LIVE

You have a starter. What should you do next?

By Chris Malloy
Updated April 10, 2020
Advertisement

You’ve made or acquired a sourdough starter. You’re ready to bake homemade sourdough bread. The path to a prime loaf? Not quick and easy. Learning to make sourdough is in many ways like learning how to ride a bike. You’ll fall pretty hard a few times. But once you learn, you’ll be all set. You’ll be able to make fluffy, brown-crusted loaves, the kind with all the warm, timeless nourishment of beautiful fresh-baked bread.

As you start down the sourdough path—or if you’re stuck somewhere along the way—try following these 10 simple steps. They’ll help show you the way.

Wake Up Your Starter.

Has your starter been slumbering in the fridge? If so, it’ll be a little sleepy, leading to a reduced rise. The solution is to wake up your starter, revving its yeasts back into gear. Feed your starter the night before you plan to bake. Leave it out overnight. And feed it again in the morning—then wait for the right time to make dough (see next tip).

Call Your Active Starter Into Action at the Right Time.

You’ve fed your active starter. To capture it at its very best and most balanced, how long should you wait before you use it to make dough? The answer is—very roughly—four hours, or however long it takes for your room temperature starter to double in size. All starters work at different rates, so the time to double will vary.

Think Beyond White Flour.

Instead of going 100 percent white, try mixing in 10 percent to 30 percent of another flour. Consider rye, spelt, hard winter wheat, or whatever special wheats your local mill carries. This is a painless way to layer deep, robust notes into your sourdough.

Consider Dough Hydration.

Hydration is a baking term that refers to water-to-flour ratio. Dough with higher hydration is wetter. The best sourdoughs use wet, high-hydration doughs. These can be hard to work with, but you’ll get used to the feeling. Once you’ve cranked out a few loaves you’re happy with, you can start to look into hydration percentages. Most great sourdoughs are 70 percent hydration or more, but again, that’s something to consider more once you’ve mastered the basics.

Don’t Skip the Autolyse.

Be sure you open with an autolyse, a step far easier than it sounds. Simply combine your flour and water before any of the other ingredients, fully incorporating the flour. Let the integrated flour-and-water mass sit for up to an hour. And then mix in the other ingredients and forge ahead.

Give Dough a Long Bulk Fermentation.

After you’ve autolysed and then combined all of your ingredients, it’s time for the bulk fermentation. This gives the bread plenty of time to rise and the starter to work its magic. At room temperature, leave dough out for about four hours. Over this time, it should grow significantly, gaining about 50 percent of its size or even doubling. If it’s rising slower, give it extra time.

Proof Before Baking.

After bulk fermentation (and dough foldings, if you do them), you’ll want to proof your dough. Divide it if you’re making more than one loaf. Shape your dough into loaves, then cover them with cloth or plastic wrap. Leave them out for two to three hours. You’ll know they’re done proofing by the finger test. When you give the dough a soft poke, it should leave an indent that then, within a second or two, eagerly rises back.

Properly Prepare the Baking Surface.

You can easily avoid the nightmare of a finished loaf hopelessly stuck to a baking surface. Dust your surface with a thick coating of cornmeal and/or flour before putting on your proofed bread. There are also parchment papers you can drape over your baking surface, preventing sticking.

Cover Bread for the First Third of Baking.

We recommend baking sourdough in a Dutch oven. This lets you cover your bread for the first one-third of its baking time, allowing steam to build. This steam helps the loaf reach an ideal color and texture of crust.

Crack Open the Oven Door at the End.

For the last five to 10 minutes of baking, crack your oven door. Steam will escape, dissipating from the surface of your bread—and helping to ensure that you get the huge, crackly crust you want.