Baking Your First Loaf

This will be a step by step pictorial on how to make an easy first loaf of sourdough bread. The first thing to consider is to make sure your sourdough starter is vigorous and has been maintained using 1 part water to 1 part flour (by volume).

If your starter is refrigerated, take it out of the refrigerator the day before baking, feed it and then leave it at room temperature overnight. If your starter is already at room temperature feed it the night before baking. For feeding use 2 parts starter to 1 part water/1 part flour so your starter will be at 166% hydration (hydration means how much water is in a dough or batter).

Also, to get closer to the correct hydration or thickness/wetness of dough, fluff up your flour, scoop flour into the cup instead of using the cup as a scoop, and then level off your flour with a straight edge. If you use the cup as a scoop and do not fluff your flour, your dough will most likely be too dense because the flour will compact into the cup and there will end up being too much flour in your dough.

For your first loaf of sourdough bread our objective is to get a nice loaf of bread. On later loaves we will try to get the blistered crust and the sour flavor. This will be a same day mix and bake. So starting early in the morning, mix together in your dough mixer or in a bowl if you will be kneading by hand:

This will make a dough at 63.7 % hydration. If mixing with dough mixer, process just until ingredients are mixed together. If mixing by hand, stir ingredients until they are just mixed together. (Notice in the picture how undeveloped the gluten is at this point, it is tacky and clumped). Our next step is to let the dough rest for ten minutes. This is called Autolyse. This resting helps the gluten strands to absorb the water and start to develop. It is a very important step for the right consistancy of your dough.

After the ten minutes is up, it is time to sprinkle in the salt. The salt is added after autolyse because salt toughens the gluten and makes it harder for the water to be absorbed. So sprinkle in your salt and then turn on your mixer and process for 3 minutes. If mixing by hand, stir together the dough with a wooden spoon for three minutes, or get your hands in the bowl and mix for 3 minutes.

After mixing, you can see that the gluten is smoother and more developed, the gluten will continue to develop through the first stage of raising which is called bulk fermentation. Leave the dough in the bread machine (or mixing bowl if doing by hand) and put a cover over it. Let the dough sit in the bowl for five hours at room temperature which should be around 70 degrees.

After five hours the dough has about doubled and is wet and sticky. Stir the dough down with a couple of turns of your mixer, or if mixing by hand stir the dough down with your wooden spoon. The gluten is pretty well developed now and the dough is stretchy. Pour the dough out on a lightly floured surface.

Fold the edges to the middle all around.This helps get the dough into a rough shape of a ball. Dust the dough with flour and using the fingertips of both hands, start folding the outer parts of the dough to the middle. Turn the dough around and do this all around the piece of dough until you get it into a ball shape. Don't use large amounts of flour to do this but keep enough flour on the dough to prevent it from sticking to your hands.

Then turn your loaf over and place it on the surface without any flour under it. We need it to slighly stick to the surface so it can be shaped. Let the dough ball rest for ten minutes. This will relax the gluten and allow you to give the ball (called a boule) it's final shaping. The boule is sitting sort of flattish at this point.

To mound it up higher, take your hands and place them on both sides of the boule, making sure you have some flour on the surface so your hands don't stick to the dough. Then turn the boule in a counterclockwise direction, shaking it gently from side to side at the same time to encourage the dough ball up off of it's flat condition and into a more tightly wound dough ball. Do this just a little bit like three or four turns. It doesn't matter if you get it exact, just twist the loaf and you will see the dough ball jump up higher. If your dough ball isn't stuck somewhat to the table this won't work.

When you are done with the twisting, you will see that the dough ball sits up higher and is ready to be put into an approximately 8 " diameter glass/ceramic baking dish or bowl which is ovenproof and is greased and sprinkled with Cornmeal or Semolina flour.

Place the dough into your baking dish for it's final proofing (raising). For later loaves we will try baking with the loaf directly on the baking stone, but for this first try, just use a nice baking container to make it easier. Sprinkle a little cornmeal or Semolina flour over the surface of your dough, so the cloth won't stick to the dough, and then put a damp cloth over the dough and bowl.

Then allow the dough to proof for approximately 2.5 hours.(Take the cloth off of the dough in the last hour of proofing so you can let the dough develop a slight skin). Make sure your oven is well preheated to 450 degrees when the dough is ready to go in at the end of the 2.5 hours. You don't need a baking stone when your bread is baked in a pan or dish. When the 2.5 hours is up and your oven preheated, slash the top of the dough with a sharp knife or lame. You usually slice at an angle of about 30 degrees. Think of slicing "flaps" instead of cuts and you will get the idea.

Put the proofed dough in it's baking pan or dish into the preheated oven (450 degrees) for the first five minutes.(See note below on making an aluminum foil lid instead of spraying for steaming your bread) During the five minutes spray water into the oven and around the sides of the dough (not directly on the dough)several times, about once each minute. Spray quickly and get the oven door closed so you won't lose too much heat. After the five minutes is up, turn the oven down to 425 degrees and bake the bread for another 25 minutes, turning the loaf halfway for even browning. If you notice that the dough is getting too brown during the halfway point, turn your oven down to 400 degrees. No spraying is needed after the first five minutes.

The spraying helps keep the dough in a humid, moist atmosphere so it can expand. When the baking is done and your bread looks nice and brown, take out the bread from the oven and turn out the loaf from it's pan or dish. Be careful the dish is hot! Now you can put the bread back into the oven for five more minutes to brown the bottom of the loaf, which was shielded by the dish and needs browning. When the five minutes is up, you should have a nicely browned loaf. Put it on a cooling grate, so it can cool without getting soggy. If you wait until it is cooled, it will slice nicer and show you a better crumb.

Note:
An easier way to steam your bread would be to make a round dome lid from some aluminum foil the same size as the bowl, you can even turn the bowl upside down before use and use the bottom of the bowl to form the aluminum foil lid. Before baking, spray your proofed dough all over with water, then place the aluminum foil lid over the bread, making sure there is enough room for the dough to expand. Put the foil covered bowl in the oven to bake at 450f degrees. Let it bake for 20 minutes before removing the foil. Then continue to bake for another 10 minutes or so at 425f degrees until the loaf is nicely browned.

Now you have a finished loaf! It should weigh approximately 2 lbs. When you feel comfortable with making the sourdough bread this way, obtain a baking stone and try baking with your dough directly on the baking stone instead of a dish. You can also try working with two day doughs and higher hydration doughs.