A quick primer on sourdough baking

Baking bread is not difficult. It requires nothing but your basic ingredients (water, flour, salt) and patience. That last one would be the most challenging aspect.

Apart from that, there are a few basic steps every bread will go through, independent of the recipe or the flour type. I’d like to give you a quick primer on baking sourdough bread. If you’re familiar with these principles, you can create your own recipe and style.

[ 07:00 AM ] Step 1: pepare your preferment

What’s a “preferment”?

A preferment is a part of the dough which has been “fermenting” for a while (rising with some form of yeast), before adding it to your final dough build.

This is a 15% preferment of wholewheat, after 12 hours of resting.

This is a 15% preferment of wholewheat, after 12 hours of resting.

Bread can be baked with or without preferment, without is usually called “straight bread“, meaning this step can be avoided. This can only be done with commercial yeast, as it takes a lot less time for the bread to rise to it’s final size. Less time to ferment also indicates less taste!
A preferment usually takes up between 10 and 35% of your total dough, and is usually made 12 hours before mixing in the final ingredients.

You create a preferment by adding the following things:

  1. flour
  2. water
  3. a portion of your sourdough starter. This does not need to be much, usually 2 tablespoons (30gr) suffices.

Why do we need that little of our sourdough starter? Because the bacteria have more than time enough to “activate” the rest of the preferment – remember we leave this container (after mixing it all up) for 12 hours at our kitchen counter.

You can create a “stiff preferment” or a “liquid” one – this indicates the flour/water ratio. A stiff one usually has about 60% water to flour ratio, and a liquid one simply 100%: equal amounts of water & flour added. Remember that wholewheat soaks up more water than basic white flour so it will look “stiffer” compared to a white preferment.

[ 07:00 PM ] Step 2: more combining: creating your final dough build

This step is quite easy. Your preferment should have been risen quite a lot and expanded in size. If you created a liquid preferment, this is more easily visible. If the preferment has dropped in size, you might need to reduce the fermentation time on the next bake: the bacteria ran out of things to eat! This can be caused by a few things:

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everything combined in a mixing bowl.

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Dumped the dough onto the kitchen counter.

  1. Not enough flour compared to the sourdough starter
  2. Environment temperature too high: is it summer?
  3. Too long fermentation
In any case, the longer you let your preferment stand, the more sour it will get. You’ll learn how to control your own mother starter only by baking so practice does make perfect!
Okay, let’s add everything in a mixing bowl. This means adding:
  1. Your preferment
  2. More flour and water
  3. salt

That’s it! If your preferment is 15% of the total dough and you used 150gr flour, you’ll need to add 850gr more. We need more calculations for the flour/water ratio: decide on a hydratation level. What’s that?

The hydratation level of your dough determines how wet the build will be. It’s simply the ratio of flour/water used in your dough – the total amount including the preferment part.

Simple. Most lean breads are very wet (and difficult to work with, so avoid these if you just began baking) but create more holes and a very nice moist structure. Traditional breads range from 50 to 60% hydratation level. The wholegrain bread pictured in this post is from my “daily bread” recipe and has 71% hydratation, that’s why it looks so sticky.

[ 07:01 PM ] Step 3: kneading. Or the lack hereof.

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“Classic bread” needs extensive kneading – about 20-30 minutes by hand, working the dough like mad. With sourdough breads this is not needed. Why?

We knead bread to form gluten and strenghten the dough. If a wheat-based preferment has been incorporated, gluten will be formed more rapidly. The more you let the dough rest, the more it will automatically soak up water & strenghten the gluten.

Of course this does not mean you don’t need to do anything. The simplest thing is usually the best, this is also true for baking bread: employ a technique called “french folding“. The pictures above illustrate this:

  • pick up the dough from the side with as less contact as possible
  • stretch it in the air
  • drop (will stick to the counter), stretch some more and fold over
  • repeat
The video below demonstrates the “stretch & fold” technique on wet dough.

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Stretch & folded the dough after french folding.

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after 5 minutes of french folding, it looks more puffy!

The most important aspect here is folding. A youtube video demonstrating this has been posted in the “my daily bread” post. Instead of slamming dough like a maniac, you can simply stretch the dough a bit on the counter (use a dough scraper!) and fold it like a letter. This is called “stretch & folding“.
Folding strenghtens the otherwise slack and lumpy dough. As soon as you do this, you will notice that the dough will change: it will feel more tight.
Compare this picture with the “dumped on counter” one and you’ll see what I mean.

There’s no golden rule in kneading time – generally 5 minutes stretching is more than enough. This also depends on the flour you’ve used. Rye flour does not have any gluten so kneading would be kind of pointless. If you want to bake a sandwich loaf you’ll need to knead more. If you want to bake a country style bread with nice holes you’ll want to stretch & fold and let the sourdough do the work for you – the more you knead the more CO2 trapped into the dough gets lost.

After this step, store the dough in an airtight container (or back to the mixing bowl with a towel on top to prevent a crust from forming) and let it “bulk ferment”.

[ 07:06 PM ] Step 4: Bulk fermentation

Fermenting the final dough is done in two phases: one called “bulk fermentation” and one called “final proofing” – done after shaping the dough. The first one is done to develop flavor and the second to let the dough rise to the wanted size. This step is quite easy – in fact, you don’t need to do anything. Just wait and watch the starter do it’s work! A typical bulk fermentation phase with sourdough takes up longer than with classic bread (remember, commercial yeast is much quicker).

Usually, this takes from 1 to 2,5 hours at room temperature. It can even be done in the fridge, for up to 24 hours (wow!). It all depends on the flour, the ambient and dough temperature, and what kind of bread you want to make. Again, if there’s no gluten to be formed (rye bread), you can shorten this step. Let’s take 2 hours as our initial bulk fermentation time.

[ 09:00 PM ] Step 5: shaping

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Preshaped into batârds

Divide the dough in equal parts and start shaping them like a boule (round) or a batârd (oval). Or do you want to create baguettes? Go nuts! Shaping is usually done in 3 substeps: preshaping, bench resting and final shaping;

  1. preshaping – a quick shape of dough (rough form)
  2. bench resting – let the dough relax a bit (5-30 min)
  3. finalshaping – repeat step 1 and tighten a lot more.

Bench resting is not needed if the dough is very slack. If you preshaped “too much”, you’ll need to wait a bit before being able to give the dough it’s final shape. Why is this all needed?

In shaping the bread, it’s of vital importance to tighten the surface of the dough. This is done in order to let the dough rise UPwards instead of OUTwards during the final proofing stage.

It’s very difficult to explain how to shape a loaf correctly and quickly in one blog post. I’d say tt’s rather impossible, since I’m still struggling with this myself. I think shaping is one of the most difficult things to do, especially getting the surface tension just right. So, I’ll provide a handy video instead:

[ 09:30 PM ] Step 6: final proofing

Another “wait and see” step. If you’ve shaped your loaves correctly, they will rise upwards. Make sure you don’t “overproof” the loaves – this means letting it proof too long. If you take it out of a proofing basket and put it onto the sheet pan it will collapse and stay flat.

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My loaves have been proofed in a basket

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This loaf quite grew in size!

Don’t forget to cover the loaves with plastic to prevent a crust from forming!

The proofing time I’ve used would be again 2 hours but it depends on the flour and the kitchen temperature. You *could* reduce the time by placing them in a slightly preheated oven (but turned off again & cooled, say to 30°C). You *could* also increase the time by placing the baskets in the fridge. Both have advantages and drawbacks, experiment with them as I did and you’ll see!

[ 11:30 PM ] Step 7: scoring and baking

Wow it’s late isn’t it? Maybe we should have started earlier!

If you feel your loaves are ready to bake, you’re too late – preheating the oven takes up to 15 minutes here and the last few minutes are crucial to avoid overproofing your loaves! So think in advance. You can do the poke test to determine whether it’s ready to bake. If you’re in doubt, it’s better to underproof than to overproof. Why? Because too many people, including myself, tend to wait too long!

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My scoring “lame”: a slightly bent razor blade

Now, just before you pop the loaves in the oven, you’ll need to do one more thing: scoring the bread. What does this mean?

Scoring bread creates angular weak spots by using a sharp blade. This is done in order to control where the bread will burst open during the “oven spring”, and also for aesthetic purposes.

It sounds strange, but I’m sure you’re familiar with a scored loaf: think baguettes. The “ears” which are created when the dough bursts open into the oven are caused by tiny slips made by a “scoring lame” (or a small sharp blade). This creates a visually pleasing look but also prevents the baguette from deforming.

A video might explain it better:

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After scoring vertically. Too deep and too little angle!

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A closeup of the holes caused by the sourdough.

Finally, we’re ready to bake! I always bake sourdough bread at the highest possible temperature (250°C here) and lower the temperature of the oven after 20 minutes if needed (for wholegrain breads a lower temperature but a longer bake is required). For my daily bread pictured in this post, I’ve kept it at 250°C for about 35-40 minutes.
The following pictures also nicely demonstrate the oven spring phenomenon – as you can see my loaves were clearly overproofed.  Why? Because they transformed themselves into pancakes after puttnig them (carefully) on the baking sheet! Luckily (and partially thanks to the high hydratation value I’ve used, 71%) the oven spring was amazing. This happened after 15-20 minutes so you have to be patient. I panicked at first but it’s all good now.

You’ll know when your bread is done baking when you knock on the base of the loaf and hear a hollow sound!

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Don’t forget to let the loaves cool down on a cooling rack and try not to touch them for 2 hours. The internal structure is still stabilizing – it’s even recommended for wholerye breads to leave them wrapped in a towel for 24 hours before slicing! It does taste your patience (and my belly cries for jummy-ness). Congratulations are in order, you’ve baked your first sourdough bread!

Summary table

  1. 07:00 AM – prepare your preferment (15% of total components with 2 tablespoons sourdough mother starter). Leave for 12 hours.
  2. 07:00 PM – mix rest of ingredients and knead by stretch & folding for 5 minutes. Leave to bulk ferment for 2 hours.
  3. 09:00 PM - preshaping, bench rest for 5-30min and shape again, really tight. Leave for final proofing in proofing baskets (or not) for 2 hours.
  4. 11:30 PM - scoring and baking. @ 250°C for min. 35-40 minutes.
  5. 00:10 AM - cooling and hopefully keeping!

> Also on: The fresh loaf

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