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Making Your First Sourdough Loaf, Part Two

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In the second of our two-part series, Love Wholesome’s resident recipe tester Jo-ann Huang tells you how to turn a yeast starter into a delicious loaf of sourdough.

In our last post, we established beyond a reasonable doubt that sourdough is the king of bread. Wild yeast; a complex, tangy taste; a golden-to-dark-brown crust – what more could you want?

Well, for starters, maybe a cheaper option than buying sourdough at an artisanal bakery. So here we are, a handy how-to guide to baking your own sourdough. We’ve already covered making a yeast starter, which is the most complicated and time-consuming part of the process. Next up: baking.

How to bake sourdough bread

First, use all measurements exactly as given (you have been warned!). I highly recommend a good quality bread flour, too, because it gives a richer taste and softer crumb. I like Bob’s Red Mill, which you can get from good baking supply shops.

Bread dough made with wild yeast takes a lot longer to rise, so you’ll need at least eight hours to prepare it before baking.

Wild yeast’s “oven spring” (a baking term for the bread’s rise in the oven) is also more difficult to control than when using commercial instant yeast, so don’t be disheartened if your first attempt doesn’t turn out as pretty as the loaves in the artisan bakery.

To make one loaf of bread, you will need:

  • 400g of strong bread flour
  • 160g of sourdough starter
  • 5g of table salt
  • 230ml of water
  • A large mixing bowl
  • A proofing basket (“proofing basket” is a fancy term for a bowl large enough to hold the dough as it rises)
  • A spatula
  • A clean work surface
  • Clean tea towels
  • A spray bottle filled with water

1. Combine the flour and salt in the bowl. Add water and sourdough starter to the mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon until it comes together into a shaggy mess.

2. Turn the dough out onto a clean, slightly wet surface and knead it until smooth and elastic. A good dough has a windowpane effect – if you stretch the dough until it is thin and hold it up, it should let some light pass through.

3. If the dough is still sticky, continue kneading. Do not add more flour. Wet your hands slightly before kneading to contain stickiness.

4. Return the dough to mixing bowl, cover with a damp tea towel and let the dough rise for four hours at room temperature.

5. After four hours, turn the dough on a clean work surface and knock it back by slapping it on the work surface a few times, to remove air from the dough. Shape the dough into a ball. Line the proofing basket with a tea towel, dusted with flour. Lay the dough with the bottom facing up into the proofing basket.

6. Cover the basket with a damp tea towel and let it rise for another four hours, or leave overnight in the fridge to bake the next morning. A cooler environment may require a longer rising time – some recipes recommend 8 to 10 hours.

7. Preheat the oven to 230 degrees Celsius. Flip the dough on the baking tray. Dust with flour and score with a sharp knife or razor blade. The scoring will help control the rise of the bread and make sure the steam produced in the dough doesn’t crack the dough open at the sides.

8. Before you put the dough in the oven, spray the surface of the bread with water. Put the dough in the oven, spray with water and close the oven door quickly. The steam produced will make the crust thick and chewy.

9. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until brown and fragrant. Cool for 30 minutes on a wire rack before slicing it open to admire your hard work. You know it is done when the bread sounds hollow when you tap it.

So there you have it – your first sourdough loaf. But wait, there’s more!

A few more things…

After a few attempts at doing this, I’ve learned a couple of things that might be helpful to first-timers.

  • Some YouTube bakers place their dough in a Dutch oven, which traps the steam in, in order to produce a thick, chewy crust. This is recommended if you have a large oven. My oven is small and it traps steam and heat efficiently so there isn’t a need for the Dutch oven.
  • Some bakers also recommend placing a tray of boiling water in the oven to produce more steam. This is also not necessary – spraying the dough and the insides of the oven with water is sufficient.
  • Use only white bread flour in this recipe. Rye and whole wheat flours tend to produce a very dense loaf. White bread flour has more gluten so it rises and retains its shape a lot better. The flour also makes for a much softer loaf.
  • Use a standard oven. I tried using my mum’s fan-forced glass oven and it resulted in uneven baking. The bottom of the loaf was still moist and it didn’t achieve a hard crust. There were also huge cracks in my bread as it rose too unevenly. So I bought a small convection oven just for baking. It traps and distributes the heat a lot better than a fan-forced glass oven.
  • It is worthwhile to read up on the science of sourdough. There is a reason why your sourdough starter smells and acts the way it does, and much research has been done on the strains of yeast involved in the fermentation process.
  • The discarded sourdough starter can be used to bake other types of pastries, such as pizzas, buns and pita bread. Don’t waste it!
  • If you are obsessed with perfecting your sourdough making skills, continue to practise and experiment with different portions of flour, or with different recipes, until you find the right mix that works for you. There are also many sourdough baking classes if you would like to learn from the experts.
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