Baking wild sourdough
I’ve been baking wild-fermented sourdough for a number of years. Some friends have individually asked about my process, so I thought I’d share it publicly.
Baking is great. Aside from the obvious benefit of always having delicious fresh bread available to eat and share, it’s appealing to me for its process: the long rhythm of feeding starter and baking loaves, the connection to time, place, and season, the development and understanding of a baking routine which fits in your life.
And of course, the transmutation of a glob of wet ground wheat to delicious staple food by invisible microbes pulled from the air is nothing short of miraculous every time.
This isn’t meant as an intro to sourdough- there are lots of resources which cover the basic steps, including starting a starter and using baker’s percentages.
I feed my starter daily, even during periods when I’m not baking much. I’ve had bad luck keeping it in the fridge and waking it up after a few weeks dormant, so it ends up being better for me to keep it constantly fresh. Also, always having a happy starter means you can bake whenever you’d like.
To feed, I use a clean, dry jar to scoop a 50/50 mix of whole wheat and white flour (whatever I have around), aiming for a total of about 50g. I weigh what I’ve ended up with (remembering to tare the scale beforehand), and add water to 100% hydration. I use a big tablespoon scoop of yesterday’s starter and discard the rest… I’d love to find a better use for the waste beside going in the compost.
The starter lives on dark shelf next to the oven, loosely covered.
I try to keep track of how things are going in there. When the kitchen is warm, it bubbles up and starts to smell fruity after a few hours, then swiftly collapses into a sharp, ripe, vinegar smell. In colder months, it takes longer but still ideally gets to a young, banana-smelling stage, but often the acetic notes dominate early.
I use a ripe leaven, generally 16–24 hours old. The evening before I want to mix my dough, I’ll mix 400g of a 100% hydration, 50% whole wheat, 50% white flour leaven, inoculated with a big tablespoon’s worth of starter (generally around 12 hours old at that point). I try to mix on the hotter side to try to kick things off, maybe 75F, though that quickly stabilizes to room temperature. So, that’s 200g warm water, 100g white, 100g whole wheat flour.
I cover the leaven with a kitchen towel and let it sit overnight. By midday the next day, it’s a smelly, bubbly mass.
My go-to recipe these days is 81% hydration, 70% white bread flour, 30% whole wheat, 20% leaven, 2.5% salt. A single batch for me uses 1000g flour, which get divided to two loaves. I inoculate with 20% leaven- for a 1kg batch, I’ll use 200g.
I try to mix with water at 70F. If it’s a very cold day, I’ll prewarm my mixing bowl with warm water from the tap. I mix the leaven with the water first, trying to break up all the clumps by hand. Then I’ll mix in the flours, folding it in to the water, then working it through my fingers. This is messy. I’ll let that mixture sit for 10–30 minutes before adding salt (unless I’m feeling lazy and just mix salt at the same time).
I keep the rising dough in its mixing bowl on the counter, covered with a kitchen towel. If the kitchen is cold, I’ll sometimes improvise a proof box by sticking the dough in the oven (turned off) with a pot of just-boiled water, periodically reboiling the pot (and keeping an eye on the dough’s temperature).
I try to stick around for the duration of the bulk fermentation. I’m not too stringent about doing folds on a schedule- generally when I look up from my computer or go make a coffee, I’ll check out how things are proceeding and make a couple of folds- for me, doing this 4 or 5 times during the rise is a success. I think my folds are a bit more aggressive than others (say, the Tartine book)- I’ll make a good eight or nine full folds, until the surface of the dough is taught and takes on a smooth consistency.
It took me a long time to start to recognize when the dough is ready to move on. There are so many variables involved that just going by the clock wasn’t working well for me- it took lots of iteration (and less-than-perfect loaves) to get to a point where I’m even halfway comfortable deciding the moment to shape. Settling on a single recipe (thus reducing variables) helped a lot. In my kitchen on a nice spring San Francisco day, a happy bulk rise seems to take a bit over four hours. In the winter it’s much longer.
I dump the dough out on my (unfloured) counter. I’ll give it a bit of a shaping to get it basically round, then use a dough knife to chop it in half. Each half gets folded over itself a couple of times, turning between each fold, shaped to a loose round. I’ll let the loaves bench rest for a while- 20 to 40 minutes, depending on how distracted I get by other things.
After resting, I’ll give each loaf a proper fold and shape (maybe four or five folds, then turning and “tucking” the loaf until round). Then I’ll use the dough knife to scape the round off the bench and plop it into an unfloured kitchen towel draped over a small brotform. I fold the loose edges of the towel over the dough and then off it goes, into the fridge for a long, cold secondary fermentation.
I’ll leave the rising loaves in the fridge for 14–24 hours, pulling them out just before they go in the oven.
I bake at 500F. I used to mess around with modulating between 450 and 500, as Chad describes in the Tartine book, but it’s too complicated setting timers and I’m essentially lazy, so I just stay at 500.
I bake in Lodge combo cookers, which are great. I’ll leave them in the oven during preheat, with shallow part on the upper shelf and the deep part below. When everything is up to temp, for each loaf I pull out one shallow part, transfer the dough onto it (carefully!), score the top, move it all back in to the oven, then pull the deep part of the combo cooker from the lower oven shelf and drop it in to place, covering the baking bread. Needless to say, handling a heavy pan at 500F requires some foresight- I make sure I’m wearing shoes, that I know where it’s going to be set down (and that spot is clear), that the cat is asleep somewhere and isn’t going to trip me trying to get a snack.
I set a timer for 20 minutes. Soon the house smells like baking bread. When the timer dings, I’ll pull off the combo cooker lids and finally get a peek at the nascent bread. The loaf will have risen its full extent at that point, but the crust will not have developed. I set the timer for another 20 minutes and let it bake out. Generally I’ll peek with a few minutes to go and pull things out early if they’re looking done.
Then, let things cool for 20 or 30 minutes or as long as I can stand it, and cut a big hunk out and eat with delicious butter and salt. Woah.
❤️ See me on Twitter