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Sourdough Baking in the Pandemic Lockdown

by | Aug 10, 2020

My ongoing journey into the world of sourdough began a couple of months into the COVID-19 lockdown. It seemed like everyone was trapped at home and baking sourdough. I’ve always loved sourdough bread, but the whole feeding-the-starter-every-day thing was more than I was willing to take on. But what the heck. I was stuck at home too, so I decided to jump in and see how far I could go with it.

I started my journey on May 27. Today, 75 days later, Seymour is still alive. (Someone told me early on I needed to name my starter, and Seymour came to mind. You know, Little Shop of Horrors, “Feed me!”)

Sourdough loaf baked in a loaf pan using a 60-day-old starter.

Right off the bat, let me make it clear that I am not a baker. I’m a pretty decent cook, but the whole flour and dough thing wasn’t a part of my upbringing, which is where I’m convinced it needs to start. There’s no substitute for experiencing how dough feels at an early age. All the well meaning descriptors–wet, dry, tacky, etc.–are useless if you’ve never actually had your hands on a dough ball. What little knowledge I have about baking has taken 20 years of trial and error to accumulate. Said another way, if I can do it, anyone can.

The Sourdough Starter

I watched many YouTube videos when I set out on this sourdough journey. It’s amazing how many details people leave out even when they’re trying to be detailed. Little things like whether to use a new container every time I feed my starter, or whether I can feed (or use) it right when it comes out of the fridge or if I should let it sit and warm up a little first, and a whole host of other other questions I had to work out on my own.

I settled on two videos. This is the first.

They talk about feeding the starter for 14 days after making it from scratch, but a chef friend of mine said it takes around 4 weeks to really take hold, and I took his advice. Truth be told, the actual baking part was a little intimidating to me, so I was fine with putting it off for a while.

So, my sourdough journey began with a mixture of 5 ounces of flour, 5 ounces of water, 72 hours for the initial starter to establish itself, then 4 weeks of daily feedings that consisted of 2 ounces water, 2 ounces starter and about 2.5 ounces of flour. After that, Seymour went into the fridge and I now feed him once a week. I do every feeding in a fresh, clean container. I heard stories of mold and other complications that can result from reusing containers, so I decided to play it safe from the start.

While I put off any actual baking, I did make a variety of things–flatbreads, waffles, crepes, pizzas, casserole toppings, etc.–from the discards along the way starting on Day 7. (Every time you feed the starter in a fresh container, the leftover is known as “discard,” which you can season and fry in a pan, or compost, or whatever.) It was interesting to watch how Seymour was developing with each passing day.

Baking Sourdough Bread

After 4 weeks, I braved my first loaf. The baking part of the above video didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped. My loaf came out somewhat flat. I’ve since learned the term for that is “oven spring.” I didn’t achieve it.

After doing some research, I figured out what went wrong. First, I over-hydrated the dough. Too much water. The second was using only all-purpose flour. It would have been better if I had used something with more protein. Unfortunately, in the early COVID days, the shelves were mostly bare and any kind of flour was hard to come by, and when you did get some, it was usually AP. Still, it was bread, and it was tasty. And it validated Seymour, which was my main concern at this stage.

I’ve since been able to find whole wheat and bread flour, and do more research. I came across this video, which has been my mainstay for the last few loaves.

For me, the three most important takeaways in this video are the baker’s percentages, the concept of autolyse, and the stretch-and-fold technique. Learning these three things have helped make my loaves better and better with each try.

The Baker’s Percentages

The Baker’s Percentages is probably one of the most important baking lessons I’ve learned since I began my sourdough journey. Who knew there was a formula I could follow that would yield the right proportions every time. These are the baker’s percentages I learned for two loaves:

1000 grams flour (100%)
800 grams water (80% hydration)
150 grams starter (15%)
20 grams salt (2%)

The Concept of Autolyse

Autolyse is another really important lesson from my sourdough journey. Who knew that if you mix flour and water, and just walk away for a while, it develops better texture elasticity all on its own. I should have been doing this all along, even with regular yeast.

The Stretch-and-Fold Technique

If you try to knead sourdough, it will stick to your hands because of the high hydration in the dough. You do need to develop the gluten network somehow though. The stretch-and-fold technique is a good way to do that. Each fold has a significant impact on the strength of the dough.

My Sourdough Bread Recipe

My current recipe goes like this. Using the baker’s percentages above as a guide, refer to the video for techniques.

Mix in a large bowl:
1000 grams of flour (I usually use a mix of whole wheat, all purpose, and bread flour)
750 grams of water (75% hydration)

Cover with plastic wrap and autolyse for 45-60 minutes.

For the next step, try to time it so your starter is at its peak after feeding it–about 3-6 hours in general, but you should know the timing of your own starter.

150 grams of starter (15%)
20 grams of salt (2%)

Stretch and fold. Cover and rest 30 minutes. Repeat this every 30 minutes for 2 hours.

Cover and let the dough do its bulk rise for 2-5 hours at room temperature, or overnight in the fridge.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and pre-shape them. Using a bench scraper, (because it’s sticky) cut the dough in half (for two loaves) and gently fold each over itself a couple of times, then shape it into a ball. Let them sit and rest for 30 minutes.

Time to shape your loaves. I don’t have any bannetons (at the time of this writing) so I use a plastic bowl or a loaf pan, depending on the shape I’m after. If I’m using a bowl, I use a clean kitchen towel, generously floured. If I’m using a loaf pan, I line it with parchment paper coated with cooking spray. I’ll be using parchment paper for the actual baking anyway, but if I use it in a round bowl, I’ll have fold marks in the final loaf.

Let the dough proof for 3-5 hours at room temperature or overnight in the fridge.

Preheat a dutch oven to 500 F in the oven. This can take 45-60 minutes for most ovens, so time yours accordingly.

Use the poke test to determine if your dough is ready to bake. If it bounces back but leaves a dent, it’s ready. If it bounces back and doesn’t leave a dent, it needs more time to proof. If it doesn’t bounce back, it’s probably over-proofed.

Transfer your dough to parchment paper if it isn’t there already, and put it in the hot dutch oven.

Cover and bake 20 minutes.

Remove the lid, drop the temperature to 425 F and continue baking until the color is a nice dark brown. Don’t walk away and forget about it!

When the color is right, turn off the oven, leave it open a bit and let the loaf continue to sit there for another 20 minutes. This cures the bread and lets it develop a deeper flavor.

Remove the loaf and let it cool completely before cutting into it.