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I am by no means an expert at sourdough baking. I’ve been doing it on and off for about six years and have found it fascinating – and sometimes frustrating – right from the start. Having a small bit of bread making knowledge helped me to not be too intimidated by the bread making process itself, but still sourdough was in a league of its own.

Over the years I’ve grown accustomed to the process and the feel of it but if I’ve learned one thing it’s that there is always something new to learn about the process of bread fermentation.

As I’ve been baking lately a couple of the tips I picked up over the years that finally made the process “click” came to mind. So I thought I’m share them with you here.

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1. The 25% Rule

I have no idea if this is legit or not and I’m sure, as with most facets of sourdough baking, a hundred people will argue the opposite point with plenty of good stuff to back it up. I’m fine with that. And I don’t even remember where I got this from – maybe The Art of Fermentation – but one thing that really helped me to make better bread with better structure and better flavor was using this 25% rule.

In a nutshell it means that when I’m baking bread, I only utilize about 25% or less starter in the entire dough. I roughly calculate this by figuring out how much flour there is in my starter (the hydration) and how much is in the overall dough. Again, this isn’t an exact science, but keeping the percentage of starter low seems to help with a lot of factors in bread making.

This also holds true for feeding the starter and is an argument to “discard” – or in our case use in pancakes and other recipes – a portion of your starter before feeding it. Otherwise you’d be feeding 4 cups of starter with eight cups of flour and that, to me, is a bit much.

2. The Bulk Fermentation

I’ve done plenty of mix it, knead, it, let it rise right in the pan and bake it type breads. They are often quick, and with some of the no-knead breads I’ve worked with, dead simple. But, I like a long fermentation in my bread for a lot of reasons.

But there are arguments for the bulk fermentation – the fermentation or rise time done before shaping into the final loaf – for both sourdough and commercial yeast baking. These arguments span the gamete from flavor nuances to textural benefits to specific acids and organisms that are produced at specific temperatures and times through the fermentation process.

In short, it makes for better, more digestible bread, in my experience.