Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bake Your First Sourdough Loaf

So, you've made your starter (or have sent away for a complimentary Oregon Trail starter from The Friends of Carl) and you are ready to dive head first into the wonderful world of sourdough baking? Great!

To give you an idea of what is to come, here is the first loaf I made with my new starter:

(Isn't it beautiful?)  I baked this loaf of bread using the great instructions and recipe provided by Northwest Sourdough.  So, with many thanks to the folks there, here comes my step-by-step experience with my first sourdough loaf in over a year.

The first step is to get your starter out of the fridge and refresh it (warm it up and feed it).  Or, if it is already on the counter, bubbling happily away at room temperature, just make sure it is well fed.  Mine had been in the fridge, so I fed it well (extra flour and water than I usually do - about a cup of each in this case) and let it sit on my stove top (as you see below) overnight.  

The recipe mentions 166% hydration (I almost closed the window right there and went looking for a more beginner-friendly article!) but all this means is that the ratio of water and flour in your stater is equal.  No sweat, if you have been feeding your starter according to my instructions, then it will already be at that ratio, because each time we feed it we've been adding equal parts flour and water.

The next morning I got up and assembled a few simple ingredients:
  • 4 cups Unbleached flour (I didn't have any bread flour on hand, but if you do, by all means - use it!)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil (use whatever oil you want)
  • 3 teaspoons sea salt (or you can use 1.5 teaspoons table salt)
  • 1 cup warm water (not pictured)
  • 1 cup "vigorous" starter (is anyone else hearing Catherine Zeta-Jones saying that?)

As you see in the bowl below, I've dumped the flour in and added my cup of starter (you could technically call it "proofed sponge" if you like, I suppose).  Now in goes the oil...

Then we stir it up the old-fashioned way - with a spoon.  (I used to have a reminder here about not using metal utensils with your sourdough - but I just learned at Sourdough Home that stainless steel has no effect on sourdough - so if that's your fancy - stir away!)

Now we let the dough rest for ten minutes.  I learned that this is called "autolyse," for those of you trying to beef up your bread baking vocabulary.  Next, add the salt and stir if for about 3 minutes.  Then let it rise for 5 hours.

Afterward, it may look something like the picture below.  After all, mine did.  (But go ahead and take a second look at the pictures in the original recipe because they are good and the text is very descriptive about what is happening to the gluten at each step and how we can tell by looking at our dough.)

Next is the fun part!  We get to put our hands on the dough and knead it just a tiny bit into shape.  Plop the dough out of the bowl and on to a lightly floured surface.  Use your hands to fold the edges over until it is shaped like a ball.

My husband was kind enough to snap this pic of me at that point:

A tip at this point (which I gleaned from a great food blog: Steamy Kitchen) is to wet your hands rather than flour them to keep the dough from sticking.  This way you will not add too much flour at this point, which could make your bread overly dense or dry. 

Oh, and Bryan got a shot of my little helper, Dioji, too. 

When you are happy with your little ball of dough, place it on a portion of the surface that is not floured.  Give it ten minutes to relax and stick a little to the surface.  Now you can use both hands to twist the ball into a higher shape.

Ooh... I like the looks of that better, don't you?  While it is resting, you can grease and cornmeal the oven-safe bowl (probably Pyrex like mine) you will be using to bake the bread in.

Place the ball (or "boule" if you're feeling fancy) into the bowl and sprinkle more cornmeal on top.

Now we cover it with a damp towel (not terry cloth) and give it another 2.5 hours to rise (or "proof" as it is called in sourdough baking).  Sometime during the last hour, remove the cloth so that the dough can form a bit of a skin.  And preheat your oven to 450 degrees.  

Oh - but let's talk about winter sourdough baking for a moment.  If you keep your house cool in the winter (below 70 degrees) for reasons of economy - you may want to help your dough out a little by creating a slightly warmer place for it to rise.  A trick I learned from S. John Ross' article on Basic Bread is to turn the oven on to the lowest setting, let it heat up, turn it off, and then stick the dough in there to rise.  This is what I was doing in the picture below.  (By the way, he suggests as a rule of thumb, if you can not comfortably place your hand on the inside of the oven door, it is too hot in there.  We don't want to be baking - just making a comfy place for those yeasties to rise.)

Here is what my dough looked like after it had risen.  While I was taking this picture, I was preheating my oven.

Next comes the one step in this process that I do not look back on with satisfaction.  I feel like my slits that I cut caused the dough to fall a bit.  The original article suggests cutting them like flaps.  Umm... I don't know if I used the wrong knife or what.  But don't sweat it, right?  Even if your slices look as lame as mine the bread will still be good.  Proceed onward!

Put the bowl of dough in the oven.  During the first five minutes of baking, open the oven door once a minute and spray water on the sides of the oven wall.  This helps create that nice crust we want, and keeps it moist in the oven during that final proofing - or "oven spring."  There are no pics because this needs to happen quickly so that you don't lose all the heat out the open oven door.  But this is another one of the fun parts.  You will feel like a real pro as the water bursts into steam.

Turn the oven down to 425 after the first five minutes are up.  Continue baking for another 25 minutes.  If it looks like it is getting brown too fast, turn the oven down to 400.

Then take the bread out of the oven.  Carefully remove your loaf of bread from the (hot!) bowl and put the loaf back in the oven to crisp up the bottom of the loaf.  Give it 5 minutes in there to get it looking its best.

Take your loaf of bread around the house, photographing it to share with all your email and blogging buddies. Show each member of the household, including pets, what a wonderful baker you are.  Sing; dance; exult!

And here is the hardest part of the recipe: Put it on the cooling rack and LET IT COOL COMPLETELY before you eat it. If you do, the crumb (the texture inside and all those glorious holes) will be better. But if you don't, I won't tell.



Happy Homebaker said...

Your sourdough loaf looks so gorgeous!! I have already bookmarked your wonderful step-by-step instructions to make the starter. However, I think it will take a while for me to pick up the courage to try it ;)

Mer said...

Thank you for the compliment on my bread. :0)

If you are nervous about making your own starter, don't!

You can send away for some proven starter for the cost of postage at The Friends of Carl. They will send internationally.

Anonymous said...

Oooh, I'll bet your house smells yummy! I'm inspired to take my starter out of the fridge and get going on some bread.

Leslie said...

That bread is perfect, good job! The only thing I know about "flaps" is the angle in which the knife enters the bread. Straight down, you get slits. Angle the knife so that it is almost level with the top of the loaf and you get flaps which will rise and turn crispy brown.

Mer said...

Leslie - maybe that is what went wrong with that step, then. I will have to try and make sure to try cutting it angled the way you are talking about. I knew I hadn't made "flaps" like the recipe talked about. ;0)

Anonymous said...

I know what gives the bread the sour taste, but what makes the bread chewy? Is it the amount the dough is kneaded?

Happy Campers said...

Thanks for your detailed post! I purchased a dry starter at Christmas for my husband, and now that it's warmer I've hydrated it and am ready in the next few days to try my first sourdough loaf!

Your pictures were very helpful. Hope it turns out as great as yours!!

Mer said...

Happy Campers - Glad the photos were helpful. Good luck on your first loaf... I'm sure it will be delicious!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for these straight-forward easy to follow instructions! I'm glad to have found your instructions since I can't eat commercial yeast, and most instructions are hard for me to understand. Oh, and if you ever make this with whole wheat flour, I realized it needs a bit more (like a half cup) water :)

Guest said...

I know this is an old post, but I just had to thank you for your recipe. I made my own starter (against common wisdom), threw caution to the wind and Googled "my first sourdough" and landed here!

Holy Mary Mother of God and Sweet baby Jesus! That was the best sourdough I have ever tasted. The WHOLE loaf tastes like one huge English muffin. I slice it thin and toast it crisp. I can't thank you enough.

I also checked out your blog and really appreciate your enthusiastic and warm writing style. My family has been truly blessed by you sharing the knowledge and details that has made this more than a recipe, but an experience!
God bless,
Larry & family

Mer said...


So glad that this was a winner for you and your family! I know baking bread is sure fun, and I love sour dough. Hope you continue to enjoy!