7 essential keys for successful sourdough baking

Few months ago I wrote about 6 biggest challenges in sourdough baking a beginner can face. You know, sourdough bricks, moldy starters, etc. In this post I would like to take a step further by explaining how you can get into sourdough baking fearless, well informed, and prepared of all the challenges you might face.

J. W. Goethe once said: "Everything is hard before it is easy."  Well, it doesn't have to be that way.

Shall we? Let's dig into 7 simple yet  essential keys for successful sourdough baking.

Rosemary bread

1. Make your sourdough starter work before your start with sourdough baking.

Before mixing a starter into the dough for the first time, make sure it is active, bubbly, and robust. If your starter doesn't rise after each feeding, neither will the bread you mixed your starter in.

Two important factors effect the activation of the starter in the beginning: flour type and temperature. Whole grain flours ferment faster and starter rises faster at higher temperatures (the optimum temperature in the beginning of the starter establishment is 25-27°C/77-80°F). My favorite flour for making sourdough starter from scratch is whole grain rye flour. Rye flour is rich is sugars and in the amylase enzymes which break down the starches into simple sugars the yeast feed on.

You can download step-by-step tutorial on how to make rye sourdough starter from the scratch, maintainance and troubleshooting tips here. It's an effective three day and no flour waste process.

2. Get to know the flour you are using.

My first learning reference for sourdough baking was the Chad Roberston's book Tartine Bread. His basic country loaf requires 75% hydration (that is water to flour ratio, for example 75% hydration means 75 g water to 100 g of flour). Using this hydration, his dough was beautifully strong, elastic and it held shape. 75% hydration for the white flour I use in Slovenia? No go.

I had to fall several times (read as scrub the runny dough from the counter) before it dawned on me that I don't have to push the water amount to percentages stated in the recipe. Instead, I have to figure out how much water my flour handles, regardless of what the recipe asks for.

The easiest way to test this, especially if you just bought a bag of new flour, is to mix your dough with lower amount of water (let's say 55-60%) and than leave the dough to rest for an hour. This process is called autolyse (from Greek word meaning self-digestion) and it's a process of the protein protease starting to break down the proteins in the flour when it's mixed with water.  Broken proteins then start realigning and forming gluten network. If you see that after one hour your dough can absorb more water, simply add more water, otherwise make sure you reduce the water amount next time. 

Note that whole grain flours absorb more water than white flours.

So, a hearthy tip from me before you try out one of the recipes on the blog or from any book - get to know your flour first.

3. The amount of water can make a huge difference.

Relating to the previous point, your flour might absorb more or less water than stated in the recipe. 70% hydration in my recipe, but your flour might only handle a 60% hydration or on the other hand 80% hydration.

What you aim for when mixing the flour, water, and sourdough starter is the consistency of the dough that feels right - both stretchy and elastic (the ability of the dough to bounce back). There are exceptions of course, like in focaccia baking. Since it is baked in a tray and shaping is easy, the hydration can be higher than usually.

What makes the dough stretchy and elastic? It's the gluten. Gluten is a composite of two proteins, glutenin and gliadin. Glutenin is responsible for elasticity and gliadin for stretchability.

Gluten in the flour only represents a potential for the dough to be elastic and stretchy. It's not until the water is added to the flour that gluten strands are formed. And what makes the flour to absorb different quantities of water? It's the gluten again. The more the gluten in the flour, the stronger is the flour and the longer fermentation it can handle and vice versa. The tricky part is to know the maximum of the water your flour absorbs.

Too much water in the dough and you can get from elastic dough to runny dough. On the other hand, a little bit more water in the dough and you can get from tight to open crumb. It's about balancing and the feeling in your hands. What a great learning is to feel the dough between your fingers.

4. Observe the dough, forget the watch.

Couple of months ago I bought myself a new bread book called In search of the perfect loaf. It was written by Samuel Fromartz, a journalist and an enthusiast home bread baker. I was immediately drawn by the descriptive language which makes you feel you are in Paris tasting baguettes with him and also by beautiful thoughts and insights a home baker needs. Like this one:

"Time was their most important tool: the time to let the dough come together gently, the time to let fermentation work its magic, and the fortitude not to be pushed by anything but the demands of the bread itself. "

What does the upper paragraph mean? If I paraphrase one of the other questions in his book, and which I often get asked: How long do you leave the dough to rise? The answer would be: I do it until it's risen and perfectly fermented.  This is why it is important to observe and feel the dough and move to the next step based on how the dough feels, looks and smells, rather on the time and rising times stated in the recipes. Five hours in my kitchen might mean three or seven hours in your kitchen. 

How does the perfectly fermented dough look like? If we take a look at the first rise (bulk fermentation), then you are looking for airy, bubbly, strong, and live dough, which of course has also increased in the volume.

" ... None of this is easy, but it's further compunded by the fact that the baker needs to have a solid understanding of what is perhaps the most difficult aspect of bread making - fermentation. If you misjudge this - and fermentation is truly a judgement call - then the defects will be magnified in every other step of the process. "

My advice: Practice and observation. And repeat.

5. It's easy, just do some planning.

A lot of people get inspired by sourdough baking due to its health benefits and deliciousness. However, when I mention them I sometimes leave my dough to rise 12 hours in the fridge while I sleep or I'm at work or that my dough needs a 5-hour rise, they say to me: " But Natasa, I don't have time for this."

The reality is, that sourdough baking is not an all-day job. It takes as little time to mix and knead the dough and leave it to rise. The rest, it's the bacteria and yeasts that do their job and we do ours in the meantime :).

Sourdough baking can be easily fitted to our busy daily lives, it just take a little bit of planning and experimenting in terms of sourdough starter quantities and environment temperature. If you have challenges fitting the baking into your schedule, drop me an e-mail and we can have a take a look closely on how to optimise the baking for your needs.

6. Don't over complicate.

What if I let my starter rise more than 12 hours? What if I left my starter in the fridge for three days, will he die? What if I don't let the dough to rise for full three hours? What if I miss one stretch and fold, will my bread still be good? What if I knead my dough only for 4 minutes instead of 6? Can I use rye starter instead of whole grain starter?

All those questions in my head. What I've come to in the end, is again our ability to apply a judgement call based on our observation, environment and ingredients we use.

7. Master one recipe before moving to another.

It can feel highly overwhelming to keep failing in getting a delicious sourdough bread with crunchy crust and open crumb. Trust me, I've been there for a long time.

The most important step is to not give up, because, after all, it is not the recipe you are mastering, but the understanding of the fermentation. When you understand the basic principles of fermentation and you understand and know when the dough is ready for the next step, you're on a highway to apply this knowing to any kind of recipe and you get creative with no limits.

And this is the beauty of sourdough baking.

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And if you have any feedback or questions, please leave a comment below!

26 thoughts on “7 essential keys for successful sourdough baking

  1. Thank you – well said! Love this quote –
    “Time was their most important tool: the time to let the dough come together gently, the time to let fermentation work its magic, and the fortitude not to be pushed by anything but the demands of the bread itself. “

    1. Thanks Trish, I’m happy you like it! :)
      Yes, that quote, it’s a different mindset, but it brings results :)

      Wish you a nice weekend,

  2. Postovanje,hvala za surdough recept i i za 7 pravila,a posto nameravam da zapocnem avanturu sa celom pricom interesuje me sta ako se koristi iskljucivo mesavina organskih integralnih zitarica a hocu da pravim bagette.Vasi saveti ,predlozi……………………….
    Hvala puno i odusevljena sam sto sam nasla vas blog
    P.S.Da li imate vasu knjigu gde je ovo sve napisano
    Veliki pozdrav

    1. Draga Renata,

      hvala vam puno za vaše prijazne reči. Ja još nisam napisala svoje knjige, možda nekad u budučnosti. A sad je sve što je napisano na osnovu mog izkustva i podeljim dalje, i nadam se da bar nekome olakša pečenje :)

      Što se tiče bageta od integralnih žitarica – koje žitarice ste mislili koristiti? Pšenica, pira (spelt), heljda, raž? Svaka izmed njih ima svoje karakteristike.
      Svakako mislim, da čete morati dodati više vode nego obično, da bi dobili meko testo i otvorenu strukturu ali koliko zavisi od kvaliteta vašog brašna (kako dobro vpijaju vodu).
      Ja bi testo za bagete stavila u frižider i tamo da raste in dobije moč.

      Kako obično pravite bagete? Sa kvasom ili kiselim testom?

      Slobodno mi možete poslati više pitanja na moj mail natasa@mydailysourdoughbread.com in možemo da pogledamo u detajle :)

      Sve dobro,

  3. Such a thoughtful post Nataša! I have yet to master some of these keys (especially 2/3 & 4). But your advises are straightforward, simple, true and they really do work. I know from my own experience! Just keep on with this simple and yet so big job! :)

    1. Oh, Katarina, thank you! :)

      I’m so happy to hear my experience and advice inspire others to give sourdough baking a try and I hope to at least ease their beginnings a little bit.

      Thank you for your support :) If there is anything I can help you with, just let me know!

  4. Excellent summary of these keys. I have been following the Ken Forkish method of Artisan baking (book: Flour Water Salt Yeast) for almost 2 years (with success and failures, but mostly successful). As I live in the warm southwestern US, the timings that he recommends are based on ambient temperatures that are much cooler that what I experience; hence, as you state, the time of the bulk rise, and even the final rise needs to be adjusted to your particular situation. Thanks for sharing your tips.

    1. Scott, thank you for sharing your experience. I think we all go through those phases in the beginning of sourdough baking, so I thought it would be helpful to sum them up as a starting point. I know sharing the recipes and writing procedures can be tricky to fit all the people and different variables, so it is better so bring some awareness to baking from where the learning is then much easier.

      Need to check out Ken’s book as well in the future :)

      Cheers and happy sourdough baking,

  5. Nice reading!today we were discussing the time shedules with my sister.and I decided it is really all about knowing and feeling theactual state and mood of dough,)your cornbread is our favourite last months!

    1. Hi Hana and thank you! It means a lot hearing your opinion and kind words :)

      Yes, at the end, it’s all about how we know the dough and feel its readiness. Of course we can “trick” the dough to fit our schedule and make it ferment faster or slower by adjusting several variables, but nevertheless, this also take understanding and being aware of what is happening.

      Corn bread is somehow special, nicely sweet and sour, happy you like it :)

  6. Natasa,

    Thank you for the tips. Your tips helped me a lot but I still can’t feel the dough clearly yet. Perhaps I need 2 or 3 years to practice.

    1. You’re welcome and thank you Swane!

      In which part of the process you have the biggest challenges to feel the dough – in the first rise or in the second rise? Maybe I can send you some photos of different stages.

      No, no, couple of more breads and you’ll rocking it! Your last bread was a real success, so just keep the momentum :)


  7. Ohhh, why did it took me sooo long to read this post. Really nice job Natasa, i can underline each single point. Baking sourdough bread since almost two years now, i seemed to have gone through every point you mentioned. And yes – finally, it seems to get easier now. And by the way – it’s the best rewarding and relaxing hobby I know ;))

    1. Aww, thank you Susanna for sharing your thoughts :) I just felt I should pour everything in a post like this one.
      There is as many ways to bake sourdough bread as there is people baking it and it is very challenging to fit the recipe to everyone. This is why is it very important to take sourdough baking as the never ending observation, experiment, and learning. It gets easier this way :)

      Absolutely! It’s like, I’m too tired –> I should bake some bread or pizza :D

  8. Thank you for a very informative post, Natasa.

    I just started home baking at a very novice level. I also noticed after a couple of months baking that recipes are just a reference and that my understanding and perception would be a better guide to improve than simply following a formula. Given that, you mentioned Samuel Fromartz’s book. Is that the most helpful book you know of that develops the reading and understanding of the different steps in bread making ?

  9. Natasa,
    Thanks for sharing this with the sourdough community. I passed all this during my learning process. We were (probably) reading the same books or blogs and trying to follow the excellent recipes found in the books or internet with nearly the same negative experience.
    The most painful for me was the adjustment of dough hydration to bake with local (Slovenian) flour. I had exactly the same experience with the Chad Robertson’s recipe from both of his books calling either for 85% or 75% hydration. I managed to get decent bread with high hydration dough, but the dough was sometimes really hard to work with. So after so many experiments any analyzing why my dough shaping is really hard to do with so wet dough I got the same idea that I have to go down with the hydration level and adjust the amount of water that the flour I am using can handle.

    My rule of the thumb would be that when you bake following an American recipe with majority of European flours like German, Austrian and especially Slovenian or those from neighbor countries you should reduce the hydration level at least by 5%. You gave the best possible advice – perform a test how much water your flour can accept and then start baking with it.

    Would like to meet you somewhere in Ljubljana in the future.

    1. Pozdravljeni g. Jože!

      Najlepša hvala za vaše mnenje. Sem vesela, da so besede dosegle svoj namen :)

      Seveda, se lahko dogovoriva za pogovor. V prvi polovici aprila me ne bo v Ljubljani, v drugi pa bom.
      Lahko bi ustanovili kak klub ljubiteljev kruha z drožmi.

      Pa lep pozdrav,

  10. Thank you! This information was just what I was looking for. If I notice that the dough gets runny after long fermentation can I just add in more flour, fold and wait for it to ferment that new flour? I like the idea of figuring out the correct hydration on the fly since I plan on doing a lot of experimentation, especially with my flour mixes. Do you ever add some Baking Soda to neutralize some of the acid formed?
    I’m also taking the discard, as I feed my starter, saving it in another container – and feeding that as well. When it grows to about 2 cups I use that, mixed with fresh flour, to use as my bread mix. It needs very little extra water but keeps getting too loose and sticky after the long wait times. Might be a reason why I’m not seeing this method out there but the few breads I’m making that way taste great. I’m thinking of trying this dough for bread sticks next time since the breads are on the flat side anyway. I just started on this journey and I’m hooked.

  11. hi Natasha, twice I’ve exerienced that the dough I mixed became like a starter. the dough never came together as a dough it was so runny and gooey. I had to throw it away. was it becauae I’ve over fermented it? or because I didn’t do a slap and fold to strenghten the dough before stretch and folds?

  12. hi Natasha, twice I’ve experienced that the dough I mixed became like a starter. the dough never came together as a dough it was so runny and gooey. I had to throw it away. was it because I’ve over fermented it? or because I didn’t do a slap and fold to strenghten the dough before stretch and folds?

  13. I just found this website, just in time, before I did a terrible thing and dumped my entire levain in the lake. Thank you so much for this excellent, common-sense approach. I am now certain that I can experiment and make some changes that will open the door to a better looking and better tasting sourdough.

    Thank you!

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