It took me a year before I finally started making sourdough bread, and I am still on the path to making it better.
There are too many online tutorials so that I spent days on the internet before I began to make my own starter, and creating a sourdough starter is only the beginning.
This is not another tutorial on making sourdough bread. I am not even nearly there yet to begin giving instructions. But I will tell you what I did wrong so you can avoid the same frustrations I had.
Mistake # 1: I killed my sourdough starter, twice, because I was too impatient.
The purpose of the starter is to produce a natural, vigorous leaven that will make your bread rise, and to develop the flavor in the bread. You should be patient and make sure it is active enough before using it. There are many instructional videos online on how to make a sourdough starter and this recipe is what I followed, it seemed straightforward enough.
My first starter died because I gave up on it on week 2. I fed it once a day, but some say you should feed it twice a day. I learned later that even when it is not actively bubbling up and down (like my starter), it does not mean it is dead. The key is to be consistent with the feedings.
RIP Mace Windough
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I was more consistent with my second starter. It made me so happy every time it doubled or tripled in size! But I was not ready to make bread, so I put it in the fridge as the instructions said, and just fed it once a week. And then I forgot about it. (So much for happiness.) The starter is a living organism, so without any feeding, it will die. (RIP Count Doughku, my second starter.)
At this point I had given up and thought I just had to be content with commercial yeast. Then came this blessing, a one-year-old mature starter from a friend! (New-found friend Tasha Ringor! Thank you!) I waited two weeks, consistently feeding it until I was ready to make bread.
And on to my next mistake!
Mistake # 2: My dough was too slack and wet because I did not follow the recipe.
I used this recipe by Chef Billy Parisi because it looked the easiest. By the first fold, I knew something was wrong because the dough was too slack. He said to adjust the water if I am using bread flour, so I did. Perhaps the bread flour was not strong enough to handle the extra amount of water. So, on my second try, I just used all-purpose flour as in his recipe and followed his instructions to the letter.
I didn’t want to throw away the slack dough, so I cheated—I threw it in the stand mixer and kneaded it until it formed enough gluten structure to hold its shape. Sometimes you just must wing it.
It looked nice enough if you didn’t know I cheated.
Mistake # 3 I burned the bottom of the bread because the Dutch oven was too hot.
I thought my first sourdough bread would be a success until it started to smell like it was burning. I took it out of the oven, and it looked good, but when I turned it over to “knock” on it (it should sound hollow), the bottom was black. Surely this is not what they meant with “more color, better flavor.”
On my second try, I lined the Dutch oven with another baking sheet that redistributed some of the bottom heat. I put semolina flour on the bottom of the Dutch oven before dropping the bread on top of parchment paper. The trifecta to avoid a burnt bottom: baking sheet, extra flour (either corn flour, semolina flour, or even rice grains) and line with parchment paper.
Mistake # 4: Not doing bulk fermentation long enough to develop that open crumb.
Bulk fermentation is the most important step of yeast bread making. It is a step when the dough is fermenting in a large, single mass. This is what creates that “open crumb” or those holes in the middle. I prefer a tighter crumb though, so it can hold the butter and it doesn’t go through the holes.
For my first dough, I just did the bulk ferment for 4 hours. By this time, I was already on my 8th hour (including all the steps BEFORE bulk ferment), and I was so ready to bake that bread! As a result, it didn’t develop an open crumb. Again, patience makes a difference with this bread. It is meant to be eaten the next day.
For my third bake, instead of counting the hours, I watched the bread every hour. Sometimes you just have to use your baker’s instinct to see if it’s risen and fermented enough. I looked for a bubbly and jiggly texture, with a tacky but not sticky dough. With practice, you will see what I mean.
Mistake # 5: My sourdough starter had too much acid
By my second bake, I did everything to the letter, but the finished product still has not risen enough. I did more research and found one that said I should feed my starter with a 1:5:5 ratio to lessen the acidity. Acidity can prevent a strong gluten formation. (At this point, I almost wanted to give up and just throw it in the stand mixer again.) On my third bake, I fed the starter with 1:2:2 ratio.
Mistake # 6: The recipe I followed said I could use all-purpose flour. I learned that the quality of the flour makes a huge difference.
I have a collection of different types of flour in my pantry —rice flour, semolina flour, ‘00’ flour, cake flour, unbleached flour, self-rising flour, whole wheat flour, you name it. And of all the times I could be the least creative in my choice of flour, I chose my first SD bake. I attempted sourdough bread with a generic, bleached all-purpose flour that I bought repacked in a baking supply store, and it did not give me the results I wanted. So, I researched about what flour to use and read that Montana Spring is the best unbleached flour you can source locally. Even my starter loved it and tripled in size on the second feeding. (Love local!)
Finally, I think I nailed it on my third try! I was aiming for that much coveted “ear”. That means the dough had good oven spring, a result of combining all the things I learned. At the end of the day, this is your bread and no one’s going to judge you for it. So, keep trying.
Will I make it again? Absolutely. Like Chef Billy said on the video, it’s less than 15 minutes of actual work, and 24 hours of resting time. I think that’s what some would call working smart.
PS – I don’t have a name for my adopted starter yet. Mace Windough and Count Doughku. See what I did there? Any ideas?
- 75 grams active sourdough starter
- 350 grams bread flour
- 50 grams whole wheat flour
- 280 ml warm water
- 14 grams salt
- Feed your starter and place in a warm place for 4 hours or until it has at least doubled.
- Begin the autolyse process by mixing flour and filtered water. Cover with a damp towel and rest for 30 minutes.
- Add your starter to the dough and mix in. Cover with a damp towel and rest for 30 minutes.
- Add the salt to the dough, wet your hands with bottled water, and mix it in until combined. Cover with a damp towel rest for60 minutes.
- Perform a series of folds to the dough to strengthen the gluten in the dough so that it will eventually hold shape. Cover with a damp towel rest for 60 minutes. Repeat this process 3 more times.
- After the last fold, cover and rest for 30 more minutes before pre-shaping.
- Remove the dough and place it on your countertop. Shape into a boule. (Watch online tutorials for this and practice.)
- Transfer the dough seam side up into a lightly floured banneton (or bowl if you don’t have one)
- Cover in plastic, a towel, or in a large plastic zip bag and refrigerate for 12-16 hours or up to 24 hours.
- The next morning, preheat your Dutch oven in the oven at 250°C for 30 minutes.
- Sprinkle semolina flour into the bottom of the Dutch oven.
- Remove the dough from the banneton, place it on top of a parchment paper.