How To Make Sourdough At Home
By Chris Buchanan
Making Sourdough Bread
Nothing compares to a loaf of fresh sourdough bread straight from the oven, crackling as it contracts and cools. But, how do you get to this wonderful ending chorus? Thankfully, it’s a lot easier than you might expect. This guide will help you get started on your sourdough journey.
1) A lidded container for the starter: glass or plastic works. It should be at least 5x greater than your starter volume to allow for expansion. It can grow that much! 2) A kitchen scale that measures in grams; it’s better to measure by weight and grams are precise. 3) A proofing container (proofing basket or large bowl)) large enough to hold your dough and 2x growth as it proofs. 4) A lidded cooking vessel. I use a cast iron Dutch oven with an oven safe lid up to 500 degrees. 5) A baking stone. This is optional, but it helps the bottom of your bread not burn.
Starting with Starters
Yeast, acetobacter, and lactobacillus all live on grains. They’re hungry and thirsty so with very little coaxing, you can build them up to bread-making quantities. All you need to get your starter ready for the heavy lifting (leavening) it does is water, flour, and time. I use baker’s percentages and grams. Flour is always 100% of the mixture. Everything else is compared to it. For example, 100 grams flour plus 50 grams water is 50% hydration because 50 is half of 100.
I prefer whole wheat bread flour or rye flour as my starter’s base. These have more nutrients for the microorganisms to eat. Whole wheat is easier to find so it’s what I go with. Tap water may contain chlorine or chloramines that can inhibit yeast and bacteria growth, so I use filtered water out of an abundance of caution. You can use greater quantities of flour than the 100 grams described below, but less won’t provide enough starter. The water-flour ratio is really what matters.
Some people are very opinionated about how to build and maintain a starter, but there is no “one true way”. This is a simple version of the process and it works. I use 100% hydration with 100 grams whole wheat flour and 100 grams of water heated to about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix the heated water with the flour in your starter container. 24 hours later, discard all but 25-50 grams of the material. Mix in another 100 grams flour and 100 grams heated water. Repeat this process for a week to have a strong yeast and bacteria colony.
At this point, you can modify the composition of your starter or keep it as is. I like to use a mix of 80% white, unbleached flour and 20% whole wheat flour with 80% water at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. I also bump my feeding from 100 grams flour to 200 grams flour so that I have enough starter for baking. Otherwise feed and discard the starter as described above.
That Dough Though
Once your starter is established, you can start making bread. Several factors influence the flavor and consistency of your dough and final product. Here are a few things to consider. First, water affects flavor and bread crumb. Greater hydration allows greater microorganism activity, which builds flavor. It also yields a more open crumb. However, more water also means more difficulty with building gluten, shaping loaves, and general handling. If you’re just beginning, you might want to use sourdough bread recipes with lower hydration percentages. A dough with 70% hydration is a pretty common starting point. At 70%, your dough is still kneadable by hand and your final crumb will be fairly open. I use 78% hydration, which takes special handling to develop gluten structure, but yields big open crumbs.
Second, time equals flavor. Yeast and bacteria produce carbon dioxide, alcohol, acetic acid, and lactic acid. The longer dough proofs, the more flavor it will develop from these products. Proofing times are temperature dependent. Your dough will proof slower at 65 degrees than at 75 degrees. At 70 degrees, I can proof for about 15 hours. At 75 degrees, it’s closer to 12. Doughs are well-proofed once they are doubled in size. 12-15 hours may seem long if you have only used instant yeast, but sourdough takes longer due to the different microorganisms. Given too much time, the dough’s gluten structure will break down. So, pay attention to your proofing schedule: once over-proofed, your dough cannot be shaped, and you will have to start over.
Finally, salt. Salt is magic. Use a generous amount of salt for maximum flavor, about 2% of your flour’s weight. Any kind of salt works; I use non-iodized salt since it’s recommended for most fermentations.
Your dough needs a final shaping and rise following the initial proof. There are many ways to shape doughs and various containers for final proofing. Whatever method you use, it’ll take practice to get comfortable with it. Don’t get discouraged if your first few loaves come out uneven.
If You Can’t Stand the Heat
Heat is your friend! High temperatures give you great oven spring and crust. I bake for an hour at 475 degrees. During the first 30 minutes, the yeast and bacteria are going through a final feeding frenzy before perishing in the heat, causing more bread rise. Use a vessel with a lid to capture evaporating water, which cooks your crust. Do not remove the cover during the first 30 minutes!
If your lid or vessel cannot tolerate 475 degrees, go with whatever the highest safe temperature is. Allow your vessel to preheat in the oven for an hour before baking. This ensures that your baking kicks off immediately. If you must go with a lower temperature (425 degrees or lower), consider lightly spraying the top of your loaf with water before covering and baking.
After 30 minutes, uncover and bake for about 30 minutes more. I like my crust very dark because the Maillard reactions create a lot of flavor. It’s okay to peek at your loaf to check for color, and easy if you have an oven with the light in it. Once you’re happy with the color, remove the loaf to a rack to cool. Your loaf doesn’t have to reach room temperature before you cut into it but give at least 10-15 minutes for the inner bread starches to set. Listen to the loaf as it cools and crackles, whispering the universe’s secrets to you. Have a cold one in honor of the yeast and bacteria who worked so hard for you.
Now We Can All Make Sourdough!
We wanted to butt back in here and shoot Chris a HUGE thank you for writing this article, and de-mystifying the sourdough process. There are so many sources out there that say what you can and can’t do, and if you’ve never done it before, the whole thing can get super overwhelming! From kneading the dough or not, whether it should sound hollow coming out of the oven (it should!), and hydration and process, there are tons of opinions, so having it simplified, step by step, is amazing!
If you want to read more about making a more traditional bread recipe, check out our BrewCranium article from our friend Alex, To Bread or Not To Be, all about using brewers yeast and alternative yeast strains for making delicious breads!
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Let us know how YOU make your sourdough in the comments below, and help your fellow brewers and breadmakers alike!