Bread making

White sour dough

White sour dough

How to Bake Sourdough Bread

Sourdough bread is bread made without added yeast. The tradition in Puglia is called “lievito Madre”

One begins by making a “starter” in which wild yeasts can grow, the sourdough bread baker can raise yeast naturally, as mankind did for thousands and thousands of years before a packet of yeast was an available convenience at the local market.

To become a sourdough bread baker, all you need are some basic ingredients (flour, water, salt, and sugar), some basic tools (a mixing bowl, an oven, and a baking sheet), and a basic interest. This page is for the novice sourdough bread baker, but assumes that the reader has some familiarity with regular yeast-based baking.

Creating Your Starter
Ingredients for the starter  1 tbsp dried yeast, 250g strong white bread flour

The novel thing about sourdough baking is that it requires that you keep something alive. You can think of the starter as a pet, kept and fed so that you will have all the bread you need. Sourdough “starter” is a batter of flour and water, filled with living yeast and bacteria. The yeast and bacteria form a stable symbiotic relationship, and (as long as you keep the starter fed) can live for centuries, a thriving colony of microorganisms. This is how you make your starter:

  • Select a container that your “starter” will live in. A wide-mouthed glass jar is best. You may use a small crock with a loose lid. You can also use a Tupperware container.
  • Make the starter 4-6 days before you want to bake the loaf.

Dissolve the yeast in a bowl with 500ml lukewarm water. Stir in the flour, then cover and leave to ferment in a warm place for 24 hours. Stir again, re-cover and ferment for another 2-4 days. Use plain, unbleached bread flour.

  • Every 24 Hours, Feed the Starter. You should keep the starter in a warm place; 25-30 degs C, 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit. This allows the yeast already present in the flour (and in the air) to grow rapidly. Temperatures hotter than 100 degrees or so will kill it
  • . The way you feed the starter is to (A) throw away half of it and then (B) add a half-cup of flour and a half-cup of water. Do this every 24 hours. Within three or four days (it can take longer, a week or more, and it can happen more quickly) you should start getting lots of bubbles throughout, and a pleasant sour or beery smell. The starter may start to puff up, too. This is good. Here’s the gist: When your starter develops a bubbly froth, it is done. You have succeeded.
  • Refrigerate the Starter. Keep the starter in your fridge, with a lid on it. Allow a little breathing space in the lid. If you’re using a mayo or pickle jar, punch a hole in the lid with a nail, that kind of thing. Once the starter is chilled, it needs to be fed only once a week. Realistically, you can get away with less; it’s important to remember that your starter is a colony of life-forms that are almost impossible to kill (except with extreme heat). Even starving them is difficult.

Sourdough Baking Step One: Making the Sponge
Ingredients for the sponge 250g strong white flour, 3 tbsp flour for sprinkling

Rough and crunchy sour dough

Rough and crunchy sour dough

Several hours before you plan to make your dough (recipe below), you need to make a sponge. A “sponge” is just another word for a bowl of warm, fermented batter. This is how you make your sponge.

  • Take your starter out of the fridge. Pour 200 ml starter into a large glass or plastic bowl. Meanwhile, keep remaining starter in another container. Wash the original container and dry it. You may also wish to pour boiling water over it, since you don’t want other things growing in there with your starter.
  • Add a 250 ml warm water and 250 gr flour to the bowl. Mix vigourously, sprinkle with 3 tbsp flour, and set it in a warm place for several hours. This is called “proofing,” another word for fermenting.
  • Watch for Froth and Sniff. When your sponge is bubbly and has a white froth, and it smells a little sour, it is ready. The longer you let the sponge sit, the more sour flavor you will get.

Cover the sponge with a damp tea towel or greased plastic and leave it to ferment overnight in a warm place. The proofing-time varies. Some starters can proof up to frothiness in an hour or two. Some take 6-8 hours, or even longer. Just experiment and see how long yours takes. If you’re going to bake in the morning, set your sponge out to proof overnight.

Sourdough Baking Step Two: The Actual Bread Recipe
Ingredients for the bread 1.5 tsp dried yeast, 375g strong white flour, extra flour for sprinkling, 1 tsp salt, Vegetable oil for greasing, Polenta or fine yellow cornmeal for dusting

Of course, there are a lot of recipes for sourdough bread. There are also recipes for sourdough rolls, sourdough pancakes, sourdough pretzels, sourdough bagels, and probably sourdough saltines for all I know. This is the basic recipe I use, though, and it’s simple and makes a fine bread. You’ll need the following:

First, let’s talk about leftover starter. You should have some. The leftover starter or sponge is your starter for next time: Put it into the jar, and give it a fresh feed of a half-cup each of flour and warm water. Keep it in the fridge as above; you’ll have starter again next time.

Now, for the recipe: Dissolve the yeast in 4 tbsp lukewarm water and mix it into the sponge. To this mixture, stir in half the flour and salt, (and oil (optional – you can use softened butter instead, or no oil at all) and mix well. Gradually add the remaining flour and mix to form a soft dough.

Knead the dough on a floured surface for 10 mins until very smooth and elastic. Oil a bowl, place the dough in it, cover loosely with a towel and leave the dough to rise in a warm place. Note that sourdough rises more slowly than yeast bread; my starter takes about an hour and a half, until double in bulk.

Turn the dough out again, and punch the dough down and knead it a little more. Cut into 2 equal parts, and shape each into a loaf and place in a bowl lined with muslin or greased (or a baking sheet lightly greased or sprinkled with cornmeal). Slit the top if you like, and cover the loaf with a paper towel and place it in a warm place for 1 hour, until doubled in bulk.

Preheat your oven to 200o C (Gas 6) (350o F). Sprinkle two baking sheets with polenta and place a loaf on each sheet. Peel off the muslin and cut a cross on the top of the loaf.

Bake the bread for 20 minutes. Reduce temp to 190 degs C (Gas 5) and bake for 20-25 mins. The loaf is done when the crust is brown and the bottom sounds hollow when thumped with a wooden spoon. Turn the loaf out onto a cooling rack or a towel and let it cool for an hour before slicing.

© James Leachman, O.S.B.,  16 February 2016