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Road to Sourdough Bread: Part 1–Introduction to series

Welcome to my series on how to get to excellent (but not perfect) home-made bread! I’m Vinícius (or Vini), and I am not a professional. However, I have been feeding good gluten-laced carbohydrates to colleagues, friends, and loved ones for more than five years. I have learned a lot from books, YouTube, some cooking classes, and from baking many, many loaves of bread.

Simplicity and failure

You might think it’s weird why I lowered the bar here and said that the bread we will bake together is not perfect. Yes, that is by design. You see, bread baking is a very nerd-friendly activity, and honestly, that is one of the reasons why I love doing it. There is a massive amount of things you can tweak and obsess in your process. You can try to master things such as the perfect cracking crust, intricate scoring designs, crumb structure that makes butter impossible to stick, etc. You can unpack every step when preparing loaves, so it becomes very time-consuming and challenging to achieve for folks that have other things to do. I do recommend, every once in awhile, diving deep into the details, but it is not what we are doing here. There are many talented people out there that already do a great job at this.

Our journey here instead will be of an informal, simple bread. Loaves you can bake without having to give up your life, using time instead of machines. That feels effortless, wrong in the right ways. Let’s call it the lazy-but-still-epicurean (LBSE) bread. We will aim to use simple ingredients that you can order in your local shop. My end goal is to only use flour, water, and salt as a base, nothing processed or industrialized.

Still, bread baking can be a daunting process. It requires days. It’s finicky, has its own life, wants to follow its own volition. Thus, there are steps that even the LBSE bread can’t skip. Giving up tools such as environment control and machinery will make this process unpredictable. Yet, I am not aiming to run a bakery that needs to ship perfect, precise bread every day; I prefer the freedom and flexibility I get back.

You will bake terrible bread, I promise you. That is ok; it is part of the process. I have been doing this for years, and I sometimes make terrible-but-edible things (or beautiful croutons, and panko, if you think about it). It also requires a few tools. I’m not too fond of single-purpose kitchen tools, so we will reuse things we can find in the kitchen, but there are a few things I will recommend that it’s going to make your life easier. We will get into it a little further into this article.

The curriculum

Let me lay out to you how this series is going to look like, and I will link them once they are published.

  • Part 1–An introduction to the series (you are here!).
  • Part 2–First loaf (WIP!): We will start baking with store-bought yeast in the first few loaves to get the hang of it, by no means implying that this bread is not of high quality. If you stop here, I am already happy for you.
  • Part 3–Starting a starter (WIP!): Here we will create our starter, in case you can’t get access to one–skip this step if you have one.
  • Part 4–First sourdough loaf (WIP!): We will start with a straightforward recipe to help master the process itself, the process behind why sourdough is better than baker’s yeast.
  • Part 5–Nerding out (WIP!): Once we get the hang of the process, we can tweak things such as changing the flours we use or adding more ingredients yielding more complex flavors.
  • Part 6–The road from here (WIP!): In the end, we will have learned how to bake great bread at home, some formulas, but you might want to dive deeper into specific parts of the process, and this part will cover it.
  • Troubleshooting (WIP!): A list of common issues My friends and I encounter and how to solve them.

This series is laid out in a way to build fundamental bread baking intuitions before getting into sourdough. I will start first with a recipe that skips many steps removing variables that can go wrong. Meanwhile, if you don’t have a starter ready, we will prepare it. Because it takes at least 9 days for it to be ripe and consistent, we can also bake Part 2’s bread multiple times, if you have the time, because we will focus in handling the dough. I recommend you try out this recipe even if you’re an experienced baker. It’s a great recipe to have in your toolkit.

Once the starter is ready, surely, you will be a bit comfortable with the process. You should have, at this point, an idea on how to go through each step in your kitchen. You will also be comfortable in setting up your oven and pan, and how to handle the dough. This will be very helpful during the following part, which is actually using your starter to make a loaf of bread.

Part 4 virtually never ends. It will introduce you to the fundamental method that I simplified from the Tartine book series that you can use until you are bored with it, which might never happen. The first few times, the process will be overwhelming with the many steps, but with practice, you will memorize each step and master each skill.

In part 5, having practiced the fundamental method multiple times, we will introduce different flours that affect the flavor and the texture of the final loaf. We will also alter the basic formula to change the hydration of the dough. This is where we will play around with the method and see what happens with the end result.

Part 6 is where you can start exploring different methods. I will list many works by my favorite bakers that can present you to various aspects of bread baking, including opinions and processes that disagree with what I say. There are many ways to approach bread, and here I will introduce you to a few alternatives.

How to use this series

There are a few ways you can approach this series:

  1. (recommended) Follow each part in the series sequentially. Suggested if you have never baked bread before;
  2. Do part 2 and part 3 in parallel, if you have the time and the tools. This is also recommended for the beginner baker. Saves a bit of time, since part 2 and 3 are independent.
  3. Start straight from part 3 if you are an experienced baker but are not familiar with sourdough starters or don’t have one.
  4. Start straight from part 4 if you already have a working starter and have handled dough (the baking kind) in the past.

Feel free to stop at any point or repeat any of the parts if you think you need more practice, or you are happy enough. I can’t think of any reason why repeating these steps would make you a worse baker. Although stopping on part 3 seems quite a waste.

Make sure to take a look at the Troubleshooting chapter if you are running into issues. There are many tips that I learned the hard way that can save you from being frustrated after putting in work. Feel free to also reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram, and I will try to help to the best of my abilities.

Equipment

I will list all the equipment needed in every part of this guide, however, here is a list of all equipment necessary throughout, in case you want just to go ahead and get them all.

Required

You really need these to get baking:

  • Bulk container: Looks like a big bucket, but it should have measurements on the side to help you watch the fermentation and make notes. The Cambro 6-quart food storage container is a popular choice here, but you can also use a large glass bowl if you already have it. Used in almost every part of this guide.

  • Wide mixing bowl: a 5-quart metal bowl is ideal for mixing the bread ingredients. This one can wait until you’re ready for part 4. Plus, this is my favorite medium for eating popcorn!

  • Scale: I say this is required because using volume measurements (i.e., cups) is very imprecise and can make things more challenging to the beginner bread baker. Once you get to know your flour and you are comfortable with your skills, you could theoretically ditch the scale, but it makes things a lot easier. Bonus, you can use the kitchen scale to improve your coffee by using more precise water to coffee ratio. Used in all parts of this guide.

  • Jars: You will need a glass jar to keep your sourdough starter. Avoid plastic at all costs! Sourdough starters are acidic environments, and they can eat into the plastic. Also, plastic is bad for the planet. I use the jars I get for free when I eat peanut butter or kimchi. Hipsters often like mason jars for this too. Just make sure to clean the lid thoroughly. Used in part 3 onwards.

  • Big pan with a lid that can go in the oven: Dutch ovens and the Lodge Combo Cooker are excellent choices for these. I use a Lodge Combo Cooker because they’re a kitchen workhorse and also incredibly cheap. Required for almost all parts.

  • Rice flour: It is incredibly sad when you work hard on your loaf, and it sticks to a towel, and you lose all the shaping and fermentation, and rice flour is fantastic in avoiding sticking. Used starting part 4.

  • Resting baskets: Some people use fancy french bannetons to create pretty ring shapes on their loaves (me included), but even a simple bread basket will do. Needed in part 4.

  • Sharp knife or scissors: We will need these to score the bread.

Almost-required

These are not required per se, but your life will improve significantly by using these:

  • Bench scraper: Also known as bench knife or as pastry knife, these are an underrated kitchen tool. Metal bench scrapers are not only fantastic to cut and shape the dough, but it is also handy while cooking in general, to scrape food from chopping boards.

  • Silicone spatula: Maurizio from The Perfect Loaf recommends the OXO Good Grips Jar Spatula, and they are the only single-purpose tool I have in this list. I have punted on buying these precisely because of that, and I wish I didn’t. These make stirring the starter and cleaning the jars so much easier.

Getting fancy

These are unnecessary but will either improve the looks of your loaves or make your life a bit easier:

  • Baking steel: These large pieces of steel can be used in your oven to improve the heat while baking loaves. These are fantastic for pizza as well.

  • Lame: the french name for razors using a piece of wood or steel to hold them. I just use the razor blades on my hand to make scoring a breeze. Be careful not to cut yourself!

  • Liners: Sack towels to line your breadbaskets or bannetons and to cover your bowls while baking. These are great to avoid having dough sticking everywhere. Make sure they are not terry cloth.

Terminology

I might throw a few bread-baking specific words here and there, so consult this if something is confusing. Refer to the Wikipedia of the terms if you want more details.

  • Gluten: chains of groups of proteins that give the bread its structure, by trapping CO₂–bread bakers live by it.
  • Levain: levain is the pre-ferment that we will mix with the flour and water to provide the rise.
  • Scoring: superficially cutting the bread to stimulate steam to be released in a specific pattern.
  • Sourdough bread: Many people use this term to identify naturally-leavened dough and not that the flavor itself is entirely sour. A tiny bit of sourness is ok.
  • Yeast: yeast is fungi that live in your starter or that you can buy that will convert carbohydrates into carbon dioxide (CO₂) and alcohols, giving your bread the bubble.

Get in touch!

Please get in touch if you have any questions! Use any of the means of communication you can find on the footer section of this page. See you in part 2.

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Written by Vinicius Baggio Fuentes, who works in tech in NY and loves being in the kitchen in the remaining time. Twitter Instagram