So you want to bake with sourdough

Ever since seriously starting my sourdough journey about nine months ago and quasi-journaling my progress on Instagram (and on this site), I’ve gotten a number of questions about how to get started as a home sourdough baker. I’ve listed some tips along with several of my favorite books and sites in a previous blog entry, but I wanted to follow up with a few more ideas now that I have a few more loaves under my belt, in hopes that it’ll help all the hopeful sourdough bakers out there.

Commit to baking with sourdough at least once a week.

If you’re really serious about wanting to learn how to use sourdough in your baking, there is no substitute for just doing it. I had my starter lurking in the fridge for a couple of years before I really started using it; and it wasn’t until I started baking with it regularly that I saw any improvement in my breads. This sounds stupidly simple; but if you’ve ever tried to start exercising or learn any new skill, you know it’s harder than it sounds. So do what you need to do — make a goal, start a journal, have someone ping you once a week to ask what you’re making — and just start doing it. (One of the benefits of this is that you’ll be forced to feed your starter; and a fed starter = happy starter = better end product, so everyone wins.)

Invest in a few tools, but don’t break the bank.

One of the joys of bread baking is that, at the core, it’s very simple. The only ingredients you really need are flour, water, salt, and yeast (in our case, wild). When you’re first starting out, you don’t need fancy equipment or flours. There are a few essentials, for sure: a good bench scraper, a digital scale, and a working oven. If you’re wanting to make crusty hearth breads, a pizza stone or dutch oven is super handy. Beyond that, you can survive for awhile. As you get more experienced, you’ll learn the aspects of your bread you want to improve and can invest in the tools needed for that (i.e. a lame, a digital thermometer, and bannetons). But I’d encourage anyone just beginning to start simple and work on fundamentals like proper fermentation/dough development and shaping, because all the fancy equipment in the world won’t improve your bread if you’re not working on these skills (I still feel like I have a long ways to go in these areas!).

Ask lots of questions.

If you start getting even the tiniest bit into sourdough you will quickly learn that you’ve entered what can be a very nerdy world. It’s also an extremely welcoming world where bakers are generally quite happy to share the knowledge they’ve spent hours acquiring. You’ll find plenty of forums and websites online (I’ve listed some of my favorites here), as well as many Instagram accounts where people are quite detailed about their baking philosophies and thought processes. Do your due diligence and try to figure out the answers through your own research and experimentation, but also don’t be shy — ask if you really don’t understand something or can’t figure out what’s going wrong.

Work sourdough into your schedule — not the other way around.

While I recommend following recipes closely the first several times (particularly when it comes to fermentation times, always knowing that your environment can affect timings greatly), there will undoubtedly come a time when you want to make bread according to your schedule, not a recipe’s. This is where you’ll have to sit down and figure out when you want your bread to be ready and how to get there. Sometimes it’s as simple as leaving your shaped loaf in the fridge until you want to bake it, but often you will have to be a little more nuanced than that. Learning your starter’s behavior is a big step towards scheduling freedom, so I recommend starting there. Then get to know the “sweet spots” in your environment (usually a nice warm corner or your turned-off oven with the pilot light on) and make note of the approximate fermentation times for your loaves. Once you have a baseline, you can manipulate your temperatures (to a certain degree) to speed/slow the process down. This takes considerable trial and error, but once you get a hang of manipulating times and temperatures to bake when you want, you’ll be much more likely to make sourdough a regular part of your life.

Ready to get started?

Here are a few recipes on this site to get you going!

Happy baking!