So, you’ve decided to jump on the trend and start baking your own sourdough?
Whether it was the bare bread aisles during the peak of lockdown, or a yearning for a culinary adventure that led you here, you’ve come to the right place. Think of me as your sourdough spirit guide. I will help you to navigate the strange and unfamiliar world of sourdough, so you too, can master the art of baking the crunchy, fermented bread that has taken the world by storm.
Seems like it should be easy enough, right? I mean, @CatLady1 posted a picture of her perfect sourdough loaf on Instagram last week, so if she can do it, why can’t you?
But, the truth about sourdough is that it can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. Just like you need the right tools and ingredients to bake your own sourdough, you also need to arm yourself with the right know-how. This is why I have compiled my top 10 tips and tricks to making sourdough, so you can bake your way to sourdough perfection and put @CatLady1 to shame with your superior loaf.
1. Use your sourdough starter at its peak
To get the best results and the biggest rise in your sourdough bread ensure you use your starter at its peak. By this I literally mean that your sourdough starter has reached its peak height in the jar, before it begins deflating.
Your sourdough starter is usually at its peak between 4 and 12 hours after feeding and you will be able to tell that it is ready to use because lots of air bubbles will appear on the surface of the starter. If you’re unsure, you can also try the float test, which involves dropping a teaspoon of sourdough starter into water to see if it floats. If it does, then this means that your starter holds enough gas and is active.
2. Moisten the surface of the dough before baking for more rise
Many bread-baking veterans use this sourdough secret to get the biggest rise every time. Even if you own a Dutch oven, this handy trick will help you to take your sourdough game to new heights - literally and figuratively.
Simply spray the surface of your shaped dough with a generous amount of water right before you put it in the oven. This will keep the surface of the sourdough flexible for longer to give it a better oven spring and increase your rise time.
3. Handle with care: be gentle with your dough
Sourdough needs to be handled with care, which means that you must be gentle with your dough to get the best results. We’ve all seen bakers on TV being heavy-handed with their dough when they are shaping it, but this is not the case when it comes to sourdough.
Sourdough needs to be degassed gently, so as not to release all the precious gas that has developed over time. Although, we do refer to it as ‘punching down’ your dough, we actually mean making a fist and gently pushing it into the centre of the dough, before folding the edges of the dough into the centre. Be sure to never actually punch your dough. This won’t be good for the dough or your bowl.
4. Use sifted flour to make your sourdough less dense
If you’re making your sourdough with a whole wheat flour, then try sifting it to remove part of the bran (heavy parts). Bran in your flour will cut through the gluten strands in the bread, which stops them from holding up the air in the dough. By sifting your flour and getting rid of part of the bran you can ensure that your dough will keep more of the structure formed by the gluten to make your sourdough less dense and give you a lighter loaf.
5. Soak your flour beforehand for a lighter loaf
If you’re looking to make a lighter loaf, then soak your flour overnight - especially if you’re using whole grain flour - before adding it to the dough will allow the heavy parts (the bran) to soften and become more flexible. That way, when you add it to your sourdough mixture it won’t affect the gluten by cutting the strands and losing all the precious gas buildup. By doing this you’ll get a lighter loaf, with more air pockets - which is what you want.
6. Just add water for softer sourdough
The secret to sourdough is simple: water. The more water you add to your dough will affect how open the crumb (bigger holes and softer texture) will be once it’s baked.
Try upping the water or decreasing the amount of flour in your loaf slightly, then see how well you are able to handle the dough during the shaping stage. The wetter the dough, the more difficult it is to handle, so only increase the hydration incrementally until you reach your limit.
The results will be softer, lighter bread, so it will be worth it.
7. Use glass or ceramic bowls, not metal
Always use glass or ceramic bowls and containers when making sourdough bread, rather than metal. Two issues that may arise include the acid and the bacteria in the starter, which may interact with the metal or plastic and cause corrosion. Specifically, metals like aluminium, iron or steel can corrode or pit with acidic ingredients. The same holds true for you utensils, so put down your metal spoon and only use wooden or silicone utensils.
8. Make your oven hotter for a higher rise
It’s pretty common for first-time bakers to have their oven at a lower temperature than needed for the first part of the bake. But, having a high heat during this initial baking stage will actually dictate how high your sourdough will rise.
So crank up the temperature on your oven to as high as it will go and preheat it at this temperature. The hotter, the better. This will give the bread the boost it needs to burst open and give a high rise. Once a crust has formed (after 20 minutes) you can go ahead and turn the temperature down again to bake the inside of your loaf.
9. Find a recipe. Repeat.
When it comes to baking sourdough, you can’t run before you can walk. Before you can make the perfect sourdough, you need to master your first recipe. This means that you should find a recipe and stick to it until you’ve mastered it.
The best way to become a master baker is to repeat your bake again and again. After several times using the same recipe you will understand how the dough behaves and what works. Then, you can start to make adjustments to the recipe, like swapping the flour or the ratios.
10. Put a little more sugar in your bowl
Give the bacteria and yeasts in your starter some simple sugars and starches to feed on to help it produce extra carbon dioxide bubbles. Adding a teaspoon or two of additional sugars or starches will act like fuel for your starter so they can do their thing, with lighter results. Some of the most common sugars and starches to add to your sourdough include: sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses and potato starch.
Feel like you have enough know-how to tackle your own sourdough loaf? Check out my Sourdough Bread Recipe for step-by-step instructions, or jump right in and buy this Complete Sourdough Starter Kit today.
Don’t forget to tag us on Instagram @youkneadsourdough on Instagram, so I can marvel at your sourdough masterpiece.