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Sourdough Bread Baking
Sourdough bread making can seem something like a miracle when flour and water are transformed into a wonderful loaf of bread. With a little patience and practice you can bake bread that is both rewarding to create and a joy to eat. The sourdough process develops naturally occurring yeasts from a wholemeal flour with regular flour and water additions, to create a yeasty paste known as the Sourdough Starter. Over time, and depending on the vigour of the wild yeast activity and the room temperature, a starter is transformed into a ferment and then into a bread dough by adding more flour and water. Once created, the sourdough starter can be used to make a Classic Sourdough, a Light Rye Sourdough Tin Loaf or Wholemeal Spelt Sourdough Loaf.
Sourdough baking is usually spread over a number of days although you may only need five minutes a day to move everything on to the next stage. Our printable Sourdough Starter Scheduler can help you keep track of the different stages. You will quickly become familiar with the effects of temperature and time and be baking the most delicious bread. The key to rising your loaf is creating your starter. This is a flour and water paste that must be refreshed daily by adding or ‘feeding’ small amounts of flour and water for several days. The aim over these days is to capture the wild yeasts which will eventually help raise your loaf.
Keep your starter loosely covered with a clean, wet tea towel rather than tightly sealed.
Sourdough starters like room temperature, ideally 22-24°C/70-75°F.
A larger quantity of starter will need a bigger flour and water feed than a smaller quantity.
To help you to remember the time of your last and next flour and water feeds, use a kitchen timer, set your phone alarm or print out and fill in our Sourdough Starter Scheduler.
Top Tips for Sourdough Ferment
Avoid using more starter than required by your recipe.
Aim for a really active ferment that looks bubbly, possibly like frogspawn with a sweet yet sour aroma before you proceed to making bread.
Top Tips for Sourdough Bread
Try to avoid knocking the air out of your mature bread dough when you fold it and prepare it for the banneton or bread tin.
If you don’t have a banneton to raise your bread dough you could use a tea towel lined bowl while rising the dough.
Don’t bake in the banneton, gently turn the loaf out onto a baking tray before baking.
The amount of time needed for each stage can vary depending on a combination of several factors, including the temperature of the starter or ferment, when it was last fed and watered, the vigour of the wild yeast activity and the room temperature. The overall process can take several days so keeping a note of starter feeding times or using our Sourdough Starter Table can be helpful.
Some aspects of sourdough baking can be challenging, here is how you could solve some of them;
The starter is not bubbling, looks flat, is dry, sweaty or watery.
Slight fluctuations in the amount of water or flour on the measuring spoon can make the starter too dry or too wet.
A starter that has not really got going could be struggling in your tap water. A high level of chlorine in some tap water can prevent the establishment of an active starter.
Leaving too long between flour and water feeds or the wrong ambient temperature can result in a flat, dry, sweaty or watery appearance. A tired or lifeless starter will not bubble or appear active.
A lifeless starter could be the result of too high an ambient temperature killing off the natural yeast activity.
What to do when a starter looks flat, dry, sweaty or watery
Pour off any surplus liquid, refresh the starter with a feed of flour and water to reach the consistency of thick custard or porridge. Use bottled water if your tap water smells of chlorine and check the room temperature is 22-24°C/70-75°F. Check the starter regularly and shorten the time between feeds to keep the bubbles coming.
There is a strange liquid on top of the starter.
A starter that has stopped bubbling can still ferment and produce a dark, mildly alcoholic liquid. Leaving too long between flour and water feeds or the wrong ambient temperature can result in an exhausted starter.
A starter that has not really got going could be struggling in your tap water. A high level of chlorine in some tap water can prevent the establishment of an active starter
What to do when a starter is covered in dark liquid
The dark liquid is a naturally produced, mild alcohol which protects the starter. Pour away the dark liquid and dispose of any mouldy looking crust at the edge of the bowl then refresh the starter with flour and water and keep at room temperature.
There is a lot of sourdough starter, should it all go into the ferment? What do I do with leftover starter?
Spoon sizes as well as the time and temperature required for the starter to become active can affect the final quantity of starter produced. Measure the quantity of starter called for in the recipe and proceed with the ferment.
A starter recipe often creates more starter than is called for in its associated recipe. Measure the quantity of starter called for in the recipe and proceed with the ferment.
What to do with excess or leftover starter
Continue regular flour and water feeds to make more starter for another baking session.
Refrigerate the sourdough in an airtight container, feed occasionally with flour and water then re-establish activity in a warm room for the next baking session.
Freeze the sourdough in an airtight container then re-establish activity in a warm room for the next baking session.
Use the starter to make sourdough pancakes or sourdough flatbreads.
Dispose of the leftover starter.
The starter is very old with a dark or crusty surface or is covered with a layer of smelly black liquid.
A starter that has not been fed and watered, perhaps left at the back of the fridge, can continue to ferment producing a mildly alcoholic, brackish liquid which covers the starter, blocking oxygen and further fermentation. If the starter is covered with the liquid leave this in place until you want to revive the starter.
Any sourdough paste on the sides of a neglected starter container can become crusty, mouldy and rotten as they react with the air and because they are not covered with the mildly alcoholic fermentation liquid which is preserving the starter. It would be best to rescue the starter and put it into a clean container.
How to rescue a starter that is very old with a dark or crusty surface, mouldy edges or covered in black liquid
Remove and dispose of all the crust and mould around the edges of the container.
Pour away all the dark liquid.
Use a spoon to remove and dispose of the dark top layer.
Using a clean spoon transfer the neutral starter into a clean container.
Refresh the starter with one or two feeds of flour and water and keep it at room temperature.
The dough is too stiff to knead or is tight and difficult to stretch and fold.
Some bread flours will absorb more water than others and as the dough is handled it can become tight as the water is absorbed.
The natural gluten in bread flour gets stronger during kneading which can make stretching or folding the dough harder.
An inaccuracy in the weighing of ingredients can lead to a dough that is difficult to work with. For future bakes measure ingredients accurately.
How to rescue a dough that is stiff and tight
Work a teaspoon of water at a time into the dough as soon as it seems hard to work. When it becomes more pliable and easier to handle, proceed with your recipe.
The baked sourdough loaf has a dense crumb structure without many air holes.
When the ambient temperature is cool it can slow down the action of the fermenting dough which may not rise sufficiently before it was baked, resulting in a close or dense crumb structure. For future bakes the dough may need longer to prove.
If the dough is banged or roughly handled during the folding stages it can knock the air out of the dough resulting in a crumb structure of smaller air bubbles. For future bakes, stretch and fold the dough gently to trap air bubbles within the dough.
How to rescue a dense crumb structure
You have created a wonderful sourdough loaf and will be able to slice it more thinly than loaves that have a very holey and open structure. Serve you loaf with pride and your favourite spread.