Bill’s Guide To Baking Bread

  1. How does sourdough work? Why should I care?
  2. Supplies
  3. Want dried starter? I’ll mail you some
  4. Bring dried starter to life
  5. Or, make your own starter from scratch
  6. Feed the starter
  7. Store the starter
  8. Bake my favorite loaf: Overnight Country Blonde
  9. Reducing Ken Forkish’s starter/levain requirements

side

cut


How does sourdough work? Why should I care?

Sourdough is the colloquial catch-all for naturally-fermented bread. Instead of relying on store-bought commercial yeast to force dough to rise, sourdough uses a starter” culture of bacteria and yeast to build gas in the dough and force it to rise. Sourdough isn’t always sour.

You can make your own starter from scratch or get some from a friend (or even a bakery).

When you start your own, you’re feeding flour with water and attracting naturally-occurring lactobacilli and yeast in the air to start growing and duplicating in a jar.

When you go to bake the actual bread, the process is simple:

  1. Make the dough: you mix flour, water, salt, and sourdough starter together.
  2. Bulk ferment: you wait for the bacteria and yeast inside the starter to begin feeding off the flour of the dough. As the starter feeds, it releases gas as a byproduct. This gas is what gives your bread all the beautiful air pockets and spongey texture you love.
  3. Proof: after you let the starter feed and feed, you shape the loaves and let the yeast and bacteria continue to grow for a little bit longer.
  4. Bake: you pop them in the oven and bake.

Supplies

The best book on baking bread at home is Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by the OG Ken Forkish. (Here’s me and Sam paying tribute.)

Supplies you’ll need to mix, shape, and bake the loaves, in descending order of importance:

  1. Dutch oven (I recommend Lodge over Le Creuset and Staub, and AmazonBasics just put out an even cheaper dutch oven with good reviews)
  2. 12 quart Cambro tub and lid
  3. Kitchen scale
  4. Instant-read thermometer
  5. Proofing baskets (you can use mixing bowls if you don’t have proofing baskets)

Want dried starter? I’ll mail you some

I’d be happy to send you starter. Just text me and I’ll hook you up.

You can also text me loaf pics.


Bring dried starter to life

If you’ve got dried starter, store them in an airtight container such as a ziplock bag or mason jar. If you don’t have any, I’ll mail you some.

To bring the starter back to life:

Day 1:

  1. In a bowl or mason jar, add 60 grams of lukewarm water to 30 grams of the dried starter chips
  2. The chips should be submerged in the water
  3. Stir the starter occasionally, until all the chips are dissolved (should take ~3 hours)
  4. Feed the starter with 30 grams of all-purpose flour (mix the flour and the mixture until incorporated)
  5. Put a lid on the bowl or jar

Day 2 (24 hours later):

  1. The starter should be bubbling
  2. Feed the starter again with 30 grams of all-purpose flour and 30 grams of lukewarm water (do not throw any away)

Day 3 (24 hours later):

  1. The starter should be bubbling again
  2. Feed the starter again with 30 grams of all-purpose flour and 30 grams of lukewarm water (do not throw any away)

Day 4 (24 hours later):

  1. The starter should be bubbling again
  2. You can now resume normal feedings

Make your own starter from scratch

The bacteria and yeast in sourdough starter is all around us! To make your own starter, you just need to start feeding flour and water with more flour and water.

It takes less than 5 minutes/day. These instructions are adapted from Ken Forkish’s instructions.

Day 1:

  1. Get a medium-sized mason jar or, preferably, a see-through quart container with lid
  2. Use your hand to mix 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of water (lukewarm, 95-100 degrees)
  3. Let it sit out for 2 hours, and then put a lid on it and leave it on the counter

Day 2 (24 hours later):

  1. Add 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of water (lukewarm, 95-100 degrees)
  2. Let it sit out for 2 hours, and then put a lid on it and leave it on the counter
  3. You should start to see some gas bubbles and it should start to smell like beer

Day 3 (24 hours later):

  1. If your container is close to overflowing, throw away half of the mixture
  2. Add 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of water (lukewarm, 95-100 degrees)
  3. Let it sit out for 2 hours, and then put a lid on it and leave it on the counter

Day 4 (24 hours later):

  1. Throw away all but 1/4 of your mixture
  2. It should be gassy and smell like a brewery
  3. Add 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of water (90 degrees)
  4. Put a lid on it and let it sit out on the counter

Day 5 (24 hours later):

  1. Throw away all but 1/4 of your mixture
  2. It should be very gassy and smell ripe and pungent
  3. Add 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of water (90 degrees)
  4. Put a lid on it and let it sit out on the counter

Day 6 (and beyond):

  1. You can now resume normal feedings

Feeding the starter

Most starter recipes (such as Ken’s in Flour Water Salt Yeast) call for making 500g-600g of starter each day, and throwing away all but ~50g each day.

While there’s tons of stuff to do with leftover starter, this method is quite wasteful.

My brother’s commuting buddy is a talented amateur baker. He suggests keeping only ~60g of starter on hand at any time, which gives you plenty of starter to build up levain for whenever you’re ready to bake.

Feeding the starter (without waste):

  • 20g starter
  • 20g water
  • 20g flour (I use 10g of all-purpose and 10g of wheat)
  1. Take 20g of the starter, 20g of lukewarm water, and 20g of flour and combine it in something like a mason jar
  2. Put the lid loosely on the mason jar, and leave on the counter
  3. Throw out the rest of the starter

starter what my starter looks like after 24 hours


Storing the starter

If you’re baking throughout the week, you’ll want to feed the starter every morning.

If you take days off (such as only baking on the weekend), you’ll want to store the starter in the fridge.

If you take weeks or months off, you can either feed the refrigerated starter every ~2 weeks, or you can dry starter chips for longer-term storage.

Refrigerating the starter:

  1. Feed the starter
  2. Leave the starter on the counter
  3. After 2-6 hours, put the jar in the fridge
  4. I’ve found the starter can last 1-2 weeks in the fridge just fine
  5. Two mornings before you want to bake, take the starter out of the fridge and feed it

Bake my favorite loaf: Overnight Country Blonde

two loaves the final product

This is my favorite loaf in Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast. I find this pure levain bread simpler to make than hybrid or even commercial yeast loaves. You can play around with flour types and hydration levels.

Ken recommends creating nearly 1kg of levain, using a fraction of it and then tossing the rest out. I like to reduce the waste of the levain, and so the recipe below has you make less levain than he does in the book.

What you’ll need (makes 2 beautiful loaves):

  • Active starter
  • 924g of all-purpose flour
  • 56g of whole wheat flour
  • 50g of rye flour (you can use whole wheat as replacement for rye if you don’t have any, or vice versa)
  • 804g of water
  • 22g of fine sea salt

Thursday morning:

  1. Feed the starter
  2. Leave the starter on the counter

Friday morning (9am) (feed the levain):

  1. Make the levain by combining 30g of starter with 120g of all-purpose flour, 30g of whole wheat flour, and 120g of lukewarm water (85-90 degrees)
  2. Mix thoroughly with your hands
  3. (Simultaneously, use the rest of your starter to feed more starter and put it back in the fridge for future bread)

Friday evening (5pm) (autolyse the dough):

  1. Autolyse the dough by combining 804g of all-purpose flour, 26g of whole wheat flour, and 50g of rye flour with 684g of warm water (90 to 95 degrees) Video
  2. Mix thoroughly with your hands so that all the flour is incorporated
  3. Wait 20 minutes

autolyse what the dough should look like post-autolyse

Friday evening (5:20pm) (mix the dough):

  1. Mix the dough by putting 22g of fine sea salt and 216g of the levain in the middle of the dough in the tub
  2. Fold the edges of the dough over the top, entombing the salt and levain inside the dough
  3. Use the pincer method to thoroughly combine everything Video

mixed what the dough should look like post-mixing

Friday evening (6pm-11pm) (fold the dough):

  1. Three times, between 6pm and 11pm, you’ll want to fold the dough (this helps develop gluten, trap gas, and give the dough good texture)
  2. To do a fold, put your hand under part of the dough, stretch it out as far as you can without breaking the dough, and then fold it over the top
  3. Rotate the tub, and fold from another side
  4. Here’s a video

Saturday morning (~8am) (shape the loaves):

  1. Dump the dough onto a floured counter
  2. Cut the dough in half
  3. Shape each loaf by folding each piece of dough into a ball, then flipping it on its belly and using your hands to create taught dough balls
  4. Pick the dough balls up and place them (seam side down) into proofing baskets or mixing bowls
  5. Cover the loaves with kitchen towels and leave on the counter
  6. Here’s a video

Saturday morning (11am) (warm the oven):

  1. Turn the oven to 500 degrees
  2. Place your dutch oven (lid included) inside the oven on the middle rack

proofed what the dough should look like when it’s finished proofing

Saturday midday (12pm) (bake the loaves):

  1. To make sure the dough is ready to bake, use your finger to make an indent in the dough; if it springs back slowly, it’s ready! Video
  2. Take one of your still-proofing loaves and put it in the fridge
  3. Take the other loaf, and flip the proofing basket or mixing bowl it’s in upside down on a floured surface (the smooth top of the loaf should now be face down on the counter)
  4. Take the dutch oven out of the oven
  5. Pick up the loaf of bread, and place it directly in the dutch oven (the smooth top of the loaf which went face-down on the counter when you flipped the proofing basket over should still be face-down in the dutch oven)
  6. Put the lid on the dutch oven and place it in the oven
  7. Here’s a video

30 minutes later (take the lid off):

  1. Take the lid off the dutch oven (the dutch oven captures the moisture in the bread and provides a steam effect)

20-30 minutes later (finished):

  1. Check the bread every 5 minutes starting 15 minutes after you’ve taken the lid off
  2. You’re looking for very dark, deep golden-brown crust
  3. After 50-60 total minutes of cooking, take the dutch oven out of the oven and take the loaf out and put it on a cooling rack
  4. DO NOT CUT YOUR BREAD FOR AT LEAST AN HOUR! It’s still steaming and cooking its innards

Make the second loaf:

  1. Put the dutch oven (and lid) back in the oven for ~5 minutes
  2. Then, when ready, take the second loaf out of the fridge, flip it onto the counter, place in the dutch oven, and put the covered dutch oven back in the fridge
  3. Repeat the cooking instructions above

Reducing Ken Forkish’s starter/levain requirements

Ken typically has you throwing out lots of starter and throwing out lots of levain. This is fine and there are lots of use cases for leftover starter.

But I don’t like wasting so much flour mainly because it’s messy.

It’s fun doing math to reduce the levain recipes to better fit the dough requirements.

For example, the Overnight Country Blonde recipe above calls for 216g of levain.

Ken’s original recipe calls for a 1kg levain made from 100g of starter, 400g of all-purpose flour, 100g of whole wheat flour, and 400g of water. That’s a lot!

Instead, I recommend reducing the recipe by nearly 2/3 and using 30g of starter, 120g of all-purpose flour, 30g of whole wheat flour, and 120g of water. This leaves you with 300g of levain. The bacteria and yeast feeding will turn some of the flour and water into gas, leaving you between 270-280g of levain when you go to mix the final dough.

You’ll still need to measure 216g of levain, and then you can use anything leftover to make English muffins or pancakes or whatever else you want.