When people talk about sourdough baking, they’re typically referring to baking using a homemade (some folks will call it a “natural”) leavening agent — a starter — instead of store-bought yeast. It’s called sourdough baking because homemade starters produce acid as a byproduct of fermentation, which can give your treats a unique sour flavor. But sourdough baking doesn’t have to taste sour - in fact, you can use the technique for all kinds of sweet and savory treats.
In this guide, written for all my friends and family who have asked for help getting started now that they have too much time on their hands and not enough yeast, I’ll share everything I’ve learned the hard way about sourdough baking over the last 4 years. I don’t mean for that to sound scary, though. People like to talk as if sourdough baking is a complex alchemy that takes years to learn. In truth, there are just a few new concepts that take a little getting used to. Your first couple of attempts may not turn out great, and you may need some troubleshooting. But after a few tries, you’ll be able to churning out loaves that rival anything you can get at a grocery store.
The guide is meant to be self-contained and mostly focuses on the basic methods I use at home. But because a number of folks who have asked have children who are also at home, I’ve included sections called Starter Science that go into some of the physics, chemistry and microbiology of sourdough baking. You can safely skip these sections if you just want to get to baking. But if you do want a way to engage your kids in some learning during this weird time, baking is a terrific way to learn some serious science while making delicious treats. I’m not a scientist, though, so do treat my writing as what it is — a best effort by an amateur — and feel free to have your kids do their own research and fact-check me using the discussion feature. I’ve tried to cite sources wherever I can.
Lastly, I would be lying if I told you I learned anything about baking on my own. I still frequently rely on a host of sources, including friends, books, and especially communities of online enthusiasts. So, where appropriate, I’ll link out to other folks whose work helped me learn and level up.
I love helping people learn sourdough baking, and have successfully coached a few people through some early challenges via text. I’m happy to do it any time, but thrilled now to have an excuse to connect with people and bring something fun into my day. So if you run into any issues or have questions, please feel free to text me a photo and ask for help.
You can probably do just fine with things you have at your house. I’ve also included an advanced section that includes some of my favorite specialized gear.
Two non-metal containers with sealable lids, for your starter (canning jars, takeout soup containers, etc. work great)
A large mixing bowl
A medium sized non-metal bowl, for proofing
A dish towel that doesn’t shed or pill, for proofing
A stiff spatula or bench scraper, for shaping
A sharp knife, for scoring
A serrated bread knife
A cutting board
A plastic bench scraper. If you buy just one thing, buy this. It makes working with dough of all kinds easier, and I also like to use it to clear kitchen surfaces of crumbs.
A Dutch oven. If you buy a second thing, buy this. You can do just fine baking on a sheet, but baking your bread in cast iron will greatly improved the texture of your crust. Lodge makes an inexpensive combo cooker that can be used for this purpose, will last you a lifetime, and also give you two new useful pans.
A banneton, or proofing basket. You can do just fine with a flour-covered towel in a mixing bowl, but this makes the loaves more consistently shaped and the cleaning load lighter.
A lame, for scoring. You don’t need this at all. But if you want to be the type of person who has a special tool just for scoring, by all means.
For containers that are going to be holding your dough for extended periods of time, I’ve specified that they should be non-metal. This is because metal can react with …
White all-purpose flour (I like Bob’s Red Mill, King Arthur Flour, and Trader Joe’s best for their texture and consistency, but any all-purpose will do)
Whole wheat flour (best to stick with one of the above brands if you can - in my experience, other common brands’ whole wheat can have an unpleasant texture)
Butter, for eating!
Rye flour, for your starter
Brown rice flour, for dusting