Sourdough Tips and Resources
There’s been a lot written about sourdough baking that makes it sound difficult.  Precise ratios of flour to water, careful “feeding” schedules, dire warnings about what will happen if you mess up. This doc is not that.

  • If this sounds brain-dead simple, that's because it is. People who didn't believe the Earth was round did this for millennia.
  • — S. John Ross

I’ve been baking bread once a week for several years now, mostly for other people, just because it’s an enjoyable thing to do.  The secret I’ve learned over the years is that bread, especially sourdough, requires a lot less attention and work than you would think from looking at the average recipe.  It takes time, but you can spread that time out to fit your own schedule.  Ratios matter, but with practice you can dial them in by feel rather than by careful measuring.  You have to keep your starter alive, but every time you bake it gets fed, so just… bake.

What is “starter”?  (Skip this if you already have one.)

The “starter” is the culture of naturally-occurring yeast and bacteria that makes your bread rise. When bread rises, it’s because of millions of microorganisms pre-digesting the bread dough and producing carbon dioxide; the “starter” is a batch of those microorganisms that you preserve  and cultivate continuously so that you can “start” the dough with it when you bake.  It works like baking yeast, but slower and more deliciously.

Techniques vary on this, but my starter lives on equal parts of flour and water, and I keep roughly a cup of it in a little glass bowl with a cover.  Whenever I use it in a recipe the bowl always goes back into the fridge with the same amount it started with, so however much flour and water I “fed” it with is the amount that will go into the recipe (there’s no “discard” if you’re always baking).  It’s easy to adapt any recipe that calls for yeast into a sourdough recipe: I take some quantity of flour and water out of the recipe and replace it with starter, leave out the instant yeast completely, and allow extra time for rising.

If you have a friend with a starter, get a little bit (like a spoonful) from them, mix it with a cup each of flour and water, and you should have your own thriving colony in about a day.  If you want to grow your own from scratch, you can do it from what’s in the air; it’ll take longer, but it’s very satisfying!  Just mix the flour and water and leave it out at room temperature, and every day mix in more flour and water and throw away half (or make pancakes out of it) so you keep a constant amount of goop but it’s constantly being replenished with fresh flour.  Once it starts bubbling and frothing (maybe about a week), you know it’s alive!  It takes a while for the process of natural selection to produce a blend of microorganisms that are ideally suited to the task of digesting wheat flour at room temperature, but once established they’re very hardy.

If you’re not actively baking with it every day, you want to keep your starter in the fridge to slow its metabolism down; it’ll last at least a few weeks without food as long as it’s cold, and come right back to life once it warms up.

How do you turn that into bread?

The bread delivery script that I run each week goes something like this.  Note that it takes a full 24 hours from start to finish, but there’s less than an hour of actual labor involved, most of which you can do while watching TV.

  • Morning before delivery (~5 minutes)
  • Take starter out of fridge, dump it into a large mixing bowl.  
  • Add 2 cups each of white bread flour and water.
  • Whisk together.  Put a lid on the bowl.  Leave on the counter.
  • Evening before delivery (~one episode of Seinfeld)
  • Refill the starter jar and return to fridge.
  • Add 1 cup of white bread flour, a dash each of of salt and olive oil, and a small handful each of sugar and chia seeds.  Mix.
  • Slowly add ~2 cups of whole wheat bread flour (mixing, then kneading when it’s too thick to mix).  Stop adding flour once the dough is no longer sticky.
  • (Time permitting) Let proof a bit, then knead some more, repeat.
  • Last thing before bed (~10 minutes)
  • Dust the proofing basket (brotform) with cornmeal or rice flour.
  • Massage the dough into a nice smooth ball and plop it into the brotform. 
  • Put it under glass to keep it from drying out, leave it in the fridge.
  • Morning of delivery (~3 minutes of work at 20 minute intervals)
  • Dump dough from brotform onto the pan.  Score with blade.  Cover.
  • Bake 20 minutes (covered).
  • Remove cover.  Bake 20 more minutes.
  • Turn off oven.  Let bread cool on wire rack.   Bag.
  • Deliver bread to recipient.

This recipe evolved over time as I started with recipes from other sources and found ways to make them easier — for example, letting the dough rise overnight in the fridge means it requires zero attention and will never over-proof. You might find that it works better for you to have it rise fast in a warm spot (which is what most recipe books prescribe). Experiment!

Useful resources in developing your own sourdough technique follow.

Recommended reading

  • Sourdough Baking, The Basics — this is where it all started for me.  Great tips in here on how to grow a starter from scratch and what to do with it.  The notes above on starter are plagiarized from this guide.
  • Tartine Bread — excellent resource for ways to up your game.

Recommended equipment

  • Cast Iron Double Dutch Oven — sure you could invest in a fancy bread oven with a steaming feature, but if you have a cheap oven like me, just pop your dough into one of these things. Preheated cast iron gives you nice even heat, and the cover keeps the dough from drying out too fast during baking.
  • Brotform — gives you a nice consistent loaf shape and an attractive spiral pattern.  Dust it with cornmeal (I’ve heard rice flour is good too) to keep the dough from sticking.