I keep getting many questions from home-bakers, about measurements, dough consistency, mixing and proofing mostly with regard to sourdough recipes. So I decided that it will be helpful to create a post that address all the basics in one place about “baking sourdough at home”.
This is for anyone who is new to sourdough baking or is thinking of starting fresh. Also these information would be helpful specially if you are attempting my recipes on this blog, but is not limited to.
I presume, that you have some sort of previous baking experience and now you have decided to take up sourdough baking. If this is not true, then may be it is a good time to take a step back and familiarize yourself with some simple bakes before attempting sourdough recipes. But, it is totally up to you. If you think, you are capable of jumping straight in the deep end, by all means, do so. Everyone is different, so challenge yourself if you like 🙂
Lets get to it then;
So as all of you know, we need a sourdough starter to make sourdough products. I have a whole blog post dedicated to this topic.
Find it through this link. I am stating this again, it is best to start by baking with commercial yeast before you attempt sourdough.
I will start by saying you can make any bread/pastry product using normal all purpose flour. All purpose flour was the only thing I knew/had in the beginning of my baking journey. I made rolls, bread (yeasted/sourdough), enriched products, croissants, puff, pizza, cakes, tart bases, pies and everything using just all purpose flour. But later as my knowledge and experience expanded, I went into using different flour types, because I felt the need. Bread flour has a higher percentage of gluten and ideal for bread and baguettes. Cake flour has much less gluten and more starch and hence ideal for cakes, short bread etc. For everything else, I use all-purpose flour. But still, when I ran out of a certain flour, I have interchanged these and was still able to get good results. When making bread/ bread rolls, you can mix other low gluten ( even gluten free) flour varieties to create different flavor profiles or to simply up the nutrition. Whole meal, Rye, Buckwheat, Teff are some examples.
Most recipes use these flours in 5 – 20% of the total bread flour weight. There are recipes that use 80% – 100% Rye or wholemeal. Well, once you master the basics, you can dive deep into the world of bread and try as many recipes as you like or create your own.
Apart from these, we use semolina, rice flour to dust bannetons and couches to stop dough from sticking.
Always keep in mind that, ingredient measurements stated in a recipe are only a guide line. This is specially true when it comes to water. In bread making, you may need to adjust water percentage that you actually use and it may be slightly less or more than that stated in the recipe. This is mainly because;
Flours have different moisture content and absorbency
Eggs you use might be smaller or bigger
Humidity of the air
Mixing can be done by hand. But for enriched doughs like brioche, it is easier to start in the mixer and them finish off by hand. I recommend using hands as much as possible, so we can get a good feel of the dough consistency. We should not relay solely on time when mixing, but the dough consistency. This is why I always mention the look and feel of the dough and provide you with a picture. So that you know what to look for rather than mixing blindly.
Not mandatory, but is a good technique to add strength do dough at home, when you don’t have industrial mixers. This is useful when you have higher hydration percentage in your dough. Not necessary for rolls or other enriched doughs. You can of course use mixing to build and strengthen gluten. But I use autolysis as it requires less intervention. Just mix the flour and water and let this sit for some time (range from 30 minutes to a few hours) During this time flour absorb water, enzymes start to get activated and gluten is formed. This gluten can be further strengthened by folding the dough, which we will talk about next.
Gluten help keep the shape and also allowed the dough to expand (rise during fermentation/ oven spring). For crusty bread, baguettes it is very important to have a good strong gluten development, to get the expected chewy texture. Always do a “window test” meaning you should be able to stretch a dough without tearing so thin that you can see through. Check the following image.
But for soft bread rolls and enriched products like brioche, cinnamon scrolls, babka etc, this is not the case. In these cases, we only need moderate strength in the dough to achieve the softer crumb. This is why those recipes call for more fat, sugar in the dough and use flours with less gluten %. Also notice, most enriched recipes don’t require autolysing or folding. You can get away with minimal kneading.
You can use any technique you like. Stretch and fold is what we widely use. You simply stretch the dough and fold it right back. This is ideal with less sticky doughs like crusty bread. Coil fold is another technique. This is done by lifting the dough with two hand at opposite sides and letting dough coil underneath. Useful with slightly wet/ enriched doughs. Slap and fold is the third most popular, which I love, by the way. Great with sticky and slightly wet doughs. Gives you great control. Folding is how I add strength to the dough apart from autolysis.
Bulk proofing is where you let the yeast do their job, which is fermenting. Moisture will activate the enzymes that break down carbohydrates into simple sugars. Yeast from your starter will consume these sugars and reproduce rapidly, releasing CO2 as one of the by products. As a result the dough will expand and will be airy. Again do not rely on the time here. It is only a guide. Always look for the volume of the dough. If it has nearly doubled in size, then you are done with bulk proofing. With natural yeast, bulk proofing takes longer than with commercial fast acting yeast. We don’t want to over proof at this stage, as there will be a long retardation usually.
Retarding is nothing but long and slow fermentation. Usually achieved by placing the dough in a refrigerator. Some recipes retard the dough as a bulk and then shape them and do a final proof before baking. There are other recipes, that shape the product and then retard the final product before baking. Either way, the final product that we bake should be fully proofed. Let talk about final proof later.
Shaping the dough is very crucial. Shaping dough correctly, results in a much nicer and a high quality end product. Correct shaping adds strength to the surface, which would help keep dough from spreading during oven spring. If it spread sideways, too much, the final product will be flat and the crumb won’t be as open as we like it to be.
After the bulk, we either divide the dough or go straight to pre-shape. Pre-shaping helps gather the dough and make it easier to handle. We should let the pre-shaped dough rest/relax for at least 10 minutes (not too long) before shaping. This way the dough will be flexible, so we can shape it easily. It is a good idea to degas the dough before shaping. This doesn’t have to be too rough. We just lightly press, so that excess air is released and the dough is nice and even. Shaping is fun, watch videos and practice as much as you can and stick with your preferred method. Check following videos.
Shaping a loaf
Shaping bread rolls
Shaping a babka
Bread pans, baskets:
You can proof your dough is anything. For rustic bread you can use bannetons. If you don’t have bannetons, use any bowl or loaf tin, lined with a thick tea towel. Make sure to dust the tea towel generously with flour or semolina. For brioche or sandwich loafs, you require a loaf tin to get the shape right. So you proof in the same tin that you bake it. For baguettes, you can use a thick tea towel or a couche to proof. If baking in a baguette tray, you can proof directly on the tray. Check following videos.
How I use a tea towel to proof baguettes
I have used a loaf pan instead of a banneton
When product is proofed, just right, it gives a better oven spring. So it is mandatory that you check this with a “poke test“. When you gently put an indent on the surface with a finger, it should slowly bounce back. If it bounces back too quickly, then you need to proof a little longer. If it doesn’t bounce back, then the product is over proofed. But don’t worry, slightly over-proofed doesn’t mean we can’t bake it! Just that it won’t have the same oven spring. But it will still be a great bake! There is a learning curve. With time everything will be easier and become second nature.
Stem is important in baking crusty bread and rolls. It gives a nice crust and also a lovely color to the finished product and also helps over spring (expansion). There are several ways to produce steam in a home oven. A few I use are;
Placing a pan with boiling water on the bottom rack
Spray water (mist) directly using a spray bottle
Pour boiling water on to a preheated tray placed on the lower (bottom) rack
This is the most crucial thing to get right and the most overlooked. I can not stress this enough. You have to get to know to your oven. Never rely on the oven display. Be it electric or gas, always use your own store bought oven thermometer to get the oven temperature on point. Adjust the temperature according to your oven type. Convection ovens are efficient and heats up evenly and are usually hotter than convention. If you have a bottom heated oven (only the bottom element heats up in “bake” mode), remember the top half of the oven is the hottest as hot air travel upwards. Take time to read the manual and experiment with your oven before settling in.