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The Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread


As the daughter of an avid baker, there are few baked goodies that I haven’t tried. From lamingtons to cornbread, my mom always had a new recipe that she wanted to try and I was happy to be the taste tester. Bread, however, was never really one of those things either of us had much interest in. That all changed recently when Julia sent me a gallery full of images from her bread baking adventures…

To be honest, I never really thought of sourdough bread as a feasible means of sustenance. Yeah, sure, it made a nice sandwich base whenever I went out for brunch but it’s not really something I would actively make or buy. That is until Julia showed me that it could not only be made at home, but that our spaZa products made the process smoother than anticipated. Through research and a little probing, I found out a lot about the process of baking sourdough and with a little help from Julia’s favourite resource, my fascination with sourdough began. Here’s what I learned…


First thing’s first… What is sourdough?

To put it quite simply, sourdough is slow-fermented bread. 

What makes it unique is that it doesn’t require commercial yeast to rise and is instead made with a live fermented culture, a sourdough starter, which acts as a natural leavening agent. 

Sourdough has a delicious tangy flavour, chewy texture and crispy, crackly crust. It is also more digestible and easy for the body to absorb. 


Baker’s terminology

Starter

A mixture of flour and water that is allowed to ferment naturally. A starter can be refreshed (fed) indefinitely to keep the fermentation active and healthy, and needs to become fully ripe before it can be used to make bread. 

When making bread, a small amount of the starter is used to create an off-shoot called a leaven.


Leaven

A leaven is made by mixing a small off-shoot of your ripe starter with water and flour (and sometimes sugar) and allowing it to ferment prior to mixing it into a dough. This is the vehicle for adding yeast and bacteria to the dough. Unlike the starter, which can be used for several loaves, the entirety of the leaven goes into the dough. 


Autolyse

A mixture of flour and water that occurs at the beginning of the bread-making process. The goal of autolyse is to initiate enzymatic activity into the dough to help draw out sugars from the flour. Additionally, it increases dough extensibility (flexibility within the dough). 


Bulk fermentation

This relates to the dough’s first rise. Bulk fermentation occurs after flour, salt and leaven are mixed into a dough, placed into a vessel and covered to allow fermentation to take place. This step is critical, as it translates to flavour and rise in the final bread. 


Proof

The proof is the dough’s final, or second, rise and occurs after the dough has been divided and shaped. During this time, the dough continues to ferment, which further strengthens and leavens it. 


Sourdough starter 101

Well before you can begin the process of baking, you need to develop or obtain a healthy sourdough starter that shows consistent signs of fermentation. 

To make a sourdough starter, you’ll need to combine flour and water in a jar and cover with a small dish cover. This will allow it to ferment before you begin the process of regular feeding with flour and water to maintain maximum rising power. 


When is my starter ready to use?

Your starter will be ready to use when it becomes bubbly and doubles in size. This can take anywhere from 2-12 hours or more, depending on the temperature (warmer is better) and the condition of your starter. Be patient!


Float test: To test the readiness of your starter, simply drop about a teaspoon of the mixture into a glass of water. If it floats to the top, it’s ready to use. If it sinks, it needs to be fed again. 


How to use a starter

If you’ve fed your starter and it’s bubbly and active, pour the amount you need out of the jar to weigh or measure for your recipe. 

Don’t forget to feed any leftover starter to keep the process going. 


Storage options

If you only bake a few times a week, refrigerating your starter would be the best option. Feed your starter weekly. 

For more avid bakers, store your starter at room temperature and feed it at least once a day. 


How to make your sourdough bread

Step 1: Mix the dough

Mix your ingredients together (SEE RECIPE HERE) until the flour is fully absorbed. The dough will feel dry, rough and shaggy. Cover with a damp dish cover and let rest for about 30 minutes. 


Step 2: Stretch and fold

After the dough has rested, perform 4 sets of stretch and folds, 30 minutes apart. 


Step 3: Bulk fermentation

After your stretch and folds are completed, let the dough rest, covered, on the counter for around 6 hours. This may take more time if your house is cooler and less if you reside in a warmer climate. When your dough has doubled in size, it’s ready for shaping.


Step 4: Shaping

Once your dough has a glossy top and is puffy, gently move it out of the bowl onto a floured work surface. Let the dough rest for 10-15 minutes and then shape into a loaf. 

Once shaped, put the dough into a banneton. You can create your own proofing vessel by lining a bowl with a floured dish cover, with the seam side of the dough facing upwards.


Step 5: Second rise

Cover the dough with a damp dish cover and let it rise on the counter for about 2 hours. 


Step 6: Score the dough

After the second rise, and right before baking, score the dough down the center. This will allow the steam to escape and for the dough to expand during baking. 


Step 7: Baking

Place the dough into a baking pot and cover before adding to a pre-heated oven at 400℉ or 200℃. 

Bake on the center rack for 20 minutes. 

Remove the lid and bake for an additional 40 minutes, uncovered, until golden brown. 

Remove from the oven and allow to cool for at least 1 hour before slicing. 


CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve made it to the end!

Hopefully, using this blog as a guide will lead you to a masterpiece of a loaf. Simply pop it into a loaf bag for storage and enjoy!

And if your loaf didn’t turn out perfect, don’t forget to eat your mistakes and try again!