Making your first sourdough can be a bit daunting, but with a few pointers you can make the experience almost painless. It takes a bit of patience, but the results are well worth it.
1. Use a Vigorous Starter Culture.
Before you get going, make sure your sourdough starter is ready to use. It should be at least 10 days old, and in a vigorous state of growth (you have been feeding it every day haven’t you?), with a decent amount of bubbling. A decent ‘sponge’ if you will.
The sourdough is going to be fed more flour and water in the loaf you’re making, but the addition of salt will slow the process down, which makes the use of a particularly vigorous sourdough starter very important.
2. Find somewhere Warm
If you have a warm kitchen, or if it is the summer (22-25C) you can use your sourdough starter as is, and build your dough with starter, bread, flour, salt and tepid water as per Paul Hollywood’s recipe.
If your kitchen is on the cooler side, you are better off making a sponge of sourdough and flour the night before baking to give the wild yeast a chance to really get going before you add the remaining flour and yeast, as per Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s.
Either way, try to put the kneaded dough somewhere warm to prove, and cover it with cling film.
3. Use a banneton or two
Sourdough dough gets wetter as it ferments, much as with the starter. When making the dough, if you add more water, you get a lighter loaf with better consistency of the finished product, but the loaf will struggle to hold its shape, and benefits from sitting in a banneton. A banneton is a cane or wicker proving basket which helps the loaf hold its form better during the second prove.
Flour the banneton liberally with flour (I use semolina flour but you can use normal or a mix of both) to stop the high hydration dough sticking to it. I recommend you use semolina or ground cornmeal, if the skin of your dough sticks to the banneton, when you turn the loaves out you will end up with something flat, resembling a deflated balloon. If in doubt over flour.
Shaping the loaves prior to putting them in the banneton is key to getting a good final loaf shape. If you’re new to shaping loaves see this website for some handy tips.
Place a tray in the bottom of the oven and pour a cup’s worth of boiling water in it before popping your loaf in the oven. This gives the loaf a good rise during baking. If you have a Baking Stone, this will help also.
5. Get the Razor blade out
Before cooking the loaf, slash it deeply with a razor blade. You can slash in a hash, a cross, a single slash or a spiral starting at the top. However you like.
Temperature is your friend when proving sourdough. Extra time will give your loaf great flavour, but time works against you for two reasons; skin and wetness.
If your loaf is proving for 18 hours, in that time the outside if the loaf is likely to dry out and form a crust which restricts the rise when baking, so you will need to cover the loaf. Make sure that whatever you cover your dough with doesn’t stick to the surface, an upturned large glass bowl is good as you can see the condition of the dough.
If your dough is on the wet side rather than the dry side, you will have problems with it holding its shape when you turn it out, so you will likely get a flatter loaf, but as discussed, the use of steam and a baking stone will give the bread some much needed spring.
Out of a choice between a wet or dry dough, err towards the wet. It will help the dough prove faster, and the quality of the finished product is better.
If you want to really dig down into the chemistry, as well as the art and craft of bread, I can heartily recommend Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman (which my darling sister Claire gave me for Christmas). It is an astonishingly detailed account of the subject. Hamelman is not only passionate about baking bread, he has decades of experience which he gladly shares in this wonderful book.
Hamelman recommends time and folding, rather than working the dough to allow it to build up gluten structure and flavour.
If you want to see the master in action at the King Arthur Bakery in Vermont, Jeffrey has an excellent set of tutorial videos on youtube, which are well worth a look.
I don’t know about you, but I find it much easier to learn about shaping loaves from seeing someone do it than by looking at diagrams in a book.