Bread making (Sourdough) Basics for home bakers

bread basics

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;

Bakers math (bakers percentage):
Useful in any type of bread making. Some recipes only give you the bakers percentage of the ingredients and you can easily calculate the weight. I will explain it in a simpler way. So as flour is our main ingredient, it is always stated as 100%. And all other ingredients are stated as a percentage of the flour weight.
Eg: check the following recipe and how weight is calculated based on the %

IngredientsFormula (%)
(bakers %)
1 kilo (1000 g)
(of flour)
Actual weight
Flour1001000 500
Salt2(2/100)1000 = 2010
Malt0.2(0.2/100)1000 = 21
0.5(0.5/100)1000 = 52.5
Water70(70/100)1000 = 700350
bakers percentage

So when someone sates 70% hydration, this is what they are talking about. The beauty of bakers percentages is that when you have this formula, you can adjust your final dough size to anything you want. Doesn’t matter if you have got 200 g of flour or 3 kilos of flour, you can always calculate the rest using this percentage and get the recipe right.

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.

Starter hydration:
Different recipes call for different starters. Some use stiff starters, some liquid. So when you build a starter, you can control the hydration. We know as a rule, we feed only a very little amount of starter, usually a teaspoon or a tablespoon, in order to build a new starter. That’s roughly about 5 g. We also know, that we feed it with a pulp of flour and water. This pulp could be of different hydration levels. So if you want a stiff starter say (50% hydrated) you mix 100g flour with 50g water. If you want a 100% starter, then you mix 100g flour with 100g water. Once you have your pulp in the hydration level you want, you can then mix the little amount of the culture/teaspoon of starter to build your new starter for the intended recipe. Then this could be left for 6-8 hours to ferment. If the recipe says to use 120g of the starter, weight that amount from the fully active starter and discard the rest or use that in discard recipes.
If you really want, you can do the math and make exactly the amount of starter you need to prevent any wastage.
eg: 64g flour + 51g water + 5g starter = 120g starter
This is totally unnecessary and complex and most kitchen scales aren’t accurate enough 🙂 So just take it easy, it’s sourdough after all. The whole process is very forgiving.

Flour types:
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
Room temperature
Starter hydration

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 mesh

Gluten is a type of protein.
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.

stretchy dough
Gluten strength (window test)

Folding techniques:
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 Proof:
Bulk proofing is where you let the yeast do it’s 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 sourdough at this stage, as there will be a long retardation later usually. Perfect proofing temperature is 77°F (25°C) but anywhere from 70°F – 75°F (21°C -23°C) is good enough. Be creative in making a warm proofing spot for your dough. A proofing box, the oven or a cupboard with a cup of boiling water, a big food grade proofing bag, anything works! pick your favorite.

I use these plastic bags

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 baguettes
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

place in basket
Using a banneton to proof

Final proof:
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.

Fully proofed rolls

Stem is important when baking crusty loaves(country loaves and other lean recipes)specially in the first half of the bake to get the maximum oven spring. Steam delays the crust formation and allows the bread to expand. There are several ways to produce steam in a home oven when you are not using a Dutch Oven. With a DO you don’t have to provide steam as the steam from the bread is trapped because we keep the lid on during the first half.

When open baking you can provide steam using a combination of following;
-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
-Throw few ice cubes on to a preheated tray placed on the lower (bottom) rack

Oven temperature:
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 conventional. 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 with a mode.

Baking Methods:

Dutch Oven
I always use a cast iron DO (5 Qrt) if I am baking in a new oven or if the oven is conventional and doesn’t heat up evenly. I place my bread in the pre-heated dutch oven directly on a piece of parchment paper.

Open baking (baking steel/pizza stone)

I use a baking steel when I open bake. This requires a good oven (possibly a fan forced) that heats up well and that can maintain heat throughout the bake. Also you will have to apply a lot of steam usually using multiple sources. Check my ‘high hydration sourdough’ post for more details.

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  1. Hi Vindi!
    I am new to sourdough baking
    Just baked my first loaf and it come out with nice crust and good crumb.But after an hour crust got soft and bread is soggy.
    any thoughts?
    Thank you!

    1. Welcome to the world of sourdough Elena 🙂
      Well, your bread hasn’t been dried out enough in the oven. Try baking for longer at a lower temperature.
      Make sure your oven internal temperature is accurate by placing a oven thermometer.
      Usually we bake bread for about 40 – 50 minutes. Temperature may range from 500 F to 450F
      Using a baking stone/dutch oven/pizza stone helps too

  2. Hi Vindi! Found your blog on YouTube, where you posted a beautiful bread with a link to your blog! Thank you for this wealth of information, I now follow you on IG!

    1. Thanks and welcome Danniella. I hope this information will help you make beautiful bread!
      Tag me on IG when you make one of my recipes, I’d love to see 🙂

  3. Thank you Vindi for making this blog, it helps me with new information.. as a newbie in sourdough, reading your blog give more courage n guidance..i follow your ig and can’t wait to try those discard recipes.. cheers Vindi!

  4. hi Vindi,
    found your recipes very illustrative and helpful. Would like to know how to achieve a crusty outer layer of the bread even on the second day.Usually it gets soft. Also how to store the bread? Is there any particular way of storing the bread to maintain its crustiness.

    1. Thank you. I am glad you find these helpful 🙂
      A crust is achieved by the Starch gelatinization on the outer layer of the bread. We use water for that. You can use steam/or spray water, if you bake your loaves directly in the oven (without a Dutch Oven).
      But if you bake in a DO, spray the loaf with water(use a spray bottle) before you score and then place it in the oven. Bread with higher hydration get a crust without doing this, but you have to bake in a high temperature (500 F)
      Also you have to bake the bread until it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
      To store: Let the bread cool completely and then you can keep it in a paper bag or wrapped in a tea towel for no longer than a day. Bread loses it’s crustiness after a day(it attracts moisture from the atmosphere), you can always freshen it up in a oven though ( 10 minutes in a 400 F oven)
      Or toast the slices, this is what most of us do including the cafes/restaurants
      Hope this helps!

  5. Thank you for this!
    I have a quick question: I’m following your high hydration sourdough recipe. I’ve tried it about 6 times now and my dough NEVER holds its shape like yours does – it’s always very, very lax (more like batter).

    I’ve tried leaving longer and longer it for gluten to develop more; folding it more; adding more flour; adding less water but nothing helps. I always end up with a sticky, batter-like mess.

    When I’ve looked online, all I ever find is “leave it for longer” but I can’t leave my dough any longer than I already do! I’ve left it to ferment/proof for a couple of days and it NEVER holds its shape!

    What could I possibly be doing wrong? I feel like I’m going mad!

    1. Then it should be the flour you use. Make sure it is strong bread flour ( with higher gluten % and low bran %)

  6. Another reason might be that the bread needs to cool completely before you cut it, or it will be “soggy” inside. I usually let mine sit for at least a few hours to overnight before I cut it. There’s a world of difference in the crumb if you can let it sit and cool for many hours. It’s hard to resist breaking into it when it’s still warm, though!

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