I enjoy the art and science of cooking. I’m a huge fan of Alton Brown, J. Kenji López-Alt, and Joshua Weissman.  In addition to being known for high-quality recipes and content, they also explain what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.  While I consider myself an avid home cook, baking is something that has always eluded me. Sure, I’ve made a random loaf of banana bread or two in my life, but I’ve never put any serious effort into baking. For this #30daysoflearning, I’ll be focusing on baking sourdough.

Even though I’ve watched many baking videos over the years, I’ve never paid much attention to the actual process. Mix, knead, rest, knead, bake. Right? Mostly. There are several more steps and a lot of waiting involved. In addition to steps and timing, the precise ratios of the ingredients are very important. Baker’s Percentage is the ratio of flour, hydration, salt, and yeast.

The Starter

With sourdough, you typically don’t use packaged yeast. Instead, you use what’s called a starter, which consists of equal parts whole wheat flour and filtered water. Contrary to popular belief, the yeast in your starter is not wild yeast, floating around in the air. Instead, all the yeast you will ever need is naturally occurring in your whole wheat flour. After a day or two, your starter may smell a bit boozy and might have grown in volume. It’s time to start the feeding routine. Every day or so, you’ll discard half of your starter, then add equal parts unbleached flour and water, bringing the total weight back to where it was before the discard (i.e. 50% original starter, 25% flour, 25% water). After a week of doing this, your starter is ready.

Time to bake some bread! …24 hours from now. I won’t go in-depth for all of the steps, but I’ll go over the general process. I recommend watching Joshua Weissman’s sourdough video for a full breakdown.

Feed your starter, but don’t throw the discard away. Put it in another container and feed it as well. This is your levain (i.e. your yeast component). Let it sit for 4 hours.

Halfway through, combine your bread flour and water per your recipe. This is your autolyse. Let that sit while the levain is continuing to grow. After your levain has doubled in size, combine it with the autolyse. Slap the mixture on your countertop and fold it over on itself. Let it rest. Add salt and mix thoroughly. 

Next, you’re going to stretch the dough up and fold it over on itself, from each direction. Do this several times over a few hours. After a final rest, split the dough into appropriate loaf sizes and put it into proofing baskets and place them in your fridge for 12 hours or longer. The next day, set your oven to 500F, with a dutch oven inside. Once the dutch oven is screaming hot, dust the bottom of your loaves with rice flour or cornmeal. Dust the inside of your dutch oven as well. Plop the dough into the dutch oven, put the lid on, and bake for 20 minutes. Take the lid off and bake for another 20-30 minutes. You know when it’s done when you thump the bottom of the loaf and it sounds hollow. Remove loaf from dutch oven and let cool completely.

Conclusion

In the end, one of my loaves came out pretty undercooked and the other was slightly undercooked but edible. If I do this again, I’ll really have to pay better attention to the thump test. I enjoyed learning how to make sourdough, and the end result was pretty good, but I think I’m going to stick to just buying it from the store.

~ Breon Nagy