2020 has been rough, and I’ve been mostly focused on just staying afloat, emotionally and personally. But one thing I’ve enjoyed is seeing more folks get involved in bread baking, in particular, sourdough baking.

I’ve been baking sourdough for something like 14 years. First in a relatively humid place at sea-level (Philly area), then in a semi-arid place a mile up (Boulder). I’ve had to make adjustments, and I’ve had to deal with the ups and downs of sourdough, and I’ve tried to work to improve my technique. Lately, I’ve done some concerted things to improve the quality of my bread, and I think it’s paying off.

A sourdough boule, with basket-marks and flour on it, and slashed in a cross on top.
The loaf I baked for my birthday this year.

I’ve also tweaked my recipe over time to produce just as much starter as I need for the next loaf, so I don’t constantly generate excess starter.

So, my basic every-week recipe:

  • Make a poolish the night before: 2 cups flour, 2 cups tepid water, about to ½ cups wet starter. Mix thoroughly, cover, and let sit about 16 hours.
  • Reserve about cups poolish to be new starter.
  • Add 1 cup bread flour, 1 tablespoon salt, and optionally 1 tablespoon vital wheat gluten. Mix and knead.
  • Add 1 cup more flour, a little at a time, mixing and kneading. Add up to ½ cup more, if you still need it. Dough should be wet, but not shaggy.
  • Cover and let rise about 3 hours in an oiled bowl.
  • Preheat oven to 465°F, with a lidded cast iron dutch oven in there, preheating.
  • While oven is preheating, turn dough out and give a tension pull (see “baking techniques” below). Place in a proofing basket if you have one, else just on a baking sheet or in a bowl, for final ½ hour proof.
  • Transfer to parchment paper, move parchment paper into dutch oven, bake 25 minutes with the lid on, 25 with the lid off, remove to a cooling rack for 30 to 60 minutes.

I could write that recipe as many fewer steps, but I tried to balance detail and assumption of technique. Baking is all about technique! When people say that baking is so “precise” or “scientific” compared to just-cooking, I think that’s about two things: the abundance of technique, and the fact that you often can’t tell the effects of what you did until it’s too late to change them.

So then, let’s talk about techniques!

Making a poolish doesn’t seem like a technique, quite, but it is. It both lets the starter SCOBY (because a starter is a kind of SCOBY) colonize a larger mass of flour-and-water, and also autolyses the flour. Both of these aid in rise, and digestability.

Kneading is the most visible technique in baking, and really important to rising and texture. I bet you know it well enough, but even there, there’s a lot to experiment with, to build and not over-stretch gluten chains. Spin the dough mass, use the heel of your hand, etc. I won’t suggest much, except “play with it and work on it”.

The tension pull is the key technique for forming a good crust. I don’t have the counter space to do it right, but I do it in my two hands in the air, and it works out. You’re basically spinning-and-pulling the dough mass so that there’s a sort of seam-knot on one side, and a taut skin of gluten chains all around the rest. It’s kinda hard to put in words, but you can find examples of it on YouTube, and it’s easy to understand once you see it.

Slashing the loaves lets the dough rise with planned breaks in the surface tension, rather than ad-hoc tearing wherever is weakest, and lets you decorate the loaf. It also lets you do things like make ears, which look nice and add some more caramelized flavors to the crust. Slash with something wicked sharp, and slash with a single confident stroke (you can see I did not do this in the loaf above!) and quickly.

Tools also matter. I try not to use anything superfluous; when I was baking in my dorm room in college, I did it with a measuring cup, a tea towel, and a mixing bowl, kneading in the bowl. You don’t need much, but some tools do help! Here are some of my favorites:

I’ve gotten some biggish lidded plastic containers for my poolish and my bulk ferment, and the lack of moisture loss is so useful, out here especially.

The dutch oven is great; the lid-on steams it, which helps gelate the gluten in the surface, first letting it stretch more, and then eventually letting it form a distinct crust layer. Lid off in the second half is needed to get that gelated layer to brown up.

I’ve got a mixing spoon that I love, to help in that wet shaggy first step; I’ve broken some of your typically kitchen wooden spoons on bread before, but this one has a very thick shoulder, where the bowl of the spoon transitions smoothly into the handle.

A lame (pronounced “lahm”) for slashing is great, too; it’s basically a curved razor blade on a handle, so anything really sharp will do, but the curve lets you get some nicer slashing technique down.

A proofing basket is nice to get those ridges, and to help it keep shape in the final proof. Mine has no lining, because I want the ridges to really show, and so I dust it with wholemeal flour, to help keep the dough from sticking to it.

Finally, my most under-rated tool: a paintbrush. I spend a lot of time dusting excess flour off of things, and a brush helps!

Anyway, that’s how I bake these days. I hope you enjoy.