The Basic Sourdough Baking Method

So, as a result of the previously mentioned everybody-stay-at-home situation, I’m pulling some content out of the sourdough baking cookbook draft thing I’ve been working on and putting it out here on the blog. Much of this is information I’d planned to share anyway, but I was hoping it might be more…ahem, polished before I put it out there. So there may be a lot of text posts coming your way, until I can snap some photos and start adding illustrations of what the dough and bread and all that is supposed to look like. This post on my basic sourdough bread baking method is one of them.

The exact instructions will vary based on the exact recipe you are using, plus the activity of your starter, types of flour, temperature and humidity of your climate, etc. but most of the time when I’m baking a straight sourdough boule or batard, I’m following a timeline and strategy that looks something like this.

(Looking for how to build a sourdough starter? Let me recommend The Kitchn and King Arthur Flour for instructions! You can also buy starter directly from King Arthur if you don’t want to make one yourself. I’ll be adding more sourdough info including how to maintain your starter to the blog soon.)

Pure sourdough bread recipes tend to follow a method similar to this:

  1. Create a levain (typically done 8 to 12 hours before baking) and allow it to double or triple before using.
  2. Autolyse the flour and water. This usually takes 20 to 30 minutes.
  3. Add the levain and salt and mix the dough.
  4. Bulk ferment until doubled or tripled. Some recipes call for folding the dough during the first few hours of bulk fermentation. The total time for bulk fermentation will vary based on the activity of the starter.
  5. Divide the dough if necessary on a surface dusted with rice flour. (Preshape it if desired and bench rest for 10-20 minutes.) Shape the dough. At this point, dough might go into a banneton.
  6. Final proof until dough passes the poke test and is ready to bake. This can take anywhere from 1 to 4 hours at room temperature, or 12 to 16 hours in the fridge.
  7. Score the dough if necessary and bake it.

One tip: Consider a “cold proof.” The fastest timeline for baking your sourdough bread is to let it proof for about an hour at room temperature after shaping. However, it’s not mandatory. If you don’t have time to bake right away, shape the loaf, cover or place inside a loose plastic bag, and stick it in the fridge. It will take 12 to 16 hours to proof at this cold temperature. Then, preheat the oven and bake the bread straight from the fridge—no need to bring it to room temperature first! Many bakers say that their bread is more sour with a cold proof, though I find mine seems to be less so.

Suggested sourdough baking timelines:

These baking timelines assume a few things based on the activity of my particular starter. For instance, when I build a levain it usually takes about 12 hours to triple in size and reach its peak. And, my breads usually take around 10 hours to bulk ferment (give or take depending on the weather). I’ve given four options below, but the best way to learn is to watch and pay attention to your starter. Learn its routine and habits, if you will.

Options A and B have you baking the bread after a 1-hour proof at room temperature, while C and D use a cold proof in the fridge to slow things down. Personally, I typically go with option B…unless life gets in the way, in which case I’ll switch to the cold proof option D.

A. Start in the morning, have bread for breakfast the next day

Day 1:

7 a.m. Mix the levain.

7 p.m. Mix the levain with the flour and water.

7:30 p.m. Mix the salt into the dough and begin the bulk ferment.

Day 2:

6 a.m. Shape the dough, cover, and proof at room temperature.

7 a.m. Bake!

B. Start at night, have bread for dinner the next day

Day 1:

7 p.m. Mix the levain.

Day 2:

7 a.m. Mix the levain with the flour and water.

7:30 a.m. Mix the salt into the dough and begin the bulk ferment.

5 p.m. Shape the dough, cover, and proof at room temperature.

6 p.m. Bake!

C. Start in the morning, have bread for dinner the next day

Day 1:

7 a.m. Mix the levain.

7 p.m. Mix the levain with the flour and water.

7:30 p.m. Mix the salt into the dough and begin the bulk ferment.

Day 2:

6 a.m. Shape the dough, cover, and proof in the refrigerator.

6 p.m. Bake the loaf straight from the fridge (baking time will be longer).

D. Start in the evening, have bread for breakfast in two days

Day 1:

7 p.m. Mix the levain.

Day 2:

7 a.m. Mix the levain with the flour and water.

7:30 a.m. Mix the salt into the dough and begin the bulk ferment.

6 p.m. Shape the dough, cover and place in the fridge to proof.

Day 3:

6 a.m. Bake the loaf straight from the fridge (baking time will be longer).

Key word: “suggested.” Every sourdough starter is a little different. The timelines that work for my starter and breads may not work exactly the same for you. So, what’s a new baker to do? Pay attention. Keep an eye on the dough at its various stages, make mental or physical notes of how it behaves, and trust your gut. If your dough seems to be fermenting or proofing faster or slower than the recipe describes, adjust accordingly!

One thought on “The Basic Sourdough Baking Method

Comments are closed.