Near the beginning of coronavirus quarantine, I was invited to write a piece for Rapid Growth about baking bread while stuck at home. The essay includes my master sourdough bread recipe. It was first published on March 31, 2020.
The Coronavirus pandemic is here and suddenly we’re all spending a lot of time at home. I have a suggestion for how you should spend it: it’s time to learn to bake sourdough bread. Sourdough brings to mind bread with a tangy flavor, but I’m using the term here to mean naturally leavened bread, bread made without the addition of commercial yeast. Making bread without store-bought yeast might sound strange, but it’s how we leavened dough for most of human history. All you need to do it yourself is flour, water, and time.
I started baking sourdough bread about a year and a half ago. I had been making no-knead rustic bread with commercial yeast using thisNew York Times Cooking recipe, and I started to wonder if I could do it with natural yeast instead. Sourdough recipes can be very intimidating. They measure everything in grams instead of cups, and they use bakers’ percentages to keep track of the exact ratio of ingredients. Don’t be turned off by that; there are ways to ease into it. I’ll explain how I got into this hobby, and why it’s the perfect way to slow down and make food that’s cheap and delicious during the Coronavirus quarantine.
All you need to make sourdough bread is flour, water, and salt. That’s it, three ingredients. There are lots of kinds of flour, and bakers get really into figuring out how to get different results from various types. Bread flour is preferred, but all-purpose flour will work just fine if that’s what you have; don’t worry about going to the store for fancy flour.
Before you can bake your first loaf, you need to make your own sourdough starter, which will take at least a week (hey, you’ve got time). The starter is a culture of various types of yeast and bacteria harvested from the air in your home, the microbes on your skin, and from the flour itself. It sounds a little gross at first, but it’s actually pretty magical. Yeast is already everywhere; a sourdough starter is just a way of capturing it and putting it to work. A quick Google search will yield many online guides to making your own starter. I used this one from The Kitchn. This guide says the starter should be ready to use in five days, but mine took over a week. A lot depends on the flour you’re using (I use half all-purpose and half whole wheat) and environmental factors, especially temperature.
I won’t give a full step-by-step guide here, but the basic method for making a starter is this: First, mix flour and water together, making sure to use equal parts by weight (this is very important, and it will seem like more flour than water, because flour is less dense). Next, let this batter-like mixture sit in a warm place overnight, covered but not sealed. The following day, get rid of half the mixture (yes, you actually have to throw it away) and replace that half with fresh water and flour, again using equal parts by weight. Store it in a warm place, and keep repeating this daily ritual over and over again. Before long, you’ll start seeing bubbles. It’ll take at least five days of this; I didn’t bake a successful loaf with mine until day 12.
This is a strange process. Throwing away half of your starter everyday feels kind of wasteful, but it is important. In the early days of developing your starter, discarding half is essential for safety reasons. On a microscopic level there are millions of microbes—yeast, bacteria, and who knows what else—all vying for supremacy in this warm and wet ecosystem. Some potentially harmful bacteria can flare up before eventually losing out to the stable microbiome you want. On day three, mine smelled so much like vomit I almost gave up on it. A week later it had a wonderful soft smell, a little floral with a hint of banana. You can keep the overall amounts of flour and water quite low during this process, so you’re not wasting much. Once the starter is up and running, it can be kept in the refrigerator and fed only when it’s time to bake.
It’s a little hard to know when your starter is ready to use in baking. After each feeding it should gradually produce bubbles and expand in its container over the course of several hours to twice the volume or more. One trick is to drop a spoonful of starter in a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready to use.
Once you have a viable starter, you can bake some bread. The first recipe I had success with was this one from a blog called An Oregon Cottage. It’s a very straightforward recipe, and it uses cups instead of grams, so if you don’t have a digital kitchen scale, it’s a good place to start. My favorite sourdough blog is The Perfect Loaf. It has lots of great recipes, including guides to making and maintaining a starter, but it’s quite technical in the way it uses grams and baker’s percentages.
Baking bread in this way is a bit of a hipster obsession, just search #sourdough on Instagram. Coronavirus quarantine has only boosted the popularity of home baking. But as far as fads go, I feel good about leaning into this one. After all, making bread this way is an ancient practice. The tricky technique of harvesting invisible yeast from the air is something that transcends cultures, religions, and millennia. Think of the elements of communion in the Christian tradition. What do wine and bread have in common? That holy, invisible ingredient: yeast.
I think we all feel a little powerless right now. We’re holed up inside, trying to avoid a deadly microbe. Baking bread is a way of reminding ourselves that the world also cares for us. There are good things all around us, even if we can’t see them. Yeast survives and so will we.
My Master Recipe
Every time I make this it changes a little bit, but here’s the basic recipe I use, which I’ve adapted from several sources. This recipe makes two loaves. If you can’t bake them both at the same time, you can bake them one after another. You can also cut the recipe in half and make one loaf.
- Dutch oven. Dutch ovens are best for this, but they can be a little pricey. If you don’t have one (or two), the next best thing is a Pyrex covered roasting pan or a stock pot with a lid that can go in the oven on high heat.
- Basket for proofing. They sell specialized proofing baskets, but you can use a bowl, colander, or just any mid-sized basket along with a tea towel.
- Digital scale. In order to follow my recipe and the ones on The Perfect Loaf, you’ll need to be able to measure all ingredients by grams. If you don’t have a scale, you can find recipes that use cups.
- Mixing bowl. A nice big one will do. Avoid metal; use glass or plastic.
- Razor blade. I use one meant for a box cutter.
- Two oven mitts. Hot pads can work, but be careful!
- Plastic wrap.
- Parchment paper.
Flour, 820g – I experiment with different flours blends pretty much every time I make this, but my typical mix is mostly bread flour with a little whole wheat, typically 770g bread flour + 50g whole wheat flour. Using all-purpose flour will also work.
Water, 585g – Any water that’s good for drinking is good for making bread. I use filtered water.
Salt, 21g – Sea salt or kosher salt is best.
Sourdough Starter, 360g – Sourdough starter is a dynamic ingredient. Its properties vary depending on when it was last fed and the temperature at which it was recently stored. The idea is to add the starter to the dough mix when it has “peaked,” which means that it has reached its maximum volume of expansion after a feeding before it collapses back down.
One of the most important things to understand is that time and temperature need to be treated like ingredients.
Step 1. Feed your starter before going to bed. Calculate the feeding so that you’ll have at least 400g of starter. You’ll be using 360g, and you want some left over. Store it at room temperature. It doesn’t need to be too warm, because you’re giving it a long time to grow, but try to store it in a relatively warm place, up high is best, like on top of your refrigerator.
Step 2. The following morning you can mix your dough. Mix the flour and water together by hand in a bowl until all the water is incorporated. The water should be warm when you add it, ideally between 80 and 90 degrees. It should make a shaggy dough that will stick to your hands like crazy. Scrape it off with spatula. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for at least 30 minutes.
Step 3. Next add the salt and the sourdough starter. This stage involves the most intense hand kneading, and it’s actually pretty fun. It will take about 10 minutes of kneading to get the starter and salt fully incorporated. I like to grab the edge of the dough and fold it over the top, then turn the bowl a bit and repeat. The consistency will gradually change as you do this, it will become more elastic, uniform, and smooth. Cover with plastic wrap again and put the bowl in a warm place.
Step 4. This stage is called bulk ferment, and it takes about four to six hours, maybe more. The time depends on how vigorous your starter is and how warm you can keep the dough. If you’re having trouble finding a warm spot in your kitchen, try putting the bowl in your oven with the oven off but the light on. The light alone will warm the oven to about 80-85 degrees, which is ideal.
During bulk ferment, you need to do a type of kneading called “stretch and fold” every 30 minutes for the first 2 hours. With the bowl on the counter in front of you, grab the far side of the dough and stretch it up, then fold it over the top. Turn the bowl a quarter turn and do the same thing again, until you’ve gone all the way around and done it four times. That’s one set of stretch and folds. You need to do four sets, with 30 minutes in between each set.
Step 5. Once the dough has about doubled in size, it’s ready to be divided and shaped. You can tell the dough is ready because it will be jiggly and airy. Before you shape your loaves, you’ll need to prepare two baskets. If you have proofing baskets, use those, otherwise place a tea town in a bowl or colander and liberally flour the towel, using rice flour if you have it. Dump the dough onto a floured counter and divide it in half. Ideally you should use a bench knife for this, but if you don’t have one you’ll have to use a regular knife.
Shaping loaves is hard, and even though I’ve been at this for a while I don’t think I’m very good at it. It’s a good idea to watch videos of shaping techniques, because the movements are hard to describe with words. The basic idea is that you want to transform the loose pile of dough into a ball with a tight surface. You do this by grabbing bits of the edge and folding them inward onto each other, then flipping it over seam-side down on an unfloured part of the counter and dragging the ball toward you with a cupped hand, which tightens up the surface tension. Once you’re done shaping, place the dough balls in the floured baskets seam-side up.
Step 6. Put the baskets with dough balls into plastic bags, I use leftover plastic shopping bags, and tie them. The idea is to keep them from drying out, but they don’t need to be perfectly sealed. Place the baskets in the refrigerator overnight, this is called the retard. The dough won’t rise in the refrigerator, but it helps develop flavor.
Step 7. The following morning, it’s time to bake! First, you need to preheat the oven with your Dutch ovens (or other vessels) already inside. Put them on a high rack and preheat the oven to 450 for at least 30 minutes, you want to make sure the Dutch ovens get very hot. Next, take the dough out of the refrigerator and flip it out of its basket onto a sheet of parchment paper. Trim the paper if it’s too big. Carefully use a razor blade to make a quick slash across the top of the dough, about a half inch deep. Using two oven mitts, take the Dutch ovens out of the oven, open them, and carefully place the dough inside. The parchment paper makes this easier, and it’s fine to bake it with the paper underneath the entire time. Cover the Dutch ovens and place them back in the oven for 30 minutes. It’s very important to leave them covered during this period because the dough is releasing steam that gives the bread that wonderful crispy and chewy crust.
Step 8. Once they’ve baked for 30 minutes covered, take the lids off of the Dutch ovens and bake for 15 minutes more uncovered. Make sure they’re nice a deep brown before taking them out, don’t undercook them.
Step 9. The theme of this recipe is patience, and it doesn’t stop here. Let the bread cool on a wire rack for two hours before slicing. If you cut it too soon it will be gummy. During this time, I suggest that you smell the bread, take pictures of it, and listen to the tiny cracking sounds the crust makes while it cools.