I’m excited to answer a few more of your sourdough questions today! In this post, I’ll be focused more on the baking process. If you have starter questions, be sure to go back and check out part one.
Planning ahead for baking
I have heard from a lot of people that planning ahead for baking is a drawback for making sourdough, and I totally understand! If you decide today that you want to have bread with dinner tonight… it’s already too late. Sourdough does require a bit of foresight, which can take some getting used to.
I would start by choosing the day you want to bake. This goes hand in hand with meal planning- if you know you’re going to want to have bread to go with soup on Sunday, you might plan to bake your bread on Saturday. I will actually write this down in my planner or with my meal plan, and work backwards from there. If I want to bake Saturday evening, I will need to mix my dough Saturday morning. If I want to mix my dough Saturday morning, I’ll need to make a leaven Friday night. So I’ll write that down as well so I don’t forget. If I need to make a leaven Friday night and I’m not confident in the reliability of my starter, I’ll need to give my starter a “test feed” Thursday night or Friday morning. This may sound overwhelming if you’re just getting started, but I promise it’s not any more complicated than counting back a couple of days. And once you’ve done it a couple of times, it will become second nature. There are also a few different ways to morph this schedule to make it more flexible and suited to your schedule and availability.
Is my leaven ready for baking?
To get a good rise on your bread, you need a leaven that is at it’s peak. A leaven that is ready to go should be light, airy, and almost silky with lots of bubbles throughout. It should smell sweet and ripe. It should have roughly doubled from when you originally fed it 8-12 hours before. The easiest way you can ensure that your leaven is ready is by doing a float test. In a bowl of warm water, drop about a tablespoon of leaven. If it floats, it is ready! If it sinks, it is either over or under fermented. If you have yet to hit the 12 hour mark, give your leaven a bit more time and consider moving to a warmer location. Heat speeds up fermentation, cold slows it down. If you have already passed the 12 hour mark, your leaven may have already fallen from it’s peak, and you’ll need to make a new leaven.
I consider myself super fortunate to be able to stay at home with my young children, which means most days I am usually around to tend to my bread. But I understand that is not the case for everyone, and most circumstances don’t allow you to come home and turn your bread every few hours! If you feel like you can’t make sourdough because your schedule doesn’t allow for it, I have a few ideas for some tweaks you can make to make it fit into your unique schedule.
The way I typically bake, and the perspective my sourdough method is written from, is by mixing my dough in the morning, giving it turns as it rises throughout the day, and baking it that evening. But this is by no means the only way. You can easily reverse the times that you feed your leaven and mix your dough with great result.
For example, if you feed your leaven in the morning, you should be able to mix your dough that evening, 8-12 hours later when it reaches its peak. You can then let it rise overnight in the fridge, eliminating the turns every few hours. This works best if you can let it rise for at least an hour at room temperature and give it at least one fold before refrigerating. The next morning, or whenever you’re ready to bake, take it out of the fridge and allow the dough to warm up a bit before moving on to shaping and baking. I try not to leave my dough refrigerated for more than about 24 hours, and I have the most success at around 12 hours.
The refrigerator really is your friend when it comes to making sourdough. Think of it as a giant “pause” button on your dough. Refrigeration will slow the fermentation process considerably, but it will not stop it altogether. In fact, a cold proof is a great way to get a longer fermentation without over-proofing your dough. The other place in the baking schedule where refrigeration can be helpful is after shaping. If you’ve shaped your dough and simply can’t get to it at that moment, try placing your bannetons in the fridge covered with a wet tea towel. I usually do this overnight and bake in the morning. Cold dough scores beautifully, rises high, and these longer proofs will give you more of that tangy sourdough flavor.
Why is my dough so sticky?
If you’re dealing with sticky dough, there could be a few different reasons. First, your dough may be under or over-proofed. If it has been rising for less than 6 hours, give it a few extra turns and some more time. Usually the dough will get more elastic and less sticky as it builds tension and gets closer to being ready to bake. On the other hand, if it has been more than 10 hours and you haven’t done a cold proof, you may have over-proofed your dough. Unfortunately, there is no way to bring back over-proofed dough. You can always try to bake it and see what happens! Usually over-proofed dough is a sticky wet mess and makes for a flat, dense loaf. Next time try a shorter proof, keep a closer eye on your dough, and utilize the refrigerator or move to a cooler location.
Another reason you might be experiencing sticky dough, especially when shaping, is because you’re not using white rice flour. It really is a game-changer and removes a lot of the frustration that comes from dealing with sticky dough! White rice flour may seem like an unnecessary step, but I highly recommend giving it a try, especially if you are dealing with stickiness. It doesn’t sink into the dough like regular flour does, and so it forms a kind of barrier that really helps hold your loaf together. As an added bonus, it will really help your scores to stand out.
If you’ve tried these things and are still dealing with sticky dough, try lowering your hydration percentage. The hydration percentage is the amount of water divided by the amount of flour in a recipe. My recipe calls for 1000g total of flour, which makes it really easy to figure out the hydration percentage. I really like a 75% hydration, which comes out to 750g total water. If your dough is too wet, try bringing that down to 65% or 70%, or 650g-700g total water.
Why does my bread get burnt on the bottom?
If your bread is getting burnt on the bottom, I would first check to make sure your oven rack is in the middle position. If it is too low, it will be more directly over the heating element, and at such high temperatures this can definitely lead to a burnt bottom. You might also try placing some parchment paper in your pan to protect the loaf from being directly on the surface of the pan. If this doesn’t work, you could try lowering the oven temperature and extending the baking time. For example, I bake my bread at 450 for 20 minutes with the lid on, 20 minutes with the lid off. You could try 400 for 25 minutes on/ 25 minutes off.
Why does my bread get so hard so quickly?
There’s no getting around it, sourdough doesn’t stay soft for anywhere near as long as the sandwich bread you buy at the store. This is actually a good thing, as it’s free of all of the preservatives you’ll commonly find in store-bought bread! There are a few things you can do to extend it’s life, like wrapping in a tea towel, placing in a bread bag or bread box, wrapping with beeswax, and placing it cut side down on a cutting board. But really my best advice would just be to eat lots of it while it’s fresh, and once it gets hard and stale, turn it into something else. My favorites are bread crumbs, croutons, french toast, and breakfast casserole. I also keep a bag of bread ends in my freezer for when I don’t have time to make one of these things. Nothing needs to go to waste!
I hope this helps answer some of your questions about making sourdough, and maybe even removes some road blocks to getting started if you’re new to it! Be sure to follow me on instagram @vine.and.harvest for more sourdough advice and inspiration!