Frequently asked questions.
How do I know my dough is ready to bake with?
If you poke the dough and an indentation remains and doesn’t spring back out (or at last come back in a couple seconds), your bread is overproofed (has fermented past the optimum stage). Don’t worry! I use overproofed dough for pizza or foccacia (more on that in a future post). When your dough has good elasticity, it will look like this boule waiting to be scored and baked. The fact that this stays formed in a loose ball with its edges off the board tells you the surface tension is good and it is ready for the next step. Fermenting bubbles are visible on the surface as well. If the dough cannot retain form and falls into a pile when you try to shape it, it’s got problems. Feel free to message me with any sourdough questions!
How do you get the patterns on your bread and is it just decorative or does it actually do something?
Sourdough expands as it bakes. The purpose for scoring a loaf is to have a predictable point of expansion. Without it, the loaf would find a weak spot in the surface of the dough and blow out through there creating a expansion that is not uniform (or pretty). That is the reason for scoring, or cutting along the top of the dough to create an expansion point. This is an essential step on the road to beautiful sourdough!
The angle of a cut will have a lot to do with how the loaf opens and expands, the loaf above had a cut from the front to the back of the dough at an angle of about 45 degrees from the work surface. A steeper angle, say cutting straight from the top, would result in more even expansion on both sides (And will not allow for the coveted sourdough ear).
Notice how the loaf above expanded evenly in both directions? That is what a straight cut will do when scoring.
What type of flour should I use?
I use plain, unbleached, Dakota Maid white flour. Enriched is fine, bleached is not. It removes some of the beneficial things that make the starter bubble. I used to buy fancy expensive organic flour, but I have found that the basic stuff works great too. I use an organic spelt flour to build up my levain (more on that in the recipe section) because it metabolizes faster and gives the bread a nice texture, however, any whole grain flour would work. I never feed my starter with anything but unbleached white flour. If you feed it with whole wheat, the taste will change and it will need to be fed more often.
What and how often do I feed it?
Just a little flour and water, nothing fancy. Try to match the quantity you’re feeding with how much you feed it. For example: ½ cup of starter, ½ cup of water, and ½ cup of flour. Over time I have started feeding my starter so I attain the texture I want, not based off of measurement. Every flour has a different hydration (how much water it will soak up) and so with sourdough (and all bread baking) exact measurements are not always transferable. You want a slightly chunky, sticky texture that is thicker than pancake batter, but not a dough. If my starter is at room temperature, say, living on the counter, I feed it morning and night. If it’s in the fridge, I feed it every few days or before I am going to bake. After awhile in the fridge or too long between feeding on the counter it will develop a “hooch”…
What is the black liquid on top of my starter?!
It’s hooch. It can smell like wine or vinegar, but if it has mold or a pungent (rotten, not sour) smell, it may be bad. If it develops don’t worry! Your starter is not dead. It happens when the starter has used up the available starch and sugars in the flour and so it is “hungry”. Feed it. It’s hard to kill, but a few weeks of solid neglect will kill even a hearty starter.
When it stops bubbling it just means that it has used up most of the available food (starch). If it hasn’t been months, you could probably just go ahead and use the starter. Otherwise feed again and discard the excess. You have to remember that it only takes 4 to 6 hours at warm temperatures for a starter to use up most of its food.
When the starter separates, it just means that it is not fermenting fast enough to keep the flour particles in suspension. often that is caused by the culture running out of food or, if kept in the refrigerator it has slowed due to cold. The cure, usually, is just to feed it.
If you are going to let it sit for a second overnight period, you should definitely feed the culture and discard the excess.
How do I store my bread so it doesn’t get hard right away?
Leaving your bread uncovered or loosely covered with a cloth etc. will make the bread get pretty hard. The reason is it balances it’s humidity with its surrounding i.e. it will lose hydration and dry out. That’s not good! I keep mine in the same dutch oven I bake it in. I keep a folded piece of parchment paper under it to help with humidity and keep the lid on whenever we are not using the bread. This makes for a wonderful texture even on day 4 after baking! And covered vessel without air holes will work, but after many attempts at other types I stick with a cast iron pot or dutch oven with a nicely fitting lid.