Update Feb 2022: This person describes the whole process better:
A little background
Sour dough is not as easy as ‘instant yeast’ loaves, but the results to me are well worth it. Apparently Sour Dough is easier to digest, plus as you can see it has fewer additives. More importantly though, it tastes delicious.
It requires a little more planning ahead than an instant yeast loaf, and multiple stages of the process to make the best loaves. But nothing in this is inherently complex. Just something you should allow time : I start mine on the Friday evening to have a loaf ready to bake on a Sunday morning. Or if the weather is reasonable (or if you live in a house) a Friday morning to have one ready to bake on a Saturday morning.
The process is not an exact science for me, but working with something living that might want a few variations as you work with it. In my experience it gives good feedback when you have a feel of what to look for, and I’ve not had any disastrous loaves yet.
I’ve also found wholemeal sour dough to be pretty easy, even living on a boat and without a fridge or a warm cosy place, it just requires a bit more patience and working with your environment. Just try to keep it away from cold drafts.
Some of my wholemeal loaves have taken 3 days to make in the winter. You can also mix partial wholemeal with white flour to make it a bit quicker. Or use the same process for 100% white flour.
The better the quality of flour you use, the better the results. Even the best organic stoneground flour is not significantly priced, so the cheapest flour is a false economy. Especially when you’re giving the loaf a lot of attention, why skimp on virtually the only ingredient?
Sour Dough Starter : Ongoing Care
- Feeding is normally a heaped teaspoon of quality flour, with a dash of water. Personally I like to feed it the flour I’m going to make the loaf with, so if I’m mainly making wholemeal loaves, I feed the starter with a little wholemeal flour each day.
- I generally feed mine every day at my own breakfast time. You can also keep it in the fridge and feed it once a week, but depending on what else you keep in the fridge, this can adversely affect the starter due to the cross-contamination in the space.
- I try to keep my starter around 1/2 cup (125ml) in volume, plus/minus 50ml or so each way, depending on the season (because our boat is not inherently well insulated).
- In the winter period, I normally maintain my starter to be a little larger (around 175ml). In the summer when it’s warmer and thus more hungry, around 80ml in volume. This way, I can just continue to feed it around one heaped teaspoon of flour each day, with a little water. Discarding any excess starter to maintain an even size either at the end of each week in the winter, or multiple times a week during the summer.
- Of course if I made a loaf every day, I probably wouldn’t have much starter to discard. But these days I don’t make a daily bread.
- I keep my starter in a small ceramic jar/pot, with a bit of waxed fabric as a lid. You can also use a regular glass jam jar. Don’t every seal the lid on tight though, due to the gases produced (and thus pressure build up). A bit of fabric held in place with an elastic band, seems to work well.
- Once a week or two, when the starter is on the larger side particularly, I transfer it to another container, give the normal home a good clean (scraping off the grey dry caked on stuff, above the waterline), and then return it home again.
- If you forget to feed it for a few days, and a vinegary liquid pools on the surface, all is not lost. Don’t mix it in. Just pour the wateriness away, and possibly the top layer of the starter as needed. Then feed it well for the first few days particularly.
Makes 1 regular loaf
For the leaven:
- 1-2 tablespoons living sourdough starter
- ~40 grams flour
- ~40 grams water
For the dough:
- 200-300 grams water (or 1 cup at 250ml)
- 300-400 grams wholemeal/white flour (around 2 level cups, plus around 2-4 heaped tablespoons more as you mix)
- 1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil (optional)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt (dissolved in about 1 tablespoon of warm water and set aside, mixing occasionally to ensure it’s dissolved)
- Make sure your sourdough culture is active:
This normally means for me, giving it slightly larger meals the couple of days before. If you keep yours in the fridge, you’ll want to take it out a few days before, and go back to feeding daily again to re-energise the starter.
- Make the leaven and leave overnight or longer:
(I normally do this on a Thursday night, to make a loaf on a Saturday late morning. If it’s a warmer environment, you may be able to do this the night before, for a lunchtime loaf the following day):
Combine a good tablespoon of active sourdough culture with the flour and water for the leaven. Mix thoroughly to form a thick batter. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight+, ie for about 8-15 hours.
- Test that the leaven is ready:
Generally, if the surface of the leaven is bubbly, it’s ready to be used. You can also check by dropping a small spoonful of the leaven in a cup of water; if the leaven floats, it’s ready. If it’s not bubbly yet, don’t worry too much if it looks like it’s happy and the yeasts have combined throughout the leaven mix.
- Mix the leaven and water:
Combine the leaven and 1 cup of water, in a large mixing bowl. Stir with a spatula or use your hands to break up and dissolve the leaven into the water. It’s okay if the leaven doesn’t fully dissolve and a few clumps remain.
- Add the flour & oil:
Stir in around 1.5 cups of flour into the water mix, along with the quality oil, with a spatula until you see no more visible dry flour and you’ve formed a very shaggy (wet) dough. Don’t expect the mix to be dry enough to knead by hand at this stage, it’ll probably be pretty stringy.
- Rest the dough (30 minutes, or up to 4 hours):
Cover the bowl and let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes or ideally a few hours. This is the autolyse stage where the flour is fully absorbing the water and enzymes in the flour begin breaking down the starches and proteins.
- Mix in the dissolved salt:
Pour the salt over the dough. Work the liquid and salt into the dough by pinching and squeezing the dough. The dough will feel quite wet and loose at this point.
- Begin folding the dough (2 1/2 hours):
To fold the dough, grab the dough at one side, lift it up, and fold it over on top of itself. Fold the dough four times, moving clockwise from the top of the bowl (or giving the bowl a quarter turn in between folds).
Let the dough rest 30 minutes, then repeat.
Do this ideally 6 times, every half hour, so a total of 2 1/2 hours.
The dough will start out shaggy and very loose, but will gradually smooth out and become tighter as you continue folding. You’ll probably want to add a few spoons of flour with each kneading stage, to get a dough that’s more manageable. You may can also use a heavy duty mixer with a dough hook, but don’t over-mix.
- Let the dough rise undisturbed again (30 to 60 minutes):
Once you’ve finished the folds, let the dough rise undisturbed for 30 to 60 minutes, until it looks slightly puffed. This dough won’t double in size yet, the way regular, non-sourdough breads will; it should just look larger than it did when you started.
- Shape the dough into a loose round, and rest again for 20-30 minutes:
Sprinkle a little flour over dough. Use your pastry scraper to shape each one into a loose round — this isn’t the final shaping, just a preliminary shaping to prep the dough for further shaping. You can also flour your pastry scraper as needed to keep it from sticking to the dough. Once the dough is shaped, let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes to relax the gluten again.
- Prepare bread proofing baskets, colanders, or mixing bowls:
Line bread proofing basket, colander, or mixing bowl with clean dishtowels. Dust them heavily with flour, rubbing the flour into the cloth on the bottom and up the sides with your fingers. Use more flour than you think you’ll need — it should form a thin layer over the surface of the towel.
- Shape the loaf:
Dust the top of the ball of dough with flour. Flip it over with a pastry scraper so that the floured side is against the board and the un-floured, sticky surface is up. Shape the loaf much like you folded the dough earlier: Grab the lip of the dough at the bottom, pull it gently up, then fold it over onto the centre of the dough. Repeat with the right and left side of the dough. Repeat with the top of the dough, but once you’ve fold it downward, use your thumb to grab the bottom lip again and gently roll the dough right-side up. If it’s not quite a round or doesn’t seem taut to you, cup your palms around the dough and rotate it against the counter to shape it up.
- Transfer to the proofing basket:
Dust the tops and sides of the shaped loaf generously with flour. Place into the proofing basket upside down, so the seams from shaping are on top.
- Let the dough rise (3 to 4 hours, or overnight in the fridge):
Cover the basket loosely with plastic, or place it inside clean plastic bags. Let them rise at room temperature until they look billowy and poofy, 3 to 4 hours. Alternatively, place the covered basket in the refrigerator and let it rise slowly overnight, 12 to 15 hours. If rising overnight, you can bake the loaves straight from the fridge; no need to warm it before baking, unless your fridge is too cold then you may want to leave it out for a bit.
- Preheat the oven to 260°C:
If you have one, place a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pots with lids in the oven (i.e. casserole dish), and heat to 260°C. You can also use a good heavy baking sheet or a clean roasting tray.
- Transfer the loaves to the Dutch ovens / baking sheet:
Carefully remove the pre-heated Dutch oven from the main oven and remove the lid. Tip the loaf into the pot so the seam-side is down. Or just tip out onto the baking sheet.
- Score the top of the loaf:
Use a sharp or serrated knife to quickly score the surface of the loaves. To be fancy, you can score the surface at a slight angle, so you’re cutting almost parallel to the surface of the loaf; this gives the loaves the distinctive “shelf” along the score line.
- Bake the loaves for 20 minutes (part 1 of 3):
Cover the pots and place them in the oven to bake for 20 minutes.
- Reduce the oven temperature to 230°C and bake another 10 minutes (part 2 of 3):
Resist the temptation to check the loaves at this point; just reduce the oven temperature. If you didn’t have a lid because you’re using a baking sheet, just carry on with these timings sans-lid.
- Remove the lid and bake for another 15 to 25 minutes (part 3 of 3):
Continue baking until the crust is deeply browned; you can aim for just short of burnt. It might feel a bit unnatural to bake loaves this fully, but this is where a lot of the flavour and texture of the crust comes in.
- Cool the loaves before slicing:
When done, lift the loaf out carefully.
Transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely. Wait until it’s cooled to room temperature before slicing (otherwise the loaf may still seem too soft in the middle)