Please don’t get freaked out about sourdough

I received a lovely message from a lady who has been reading about sourdough bread because she would like to try her hand at making it.  She wrote to say the huge volume of information out there is rather overwhelming and intimidating.  I agree.  A lot of it is terribly scientific and for those of us who tend toward the poet rather than the engineer, all that science is just dreadful:  like reading a computer manual or the instructions for programming the tv remote (I may have broken into a sweat just typing that).  My response is this:  please don’t get freaked out about sourdough – read on instead.

100% rye sourdough bread with caraway seeds.  Baked by Liz Wilson.

100% rye sourdough bread with caraway seeds. Baked by Liz Wilson.

Let’s get down to brass tacks:  some simple sourdough factoids

In order for bread to rise you need air bubbles to form in dough and you need flour that creates dough that will puff out as the air bubbles form.  Think of chewing gum.  If you have Hubba Bubba you can blow big bubbles because it was created to enable the chewer to blow big bubbles.  If you have Extra you can only blow small bubbles before they pop because it was created to freshen your breath.  Take that analogy back to flour:  some grains make flour that creates a dough that is like Hubba Bubba – when air is inserted into it, big bubbles can form.  Other grains make flour that creates a dough that is like Extra – when air is inserted into it the air just goes straight through and the bubbles pop.  If you want bread as we know it in the west – “yeasted”, “levened”, or “risen” bread, ie bread with air holes in it – you need air bubbles and the appropriate flour. The bubbles in bread are created when yeast is added to dough that is made with the appropriate flour.  Wheat, spelt, and rye flour, for example, will all rise.  Corn, rice, and chick pea flour, for example, will never rise.  You can add yeast from a package to your dough or you can add a specific kind of old dough (now commonly called sourdough) which already has yeast in it.  There are yeasts in the air all around us and making a “sourdough” is just a way of bottling them!  Sourdough bread does not necessarily taste sour and although many people like it that way, plenty do not.

100% wheat sourdough bread baked by Jane Mason

100% wheat sourdough bread baked by Jane Mason

There are different kinds of sourdough and they make different kinds of bread.  Bread made with a rye sourdough starter makes a dense loaf even if you combine it with wheat flour.  Baking with a wheat sourdough starter makes an airier loaf, even if you combine it with rye flour.  Spelt sourdough makes a different texture of bread again.  Dark rye, whole wheat or whole spelt will always make heavier loaves than light rye, white wheat or white spelt. So, the first thing is to decide what kind of bread you would like.  If you like German/Scandinavian style bread with a more closed, dense inside, you probably prefer a rye sourdough starter.  If you prefer French style bread, with a more open, fluffy inside you probably prefer a wheat starter.  The key feature of bread made with “sourdough yeast” rather than “packaged yeast” is its chewy texture.  Again, this is not for everyone.  Some people love it and some people don’t.

Baking with sourdough is similar to baking with added yeast

Once you decide what kind of bread you want, you need to understand the process of baking with sourdough which is either two or three steps long:

1. refresh the sourdough

2. make a predough (optional)

3. make a final dough

In many ways this is just like making bread to which you add yeast from a package – it is just that the process is longer.  In “normal” bread (assuming you don’t use instant yeast) you need to proof the yeast and then take the dough through 1-3 rises before you bake it. All of that can happen in 4-6 hours.  With sourdough bread you need to refresh the sourdough (like proofing the yeast only it takes between 6-12 hours rather than 15 minutes) and then take the dough through 1-3 rises (only this takes around 5-24 hours rather than 4-6).  In spite of the length of time that it takes to make sourdough, it actually accommodates daily life rather more easily than “normal” bread:  You can refresh overnight, mix, and let rise all day, going to work, coming home, and baking.  Or you can refresh all day, mix and let rise overnight and then bake in the morning.  Exactly how you refresh the sourdough, make the predough (if you are doing it) and make the final dough varies a little bit between wheat and rye simply because the sourdough:flour ratio is slightly different between wheat and rye (rye is more punchy so it takes less rye sourdough than wheat sourdough to make the same amount of bread and the rye sourdough tends to rise more quickly).

Breakfast bread from the book Perfecting Sourdough by Jane Mason

Breakfast bread from the book Perfecting Sourdough by Jane Mason

An award winning sourdough loaf can be fiddly and require many stages in which you knead, let rest, shape, let rest, shape, let rest, shape, let rest…..before finally baking.  You can, however, make a perfectly decent and delicious loaf by kneading, shaping, and letting rest until baking time. You know when a loaf is ready for baking when it passes the “probe” test.  Poke the loaf gently with your finger, making a little indentation.  If that indentation comes out completely in under one minute, it is ready for baking.  If the dough is firm and the indentation stays, it is not ready.  If the dough is very soft and airy you have let it over rise.  Bad luck.  Take it out and give it some new flour and a little knead.  Shape and proof again but watch it because it will recover quickly.

Gorgeous - swirly top of a loaf of SF sourdough bread from Perfecting Sourdough by Jane Mason

Gorgeous – swirly top of a loaf of SF sourdough bread from Perfecting Sourdough by Jane Mason

For a simple rye sourdough recipe, please click here.

For a simple wheat sourdough recipe, please click here.

If you would like to know how to make a sourdough starter click here.

Finally if you would like to learn more, click here to take our amazing one day sourdough course.  You will learn loads, eat loads, and have loads to take home.  Master sourdough in a day – that sounds about right.

13 Replies to “Please don’t get freaked out about sourdough”

  1. I have been practicing my bread baking and am really put off by very precise instructions, I would prefer to bake by ‘feel’ but need to understand why the dough is behaving as it is.
    I am learning this slowly as of course I do follow instructions in ordeer to learn, but my attempts at sourdough have been pretty dire. The last was so sour I couldn’t eat it.
    So yes, I like your description of sourdough, I know it can be simple but can’t find a recipe that I warm to.
    Having composted my starter I’d like to try again!
    @mitchdafish

  2. After many years of wanting to make bread and having varying results, I found ‘The Enchanted Broccoli Forest Cookbook” and viola – success!
    It contains a very poetical and artsy presentation of bread baking. The style of this book answered a soul-need in preparing food from differing cultures, allayed fears and abounded in encouragement.
    I haven’t seen another cookbook this practical with so much whimsy and fun to match it. If I did, I would not only buy it but would give it as gifts at every opportunity.

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