter. All of the bullet points under each step of the instructions are optional details on my personal method and additional explanations.
Basic steps and timing:
- Autolyse (1-2 hours)
- Building dough strength
- Bulk fermentation (up to 8 hours)
- Shaping (1 hour)
- Proofing in the fridge (12 to 18 hours)
- Baking in a dutch oven (1 hour)
- 1000g unbleached white bread flour
- 750g water
- 150g rye starter @ 100% starter hydration
- 30g fine sea salt
Feed your starter such that it will reach peak strength approximately when you want to begin bulk fermentation (step 3).
- I feed the starter by getting a clean jar, adding equal proportions of rye flour and filtered water, and adding two spoonfuls of starter. Since this recipe requires 150g of starter, I do about 90g each of water and flour, so that I get around 200g of starter total, leaving me with some leftovers to keep the starter going.
- If you feed your starter very consistently then you can predict its peak time very accurately. I don’t feed mine that consistently, so I estimate a peaking time of 5-8 hours.
- The starter is 100% hydration because we feed with equal proportion of flour and water. This is only important for maintaining consistency.
Autolyse: combine all the flour and water and mix until no flour is dry.
- Autolyse is just hydrating the flour and letting it all rest. This builds a ton of gluten strength with no effort before mixing.
- Any amount of rest time is good. 30 minutes to 2 hours is great.
Begin bulk fermentation: add in the starter and salt. Mix the dough well.
- The “float test” is a good rule to test whether your starter is good to use. Take a small amount of starter and put it in warm water. If the starter clump floats, you’re good.
- Adding the starter at peak strength is a good idea because it means there’s a lot of healthy yeast activity. But don’t stress this too much: I’ve tried before peak and after peak, and I don’t think it’s ever caused issues for me.
- A 100% rye starter is rather stiff, almost as stiff as the dough itself. I spread it out as much as I can and dimple it into the dough.
- Adding salt at the same time or even directly on top of the starter won’t kill your yeast.
- At first it is important to ensure the salt and starter are uniformly mixed into the dough. After that’s done, the purpose of mixing is to build more dough strength.
- I used to do everything by hand. This video describes the rubaud technique that I preferred over kneading. I would typically rubaud for about 10 minutes, rest for 10, and do another 10 minutes.
- Mixing by hand was the worst part and tiring. I found that using a heavy glass bowl helped keep things steady during the aggressive rubaud motion.
- Now I have a KitchenAid stand mixer. I find that the starter doesn’t incorporate that well, so I still do a bit of stretching, folding, kneading and mixing by hand, and then let the stand mixer knead for around 15 minutes total.
- By hand, I would do about four stretch and folds spaced out by an hour or so. I haven’t been doing that with a stand mixer and it’s been fine.
Allow the dough to bulk ferment at room temperature until doubled in size.
- Following a tip from The Bread Code on YouTube I have started to put a small piece of dough into a small glass jar, marking the point on the jar where I’d expect the dough to reach the point of doubling with a paint pen. I used to bulk ferment overnight but I think that might have been too long.
Dump the dough out onto the counter. Cut into two equal portions. Shape dough and place in well-floured proofing baskets, seam side up.
- I start with a pre-shape: I take my two equal sized dough portions and round them into ball shapes.
- After a 30 minute rest, I take each ball of dough, stretch it gently into a basic square, fold the top third and bottom third inwards, then roll, starting from one of the short ends until you have a cylinder.
- I coat the inside of rattan proofing baskets with brown rice flour. I used to do a round dough ball but I really like the batard shape now.
- Shaping is the worst part for me. I sometimes use flour and sometimes just spray water to prevent sticking.
- The lesson: don’t worry too much about how you do it.
Wrap in air-tight bag and place in fridge.
- The cold temperature slows down fermentation. This is great for a few reasons.
- It makes your baking schedule more flexible. Whether you’re one or eight hours late, your bread will be ready to bake when you are.
- The slower fermentation creates a different balance of byproducts that is said to be impart more flavour to the dough.
- The cold dough is more firm and easier to handle before you’re ready to bake it.
Preheat your dutch oven to 500 F.
- I like using a cast iron Lodge combo cooker to bake bread.
- I think I heard that it’s best to heat cast iron gently, so I put it in the oven before I turn the oven on.
Dump the dough out into the dutch oven. Score the bread. Cover the dutch oven, then bake the bread for 18 minutes. Turn down the temperature to 450 F.
- Before scoring the bread I use a brush to quickly wipe off any excess rice flour.
- As soon as the bread touches the hot dutch oven, it is baking. Act quickly!
- The high heat causes yeast activity to explode. They will produce a lot of carbon dioxide, puffing up the bread. As the water in the dough converts to steam this also puffs up the bread. This rise is called “oven spring”.
- Using a covered dutch oven traps all the steam being cooked off from the bread, creating an extremely moist environment. Without this moisture, the crust would quickly harden, not allowing the dough to rise very much.
Remove the cover of the dutch oven and bake the bread uncovered for 20-35 minutes, until the crust has reached your desired level of browning.
- Removing the lid is the best/worst part! You’re always hoping to get good oven spring.
- I usually bake for a long time but that is personal preference. Darker crust will be thicker and crunchier, lighter crust will be thinner and the bread can even have a squishy exterior.
A template for other breads
The basic steps for most doughs are the same:
- Mix the dough
- Build strength
- Bulk fermentation
My sourdough recipe doesn’t call for kneading explicitly. You can knead on the countertop, or you can do the rubaud method, or you can knead in a stand mixer, or you could even skip kneading as long as you follow other methods of building dough strength. No-knead recipes are great. I believe the reason that no-knead works is because a long and slow bulk fermentation acts allows a lot of time for an autolyse, and the rise in the dough causes enough movement to create dough strength. Stretch and folds are another great way to build dough strength.
With bread, you need the yeast to consume the starches in the flour, creating carbon dioxide. Your dough is a balloon, and the carbon dioxide gas is a breath of air into the balloon — you need that balloon to be strong if you want to hold a lot of air. For bread, it means an airy and puffy interior (crumb), and it relies on dough strength and proper fermentation.
I’ve made great pizza with the exact same recipe as the bread dough. But typically I’ll make a neapolitan style dough. The only major difference is the amount of water; pizza dough is a lower hydration (usually 60-65%).
When shaping the pizza dough, I find that chunks of about 220g is a good size. I roll each chunk into a nice ball for proofing. I like proofing them in their own individual containers, coated with olive oil, in the fridge as well to keep things easy and tasty.
Flour, water, salt, yeast — what else?
A lot of bread or pizza recipes call for things like oil, egg, or sugar. I don’t have much experience with these additives, but they will affect how the dough cooks and tastes.
Sugar actually shouldn’t have much of an effect on how the dough tastes, since the yeast will consume most of the sugar.
Any kind of fat in the dough, either from oil or egg, will negatively affect the strength of the dough. This may be desirable for certain types of breads where the goal is not to have as airy of a crumb as possible.
These additions can also affect how the dough cooks. For example, pizza cooked in a very high temperature pizza oven (i.e. 900 F) will brown much more quickly if there are additives in the dough and likely burn on the exterior before the dough is fully cooked.
This is not a source, and I cite none
DISCLAIMER: don’t quote me on any food science stuff in this article! I’m writing this for my own pleasure, and feel no obligation to be factually correct, since I have no audience. Although I’ve read and watched videos to learn that stuff, I can’t claim to be a reputable source on any of it.
People in applied professions, including some of the best bakers, often have little understanding of theory. Throughout my many hours of watching baking videos of all varieties, I have sometimes heard renowned bakers say things that seem to contradict basic theory. Like the “green lumber” problem that Taleb discusses, which explains how some successful traders of the green lumber commodity have no idea what it is, theoretical understanding is not a prerequisite for success in a field.
My own learning on this subject may have been slightly theory heavy, but nothing compares to just going ahead and getting your hands dirty. I find that I quickly forget theoretical concepts, but mental models stick around. And it doesn’t matter if the mental models are technically wrong, so long as they lead you to good results.
And a delicious slice of sourdough bread — that’s a great result.