Introduction: Sourdough Starter and Bread
If someone had told me a couple of months ago that there will be a shortage of yeast, I would not have believed it. It actually became a reality a couple of weeks ago. People were rushing to supermarkets shopping like crazy for months’ supply of flour and yeast. It’s no wonder considering the fact that Lombardy, Italy, the first epicenter of the pandemic in Europe, is only a 10 - 12 hours pleasant drive from here. Since nobody knew what to expect, people started to get prepared for a possible long-lasting isolation.
I bake regularly, therefore I constantly keep a few kilos of flour in the pantry, but when I saw the news about supermarket shelves getting empty, I thought it is time to get my own supplies. I was in time for flour, but not for yeast. I have a few sachets of active dry yeast at home but I knew that it would not last very long, more so as I was expecting a more intense consumption than usual, with schools closing down and all my kids staying at home.
Though here - luckily - the number of known infections has been relatively low so far, I got more and more careful as the days went by, I tried to avoid food that I thought may not be safe to eat, like store – sliced hams, other meat products and also bread and rolls. After all, who knows who touched them with not so clean hands.
So, with just my normal stock of dried yeast on hand, and a strong intention to make my own bread it was quite straightforward that I’ll have to start making my own sourdough starter. To be honest, this was not a frightening thought for me, as I find baking bread fun. I have been baking bread for years once in a while. In the past years I normally used yeast to rise the dough, because it’s very convenient, but I always admired the fact that you only need 3 ingredients to make a gorgeous bread: flour, salt and water. As I recall I made starter from scratch maybe three times previously, but soon my enthusiasm dwindled. It’s not that I did not enjoy it, but there was always something more important and my poor starter ended its career in the dustbin after a while.
In order to refresh my knowledge I watched a number of videos, read articles mostly on the Internet on how to make starter and sourdough bread and then I plunged into the adventure. This is the third loaf I made and I am not saying that I am at the end of the journey, but I got to the point of making a delicious bread and I have had a lot of fun doing it.
I am going to guide you through the steps to make your own starter and the bread itself. I need to warn you though that this is going to be a long Instructable and the project to make takes more than a week (7-10 days to make the starter, 1 – 1.5 days to make the bread). But it’s like 95% waiting, the actual work to be done is a maximum 10 minutes (with preparation) in the starter-making period and a maximum of 1.5 hours when making the bread. Don’t rush it, many of us have all the time in the world, including me.
Step 1: You’ll Need
Unlike usually, I am not giving you exact measurements here, but I promise that the amounts given will certainly be enough to make one 500 g loaf bread and the stock starter and I won’t be revealing any secret ingredient in the middle of the recipe.
Flour – 1.5 kgs (bread flour if possible, even better if you use 1.2 kg bread flour and 0.3 kg whole grain wheat flour or rye flour)
(plus 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil to put into the rising bowl)
for the starter:
- digital scale
- clean jars with lid or plastic boxes
for the bread:
- stand mixer
- mixing bowl
- rising bowl (banneton)
- sharp knife (or a bread lame)
- parchment paper
- baking sheet
Step 2: Starter
First of all, what is a starter? The starter is the rising agent of the bread, technically a piece of dough that could be runny but also firmer that you reserve from the previous baking. You can ask for it from your neighbor or your baker, but you might as well make your starter – as you will see it - by mixing flour and water in the same ratio. It than transforms into a natural culture with the help of lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast that is all around us, on your hands and also in the air. The more you bake using yeast the larger number of them can be found in your kitchen, therefore the less time it will take you to arrive at a strong starter.
Step 3: Day 1.
- 25 g bread flour,
- 25 g whole grain wheat flour and
- 50 g lukewarm tap water
into a clean jar and mix thoroughly. Place the lid on the jar loosely. Do not seal it because we need the starter to contact with the air in the kitchen. Leave it at room temperature. If it is cold in the kitchen, you may wrap the sides and the bottom of the jar into a kitchen towel. Wait for 24 hours.
Step 4: Day 2.
24 hours passed. This period is about patience, you have to wait until bubbles appear on the surface of the starter. It happens a lot faster in an environment where there is a bigger concentration of wild yeast in the air due to regular baking.
As you see in the photos, not much happened since the day before.
Add 50 g flour, 50 g water, mix, cover with a lid. Leave it to rest.
Step 5: Day 3 – 5.
The first photo was taken 48 hours after I started. You can see that there is a dramatic change, there are lots of bubbles on the surface of the starter, it is almost foamy. It has a sour smell. This is the time when we start feeding the starter and get acquainted with a new term, feeding.
(If you can see a few bubbles, but not many, repeat the process of day 2, and feed a day later.)
Feeding: take a new, clean jar, measure
- 50 g of the starter*,
- 50 g flour (preferably half and half bread and whole grain wheat) and
- 50 g lukewarm water
mix, loosely cover, let stand.
I repeated this process every day until day 5.
*I collected the rest in a jar in the fridge and used it for baking flatbread.
Step 6: Day 6-7.
I had to feed the starter twice a day (in the morning and in the evening) on days 6 – 7. as fermentation speeded up. By this time my starter was really strong* full of bubbles with a pleasant acidic smell. In the last pictures you can see how much increases in volume after feeding, you can also see the bubbles.
** If you are not a regular baker, or it is cooler in your kitchen, you may need 2-3 more days.
Step 7: Sourdough Bread Schedule
Now we are at the point when we can start making the bread itself. We cared for the starter for 7-10 days and by now it should be ready to help your bread rise beautifully. It is time to knead, shape and bake your bread. I thought a simplified timeline would help you figure out how to fit the process into your day, please find attached.
Step 8: Refreshing the Starter
Now we will be using the starter that we were feeding for days, but we need to activate it even more, and we also have to increase its quantity a bit so that we will have enough for the bread and we will be able to save a batch for our next baking (this is the so called stock starter). It is good to know that you won’t have to start all over again.
Where to store the starter?
If you bake at least every other day, then you can keep the starter at room temperature and keep feeding it twice a day.
Otherwise, keep the stock starter in the fridge and you can almost forget about it until the next baking. Almost, as the starter does not die in the fridge (how lucky we are) just gets hibernated, so a little care is needed. Once or twice a week take it out of the fridge, let it come up to room temperature (1-3 hours) and feed as described in step 5., leave it on the counter for 30 minutes, then secure the lid and put it back into the fridge. It will be sitting there happily until the next feeding time.
When you are in the baking mood, remove the stock starter from the fridge, let it warm to room temperature.
Refresh the stock starter to arrive at a fresh starter, it will be stronger and taste more delicate, less acidic.
Refreshing is a very similar process to feeding, but we are using different quantities. When feeding, we mixed the starter with flour and water in 1:1:1 ratio, now we take 1 unit starter and add 2 units flour and 2 units lukewarm water. More food means happier and more active sourdough starter and that is exactly what we need to raise the dough.
Measure into a clean jar 50 g starter, 100 g flour and 100 g water, mix well and let it sit – loosely covered with a lid for 8 – 12 hours.
(I started with 80 grams of water, but definitely needed that 20 grams more.)
You can compare pics 9 and 10 to see how drastic change occurs in the volume and the fluffyness of the starter. In the last two photos you can see the structure formed by glutene.
Step 9: Autolyse
Gather the ingredients of the bread:
500 g bread flour
340 g water (lukewarm, as usual)
100 g fresh starter
15 g salt
Autolyse is a fancy word for combining the flour and the water followed by a 30-60 minutes rest period. As to my understanding it helps gluten to develop and as a result, it is easier to work the dough. If you are craving for a more scientific explanation, you may check it out here: https://bakerpedia.com/processes/autolyse/
Put 500 g flour into the mixing bowl, add 340 g water, combine. Let it rest for 30-60 minutes.
Step 10: Combine the Dough
Add the fresh starter to the flour and water mixture, equip your stand mixer with a dough hook and start kneading. I kneaded the dough at speed 2 for two times 3 minutes with a one minute break in between.
At this point add salt. (Salt may kill yeast so better let the yeast work itself into the dough first and add salt at a later.) Knead for another 2-3 minutes. I switched to speed 4 for about 30 seconds.
You can see in the pictures that the dough hook gradually cleaned the side of the bowl.
How do you know that the dough is ready? By doing the gluten test, take a bit of the dough between two fingers and lift it. you should be able to pull it easily without the dough tearing.
Step 11: Kneading
Transfer the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and do some more kneading. It is good for the dough and good for you. Therapeutic, really. You can work all your anger into the dough.
How to knead by hand? One method is shown in one of my previous Instructables, in a short video in step 2. https://www.instructables.com/id/The-Ultimate-Swe...
The other is even more fun. Just smash the dough against the counter and fold. Repeat.
When the dough is not sticking to your hand anymore, it is ready. Form it into a ball, transfer it into a lightly oiled rising ball, cover with a kitchen towel and let it rise for about 45 minutes.
Step 12: Folding
From here on, we are working on the dough to incorporate as much air as possible, therefore you must treat it very gently. After the 45 minutes rest pull it into a rectangle then fold from the short side like an envelope (three – fold. Then turn it 90 degrees (pic. 5.) so it is the short side again close to you. Grab the end and roll it. Then put it back into the ball and let it rest for another 45 minutes.
Repeat the folding process two more times with 45 minutes rest period in between and give the dough a longer rest period (60 – 90 minutes after the third folding).
Step 13: Shaping the Dough
The time has come to shape the dough, for the last time, transfer it to the countertop.
With your fingertips, gently flatten the dough into a rectangle (pic.2.).
Roll the dough from the shorter side (pic.3.).
Turn the dough 90 degrees (pic.5. - see the huge bubble?) and repeat the process from the other side: gently flatten the dough and roll it (pic.6.).
Tighten the surface of the dough by pushing a scraper underneath the dough on the opposite side as to where you are standing and pull it towards you (pic. 7.) then turn the dough. If you want an oval bread, tighten the dough from two opposite sides and not round the bread. (pic.8.)
Place a kitchen towel into the banneton you are using, dust it generously with flour. In the absence of a proofing basket, you may use a not too large plastic bowl with kitchen towel, the idea is to support the sides of your bread.
Place the dough inside with the bottom facing up, cover loosely. Put it into the fridge for overnight, at least 14 hours, at 8 Celsius.
Remove the dough from the fridge.
Its volume has grown somewhat, but do not expect a considerable growth. There will be bubbles, but the real growth in volume will take place in the oven.
Preheat your oven to the highest temperature it can reach (mine 250 Celsius, no fan) with the baking tray inside.
Place a piece of parchment paper and a cutting board on top of the banneton (pic.2.) and turn it upside down. Gently remove the kitchen towel.
If you find lumps of flour on the top of the dough, remove it with a brush (pic.4.), (you may need to use a wet brush, or spray some water on to get rid of excess flour), then dust it lightly evenly with flour (pic.6.) using a sieve. Dusting will help your pattern stand out.
Scoring has a practical aspect, the dough will rise (hopefully, more or less 😊) along the cuts. Always use a sharp blade for scoring bread. I have always made one or two deeper cuts, but this was the first time I tried a little decoration scoring after watching those mesmerizing bread scoring videos on the Internet.
Step 15: The Outcome
When the oven reached 250 Celsius, take the baking tray out and slide the bread on top of the parchment paper onto it and put it in the oven. Throw 15-20 ice cubes in the bottom of the oven (or put a pan with boiling water) to provide steamy environment. After 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 220 Celsius and bake for another 20 minutes or so depending on your oven. Bake until golden brown. You know that it is ready when you hear a hollow sound when you tap the bottom of the loaf.
Let it cool on a rack and wait at least an hour before cutting it.
First Prize in the
Baking Speed Challenge