Part 1: Feeding starter
Note: I always keep two jars – a small jar with my starter (hereafter called starter jar) and a larger jar with starter “discard” that I keep in my fridge (hereafter called the discard jar). Both should have a lid that allows the yeast to breathe (so screw on mason jar tops wouldn’t be good). I really like Weck jars for this:
I take the orange rim and the little snaps off and just put the top on the jar.
Note: Repeat this every 12 hours or so (but also watch your starter. It might need to be fed sooner or later).
Take all of the starter and using a spatula, transfer it to the discard jar. Then put the empty starter jar on a scale (that measures in grams) and tare it. Once it is at 0g, transfer 4g of the starter you just put in the discard jar back into the starter jar. Tare to 0g and add in 40g of filtered water and using your spatula, mix well. Then tare to 0g again and add in 40g of flour. Mix well and vigorously – you want to mix this vigorously to allow air to your yeast. Mark with a rubber band around the jar or a sticker where the flour mixture is on the jar. You do this so you can track when your starter has doubled or tripled (that’s how you’ll know when your starter is ready for its next feeding OR to be used to make bread). Cover with the top and place somewhere that is ideally around 70 degrees (make sure it’s not too hot or too cold – both are bad. Too hot and the starter might get smelly or eat up the yeast too fast, too cold and it’ll be sluggish and fall asleep and be super slow to expand).
Note: You can experiment here on what the ideal ratio of flour mixture you like for your starter. After much trial and error, I’ve settled on 25% organic rye (which is super nutritious for the yeast) and 75% organic bread flour. Too much rye and the yeast eats it up way too quickly and you’ll end up having to feed it every 3-4 hours! The bread flour also adds a nice lightness to the starter that helps it float (therefore adding more gas/open crumb (aka the holes in the bread) to your final loaf). Too much rye starter and you might get a rather dry and dense loaf.
Am I doing this right? Signs to look for that your starter is healthy and eating: You should start to see a mix of small and large bubbles along the side of the jar. You should see it expand – ideally tripling in size. When it is at its “peak”, you should see a ton of bubbles, it should be at least double or triple in size, and there should be a “dome” at the top of the starter (when you take the top off and take a look).
How do I know if my starter is ready to use to make dough? To test when the starter is ready to be used in bread dough (this is important): When it looks like the starter has doubled and has reached its peak, take a tiny bit of the starter (like the size of half a pea) and drop it gently in a glass of filtered water. If your starter sinks to the bottom either you’re not yet at the peak and need to wait a bit more OR you’re too late (to tell the difference, if you put your spatula in the dough and gently peal back the layers and the dough is sticky and strong, then you can give it a bit more time. If you do that and the starter has become more watery, then you waited too long. In this case, feed again and try to find the peak again in 12 hours to make dough.).
If your starter floats, then yay! You caught it at the right time and you can make dough!
Part 2: Making dough
(Suggested times are just to give you an idea on time-frame. Adjust as needed).
Test starter and if it floats, proceed. If it doesn’t and needs more time, then keep an eye on it and try again. If it looks like it’s too late, then try again in the evening.
Step 1: Take 50g of starter and put it in a large bowl. Tare to 0. Add 400g of filtered water. Stir well with a spatula. Tare to 0. Add in 500g of flour. Mix well. For a delicious country sourdough loaf, I recommend 30% whole grain and 70% bread flour. See note.
Note on Flour: I would recommend starting off with a higher percentage of organic bread flour to start. You want a high protein, high gluten flour to begin with as it is easier to manage and will hold its strength. For a good beginner-friendly mix, I recommend 30% whole grain flour (I really like hard white wheat, which isn’t a sifted wheat but a whole grain) 70% bread flour. Then do this mix a few times before slowly increasing the percentage of whole grain flour. Note that heritage/ancient grains like Kamut, Einkorn, and spelt are very hard to work with as they have very little gluten, so try these only if you start with a small percentage mixed in with a strong bread flour (20% is a good start).
Note on Water: If it looks like your flour/water mix is super dry, slowly add in a little more water. Do this in very small increments as sometimes it takes time for the flour to absorb the water. Note that whole grain flour is much more “thirsty” than sifted wheat or bread flour, so the more whole grain you have, the more water you might need. Always add water in slowly. You can’t really add in more flour as that’ll throw off the mix, so you want to be careful not to end up with a soupy mix. Higher hydration dough is VERY difficult to work with, so as a beginner, start with dough on the drier side.
Step 2: Cover with a damp towel and let sit for about an hour or more (I’m not militant about this. I just set it aside and then go do some other stuff and come back whenever I’m ready. This can go anywhere from 1-2 hours). This is called the autolyse step. It gives the flour mix time to absorb the water and activates enzymes that the development of gluten. This reduces the need to knead the bread, which can affect the flavor and texture of the bread in a negative way. Also, less work for you!
Step 3: Uncover the dough. In a small bowl, weigh out 9g of sea salt. Sprinkle this over the dough, pour a tiny bit of water over the salt to help it absorb into the dough, and using a pinching and turning motion with your hands (try to mimic a dough mixer), incorporate the salt into the dough. I do this for about 1 minute or so. If your dough is pretty dry, this is a good time to slowly add in more water (be super careful with adding water in slowly. Sometimes flour takes a bit of time to absorb so give it time to adjust). Let this sit for 30 min or so.
Step 4: Stretch and folds/Bulk fermentation
This is where we start to really develop the gluten with a series of stretch and folds (google for a video on how to do this if my description doesn’t make sense).
To stretch and fold: Wet your hands. Using your dominant hand, slide your hand under the dough and grab it and lift it up as high as you can bring it before it tears and then fold it over itself. Turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat again. Turn the bowl and repeat. I would do this about 8 or so times. Then cover with the damp towel and let it rest.
Repeat this anywhere between 30-45 min. I usually do about 3 sets of these. As you do these, you’ll see the dough changing from a wet sticky mess to becoming stronger.
Bulk fermentation depends on the flour mix you have. It should go anywhere from 5-12 hours, depending on your flour mix (more whole grains and your dough will ferment faster), the ambient temperature in your house, and the temperature of the water you used (warmer temp or water, the faster the fermentation).
How do I know when bulk fermentation is done? This comes with practice, but generally you should see your dough double in size and fill out the bowl. It should have a slight dome to it and bubbles on top of the dome. When you gently shake the bowl, it should jiggle – like it is alive and full of bubbles. You don’t want to wait too long and have it collapse – that means you overproofed it.
If you used a 30% whole grain/70% bread flour mix, this should take around 6-7 hours.
Step 5: Pre-shape
Pre-shape: On a floured surface, gentle dump out your dough. Then put your hands under the side of the dough facing you and gently lift it and stretch it toward you just a bit, then fold it up away from you and on top of the dough (sort of like the bottom of an envelope). Then repeat this with the left side – grab it and stretch to the left and then bring back to the center (sort of like you’re folding a package). Then repeat on the right side. Then do the same with the top – fold it down like you’re closing the package or envelope. Let this rest for about 15 minutes.
Step 6: Shape and proof
Prepare either a round banneton covered with a linen cover or a thin towel. Sprinkle some brown rice flour on the linen cover or towel. If you don’t have a banneton, a small mixing bowl with a towel will work too. Choose a thin towel (ideally a thin linen one would be best).
Flip the pre-shaped dough so that the seams are on the counter. Then using your hands, gently turn the dough and create tension to create a round shape. This is pretty much impossible to explain without pictures, so it’s best to watch some videos on this. You want enough tension so that your shape holds during the long proofing session and during the bake. Ideally you should see the skin of the ball look taut and maybe even some bubbles to form on the top or side of the ball. Gently put this ball (seam side up) into the banneton or the mixing bowl. If your dough ball looks a bit loose, you can tight it up at this point by sort of stitching it together like you’re lacing up a pair of shoes. Cover with a plastic bag (make sure there is some air in there so that the top of the dough doesn’t touch the plastic) and loosely knot.
Put in fridge (find the coldest part – ideally not where the light is and not where the warm air flows in when you open the fridge). Keep in here for a minimum of 12 hours and up to 48 hours. The longer you leave it, the more sour it will become (and the more digestible!). When it reaches over 24 hours, sometimes you might get a flat loaf (because more of the gluten has been broken down, so there isn’t as much structure to let it rise) but it will still taste delicious (and be easier to digest).
Sometime in the morning the next day
Step 7: Bake
Put a large Dutch oven inside the oven and preheat oven to 500 degrees. Make sure rack is in the middle of the oven. Keep lid on the Dutch oven.
After one hour of preheating (yes, one hour! We need it HOT!): Take a piece of parchment paper and put it on top of your dough and gently flip so that the dough is on the parchment paper. Then sprinkle some brown rice flour on the top of the dough and gently pat down. Then using a bread lame or if you don’t have one, a very sharp knife will do, gently “score” the bread by cutting it about ½ inch thick. I usually do this down the middle or slightly to the right. It doesn’t really matter. Before I bought a bread lame, I also did this with kitchen scissors – snip gently down to form a long line down the dough.
Try to do this quickly. Once the bread is scored, you have to get it in the Dutch oven to prevent it from collapsing. Using gloves, open the lid of the Dutch oven and gently lower the dough (using the parchment paper to help you) into the pot. Then cover. Set timer and leave in there with lid on for 25 min.
Note: Cooking with a Dutch oven with the lid on allows steam to help the crust develop. Without this, you will have a sad loaf (overcooked crust and undercooked dough). In professional bakeries, the have ovens that steam them from the inside.
After 25 minutes, take off the lid and put the lid under the pot (if there is room). This will help absorb some of the heat to help the bottom of the loaves from overbaking (a common problem with home ovens). This is my favorite (and also most stressful) part! If all went well with your dough process, you should have a loaf with a nice rise. Again, if you over-fermented it, it might be flat. But don’t worry, it’ll still be delicious!
Let it bake for about 20 minutes or so until the crust is nice and brown. This will really depend on your dough and your oven so go by feel. I like mine to be a dark brown color.
The hardest part: Wait at least an hour to let the dough cool before cutting into it. I KNOW – this is hard. But cutting it too soon will make the inside gummy.