Seriously Spectacular Sourdough

Photo by victoriachan, used under Creative Commons license

Thanks to those made it out to last week’s sourdough workshop — it was a great time, with lots of learning and tasting and sharing of skills.  For the folks who weren’t able to attend but who are still sourdough-curious, Karen, our workshop facilitator, has given me permission to reprint some of her bread info here.  She also put together a really amazing zine called “Sourdough Bread is for Everyone, or Why the @#%^ didn’t my bread rise?!?!” which is an excellent primer for new bread bakers, as well as having the added bonus of coming with helpful and endearing cartoons, some of which I’ve reproduced here.  If you’re interested in snagging a copy, drop me an email and I would be happy to hook you up.  For now, click through for a thorough primer to rocking some sourdough. 

Karen started us with some basics:  definitions of bread and sourdough.  In her words, “Bread is cooked dough.  Sourdough is a pet yeast and bacteria colony that you keep alive.  Bread comes in many shapes:  leavened, unleavened, fried, baked, steamed.”

Now that you know what you’re making, the next step is to assemble your tools.  Karen strongly recommends using a kitchen scale to weigh out your flour, as the volume of flour will change but the weight is a constant.  To make sure you’re following your recipe correctly and getting the right ratios of ingredients, a scale is a big help.  Besides the scale, you’ll need some combination of the following stuff.  As you can see, most of it already exists in your kitchen, and the majority of the rest can be wrangled up with very little effort.

  • a good recipe!
  • fresh flour
  • active starter (more on this later)
  • clean, clear counter space
  • a baking stone or cast iron pan (ideally — you can scrape by w/out either of these)
  • mixing bowls
  • plastic containers for starters (nothing fancy, just reused yogurt containers or whatevs are just fine)
  • a rubber spatula
  • a spray bottle for water (you can get by without this as well, but you can grab one for cheap at a dollar store)
  • sharp knife
  • scraper (or something to scrape the dough off the counter — Karen says “large dull knife blades work well, just don’t tell your roommates….”)
  • mixing spoon (hands work just fine too, if that’s more your style
  • thermometer to stick in bread (optional)
  • an oven!

Choose Your Flour Wisely!  Once you’ve rummaged up your tools of choice, it’s time to start thinking about flour.  While you can make flour out of just about anything, to make well leavened bread, you need to pay attention to your protein content.   In Karen’s words, “Different flours have different protein profiles and the amount of specific proteins present in the flour will inform how much gluten will form in the dough.  This is why no matter how much you wish you could, you cannot make a dough made with chickpea, rice or kamut flour into a light airy loaf, they are low in protein.  Go make roti, crackers or unleavened bread out of low protein flours, but leave the heavy lifting of leavening bread for wheat, rye, spelt (with help) or special bread flour blends.”

Starting Your Starter: There are lots of different ways to get a starter going.  For beginning bakers, it might be easiest to snag a bit of a friend’s starter, but if you don’t know anyone with one to share, there are a plethora of different recipes around for starting your own.  Here’s a recipe from Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz that I’ve found to work well, but you can feel free to ask around, do some research, and figure out a way that works for you.

The Recipe!  Adapted from Emily Buehler’s Bread Science.

The Steps:

1.  Get your starter revved up!  A day or so before baking, take your starter out of the fridge and let it get to room temperature.  Build it up to the right ratio/size for the recipe by adding flour and water.

2.  Autolease, please!  Mix only the flour and water called for in the recipe.  Mix until the flour is fully hydrated, and let sit for 20-30 minutes.

3.  Mix it up.  Add your salt first, mix a bit, then add the starter (you don’t want the salt and starter in too close contact, because the salt will kill off your yeasts and bacterias).  Mix/fold/knead for about 5 minutes — concentrate on folding and mixing rather than tearing to make sure you’re building up the gluten bonds in the dough.

4.  Bulk it up!  Put your dough in a bowl and cover it loosely with a damp towel.  Let is sit in a warm place until it has about doubled (45 min-2 hours).

5.  Fold. When it has doubled, punch it down and fold it a few times.  Cover it up, let it sit again until doubled

6.  Dividing.  With a sharp knife, cut off pieces of the dough to make the appropriate number of loaves.  Put cut dough on a floured surface.

7.  Rounding.  Get your hands nice and floury and then start rolling the dough on the counter.  You are trying to stretch the top surface and create tension, but not tear it.  This is quite a short step.

8.  Let it be!  Let the dough sit on the counter for 15-20 minutes until it feels relaxed and is slightly puffed up.

9.  Shape up!  Shape and roll the loaf into the shape you want.

10.  Gettin’ ready.  Put your dough in an oiled pan.  Put a cast iron pan on a baking sheet, stick it in the oven, and pre-heat to 500°F.  Add a small pan of hot water to the oven and let it simmer.  Get your spray bottle handy.

11.  Bake!  First, you slice your dough — but only just before it goes into the oven.  Spray it all over with the spray bottle of water.  Then, gently slide dough onto the pan in the open oven.  Gently, quickly are the key words here.  Bake for 10-15 minutes, then remove steam pan, rotate dough, and keep baking for around 15 minutes more.

12.  Let it cool off.  The insides are not fully cooked when it first comes out.  If you cut it right away you’ll think that it is undercooked.

Some resources recommended by Karen:

Books:  Emily Buehler’s Bread Science and Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Bread:  New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavours

Blogs: and

Many many thanks to Karen McCallum for her pro-star level bread knowledge, willingness to share her expertise, and her most excellent zine making skills!


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