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Demystifying Sourdough – Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Sourdough Starter – Why It’s Better for You and How To Start One

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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.

A homemade artisan sourdough loaf shaped in a banneton. Copyright Butter For All

 

Page Guide

Page 1. Intro
Page 2. What Is Sourdough?
Page 3. Bread Terminology
Page 4. Why Eat Sourdough?
Page 5. Tools
Page 6. Starter Recipe
Page 7. Fresh Starter vs. Discard
Page 8. Starter Hydration & Feeding
Page 9. Favorite Recipes
Page 10. Troubleshooting Sourdough
Page 11.  Starter Insurance Policy
Page 12. Using Stale Bread
Page 13. Recipes You Don’t Want To Miss
 

Donna

Monday 15th of November 2021

I’m on day 5 of my rye starter. Day 2 it almost doubled in size! Day 3 almost no activity. Day 4 it hasn’t risen but I can see a few bubbles! Is this normal? Should I continue to do the daily feedings or is this batch a lost cause? Thanks

Butter For All

Monday 22nd of November 2021

Hi Donna!

Don't toss it! This is totally normal. At first the yeast go crazy, then they mellow out as the bacteria get going, over the next few weeks they will balance out and harmonize into a lovely starter! Hope I caught this comment in time!

Best,

Courtney

Jill

Monday 21st of June 2021

Hi, I’ve made your Soft and Sweet Sourdough Milk Bread and can never seem to get a good rise out of it. I’m thinking it’s my proofing length but also how I fold my dough. Could you tell me your method of folding before the first rise? So far I’ve attempted a coil fold, but don’t think it’s working…

Thanks!!

Jill

Butter For All

Thursday 24th of June 2021

Hey Jill,

I typically do stretch and fold in the bowl. I just find that to be my preferred way to develop gluten. You can see me demo it in this video. https://youtu.be/aqYctt7W_N4 It is a different recipe but pretty much the same technique.

Hope this helps!

Courtney

Mia

Friday 26th of March 2021

I’m on day 3 and I started with wheat flour. Can I change to All Purpose Flour starting day 4?

Butter For All

Monday 29th of March 2021

Hi Mia,

Yes, you should be fine, the yeast should already be present from the outside husk of the WW flour. Just keep feeding it!

Rashmi Ingle

Wednesday 24th of March 2021

I live in Switzerland and want to start sourdough. Since the temperatures here are colder, do I need to take extra care to make sure the starter grows well?

Butter For All

Wednesday 24th of March 2021

Hi Rashmi,

That's a great question. I would probably try to keep the starter in a warm area of your kitchen, but you shouldn't need to do a lot of extra babying. Yeast can be trained to perform at cooler temperatures just by feeding the starter and keeping it in the climate you are in, and you want your starter to rise in your cooler temps anyway. I would just use (at least part) a local organic flour to try to capture some of your local yeast strains, they will already be suited for your climate. Once the starter is established in your climate is should work well no matter the flour.

Hope that helps!

Courtney

Linda

Saturday 20th of March 2021

Help! I am on my 2nd try at a homemade sourdough starter. I’ve tried unbleached flour and whole-wheat flour, filtered tap water and bottled water, I get a few bubbles but no rise and it never gets that sourdough smell, it really doesn’t smell much like anything! What do you think is happening?

Butter For All

Monday 22nd of March 2021

Hi Linda,

Are you using organic flour? The chemicals used to grow conventional wheat can really disrupt the sourdough process. If you are using organic and still have a problem getting a starter going then you may need to introduce some wild yeast. This can be done using organic whole grain flour, an organic fruit — like a grape, or even an herb leaf from your garden. Just add the grain, or fruit, or leaf to your starter for 24 hours, then remove it and feed your starter again. That will inoculate the starter with wild yeast.

It can take a solid two weeks to see any activity. Keep going!

Courtney

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