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Here are some top tips to make sure your sourdough loaves are delivered in shape, on time, and taste just right:

1. Feed the Beast

Every day if possible. If you ate only every second day, would you feel at your best? Well, your sourdough starter feels the same way. Treat your culture like a pet, and feed it a little every day to keep it in good condition. If you don’t bake very often (say once a week) then thicken up your starter (reduce its hydration) and refrigerate, keeping an eye on the condition.

If your starter has a layer of liquid on top (this is called Hooch), stir this back in, discard a quantity of the mixture and re-feed. The hooch indicates that your starter is over active and needs feeding.

2. Make a Poolish or Sponge

The best sourdough results are achieved by taking a vigorous starter culture, and building it up by making a poolish or sponge (see photo at the top) the night before baking. Building up your culture in this way before baking is a good way to keep your sourdough starter quantity low, and this will encourage regular feeding. By the time the morning comes, your poolish should look active with lots of tiny bubbles on the surface resembling a fine ‘sponge’.

Consider feeding your culture a ‘balanced diet’. If you use wholemeal flour in your loaves, consider feeding your starter Wholemeal flour from time to time. If you use Rye flour in your loaves, feed it Rye from time to time. The best standard ‘food’ is plain flour. Starch is what the yeast wants, not gluten, and in any case the gluten in bread flour isn’t developed in its raw state.

3. Get the Dough Temperature Right

If you are using cold flour and cold water, don’t expect your sourdough to have any great activity from the off. Aim for a dough temperature of between 70-76F or 21-24C. This usually means adding some hot or boiling water to your cold tap water before mixing your ingredients.

Getting the dough temperature right will be a case of trial and error and it will depend upon a number of factors, air temperature in your kitchen, the flour temperature, the mixer you are using (which heats the dough up through friction effects), and the temperature of your preferment. Details about obtaining desired dough temperature (DDT) can be found in Jeffrey Hamelman’s book, Bread.

4. Get your Hydration Right

Professional bakeries often use spiral mixers to mix the dough and to work the dough’s gluten without over working the dough through friction. This is hard to achieve in the home baker’s kitchen with a standard planetary mixer fitted with a dough hook.

The spiral mixer has a rotating bowl and a long spiral mixer (which resembles an elongated dough hook) which only touches part of the dough as the bowl rotates. Jeffrey Hamelman’s book Bread advises correct timings for mixing ingredients and working dough in relation to a spiral mixer.

Unfortunately very few home bakers will be able to afford either the cost or the space for a professional spiral mixer, and will have to compromise with what we have. The water quantities Hamelman recommends are significantly higher than I can add to my bowl without ending up with a sloppy mess.

As the dough is worked, the gluten develops and the dough’s capacity to absorb water increases accordingly (this is why dough becomes drier as it is kneaded). The better developed the gluten the more water the dough can absorb, I suspect the spiral mixer is better for hydrating the dough than an old Kenwood Chef with a dough hook (which judging by the sound it makes, tends to beat up the dough somewhat).

Whatever instructions you use, getting the hydration right is essential to getting a good quality loaf. Too wet and the loaf will not prove properly, and too dry and it won’t prove properly. It needs to be adjusted to the correct hydration consistency and the dough appropriately worked to provide the desired texture.

5. Make the Salt Wait

Salt is essential to good bread production, it adds flavour but it also adds to the chemistry and elasticity of the finished product. Unfortunately salt also retards the action of yeast, so if you want to get your dough off to a great start, mix your ingredients together well and leave for 20-60 minutes before adding the salt and working a bit more.

This is termed the autolyse phase, where you allow the yeast to start to break down the dough through enzymic activity, before adding the salt.

6. Prove in a Warm Atmosphere

Yeast activity is temperature dependent, and we can use this to our benefit when proving loaves by keeping the room at a warm temperature 22-24C is perfect. If we want a rich flavour bread we can use a pre-ferment (poolish) and we can also retard the secondary fermentation by reducing the temperature in the final prove. This will give us a richer, tangier, more flavoursome loaf.

Don’t try to rush the bread, give it the time it needs, just be aware that a cold room will mean a much longer proving time during secondary fermentation.

7. Flour your Bannetons

Use flour, and use lots of it, to prepare your bannetons for your dough. Semolina flour works well if you have a very high hydration dough, or you will struggle to get it out of the banneton without destroying the dough. If you are unsure of your technique, use semolina flour, and don’t be afraid to use your fingers to tease the loaf out come baking time if its being a bit reticent. Don’t just dump the banneton upside down, and hope that it drops out, or you may tear the dough’s surface.

There is nothing more annoying than waiting for 12 hours for a loaf to prove, and ending up with something which resembles pitta bread on the baking tray, so remember to flour, flour, flour.

8. Get the Razorblade Out

The proved sourdough will be filled with lots of pockets of CO2, and as you put it into a hot oven, it will expand significantly. If you don’t slash it to allow for expansion at the chosen ‘stretch points’, the gas will find its way out in a less, shall we say, aesthetically pleasing manner.

It will look as though your loaf has haemorrhaged. Use a lame and a razor blade (I buy these off amazon, they are cheap to buy and will last you years) to slash the loaf to avoid cutting our fingers, and keep it somewhere safe.

9. Use a Baking Stone

If you have one, use a baking stone to give your loaf a good lift. A ceramic floor tile can be used to similar effect if you know your way around a builder’s merchant or bathroom store.

The direct heat working underneath the dough, used in conjunction with steam (see below) will give the loaf a spring in height as you first pop it in the oven.

10. Inject Steam

Steaming your oven will give your loaf a good initial spring on entering, which is useful as the wet dough will be looking somewhat flat after its skeleton (the banneton) has been removed and its surface tension has been slashed with a razor blade. Preheat a deep baking tray in the bottom of the oven, and put a small amount of water in it as the oven is warming up. This makes the inside of the oven moist.

Get the oven up to 220C (200C Fan), and before you slash your loaves, boil the kettle. As you place the loaves in the oven, pour half a mug of boiling water into the roasting tray in the bottom of the oven and close the door. The initial steam injection will last for 10 minutes or so.

Cook the loaf for 40 minutes, checking at around 35 minutes that it isn’t too dark.

11. Cool Properly before Eating

Sourdough is a wonderful bread, and freezes well. It can be defrosted and presented looking nearly as fresh as the day it was baked. But it does need time to cool properly before cutting, and before freezing.

On day 1, the fresh loaf is best eaten as bread, so if you want to offer a loaf as a gift to a friend or relative for dipping or as an accompaniment to cheeses, meats dips etc, consider retarding the secondary fermentation somewhere cool overnight, and baking the loaves the following morning so you can deliver them fresh that day. It really does makes all the difference.

Have fun with your baking!

11 Top Tips for Perfect Sourdough –

This post has already been read 1290 times!