FAQs

The top two questions from people who are new to this wonderfully addictive activity are: 

  1. What is Sourdough?
  2. Why sourdough? 
Followed closely by many questions about how to make a Starter and how to keep it healthy.

Here we try to answer some of these questions.

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General Queries

There are so many reasons, but in a nutshell:

• It’s healthier:

  1. Bread made with sourdough has a better digestibility than bread made with just yeast. The gluten is made more digestible and less likely to cause food intolerances
  2. Sourdough bread has a low glycemic index, blood sugar levels are not heightened by just one type of sugar and therefore delivers continuously energy over a longer period of time. Better for diabetics, but remember that whilst it may be better than other types of bread, sourdough is still carbohydrate-heavy and does raise glucose levels.
  3. Sourdough is also a prebiotic, which helps to support the gut micobiome.
  4. No additives which are often to blame for some people’s wheat intolerances.

• It taste great!  Thanks to the lactic and acetic acids that ferment the dough and provide its characteristic tang, the flavour is vastly superior.

• Most people find it an enjoyable, strangely satisfying and addictive pastime. There’s nothing like being greeted by a  crusty loaf when you open the oven door – it is an object of craft and beauty.

Natural yeast breaks down harmful enzymes in grains, maximizes the nutritional availability of natural vitamins, minerals, and fibre in wheat, converts wheat into an easily digestible food which will not spike your blood sugar level.

The action of yeasts and bacteria also create a more complex flavour than using commercial yeast.

Regular bread is made commercial yeast that reacts with gluten making the dough rise. Sourdough bread, on the other hand, is made with a “starter”. This starter is made from a combination of wild yeast and bacteria growing inside a paste made of flour and water.

Natural yeast is both pre-biotic and pro-biotic, encouraging important good bacteria in the body. It discourages weight gain, and turns the phytic acid found naturally in wheat into a cancer-fighting antioxidant.

Some are, some aren’t.  Some bread sold as “sourdough” is not, as we define it here, truly sourdough.  You need to check the ingredients.  If the ingredient list includes “yeast” as an ingredient, then it is not true sourdough.  There are, of course, many local artisan bakers who do make true sourdough (but, again, check their ingredients).

When a recipe is stated in baker’s percentages, the percentages stated do not add up to 100%,  This is because the percentages represent each ingredient’s weight relative to the flour in the recipe, not relative to the total weight.  In other words, flour is 1, or 100%, and everything else is proportionate to the flour, i.e., 1 or 100%.  If there is less of an ingredient than there is of flour, then the baker’s percentage for that ingredient is less than 1 (or 100%).  Similarly, if there is more than the flour, the baker’s percentage is greater than 1 (or 100%).

Thus, for example, if your recipe calls for 300 grams of flour and 240 grams of water, the the baker’s percent is computed by putting the flour weight in the denominator and the water weight in the numerator, like this:  240/200 = 0.8, or 80%.  If we compute the baker’s percentage for the flour, then it is:  300/300 = 1, or 100%.  This is why flour is always 100%.

As a side note, when sourdough bread bakers talk about their dough being x% hydrated, they are referring to the baker’s percentage of water.  In the example above, the dough is 80% hydrated.  If the recipe called for 200 grams of water, then it would be 200/300 – 0.67, or 67%, hydrated.

There are three main advantages for using baker’s percentages. First, it makes it easy to adjust recipes to meet your needs. Say, for example, you discover you have 437 grams of flour and you decide you want to use it all to make bread. If your recipe calls for 75% water, then it’s easy to calculate that you need 437 X .75, or about 328 grams of water. This is much easier to calculate adjustments in cups and tablespoons. If a recipe calls for two cups of flour and a teaspoon of salt and you only have 1 ¾ cups of flour, how much salt do you need? If you know the amount of salt relative to flour, it’s easy to compute.

The second advantage is that you use a lot fewer utensils. When I mix my dough, I put the bowl from my stand mixer on my scales and add the ingredients right to the bowl. I have no need for measuring cups or measuring spoons. You can pour the flour from the bag, the water from a pitcher of any kind, and the salt from the box. Sometimes, I use a spoon to scoop out the starter.

A critical part of sourdough bread baking is allowing the dough to “proof” or rise.  This is when the wild yeast and the lactobacillus feed off each other to form the gas (carbon dioxide) bubbles in the dough.  If you let it proof too long, then the yeast has consumed all the enzymes it needs to produce carbon dioxide and the bubbles will dissipate. This is overproofing.

Questions about Starters

You can often buy starters from local bakeries, and many are available online. There are schools of thought that say it makes no difference what you buy, it will eventually change and adapt to your own local conditions. Personally I prefer to make my own anyway, you can choose the flour you prefer, and other variables like whether you use water or yeast water etc. Here is the process to get you started.

Starter is a symbiotic ecosystem in which wild yeast and lactobacillus interact to create gases.  These gases create bubbles, which make the starter float in water. If the starter does not float, there is not enough gas in your starter and it is not ready to use.  It either has not had time to fully mature since its last feeding or it has passed its peak and needs to be fed.

The easiest way is to simply drop a dollop in water and see if it floats.  Experienced sourdough bread bakers know their starter and can tell by the way it looks and smells.

Yes.  Many sourdough bread bakers store starter in the refrigerator and revive it by letting it come to room temperature and feeding it with flour and water.

It is also possible to freeze or dry starter for future use.  More info >

Questions about Ingredients

Read our page dedicated to types of water and other liquids.

It partly depends on what method you are using, but generally I put the extras in at the same time I put salt in.

Professional bakers tend to use scales to weigh their ingredients rather than volume measures such as cups and tablespoons.  There are two reasons for this:  First, it is more accurate.  A cup of flour, for example, may vary in the amount of flour that is actually in the cup depending on how firmly it’s packed.  If weighed, it’s the same amount no matter how it’s packed.  A teaspoon of course ground salt will weigh less than a teaspoon of finely ground salt.  Again, if it’s weighed, you know how much salt you are adding.

The second reason for weighing is that it allows you to use baker’s percentages.  Baker’s percentages allow you to more easily adapt recipes to different sized batches.

Disclaimer: Whilst we hope the information provided is helpful and informative, we cannot guarantee that all details will be 100% accurate.  There are many schools of thought and conflicting ideas on many of the sourdough processes and methods.  This site is simply meant as a broad guide to baking sourdough, and is not a scientific reference.

Also, please forgive the mixed US and UK spellings throughout. We have a team from various countries working on this site.This site may contain affiliate links. 

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Made with Sourdough ❤

Lame

noun

A special sharp knife, or tool which holds a razor blade, in a curved or straight manner. You use it to score the dough before baking.

Dutch Oven

A Dutch Oven is generally understood to be a covered earthenware or cast-iron container for cooking casseroles. They are ideal for bread as they can accommodate bread dough and be covered to help generate the steamy environment requiredto encourage the dough to rise. Enamel roasters with a lid, covered pyrex dishes, or even a flat tray with a bowl over the top of the dough, are equally effective.

Bakers’ Percentages

Sometimes called baker’s math, this is a method to express the different ingredients as a percentage of the total amount of flour. It makes scaling a recipe or building a recipe very easy once you know the total weight of the flour, and also allows you to know the ‘hydration’ of your dough.

Example: If you build your dough with 1000 gram flour, 670-grams water, 20-gram salt, and 8-gram yeast. According to bakers percentages, that will be 100% flour (the amount of flour is always 100%), 67% water, 2% salt, and 0.8% yeast.
You divide the amount of the different ingredients with the amount of flour.

Banneton / Brotform / Proofing Basket

A type of basket or container used to provide structure for shaped loaves of bread during proofing. Banneton baskets are also known as ‘Brotform’ or ‘proofing baskets’. It is normally used for doughs that are too soft or wet to maintain their shape while rising. They come in a range of sizes and shapes. Look for ones that fit the size of loaves you want to bake.

They are often made of natural rattan, or wood fiber. You can also use any container lined with a well-floured tea towel.

Oven Spring

The final burst of expansion of dough upon being introduced to a hot oven and where the yeast activity is increased during the first few minutes. At approximately 60C/140ºF degrees the yeast is killed off, but up until that point, dough can expand in the oven in the first phase of baking if it’s not over-fermented and still has dough strength. Many factors can impact oven spring including the length of fermentation, gluten development, and the hydration of the dough.

Stretch-and-Folds

An alternative to traditional kneading used to develop gluten. The process is performed periodically in the bowl throughout the bulk fermentation. Take a side of the dough and gently stretch it up and over, to fold it upon itself, rotate the dough 90º, and repeat, then turn the bowl 45º and the same stretch and fold. Once all four corners of the dough have been stretched and folded, gluten development and a smooth, elastic dough are underway. Also, see ‘Folding’ and ‘Coil Folds’.

Bulk Ferment

Most loaves have two fermenting cycles. One before and one after the loaves are formed. Bulk fermentation is the first cycle, with a long fermentation period of the dough after the initial mixing of flour, water, starter, and salt and often comes during and after a period of kneading or ‘stretch and folds’.During this stage we are aiming to create dough strength, structure and flavor. The dough should feel alive, strong, airy, spongy and the surface shouldn’t feel sticky.

The bulk fermentation generally takes place at room temperature, unless otherwise noted in the recipe and is a longer period of time (4 -12 hours) than the final proofing period. This step may be referred to as the first prove or first rising. Acetic acid, an organic acid is produced by bacteria in the sourdough culture during the fermentation process. The presence of acetic acid helps to gives sourdough its characteristic acidic tang. The warmer the environment, the faster the development of the dough will be

Window Pane

The window pane test is one of the best ways to tell if you’ve sufficiently stretched and folded your bread dough. Pull a small piece of the dough and using both hands and your fingers stretch the dough very thin if it holds its shape without tearing the gluten is well-developed and your dough is ready to be pre-shaped, shaped and rest for it’s final prove.

Starter / Starter Culture / Sourdough Starter

A mixture of flour and water used to leaven bread that contains bacteria, yeast, and organic acids. Made either by inoculating with an established colony of bacteria or by capturing wild bacteria and yeasts over a longer period. Sometimes also called Leaven / Levain.

Autolyse

verb

Autolyse (pronounced auto-lees) is a process in which a portion of (or total) water and flour in a bread recipe are gently pre-blended and set to rest for a period of time.

This resting period gives the dough special processing characteristics and improves the overall quality of the baked goods.

During autolyse process, several events can occur in the pre-mixed water/flour mixture:

  1. Continued flour hydration. Water molecules work their way into damaged starch, intact starch granules and proteins.
  2. Protein bonds continue to develop as a consequence of adding water, creating more gluten strands without mechanical work. This leads to better gluten structure and gas retention.
  3. Flour enzymes (mainly proteases) acquire time to adapt and work on the gluten by breaking down protein bonds.Protease activity is higher at low pH (acidic conditions). This is why autolysed doughs that contain yeast or pre-ferments (e.g. poolish) often experience greater protease activity. Such doughs are more extensible, weaker, softer and show less resistance to deformation than autolyzed non-fermented doughs.2
  4. Finally, as a result, the dough feels less sticky and very smooth after the autolyse.

As a general rule, the longer the autolyse time:

  • The shorter the dough mixing time (less mechanical development of gluten-forming proteins in needed). This means less energy consumption during mixing.
  • The shorter the dough stability duration
  • The less tolerance to overmixing. Breakdown is more pronounced once peak (maximum strength) is attained.
  • The smaller the P value in the alveograph test
  • The more extensible and less elastic the dough becomes at the end of autolysis
  • The better the sheetability and machining of dough during lamination of croissants
  • The easier and faster the dough expands during oven spring (better volume)
  • The lower the need for dough conditioners
  • The better the flavor and aroma of the finished product
Leaven/Levain/Sourdough Starter
noun
  1. A substance, in this case a wild yeast starter, that is used in sourdough baking to make dough rise.
  2. Some methods of baking, such as ‘Tartine Method’ require a sourdough leavening agent be made from a sourdough ‘mother culture’ (aka your Starter). This technique is often employed to boost the yeast activity of the sourdough starter by feeding a small amount of starter a larger quantity of flour and water. For instance, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of sourdough starter, a leaven can be prepared 8-12 hours before the dough will be mixed by combining 1 Tablespoon of sourdough starter with ½ cup flour and a scant ½ cup of water. This leaven can then be used as the sourdough starter and will be quite active come baking time.
verb
  1. cause (dough or bread) to rise by adding leaven.