I like to think I am special. But…maybe not. Like many others, I learned to bake sourdough bread during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place. Maybe this mini-trend was not so surprising. Sourdough bread baking is something I always wanted to do but never had the time. It’s probably a mini-bucket list item for lots of home cooks.
But learning how to do it is not trivial. Like any self-respecting knowledge worker, I first researched the instructional videos — and there are zillions — but they don’t help much. I found them tantalizing and confusing and ultimately overwhelming. So if you want to learn to bake sourdough bread, and find the videos exhausting, I am here to tell you what I learned and spare you some trouble. I am not a very good baker, so I don’t claim any special knowledge or skill. I went about learning this task with my characteristic mix of problem solving doggedness and practical skepticism (also known as laziness).
If you also were dismayed to find that most of the sourdough recipes out there have 47 steps and start with an essay about the chef’s personal relationship to yeast, then forgive all my commentary and scroll down to “Here is the recipe” below. I hate following directions, too, so I sympathize.
1. Set your goals properly.
Success is a function of realism. If you are failing at something, re-adjust your goals, succeed, and declare victory. If your goal is to make a beautiful, perfect loaf of rustic sourdough with a huge crumb and brag about it to your friends, I suggest that you go down to your local bakery, buy a nice artisan loaf, take a photo, and post it on Facebook. You will save yourself a lot of heartache. This recipe is not for people who want to pursue the platonic ideal of bread. It is for people who want to eat good bread with modest effort.
My recipe is intended for those who are not dextrous. For example, most recipes contain a step of shaping the loaf, but I just couldn’t do it, despite all the videos with chirpy video cooks saying how easy it is. (My efforts looked like an I Love Lucy episode.) Also, this recipe is designed to use a minimum amount of crockery, for those who, say, don’t have other people to clean up after them. Cleaning up after a high-hydration dough is a nightmare.
Finally, my recipe can be done in a single day (excluding the initial creation of the starter.) Multi-day recipes just don’t fly for someone like me who works for a living.
I negotiated a complicated M&A deal one day last week while making this recipe. So you see, it can be done, and the active prep time makes for a nice break from arguing with other lawyers.
2. Plan your day.
It takes a whole day to bake the bread, though the active prep time is only about 30 minutes. The steps can be scheduled about like this (with active prep times):
- 8 am feed starter (5 minutes)
- 1 pm mix dough and autolyse (5 minutes)
- 2 pm knead and begin bulk rise (15 minutes)
- 7 pm bake (5 minutes)
- 8 pm bread!
3. Make a starter.
This takes about a week, the first time. There are plenty of instructions on how to make (here is one) so I won’t go into the details here. It is not hard at all. You just mix up equal parts flour and water and let it sit around until it ferments. The wild yeast comes from the air, or you can buy some to add. You have to feed the starter daily at first. Once your starter is established you can keep it in the fridge and feed it less often, maybe once or twice a week. Feeding it only takes a couple of minutes.
4. Get the right equipment.
Using the right equipment is essential if you want to avoid mess and a lot of work.
- Stand mixer with a dough hook. Why: Hand kneading is extremely sticky and messy, and requires dexterity and a big clean counter space. (My kitchen is normally a cluttered mess, but if yours is not, well, good for you!) You can get away without a mixer to knead, but if you don’t use one, either it will be more work and mess to knead the dough by hand, or your dough will be sticky and hard to handle if you don’t knead it enough. I have a KitchenAid and it is pricey ($250-300), but a great investment that will last a lifetime.
- A dough whisk. Why: Again, not strictly necessary, but saves a lot of mess. One of the most frustrating things about sourdough bread is the sheer amount of glop it produces. The stuff is like cement — hard to clean and guaranteed to clog your pipes. The dough whisk works better, and is easier to clean, than a spoon, or your hands. I bought this one on Amazon. $15-20.
- A proofing basket (aka banneton) with cloth liner. Why: it makes the final step of putting the loaf in the pot so much easier. I resisted getting one for a long time; that was a mistake. They range greatly in price. $20 and up.
- A dutch oven. Why: There is almost no recipe that does not recommend a Dutch oven as the preferred choice for baking this kind of bread. It’s the best way to trap steam and keep the temperature of baking even and high. A dutch oven is also a good investment. It is one of my favorite cooking pots for all kinds of dishes. While these can get expensive, Amazon makes one for $70. Get a cast iron or similar one, not Teflon.
- A shaker (dredge). Why: This little device makes it much easier to flour your basket cloth. Flour sprinkling is CRUCIAL. These are inexpensive, under $10.
- A linen cloth. Why: you need this to cover your loaf while it is rising. If you don’t cover it, it will develop a nasty skin. A rigid cover will interfere with the rise. I made one from some linen I had on hand from a sewing project. If you buy one, get a high quality tea towel of cotton, linen or both. It need not be special. Do not use a terrycloth towel.
- A food scale. Why: measuring flour by volume is unreliable and will cause unexpected results. Baking bread successfully is all about the ratio of flour to water. Make sure you get one with a tare function — they pretty much all have that. While you’re at it, even if you are in the US, get one that measures in grams so you can join the rest of the world in enjoying the lovely rationality of the metric system. These range a lot in price. $25 and up.
- Parchment paper. Why: using this greatly eases the job of transferring the very sticky dough into your cooking pot, and keeps it from sticking to the pot after you bake it. I tried to avoid using it, because it is disposable and a little pricey. But there is really no substitute. I tried a silicon round but…no way. You can get this at any grocery, but I highly recommend getting this at Costco if you can, as it is a much better deal.
- Dough scraper. Why: it is the right device to transfer dough that is sticking to the bowl. It may not necessary, but many banneton bowls come with one anyway. You don’t need anything fancy — a cheap plastic one will do fine. $5 or less.
- Pastry brush. Why: you need to brush the loaf with water before baking. Not strictly necessary as you can do this by hand if you like, but the pastry brush is gentle. I like a silicon brush. $10.
Here is the recipe:
- 200 grams starter.
- 500 grams bread flour. (Not all purpose (AP) flour. You can make AP flour into bread flour by substituting about 3% (15 grams) of wheat gluten. But it’s easier to just buy bread flour.)
- 260 grams water. It should be pretty sticky, not like a normal bread flour. Add a little (maybe 10g) if you want a more open crumb.
- 10 grams salt. This is for taste. It does not affect fermentation.
- 8 am: make the starter: First, make the starter by taking about 2T of your starter stash and mixing it up well with 100 grams flour and 100 grams water. It will be gooey. Put it in your oven with the light on but no heat. The light will be a good way to keep it warm but not hot. I did this in my handy Pyrex pint measuring cup, which is one of my staple cooking tools.
- 1pm: mix the dough: test your starter by taking a very small clump (1/4 tsp) and putting it in a cup of water. It should float, and it should smell nice and yeasty. Combine all the ingredients in your stand mixer bowl. Don’t use the mixer, though, use the dough whisk. Cover it with the linen towel and put it aside for an hour. This is called the autolysis step.
- 2pm: knead: Put your stand mixer bowl on the mixer and knead on the lowest setting for 5 minutes with the dough hook. The dough should tighten up a bit and become a little less sticky. Flour the proofing basket (with cloth) thoroughly with the flour sprinkler. Flour the linen towel in the middle as well. Make sure to flour both thoroughly or you will be sorry later. Transfer the dough from the mixer bowl to the proofing basket with the dough scraper. Try to keep it in one piece. Cover the basket with the linen towel, flour side down. Put it in the oven with the light on, but heat off. Rise for 4-5 hours. This is called the bulk rise or proof.
- 7pm: bake: Remove the basket from the oven. Your dough should have risen up over the top of the proofing basket. Remove the towel from the top VERY CAREFULLY to avoid sticking or tearing. If it sticks, you didn’t use enough sprinkled flour. Put a big piece of parchment paper on top, and VERY GENTLY turn the basket over onto the parchment paper. If it sticks, you didn’t use enough sprinkled flour on the basket cloth. Now, carefully lower the loaf, using the parchment as a little basket, into your Dutch oven. There is no need to flour or oil the Dutch oven.
- Score the loaf with your sharpest knife — make a 1/2 inch deep cut across the top. Brush it with water.
- Set the oven to 500F (or as high as it will go). Put the Dutch oven in the cold oven and let it warm up with the oven. Once the oven reaches its baking temperature, bake for 25 minutes, then remove the lid and back for 20 more minutes. The bread is done when it has a dark crust (like a caramel) or reaches 200-210F.
The Picture Version
Why All the Recipes Are So Awful
Most recipes you see on the Internet are written by celebrity chefs or food journalists or Youtubers with nothing else to do. These people often have assistant producers or groupies to help them with prep and clean up. They aren’t necessarily practical guides for home cooks, or people that, say, have other interests in life beside cooking.
I created this recipe by making a spreadsheet of the recipes I found helpful, averaging them out to figure ingredients, cutting out all the extra steps I could, and picking the easy way out where there was a choice.
I do agree that making naturally leavened bread is a great experience. It smells earthy and wonderful when it is rising and baking. Baking bread like this is something women have done for millennia — it is probably one of the oldest bits of cooking alchemy in human history. It’s nice to carry on that tradition. Plus…delicious!
The recipes I drew from were:
- Corriher, Cookwise. Great cookbook chock-full of food science.
- Bittman, How to Cook Everything. Also a great cookbook, from the Minimalist.
- The French Guy Cooking. His is one of the better instructional videos.
- The foodgeek on YouTube. He does experiments to debunk myths about cookery. This person gave me the courage to eliminate some of the unnecessary steps.
- America’s Test Kitchen. Consistently one of the best sources of reliable recipes for home cooks. They actually test their recipes. As did I.
As you can see, the crumb is smaller than the platonic ideal, but it is nice and even, very good for sandwiches or toast. The crust is crunchy and the inside is nice and soft. More important, it is delicious. Your biggest problem with this bread will be that you will eat too much of it.
Why I Made the Choices
I am sure food purists will find my lazy approach offensive. Anyone who has the energy to get offended over a bread recipe must have a pretty good life. The rest of us have bigger problems. In any case, here is how I decided to simplify.
The trouble I had with most other recipes is that they took too long, made too much mess, dirtied too many dishes, required too much dexterity, had too many steps, or were too dangerous (e.g. lowering dough into a 500 degree pot).
- Machine kneading. This video says that the method makes relatively little difference. My recipe does not involve any hand mixing because it is just too messy. I even tried using surgical gloves for hand mixing and kneading, and it did not help with stickiness or cleanup, and just produced more trash, i.e. a pair of surgical gloves.
- No loaf shaping. The banneton does that for you, so why work? An extra step to shape loaves also deflates the bread. Plus, I found it took more skill than I had.
- Medium hydration. If you want a big, airy crumb, you need a very wet dough, but wet doughs are a pain to work with. I settled for a smaller crumb with a slightly drier dough that is much easier to work with and clean up.
- Start in cold oven. I got this idea from the America’s Test Kitchen recipe. The other approach — lowering your dough into a pre-heated dutch oven — is just plain scary. I liked the idea that the cold oven allows the yeast to work longer before it gets killed off.
- Parchment paper pouch. I tried lots of alternatives, but in the end, transferring from the banneton to the parchment paper was the most gentle approach, and the parchment paper prevents sticking in the pot.
- Mixing and autolysis in the stand mixer bowl. This saved cleaning yet another dish. You can thank me later.
- Bread flour. I tried AP, but it resulted in a dough that never formed into a ball, just a big splat.
- Using the oven with the light on but no heat. That idea was from the French Guy Cooking. It creates a great warm, but not hot, environment.