8 Top Tips for Sourdough Success

Sourdough has nearly defeated me! That’s probably good for this blog but not so great for my sanity. So, here are my top 8 tried (many times!) and tested tips for making sourdough bread without losing your mind!

1. Be prepared to try and fail.

This may seem a defeatist first step (!), but when I accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to be a Master Sourdough Bread Maker on my first few attempts, I slowed down, settled down and prepared for the long haul of learning. And then started to make better bread. I started making sourdough about a year ago and I definitely still have a long way to go.

2. Master the starter.

To begin with, you need a sourdough starter. If you haven’t got one, see my previous post about how to make a sourdough starter. Once you have your starter, fed and ready to go, you are all set to make sourdough bread.

3. Use the best recipe!

I gathered lots of information from Google searches and Pinterest posts, and tried a lot of different methods. Each one definitely taught me something new, but they were all pretty much a disaster. They looked nothing like the photos and were mostly inedible. Thankfully, I eventually stumbled upon an amazing sourdough recipe and explanation on The Clever Carrot. I quickly saved it to my home screen and have been using it ever since.

Read through the recipe, explanation and method quite a few times. I definitely prefer to skim read recipes to get the overall gist, but in the world of sourdough, thorough reading is important! And taking time to read and visualize the steps and processes involved is definitely helpful. Fortunately, The Clever Carrot explanation is very clear so that’s good.

4. Adapt the recipe as needed.

Because the starter is using bacteria from your environment, it is slightly unique to where you are. So you have to slightly adapt the recipe depending on where you are. When I stopped thinking that if I followed a recipe letter by letter I would automatically produce the perfect loaf, and instead was prepared to experiment with a few things, I started to make better sourdough.

Here are some things I’ve found helpful:

  • The order you put the ingredients in matters. I whisk the starter and the water, then add the oil, then the flour and mix it all together.
  • I use a lot more water than the recipe says, as in over 100g more, which makes it super wet, but it seems to help it to rise.
  • If I have time, I wait half an hour before I add the salt. If not, I add it at the same time as the flour.
  • I think because I use so much water, I need to increase the salt. I experimented and inevitably, I made one that was way too salty! So now I add about 3g more and it seems to work.
  • I line my bowl with baking paper before I put in the dough, it stops it from sticking to the sides when it bakes. I also rise and bake the dough in the same bowl/dutch oven.
  • Bench scrapers are amazing! They help to handle the dough, although even with a scraper, the dough is difficult to handle, so don’t worry if it feels odd at first.

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5. Try to be patient.

It takes a while for sourdough to rise, so you have to be patient! I leave the dough to rise overnight. This works best because I’m not looking at it or poking it or wishing it would rise. I go to sleep and it rises all on it’s own!

There is no point baking the dough if it hasn’t risen – it won’t work. That might sound obvious, but at first (not being very patient) I would convince myself the dough had risen when it hadn’t really – it needs to double in size, at the very least. Now I make the sourdough using the same bowl every time so I know when it has risen to a level that produces good sourdough – usually it is to about an inch below the top of my bowl.

So, be patient. Decide it’s going to take a while and settle in! Working out a schedule helps with this. Mine is:

  • Day 1 (usually a Friday): In the morning, at about 9am, get the starter out of the fridge and feed it. In the evening, at about 6pm, check it is ready (again, see my previous post on starters). If/when it is ready, make the dough and leave it to rise overnight.
  • Day 2: In the morning, check the dough has risen and bake the bread.

6. Embrace the warmth.

For the rise: Unlike the wholegrain bread I’ve made, sourdough is much more sensitive. It does need to be in quite a warm place to rise. I left it in the garage in winter once and it did nothing but if I leave it in the garage in summer it rises like a beaut. I normally cover the bowl with a towel as well, which may be going overboard but it seems to work.

And for the bake: I read a lot about how the oven and pot need to be ‘screaming’ hot when you put the sourdough in. That involves a lot of heating and faffing around, as well as some burns! The Clever Carrot simplifies it and suggests that you heat the oven to 450°F/230°C then turn it down to 400°F/200°C when you put the dough in. This means you don’t have to heat up the dutch oven and then try and get the dough in it without burning yourself. It also means you can let the sourdough rise in the dutch oven and then put it straight into the oven.

7. Don’t worry about the second rise.

I say this tentatively because I’m not sure if it’s bread heresy! I tried to do the second rise but to be honest, it was just too difficult. Even when I don’t add extra water, the dough is difficult to handle, so with extra water it is nearly impossible. Also I just seemed to let all of the air out and then it didn’t rise again. Although I’m sure at some point I will attempt to master the second rise, for now I seem to produce an edible loaf without the second rise.

8. If nothing else, there’s always French toast!

When it comes out, it looks like this.

Because I don’t do the second rise, it’s the same shape as the dutch oven, which is a bit odd, but when you cut it, it is great for dipping as well as toasting, or just straight up eating!

But, if it doesn’t work quite as planned, then it makes great French toast. If it goes really wrong, and the mistakes are not edible, take a deep breath, feed the birds (or the bin!) and then try again…it’s one more step along the road towards an edible loaf.

 

So that’s everything I’ve learned about Sourdough so far! Hope it helps!

Shhhhh….! I have an extra, secret tip, which I’m certain is bread heresy, so I didn’t include it in the 8 above. Once, when I was very disheartened after a run of flat inedible bread-bricks… I did use normal yeast as well as the starter – eek! I mean, it worked, and it cheered me up, so maybe it was worth it just once! 

 

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