Five years ago when I was living in DC, I was browsing a local bookstore and one book caught my eye, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” In the book, local author and home baker Samuel Fromartz shares his experiences working in a French boulangerie and subsequently traveling around Europe and the United States to learn more about bread making. The book is small yet mighty, in that it looks like an unassuming paperback but it’s actually full of great tips for making bread at home.
After reading the book, I did what any self-respecting journalist would do; I tracked down Fromartz. I emailed him and asked if I could have some of his sourdough starter. At the time, my dream was to make a baguette, and I wanted to start with the best dough possible. To my surprise, Fromartz replied to my email and told me he’d give me some starter.
Then I decided to move back to St. Louis. While moving cross country and resettling in my hometown, I completely forgot about my bread aspirations. Or maybe I didn’t forget, but I was satisfied to sample bread from local bakeries such as Union Loafers and KNEAD, which are doing great things with sourdough.
I actually got a tiny bit of experience making bread when I did a short stint at a bakery in St. Louis after I moved back home. My main takeaway was how to shape a loaf. There’s a specific process that involves taking the dough, folding it up, and rolling it toward you. The pressure from the surface and your hands creates tension, which forms a crust.
Anyway, my point is that I learned a little about bread four or five years ago, but then I stopped thinking about it for a while. Then, a month or two ago when the pandemic started getting really bad, I started thinking about it again. I *swear* I was not going off what I saw on social media. I guess many of us home bakers had the same idea, and it’s a good one. Making sourdough bread is a process that’s perfect for when you have a little extra time on your hands.
If I were you, I would start by making sure you have all the tools you need. Making sourdough takes a fair amount of equipment. You probably have some of it on hand already (e.g. bowls, tea towels, silicone spatula), but you’ll also want things like a kitchen scale, plastic scraper, and most importantly, a wide-mouthed glass jar for storing your sourdough starter in the fridge. A lot of people use one from the company Weck, but I have one from Le Parfait and I love it.
You also probably want a lame (pronounced “lahm”…it’s a French word), a tool that helps you score the top of the bread before it goes into the oven. I didn’t have this when I baked my loaf so I just used a really sharp knife, but a lame is easier to use and it will deliver more professional looking results. This Food & Wine article gives you some good tips about the tools you’ll need. You can also find recommendations on The Perfect Loaf blog.
Then, you can find a sourdough starter. You can buy them online from places like King Arthur Flour, you can try making your own (I would not recommend this…I tried and failed a couple times), or you can reach out to a local bakery or restaurant and see if they’ll sell you some. I know we can’t go to bakeries right now, but many of them are offering curbside pickup. I got my starter from KNEAD and I wiped down the cup it was in thoroughly before putting it in the fridge.
Finally, feed your starter. That’s a process in and of itself. Make sure you have a clean and dry glass jar, and then take 100 g of your starter, put it in, and “feed it” 50 g whole wheat flour or bread flour, 50 g rye flour, and 100 g filtered room temperature water. Mix it together in the jar so there are no clumps of flour. Seal the top. Use a rubber band to mark the top of the starter around the sides. You do this so you can keep track of how much it grows later.
At this point, you want to place your jar with the starter in a warm location. A countertop might do in the spring or summer, but I like to put mine in a turned off oven with the light on. I place the jar at the back pretty close to the light, I close the door, and I leave it in there for about four hours. After four hours, you should see a significant difference in the level of your starter. It should be bubbly.
If you want to make bread, you can take half out to use in a recipe. If you don’t, you still want to take half out and store the rest in the fridge for one to two weeks. After one to two weeks, you can repeat the feeding process and either bake bread/other baked goods, or store it again. If you want to use the discard in a sweet recipe, I’d recommend this one for sourdough brownies.
Before you store your starter in the fridge, always feed it and let it sit out on the counter for a couple hours. It might seem weird to do this given the fact that you just fed it, but after you take some out, you always want to feed it again.
Once you have your starter ready, proceed with a recipe. I really liked the one I used from The Perfect Loaf blog. It has step-by-step instructions with photos, so you know exactly how to store and manipulate your dough. I didn’t have any giant plastic bags though, so I just stored my dough in a glass bowl overnight with a plastic lid before baking. It still turned out great, but I bet it would have been even better if I had stored it according to his instructions.
Finally, you’ll want to score the bread before putting it in the oven. I followed this tutorial to learn how to do it correctly. You want to be confident and decisive in your movements. Also, I really think having a lame helps, so I’m going to get one before the next time I bake bread. Using a sharp knife was fine, but having a razor-sharp blade makes it easier to cut through the dough.
You might be wondering what type of pan or pot you need to make a loaf of bread. I used a Dutch Oven and I really liked it. I have this one from Lodge, but something similar would work well. The Perfect Loaf recommends a combo cooker, which is a cast-iron shallow base with a domed top on it to give the bread room to rise. I’m sure that works really well, but if you’re looking for a multipurpose pot that you can use for stuff other than bread, I’d recommend a Dutch Oven. It also works well for cooking things like chicken and stew.
So yeah. Those are my beginner’s tips for making sourdough from me, a beginner. Even though I’m only starting out on my bread journey, I have a feeling that I have a fun and fruitful road ahead. I might try a sourdough loaf with apricot and lavender next time. There are so many possibilities.
Here’s a song to get you started on your sourdough bread journey.