The Basic Principles of Working with Sourdough
While maintaining a sourdough starter does require some effort, it really is only a small amount in comparison to the return that you will be getting in terms of taste, nutrition, and saving money on other leavening sources.
If you are interested in baking bread at home, sourdough or not, then you understand that any (fairly small) time commitment involved in making homemade bread is worth it.
The hands-on time commitment for sourdough is really very little. There are two aspects to the sourdough time commitment - the feeding of the culture and the rising/baking of the bread.
The time commitment dedicated to feeding the culture is literally only minutes per day or even week, if you are storing your starter in the refrigerator. The time commitment in baking bread is primarily taken up in the long rising period needed for the yeasts in the culture to produce the gas and therefore the rise of the bread.
Your overall time commitment in baking the bread will be 30 to 40 minutes of prep along with a hands-off rising time of 4 to 24 hours.
Working With Different Flours
When you receive your dried sourdough culture you will want to reactivate and get it up and running with the flour type indicated. So a rye flour starter should be activated with rye and a wheat sourdough starter with wheat.
If you would like to switch the flour you are using for your starter we recommend that you split your established starter in half, leave one in the refrigerator and feed with the original flour, and feed the other half with the new flour. This will leave you with a backup in case, for some reason, the new flour negatively affects the existing starter.
If you would like to mix and match your flours in baking this is perfectly acceptable. So for instance if you wanted to use half rye flour and half wheat flour with your wheat starter that would be fine. Just be aware that your starter has been consistently fed with one flour so it is used to that flour as food. The starter, therefore, may act very differently in baking when a new flour is introduced. This is because different grains have different protein and carbohydrate contents.
This may produce a shorter or longer rise time, a stronger or milder flavor, or a different texture in the final baked loaf.
If you have only ever baked with wheat flour, please note that other grains have less or no gluten, which is the protein in wheat that creates the elasticity of bread that helps it to trap gasses and rise. If you introduce a non-wheat flour into your baking you may find that your loaves don’t rise as well or aren’t quite as fluffy.
On the other hand, grains lower in gluten such as spelt and rye have a texture and flavor that is both unique and delicious, on top of being a bit easier to digest for those sensitive to gluten.
A sourdough culture contains acids and other living organisms. Because of this you want all of the equipment that will come in contact with the starter to be non-reactive. Glass, wood, and plastic are great options
The equipment necessary to care for your starter is simple: a vessel (jar or container), a wooden or plastic stirring utensil, and a breathable lid.
To get started with sourdough bread baking you will need:
Bread baking is a bit of science and a bit of art rolled into one. There are exact recipes and formulas that you can use to get the same result every time. Or, if you are a more free-spirited baker, you may want to simply learn the technique and allow yourself to use whatever you have on hand.
In measuring ingredients you will want to start by being precise in order to learn the general science behind it. You can measure ingredients in volume (cups, tablespoons) or by weight (ounces, grams).
When measuring in volume you will want to scoop the flour with your measuring cup and then level the flour with the back of a knife to be precise. You can do the same thing with measuring spoons.
If you have never worked with bread dough then you are in for quite a treat. If you have been baking for a while you know the joy that is getting your hands into the dough to create a beautiful finished loaf.
When you begin your sourdough bread recipe you will begin by combining ingredients.
Often times you will come across a recipe that calls for a range of flour, 2 to 2-1/2 cups for instance. Always start with the least amount of flour called for and slowly work your way up, gauging the texture of the dough as you go.
This will take into account the hydration level of your starter as well as the humidity in your area on that particular day.
And remember that a moist dough is preferable to a dry dough. You want your dough to just come together in a ball that should pull away from the bowl, but you also want it to remain moist.
Once you have your ball of dough you can begin the kneading process. Kneading is simply the act of working the dough until the gluten is developed enough to be elastic, which in turn traps the gases needed to make the bread rise.
You will need a clean, flat surface for kneading. In a pinch a large, wide bowl can work as well. You will also want to have some extra flour handy to prevent sticking.
Sprinkle a small amount of flour over your work surface to begin. Take your ball of dough and gently push it away from you using the palm of your hand. Now roll it over on top of itself and repeat.
You want to continue kneading your bread, anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes depending on your flour, until the dough feels elastic and stretchy.
Proofing is simply giving the sourdough culture time and warmth in order to leaven your bread.
Many recipes will call for two proofs – one in a bowl and one in the pan that you will be baking – but when working with sourdough as opposed to baker’s yeast, a second proofing is not required.
So once you have finished kneading your dough you will want to shape it into a loaf for the size of pan you will be using, cover it with a damp cloth or paper towel, and place it in a warm (70° to 85°F) location to rise.
If your dough has proofed properly you should now have a lovely risen dough. You can now prepare it for baking.
You will first want to preheat your oven according to the recipe’s directions. You can slash your loaf with a very sharp knife if you wish to create a bit more rise in the oven. Then simply place your bread in the oven and bake until the internal temperature has reached 210°F.
Remove from pan and allow to cool completely (if you can wait that long) before cutting.
The ratio of ingredients may vary slightly from recipe to recipe. Generally speaking, though, there is a bit of a ratio formula that many bakers stick to when dealing with sourdough, but be advised that it deals in weights, not volumes.
You start with one part 100% hydration starter, meaning for every 8 oz of starter you have 4 ounces of water and 4 ounces of flour. You then use two parts by weight of water and three parts by weight of flour.
Of course you will want to add salt to your bread. A good rule of thumb is to use 2% of the weight of the flour as the measurement for the salt.