Important Sourdough Bread Terminology
Starter – A continuous mixture of flour, water, wild yeast, and bacteria that is left to ferment. Starter supplies the yeast and acids needed to ferment any sourdough recipe. Portions of the active starter are removed to make bread and other baked goods and then replaced (feedings) with fresh flour and water. Starter is also referred to as “the mother” or “leavan.”
Discard – The portion of starter removed before feeding. Typically 50% of the starter is removed to make room for fresh flour and water. The action of removing a portion of fully fermented starter and replacing it with fresh flour and water gives the starter fresh sugars to consume and revives the starter prior to baking. Discard is not always discarded, it can be used to make pancakes, waffles, crackers, and tortillas.
Feeding – The process of adding fresh flour and water to the starter to revive it before baking.
Levian – A small portion of stiff dough (usually around 60-70% hydration) made with flour, water, and starter. The levian is left to ferment for up to 24 hours at room temperature before using it to start a loaf of bread.
Hydration – The percentage by weight of water to flour in a starter or dough. “100% hydration” is a starter/dough made with equal weights of water and flour. Typical bread dough is usually 65-85% hydration. The higher the hydration a dough is, the larger the air pockets will be, but also the harder the dough will be to work with. My own personal recommended hydration for sourdough starter is 100%. This makes it extremely easy to divide and multiply for recipes. My bread loaves are around 75% hydration; they are easy to work with but still produce a nice open crumb.
Crumb – The texture of the baked good’s gluten pockets inside the crust. An open crumb has large airy pockets while a dense or tight crumb is heavy without any air pockets.
Leavening – The process of rising the bread through fermentation and trapped gas.
Fermentation – The act of fermenting a food with yeast and lactic acid bacteria. Fermentation preserves food by creating an acidic or alcoholic environment where potentially harmful bacteria cannot survive.
Proofing– The time it takes for a dough to rise. Typically a bread will proof two times before baking. The first proof happens after the ingredients have been mixed and kneaded and usually requires the dough to at least double in volume. The second proof happens after the dough has been shaped and again can be as long as it takes for the dough to double in volume before baking. Slow proofing can be done in the refrigerator. Called “retarding,” it gives the dough more time to develop and can help you time your baking.
Kneading – Kneading dough can be done by hand (usually on a floured surface) or by machine. Kneading is done before the first fermentation and is the action that produces gluten. It is done by folding one side of the dough toward the middle and pressing it down, turning the dough one-quarter turn, and repeating the fold. These motions are repeated until the dough is smooth and elastic and passes the windowpane test.
Windowpane test – The windowpane test is used to determine if a strong gluten structure has been achieved. Take a small piece of dough and flatten it in your fingers. Gently pull the dough out from the middle to the edges. If you can stretch the dough out into a translucent layer (hence the name windowpane) then the dough has a strong gluten structure.
Stretch and fold – An important kneading technique that encourages long gluten strands. The dough is left in the mixing bowl, taken by hand, and pulled out in one direction before folding it over the middle. The dough is then turned 90 degrees and this process is repeated in the remaining three directions. Stretch and fold takes the place of common kneading and can happen anywhere from three to 10 times during the initial fermentation.
Oven-spring – The quick and significant rise when a dough is placed in a hot oven. As the yeast warms it gets really happy and starts to produce a lot of carbon dioxide very quickly, creating a big “spring” in the bread. Oven-spring is best observed when dough has been scored.
Scoring – Slashing an uncooked dough with a very sharp blade right before baking. Scoring has two main functions, decoration and allowing for more oven-spring.
Docking – Pricking a flat dough like pizza or crackers with a docking tool or fork. This keeps the dough from bubbling up when it is cooked.
Carryover cooking – The cooking that continues inside the bread when it’s removed from the oven. Hot steam is trapped inside the crust of the bread and will continue to cook the dough as it cools to room temperature. I try to never cut a hot loaf of bread because it will change the texture of the whole loaf. When the steam is released from the bread it evaporates and the crumb will dry out much more quickly than a loaf cooled to room temperature.
Boule – The French word for “ball,” used to describe an artisan round loaf.
Batard – An oblong shaped loaf.
Baguette – The French classic, a long and narrow loaf.
Banneton – A bread proofing basket usually made of concentric circles of willow branches. Bannetons are used in bread making at home and in commercial bakeries. They are especially helpful in supporting high hydration (soft) doughs so they can rise in a uniform shape. They give bread a distinctive artisan appearance.
Shaping – Shaping the dough is done after the first ferment and the punch down. It is the process that shapes the dough into a bun, boule, batard, baguette, sandwich loaf, roll, etc. Shaping is an important step that allows the dough to rise in a uniform and desired way by creating a tightly pulled outer layer of dough.
Punch down – To punch down a dough is to deflate the gasses from the dough. This step is usually preformed after the first proof and before shaping. It typically involves removing the dough from the proofing bowl to a floured surface. The dough is then pushed down with your fists, deflating any big gas bubbles. The dough is then rested for a few minutes before shaping.