Sourdough baking is exciting for me every time I make a loaf of bread. In fact, it has become an obsession of mine, but along the way, I have had questions and challenges.
Most recently was a disastrous attempt at Breadmaker Sourdough, as you can see. (BTW I am trying this one again this weekend using some new things I have learned). Ugly as it was, it was still delicious and that is why I always like sourdough bread. It is just good and simple, wholesome food, even if it has a hole in the middle.
Over time I have had questions, sought answers and found some tips. It seems like a good time to share what I have learned—sometimes on my own and often from the experiences of others.
Here is the list, you can read them all or just click on the one you are looking for and it will jump to that part of this post:
- Hydration Levels in Sourdough Baking. What are they? How do they make a difference?
- Sourness in Your Bread. I like mine tangy, but did you know there are ways to control the taste?
- Throwing Out Old Starter. Why anyone would do this, I don’t understand, so here are ways to use it.
- Dormant Sourdough Starter. It happens to many of us, but here’s to wake it up and make it active again.
- Using a Levain vs. Starter. More starter = a levain.
- Increasing Starter Volume. Making four loaves, just quadruple the ingredients as you activate the starter.
- What Flour is Best for Sourdough? Each kind of flour makes for a different crumb, rise, and taste.
Bonus Tip: How to Get Crusty Loaves. If you want a softer or harder crust, there are a couple of ways to get there.
Today I was making another loaf of Malted Rootbeer Sourdough Bread from memory. It was then I realized once again that bread making is not a science but an art. I can tell this loaf is more hydrated than I can handle; it is a sticky mess that I am hoping will work out.
The malted rootbeer recipe calls for 85% hydration and since it is loaded with whole-grain I am counting on those grains absorbing more of the moisture.*
Nothing affects the texture and look of your bread more than hydration. Because the crumb is naturally tighter in sourdough bread, to get an airier texture you will have to have a wetter dough than with yeasted bread you may make at home.
Hydration is calculated as a percentage of the weight of the flour. For two loave of white sourdough, for example, you might use 4 cups (508g) of bread flour, for 75% hydration you would add 1½ cups (380g) water.
“In general, sourdough bread tends to have hydration levels from 65% to 100% depending on the type of flour used. The higher the hydration level, the more open the crumb texture, and the thinner and crisper the crust.”—TrueSourdough.com
I usually make mine between 65–75% hydration, but Abigail’s Oven maintains 79% hydration. That is quite wet for first-time bakers to handle. Some like this level because of the huge bubbles a wet dough yields. So, if you are after that traditional San Francisco Sourdough look, you will have to learn to work between 80–85 percent hydration.
The folks at TrueSourdough.com made up this helpful chart that helps you know what to expect as you increase hydration:
Breads at this
|50% – 60%
Easy to handle
|Tight Crumb, firmer texture, rises tall
|60% – 70%
Standard dough texture
|70% or more
Loose, slack & sticky,
Harder to handle/shape
Very open crumb,
thin crust, flatter loaf
Whole grain sourdough,
I am not one to take to mild sourdough, I want a long-ferment that really breaks down gluten and increases the tanginess in the flavor. The tangy flavor comes from the bacterial interactions with water and flour in the starter. This interaction produces lactic and acetic acid (vinegar) which gives sourdough its distinctive flavor.
The folks at Cultures for Health explain that if you want to make your loaf taste more sour for a tangier finished product:
Adjust the Starter
• “Maintain your starter at a lower hydration level. This means using a higher ratio of flour to water. Acetic acid is produced more abundantly in a drier environment like this while lactic acid-producing organisms seem to thrive in a wet environment.
• “Use whole-grain flours, which the acid-producing bacteria love.
• “Keep the hooch, or brown liquid layer that forms on a hungry sourdough starter instead of pouring it off. Retaining hooch can add acidity to sourdough and help it develop tang.”
Adjust the Bread Dough With a Longer, Slower Rise
• “Find a cooler spot for rising the dough. (Remember, warmer temperatures speed up fermentation and cooler temperatures slow down fermentation.)
• “Punch down (degassing) the dough at least once, if not twice, before the final shaping of the loaf.
• “Perform the final rise for at least four hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for about 30-60 minutes before baking. Although many experts recommend that the last rise be a quick one done in a warmer environment, you will have better ‘oven-spring’ by putting a cooler loaf into a hot oven.”
“For stronger sour flavor, try keeping the dough in the fridge longer before baking,” suggests PJ Hamel at King Arthur Flour. Maybe even “for several days, or …a week. At some point you’ll come to a point of diminishing returns—the yeast will start to die, and your bread won’t rise well—but it’s worth experimenting with chilling duration to find your own personal ‘
sweet sour spot.'”
If you want a milder tasting loaf you might try these steps:
- Feed your starter every four hours, up to three times or four before using it. This should minimize the acetic acid, which gives sourdough most of its tanginess.
- Use more starter in the dough than the recipe calls for. This will help the loaf rise more quickly which helps to tame the sourness by lowering the production of acetic acid.
- Use cooler temperatures during the ferment which may also decrease the acidity.
The folks at Cultures for Health say you can also add baking soda. “Baking soda is an alkaline substance. Adding it to sourdough neutralizes some of the acidity and gives the dough a little extra leavening boost.”
Many recipes call for discarding half of your start before activating it. You can follow this advice, but why? I have never needed to throw anything out and I find ways to use it, including just putting more of it into a loaf I am making.
You can use it for pancakes, waffles, pizza crust, cornbread, biscuits, baguettes, and nearly any other thing you might be baking that day. On our site, we have recipes every Saturday that can use up extra if you have it.
Besides this list, there are all your own favorite recipes you might try adding it to. PJ Hamel offers this easy formula to use when adding sourdough stater your favorite recipes:
“Here’s the rule of thumb: sourdough starter is equal parts (by weight) flour and liquid. Say you want to use 1 cup (8 ounces) sourdough starter in your favorite sandwich bread recipe. If your recipe calls for 3 cups flour (approx. 12 ounces) and 1 cup water (8 ounces), reduce the flour in the recipe to 2 cups (8 ounces), and the water to 1/2 cup (4 ounces).
“This works pretty seamlessly for any recipe including both flour, and water or milk. Don’t substitute sourdough starter for eggs or oil or butter or honey or other liquids; it will change your recipe’s character.”
Many new bakers forget to feed their starter, but sourdough starter is pretty hardy and difficult to kill. However, if it sits too long in your fridge, or even on the counter a dark liquid will develop over the top layer. This is known as hooch and looks pretty rotten.
Hooch can be stirred back into the start and then reactivated with flour and water. This will give the start a sharper tang, but if you want it to be milder, just pour the hooch off and then add the flour and water.
If your starter is dormant, just feed the way you usually would and if it is not very lively, feed it again every 4 hours until it is bubbly and happy.
PJ Hamel warns that occasionally, “starter will attract some ‘bad’ bacteria. It may acquire an unpleasant odor (not its usual sharp acidity, but something ‘off’), and may have a pinkish liquid on top. If this happens, discard your starter and begin over.” I keep both dehydrated and frozen starts on hand for just such an emergency.
Levain is a French term for a sourdough starter that will be completely used in making bread. For example, in the Pain au Levain recipe from a few weeks ago, it called for a 50% hydrated levain made by mixing 1 ¼ cups (150g) flour with ⅓ cup (75g) purified water and just a bit (⅛ cup [30g]) of active sourdough starter. This was left to ferment for 12 hours and the entire thing became the base of the bread recipe.
Along the US West Coast, the word “levain” is the part of the starter that is added to the dough. When it is used as a leavening agent made from a mother culture, it is used to boost the activity of the starter by feeding it a larger quantity of flour and water.
Levains usually have a larger volume than the usual sized start called for in sourdough bread recipes. This allows the baker to push the bread’s rise giving it a more mild flavor, but with many of the benefits sourdough offers.
The starter should be activated four hours before needed. (If it has been dormant in the fridge, plan on six or more hours before using it.) If you are not after a long ferment, then you can simply feed it with double the amounts of flour and water for two loaves.
For example, if you normally feed the start with ½ cup of water and ½ cup flour, just double the amounts for two loaves. And if you are baking more than two loaves, simply feed it more. However, it may take longer for the original start to “inoculate” the larger volume since the original start has more flour and water to digest before it becomes active. With a little extra time, it should become bubbly and double in volume. This is when it’s ready to use.
Most traditional baguettes and sourdough breads are baked with steam to make them crusty. But anytime you add to or enrich dough, the final products will be softer. For example, my Malted Rootbeer Sourdough Bread is always softer than other sourdoughs I make. Doughs that are enriched with milk, butter, oil, or sugar will make the outside of the loaf or roll softer.
- Use a preheated oven that is between 450–500°F (230–260°C). Low heat does not set the bread structure and it is is not hot enough, the trapped gasses in the loaf will not expand well. However, leaving a loaf in a very hot oven may burn the crust, so make it hot for the first half of the bake and lower it to 400°F (205°C) for the half. You may also find a crisper crust if you let it cool down inside the oven.
- After heat, using steam is the most crucial step in getting a crusty loaf of sourdough.
Phillips explains, “applying steam to the dough during baking keeps the outer dough layer flexible and moist. This helps achieve the greatest amount of oven spring and loaf volume. Once the outside layer of the dough sets, gases in the loaf can no longer expand to increase the loaf size. Steaming the dough as it bakes also gelatinizes the starch on the outside layer… after the steam is removed, the gelatinized layer dries out forming a thick crunchy crust.”
Because cast iron gets hotter, I pre-heat cast-iron frying pan in the oven adding 1½ cups of boiling water just as I am loading the bread to bake. But I have also used a baking sheet filled with boiling water.
A baking stone that has been preheated to your full oven temperature makes a great crust. Phillips recommends using, a flat baking stone that replicates “the floor of a professional oven, where loaves are set directly on the floor of the oven to promote a crisp and brown crust… [but] it must get really hot… I prefer to preheat [it in] my oven for an hour!”
Personally, I bake using stoneware bowls most often, but find a similar results with a covered cast-iron Dutch oven.
- Using a cast-iron Dutch oven with a lid works magic too. Each loaf of bread baked at Abigail’s Oven is baked 20 minutes in a covered cast-iron Dutch oven. At home, I use a covered Dutch-oven during the first hot-half of the bake, then remove the cover for the last half of baking. Following the bake, I remove the bread from the dutch oven and allow to cool on the wire rack in my oven with the door slightly ajar.
- Using high gluten flour such as strong flour (Britain) or bread flour (USA) makes for a chewier loaf of bread. This also promotes crispy, thin crust. You will not get this will all-purpose flour (see flour above), it always yields a thicker crust.
- Increase hydration (see hydration above) because when more liquid used, there will be a better absorption rate which yields a crispier, thin crust.
- Salt is a must-have for a crispy crust. Salt retards yeast activity, leaving the starches available to caramelize, forming a browner crust. However, don’t add salt until after the autolyse and never combine it with the starter.
- When kneading, shaping or tensioning bread, add as little flour as possible. A heavy top cover of flour may also interfere with crust formation.
- Scoring (slashing) helps make oven-spring better. It crisps the loaf by directing steam and prevents cracking or bulging. To score, cut the bread with razor-sharp knife or lame just prior to baking.
- Before baking enriched bread or rolls, brush the tops with an egg wash to get better browning and a great finished look.
Sourdough baking, like most baking, is as much art as science; don’t be afraid to color outside the lines! I have had some disasters and some pretty great outcomes. Tell us about yours in the comment section below…
*By the way, that 85% hydration for the Malted Rootbeer Sourdough Bread worked out just fine—the whole grains eventually absorbed much of the moisture, so that by the time I was ready to shape and tension the bread, it was easy to handle.
Darryl Alder, blogs for Abigail’s Oven, The Voice of Scouting, The Boy Scout, EternalCore.org and SearchIsaiah.org. His hobbies include gardening vegetables, annuals, and perennials; and baking artisan sourdough bread. You can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.