What’s better than the delicious smell of freshly baked bread filling the apartment? Or showing up (and off) at a dinner party with amazing self-baked bread? Not much. And let me tell you, it’s even better if you bake with sourdough instead of standard yeast dough. Besides its delicious taste, its wonderfully chewy texture and crispy crust it is also much healthier than bread made with yeast. The naturally occurring acids and long fermentation help break down proteins and gluten making it more digestible and easy for the body to absorb.
Some months ago I received a little portion of active sourdough from a so-called sourdough collective that met up at an urban garden around the corner where they baked bread in a self-built clay oven. They gave me some first-timer tips on how to handle the starter and recommended that I simply look up some detailed instructions and recipes on the internet. They also told me to not worry too much as they’ve experienced that the dough hardly ever goes bad. And this is the message that I too want to share with you here: You can find really complicated instructions on how to bake with sourdough, how to handle the starter, or make a starter by yourself. Sourdough seems to be the holy grail of baking bread, yet in the end it is not so complicated, time consuming, or hard! My bread may not be able to compete with the high art of refined sourdough scientists but I really like it and so do all the people who have tried it.
So, just get started, there isn’t much that can go wrong and you’re likely to end up with a pretty amazing loaf of delicious fresh bread.
1. Get your starter
The easiest is to get a starter from someone who regularly bakes with sourdough and has a healthy culture to share. Ask around in your circle of friends or in social media groups for sharing and free stuff. Otherwise you could also ask at a local bakery that bakes with natural sourdough, preferably one that only uses certified organic ingredients. You can even make your own starter simply with rye flour and water. It attracts wild yeast and bacteria from the air creating a culture of microorganisms that will naturally leaven your bread. I haven’t tried making my own starter yet, so I’d recommend you to look up some detailed instructions on the net if you want to start your dough from scratch.
2. Feed your starter
Your starter needs to be kept alive with regular feeds of flour and water in a 1:1 ratio. The texture of this mixture is quite liquid. During the week I keep my starter in the fridge in a little glass, the lid ever so slightly open as the dough produces gas. One day before I intend to bake bread (normally on weekends) I add some new rye flour and water, stir well, and let the mixture sit outside the fridge for one night. In the morning the dough is normally 1.5-2 times its original size, has a lot of bubbles, and a nice sour smell, sometimes like apples and sometimes rather like vinegar.
3. Starting the dough
Put some flour and water in a big bowl, in a 5:3 ratio. The amounts depend on how big you want your bread to be or how many loaves you want to bake. For an average loaf of bread use about 500g flour and 300ml water. You can use whichever kind of flour you prefer. I normally use half rye, half spelt flour. Add your bubbly starter and mix it all well. Let the mixture rest for 30 minutes up to a couple of hours in a warm spot covered with a clean kitchen towel. It is recommended to fold the dough every hour, but I have to admit that I often go out for some hours and leave the dough all alone. It seems to be happy with that as well.
4. Getting the dough ready for baking
When the dough has risen for a while (or you return from your Sunday walk) take 1-2 big tablespoons from the dough, put it back in your starter vessel, add some fresh flour and water (1:1 again), mix it all well, and put it in the fridge for the next round of baking.
Now you can add salt (about 2 teaspoons, i.e. 12g if you use 500g of flour), spices (for example caraway or cumin) and any sort of seeds you like in your bread. Knead the dough carefully. If it is too sticky and wet, add some additional flour. Depending on how long your dough has already rested in the first round, let it rest again so that it rests for about 5-7 hours altogether. If you want to speed up the process, put the bowl in a vessel with warm water. If you need more time for something else or suddenly don’t feel like baking anymore you can slow down the fermentation by putting the dough in the fridge (well-covered, of course). It will continue growing when you take it out of the fridge again.
Once the dough has expanded to about the double of its original size, put it into the vessel you want to use for baking. Or you can simply form a loaf on a baking tray covered with baking paper. I usually use a loaf pan that I line with reusable baking paper (see pictures), but it also works without the baking paper if you just coat the pan with some flour. Let the dough rest for another 30 minutes to an hour until it is slightly puffy again. In this state the dough should no longer be too moist so that it more or less keeps its shape. In the meantime, preheat the oven at 250°C.
When the dough and oven are ready, moisten the loaf with water and cut it either along the middle or in 2-3 diagonal slashes. Lower the temperature of the oven to 200°C, put in the loaf on the middle rack, and place a ceramic cup with water next to it. After baking on 200°C for 10-15 minutes, briefly open the oven door to let the moisture escape and lower the temperature to 180°C. Continue baking for about 50 more minutes. Keep in mind that all ovens are different; you might have to make minimal adjustments to temperatures and the baking time.
6. It’s a bread!
After about an hour of baking in total, take your bread out of the oven and let it cool down on a rack for another hour. Even if you are very curious to try it, wait for at least an hour until you cut your bread, otherwise it might get a gummy texture. But then—enjoy!
As always, I highly recommend experimenting: with the mixture of flour, the spices and seeds you add, the amount of dough in total, the amount of water in it, the time for the resting periods, and with the vessels you use for baking, i.e. the shape you give your loaves. Soon you will find your preferred mixtures and your personal rhythm for the preparations. It will become more and more easy to integrate the baking procedure with all its steps into your weekly life, even if you are pretty busy or maybe not so well-organized. And when your friends start annoying you by constantly asking you to bring some of your yummy fresh bread to their dinners, share your sourdough and give them their own starters—along with this little tutorial.