I’m a self taught sourdough bread baker.  I discovered the world  of sourdough bread a little over a year ago and have been deeply fascinated with it ever since.  The whole process is like magic to me. How can you take flour, water and salt and transform them into something so delicious and sustainable?  It will never cease to amaze me.  

I  won’t be giving any recipes in this article, instead I will be talking the process of making a basic country loaf. Why not a recipe?  Because it’s important to understand the process and how everything works first.  I started making these breads without having a basic understanding of how everything works and I had failure after failure without understanding why.  These are difficult breads to get good at, and takes dedication, persistence, and passion to get good at. You must be patient and not give up. 

Every good loaf of sourdough begins with the starter. I like to think of it as the engine behind the fermentation process. Without a good strong starter you cannot have good bread.  You must baby it and treat almost like a pet, it’s a living thing and when neglected it will die on you.  

Next is the autolyse.  This is when you combine the water and flour and you just let it sit.  Do not add the leaven or salt at this point.  At this stage a couple things happen. Gluten begins to develop and a process called  amylase happens enzymes are converted to complex sugars making more food available for the wild yeast to feed on. I like to autolyse for at least an hour. 

Mixing  the leaven and salt in and beginning the kneading (or what bakers like to call mixing).  At this  point you’re looking to develop the  dough and strengthen the gluten.  You will notice the dough will become more extensible(how far you can stretch the dough before meeting resistance). This is a good thing, during the  bake your dough will be able to expand more before meeting resistance making the crumb more open. I like to develop the dough by doing a “scooping” action that replicates what a diving arm mixer does.  I do it for 5-10min,rest for 15min,  then do it again for 3-5 min. 

Bulk fermentation.  The length of the bulk rise depends on a few things. The strength of your leaven,  the temperature of the dough, the flour blend and how fresh the flour is.  You could give the dough stretch and folds through this period to further strengthen the dough. I like to give the dough 5-6 folds.  During the rise and with each fold you’ll notice the dough becoming lighter and more elastic(resisting the fold and springing back on itself).  It’s important to be gentle and not degas  the dough. You don’t degas sourdoughs. Always keep in mind to keep the integrity of the dough doing as little damage as possible. 

At the end of the bulk the dough should feel light, pull away from the bowl cleanly and have good elasticity. It should feel alive in your hands. Going by a timeline for how long your bulk rise takes is good, however let the dough tell you and not the clock.  Learning to read the dough is important and where mist people fail at these breads. 

Shaping. There are two stages to this, the preshape and final shape. During the preshape you are forming a gluten “membrane” on the outer surface of the dough.  Let it rest for 30 min and then do the final shape further strengthening that membrane to hold the final shape. This is something that requires a lot of practice and patience to get good at and there are several ways to achieve both.  I have an account on Instagram under matts_miche which I have several videos showing how I go about shaping. Feel free to visit and ask me any questions you may have. 

The final rise.  Place the shaped loaf upside down in a  basket lined with tea cloth and dust with rice flour so the seam of the loaf is facing up.  You can either do the final rise at room temperature or put it in the fridge overnight to bake the next morning(also called retarding).  I prefer to retard my loaves, I find I get a better oven spring, better crust formation, and better flavor from the long cold rise.  You will know when the dough is ready to bake when you press your finger tip into the dough about a half inch deep and  fills back in slowly after you take your finger out. 

Baking. Most home ovens are not built to hold steam, so your next best option is either a cast iron Dutch oven or combo cooker.  Preheat the oven at 500°F with the Dutch oven and lid in it.  It’s important that the Dutch oven is hot for better oven spring.  Sprinkle some cornmeal on the bottom of the Dutch oven and carefully flip the dough into it  so the seam is now on the bottom.  Score the dough with a lame or very sharp blade, place the lid on it and place in the oven. Bake for 20 min, reduce heat to 450°F, bake for another 10min, remove the lid and continue baking until you reach the desired color you want.  Steam is important for good oven spring and good crust development.  Do not put any water in with the dough in the Dutch oven,  the dough will steam itself while baking as long as the lid is on good. 

Allow the finished loaf to cool for a couple  of hours before slicing. 

Again,  visit matts_miche  on instagram for reference videos and feel free to ask me a question anytime.