As a customer support rep for over 3 years now, I’ve learned a thing or two about baking sourdough. When I started, I asked a lot of questions to my fellow CSRs. But I have a confession - I was just too scared to bake sourdough myself!   It didn’t help (or maybe it did) that my dad is a near-pro. He bakes his loaves every weekend and they turn out perfect. My expectations were high to begin with, but the first lesson I had to learn the hard way was to start simple.   Bread can be as simple or as complex as you let it be, and there seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to baking the perfect loaf. Some people love turning it into a science where every bit of flour is measured by weight, the dough is proofed at a certain temperature over a certain amount of time, and baked for the exact same amount of time - every time. This seems to be the modern way to do it, and many professional bakeries prefer this method because it’s easier to teach and the bread turns out very consistent.   This is the method that I jumped into first. I saw a book called Tartine 3 at Powell’s Books in Portland and bought it since I had heard of its namesake bakery - and the photos are beautiful! The recipes incorporate all sorts of different whole grain flours, nuts, and seeds. The loaves turn out looking like they belong in a museum - if you can manage them! I found that in order to use the book, I had to adjust my sleep schedule, go to several grocery stores to find the ingredients,  I couldn’t have anything planned for an entire day, and I had to constantly flip through the cookbook to look up terminology while I was trying to finesse everything together. And to make things worse, I made a lot of bricks, some turning out more edible than others. I found it completely ironic that I was successfully coaching people through sourdough baking and I couldn’t even do it myself (another confession - I relied a lot on baking forums to pinpoint issues)! I guess the saying is true that it’s easier to be a critic than to create.

Finally, I decided to try a simpler recipe. I actually chose the “Basic Sourdough Bread” recipe from Cultures for Health! I found it refreshing that the ingredients called for “flour” instead of “whole wheat bread flour,” “high extraction red wheat flour,” or something otherwise more sophisticated. At the same time, I wondered how the recipe could possibly be so vague! So to test its limits, I added a mix of flour - about ⅔ white bread flour and ⅓ all-purpose whole wheat flour. I added the water based on the conservative estimate (because you can always add but it’s harder to take away) and while mixing, it felt sticky but cohesive. Just right. I even incorporated a fancy kneading technique I learned on Youtube where you sort of slap it onto the cutting board. At first it was very sticky and sloppy, but then I could feel the gluten starting to activate. Soon enough, it turned into a smooth, elastic blob of dough! It looked just like the King Arthur Youtube videos (highly recommend). When I formed it into a loaf, it was such a tiny ball. It was a little cool in my kitchen, so I placed the dough ball on top of some parchment paper inside of a Dutch oven, then placed the Dutch oven on top of a heating pad. After a couple hours, I could tell it had expanded significantly. How exciting! My dad told me it’s better to bake your bread slightly underproofed than overproofed, otherwise when it is overproofed it has already reached its maximum loft and will collapse in the oven. This is because the heat from the oven gives the loaf one final spring (the gases in the bubbles expand when hot). So I nervously decided it was time to bake. The end result - I won’t say perfect but I would say pretty darn good! The color of the crust was a nice golden brown and the crumb was light. The only thing that needs improvement is the crust - it wasn’t “crusty” like the sourdough loves I buy from my local baker. Next time I’ll spritz my loaf with water before putting it into the Dutch oven - the trapped steam will help create that crispy crust. Hint - the “perfect” loaf doesn’t exist - you can always improve, which is part of what makes it fun!

So what was the main difference between the two attempts (besides one being a failure and one being a success)? If you take a close look at my success story, you’ll see that I used my intuition or “sixth sense” a lot more than my other attempts. This is something I developed over a dozen or so loaves/bricks. Some people get a knack for it sooner after a couple bakes, but everyone learns at their own pace.   For me, I find it more difficult to follow rigid instructions than to go by sight/feel. The other thing about the scientific approach is that you need to control your variables (temperature, humidity, weighing ingredients, etc.) pretty tightly, something that can be difficult to do in a home kitchen. For example, if your recipe calls for you to proof for 6 hours but your ambient temperature is lower from what they call for in the recipe, your bread will not be properly proofed in 6 hours.   There is absolutely nothing wrong with the more scientific approach - it’s just one way of doing things. In fact, many recipes incorporate both styles.  

The moral of the story is - try different recipes, practice, and don’t give up! You may want to find a book that you really click with that teaches you the basics. Read through the recipe before you get going. If it’s confusing, you might want to find a different one. Start with simpler recipes such as a sandwich loaf and once you master that, work your way up to a beautiful whole grain seeded artisan loaf if that’s your goal.Failures are never fun, but they’re a part of the learning process - especially if you can figure out what went wrong. It makes your successes that much more rewarding. And delicious!
About the Author: Carly