I recently realized that I had hit my one year anniversary of baking sourdough bread. Is that a major life milestone? No. But it’s certainly a baking milestone! And it’s a milestone that I felt was worth sharing and worth reflecting on.
Over the last year, I’ve really started to think of myself as a “baker.” For some reason, I was never comfortable thinking of myself that way, which is odd because I think my “inner circle” probably have called me that way for much longer. Actually, I’ve always enjoyed being in the kitchen and sharing food — not pretentious food, just plain ol’ good homemade food — with my inner circle. In college, that was me baking box-mix cupcakes for friends at parties or giant muffins to take to the library. After college, it was experimenting with gluten-free “powerfoods” because my gut was going through some kind of change (hormonal? stress? who knows.) where I suddenly was having issues comfortably digesting just about anything I actually wanted to eat. Gluten-free and paleo food experimentations led me to creating this blog to share my favorite recipes with the world! Jk it’s more like sharing with like two people. But that’s ok! I wasn’t trying to take over the world and become the “next big food blogger.” Instead, I was trying to make a digital catalog of my actual favorite recipes that might be helpful or interesting to others but mostly was intended to be a convenient reference for myself, to which I was successful. I actually pull up my own blog to reference recipes really often, which is pretty sweet. Fast forward a few years on, and my gut health is definitely in a better place (not always, but more often than not!) so my recipes have branched out as well… including baking sourdough bread at home on a regular basis.
So yeah, over the last year, I’ve attempted to document my journey with sourdough baking on here and on my Instagram account (@paintedfork) in case it’s helpful for readers like you, but even more-so for readers like me. It’s been pretty awesome actually to be able to look back at some of my earlier posts (like this one) where I can instantly remember the lack of confidence and curiosity that was going on in my mind at the time.
The difference between first few bakes where I was like “ok wtf do I do now with this weird shapeless blob??” to now where I’m like “oh yea, I just need to give it a little of dis and dat and it will be great” is immense. The biggest difference is honestly just my confidence. I’ve been using pretty much the same recipes (or slight variations for fun) over and over and over and over and overrrrrrr for literally a year. We’re talking two loaves of sourdough bread almost every single weekend for over a year. That’s like… (52 weeks in a year minus approx 5 weeks of not baking multiple by two loaves) 94 loaves of sourdough bread. And that’s not even counting the occasional mid-week bake because Eric ate all of our bread in a day and I was sad or the times I baked bread just to give away or the times I fed extra starter so I could attempt baguettes (re: baguettes are surprisingly tough to shape wtf) or pretzels or bagels or pancakes, etc.
From those 100 loaves (rounding up because it’s my blog and I do what I want) I’ve learned a few lessons that I thought I would share for anyone who somehow got here and is curious about what it takes to bake consistently pretty-ok and sometimes great sourdough bread at home.
From “wtf am I doing??” to “I’ve got this,” here are the top lessons I’ve learned by baking over 100 loaves of sourdough bread this year.
- Find a recipe, any recipe, and bake it more than once.
Why? Because if you keep changing recipes, you’ll never build this very rad but also weird bread-making muscle memory of what the dough felt like last time and how it feels now and what is different, etc. It’s like 5th grade science class — you have to give yourself some kind of control because baking sourdough bread is basically an edible science experiment and there are plenty of variables you can’t totally control (ie: how much wild yeast is on the flour, getting the temp of the water juuuust right, etc). So, do yourself a favor and keep it simple. Pick a recipe and try it more than once. That is all.
PS – Here are a couple of my favs: Painted Fork Classic Sourdough Loaf; Food52 Table Loaf; Tartine Bakery’s Country Bread; Emilie’s Everyday Sourdough
- You don’t need fancy equipment.
Here are the tools I use every. single. time. I bake bread (links to similar products included if it’s helpful): a cheap kitchen scale with grams; a really big bowl; my hands, obviously; a basic dough or bench scraper; a basic double-edge razor blade or realllly sharp knife; a clean kitchen towel; reusable plastic wrap; more bowls or bread proving baskets; a dutch oven with lid; parchment paper.
- There are two main ways to knead your dough (I think the term “no-knead” is a misnomer)
“BUT HEATHER I DON’T WANT TO STAND AROUND KNEADING DOUGH!” Look, I get it. But also, even the “no knead” recipes technically involve kneading the dough. I’ll explain. There are basically two ways to skin this cat of developing the gluten in your dough — an essential part to, you guessed it, making bread: 1) Physically stretch and mush the dough until the gluten has developed and the dough holds together. This manual labor speeds up the development of gluten. 2) Leave the dough alone for a longer period of time, occasionally stretching the dough with wet hands to avoid sticking, to develop the dough. That stretching is a form of kneading called “stretch and fold” and works great if you’ve got time to kill and want your dough to have extra time fermenting. That’s it! Pick your poison. Both work great. Both are easy. One is quick. One is slow. Both are forms of kneading the dough. The end.
- Baker’s percentages in recipes are helpful for some, but not for me.
A lot of blogs and bakers like to refer to the “bakers percentage” to calculate how much water and flour to use. Well I am terrible at math so this concept made me go cross-eyed at first. If you’re like me and are confused or intimidated by bakers percentage… ignore them! You should have no problem finding recipes that do no use them or provide both percentages and weights. Ta-da! Problem solved.
- If you want those fun air pockets in your bread, use more water and pay attention.
Having an open crumb (bread has lots of air pockets) can be created with higher hydration recipes (aka higher ratio of water to flour). I’m not a scientists so I don’t know why this is true but it definitely is. Secondly, if you aren’t somewhat paying attention to the time and the look/feel of your dough during fermentation, you can over-proof the dough. Not a big deal at all — it will bake up perfectly fine. The only change will be that your bread will have less air pockets and will be more like a sandwich bread.
- Even if you completely mess up every step, I would bet you could still bake the dough into a perfectly acceptable loaf of bread.
I posted this sentiment recently on my Instagram and got a few comments like “oh trust me, I can screw up some bread.” I disagree. I honestly think the only way to mess up is to burn the bread to a crisp, so maybe don’t do that. But legit, I have done experiments where I skip some “major” steps in a recipe and thrown my dough in the dutch oven just to see what happens and guess what – it made bread! Sure it might have been a little dense or didn’t have much flavor but it was perfectly edible. I truly believe that as long as you hit the critical points (mix dough + bake it) everything else just improves the dough. Fermenting will help more complex flavor develop. Proofing will help it get fluffier. Kneading or shaping will help it have a better shape and crust once baked. Once I accepted this, I let go of some of that weird fear/intimidation of “doing it wrong” and let myself experiment and have fun making bread. (What a bizarre thing to write about… my “fear” of bread. #Privilege)
Ok… I think that’s it for now! Thanks for reading and I hope that these tips are helpful. If you have questions or this didn’t make sense, leave a comment here or message me on Insta and we’ll chat. I’m not an expert. Not a trained baker. I am a home-baker and I think I’m pretty decent, so I’d be happy to help where I can.