So you’re here to learn about sourdough bread?
Then you’ve come to the right place!
Ed (the Co-Founder of BReD) has been making sourdough since 2008 and we’ve been serving his sourdough bread in our Whistler-based vegan bakery for the past 2 years. Ed and his wife Natasha have even written a book on sourdough!
As the oldest form of leavened bread, sourdough has long been a staple in cultures all over the world.
In fact, until the development of commercial yeasts, all leavened bread was sourdough.
However, nowadays bagels and sliced bread are the most popular bread products in Canada (2020). So is sourdough still worth your time? The answer is YES, and here’s why:
Let’s reclaim sourdough bread
The industry has changed a lot over the centuries and, thanks to industrial loaf fabricators, the concept of sourdough (and many other types of bread) has been corrupted.
So we’re on a mission to reclaim sourdough bread!
Our ultimate guide aims to make sourdough more accessible, to give everyone the opportunity to enjoy good bread, no matter where you are.
This sourdough bread guide will cover everything you need to know, from the history of sourdough to the ingredients, equipment, and recipes needed to make it yourself.
Book in a consultation with Ed from BReD!
We’re firm believers in starting with the basics; many sourdoughs fail because bakers haven’t taken the time to understand the process.
The more we learn at the beginning, the less chance of errors along the way.
So, without further ado, here are the basics of sourdough.
Sourdough is bread made through the process of natural leavening. In other words, it’s made without commercial yeast, processing aids, or artificial additives.
Instead, a simple dough is made and left to age. During this time, wild bacteria and yeast from the atmosphere colonise the dough and cause fermentation.
The fermented dough can then be added to a new dough and sourdough bread is made. It can also be used to make a variety of baked goods, including cakes, crumpets, bagels, muffins, and waffles.
Real sourdough bread is natural and made from at most 3 ingredients:
Another essential difference is the time required to make it. The complete process of making sourdough bread takes weeks.
As a result of advances in technology, modern bread manufacturers have sped up the manufacturing time by adding processing aids and other additives, such as commercial yeast, baking powder, and xantham gum.
Therefore, the majority of sourdough bread you can buy in stores is not authentic.
Mass-produced sourdough, or ‘sourfaux’, is often made using the Chorleywood bread process invented in 1961.
Amongst other shortcuts, this process uses water with carbon dioxide to create bubbles in the crumb that would normally be produced during the proofing stage of sourdough.
The modern bread baking process may be quicker but it produces loaves that are not as healthy (or delicious) as real sourdough bread. Not to mention the issues with preservatives, stabilisers, and hybridised wheat.
Luckily, although industrial loaf fabricators have gone to the trouble of making their bread look like the real deal, there are a few easy ways to tell if it is really sourdough or just sourfaux.
Here are some key features to look out for:
As we mentioned earlier, real sourdough only uses 3 ingredients (flour, water, and salt). The salt is necessary to prevent over-proofing and brings out natural flavours from the grains (flour).
If you see anything along the lines of sugar, sweetener, milk, yeast, enzymes, oxidants, or oil, then it is not real sourdough bread.
Real sourdough bread will have a short shelf life as no preservatives will have been added.
Mass-produced bread is cheaper than authentic sourdough. Real food has real value.
Sourdough only consists of flour, water, and salt – with the addition of microbes from the atmosphere – but each ingredient is integral to the development of your loaf.
It’s not enough to measure the ingredients by volume, kitchen scales are required here (but more about that in the sourdough equipment section below).
We must also consider the quality and composition of the ingredients.
After all, sourdough fermentation is a science.
In order to bake the perfect loaf, bakers must first have an understanding of ingredients, which is why we’ve put together this section of the sourdough bread guide.
We’ll delve into each sourdough bread ingredient by discussing its role, how it can affect your loaf (e.g. taste, acidity, texture, etc.), and how to choose between the different options.
We’re going to start with salt, since it is often dismissed as an optional extra.
And yet high-quality salt is an incredibly important sourdough ingredient – we weep whenever a baker uses table salt…
So, what is the role of salt in sourdough bread?
Firstly, it acts as a flavour enhancer, which brings out the nuances of the flour.
Mark Bitterman, the author of Salted, tells us why salt is such a powerful ingredient to add to sourdough bread:
“Salt has the unique power to temper unwanted flavors like excessive bitterness or sweetness, and to accentuate subtler flavors, thus bringing everything together into vibrant harmony. For thousands of years every culture of the world made salt, and each reflected the unique climate, terrain, and needs of the region. Each has unique mineral content, crystal structure, and residual moisture that dictate the salt’s behavior on food. By taking advantage of the distinctive qualities of each salt and using each to its greatest effect, you get way more flavor and a more intimate connection to your food.”
— Mark Bitterman
We couldn’t agree more!
Many bakers will use cheap table salt to make their sourdough, either because it’s what they have to hand or because they don’t understand the difference between table salt and artisanal salt.
However, cheap table salt is refined sodium chloride, meaning that it’s been purified and stripped of its nutrition. It’s basically the same stuff we spread on our roads to stop them from icing over. It is often unsustainably produced by big pharma and has little nutritional value.
By using artisanal salts in your sourdough bread, you benefit from the trace minerals that are present, such as iron, zinc, iodine, and magnesium. And it does this without adding any calories!
These minerals are so often depleted in the foods we eat nowadays, so make sure you use this opportunity to add them back into your diet by using artisanal salts in your sourdough bread.
At BReD, we use Vancouver Island Sea Salt, which is ethically and sustainably harvested from the Pacific ocean. It’s completely natural and contains over 30 trace minerals!
Another important feature of salt is its ability to attract water through a process known as osmosis (remember your school science lessons?)
When you add salt to your dough, it pulls water away from the environment which slows down yeast and enzyme activity within the sourdough: a process known as retardation.
Therefore, salt helps bakers to control the speed of metabolic activity and gives rise to a more consistent ferment.
Depending on the humidity of your environment, you may find you need to add more or less salt to your dough (but more on this later!)
Thanks to its ability to attract water, salt also acts as a preservative; the moisture maintaining properties can prevent a sourdough loaf from going stale.
But bakers should be wary in humid environments, in case their sourdough absorbs too much moisture and ends up as a soggy loaf.
Sourdough without salt will have a looser structure and is usually stickier and harder to work with. This is because salt tightens the gluten and adds strength to your dough.
By adding salt to your sourdough, your loaf will have adequate support and a better ability to rise and hold its shape.
However, the salt inhibits the development of new gluten bonds, which some bakers suggest is important during the initial stages of hydrating the flour with water. Consequently, it is sometimes suggested to only add the salt once this step (known as autolysis) has been completed.
For those on a low-sodium diet, we recommend substituting some of the salt with seaweed. This way, you still get that gorgeous umami flavour in your sourdough.
Ah…aqua vitae (water of life).
No less important than salt, water is the unsung hero of the perfect sourdough loaf.
Understanding the role of water in sourdough can be a gamechanger for many bakers. Here are just a few ways in which water can affect your bake:
Different levels of H2O affect the consistency of the sourdough dough
Proteins in the flour react with water to form gluten
Water is essential for yeast fermentation and reproduction
H20 dissolves and disperses yeast, salt, and sugars
Water can be used to control the temperature of your sourdough
The quality of the crust and the volume of your sourdough loaf are also affected by water
So I’m sure you can agree, water is a pretty important sourdough ingredient.
Whistler has great natural sources of water for making sourdough
Did you know that water can also affect the taste of your sourdough?
Yep, that’s right! Different bacteria living in your sourdough dough favour different minerals present in water, creating nuanced flavour profiles.
For all of these reasons and more, you might want to think twice before you use water straight out of the tap.
Many of the variables listed above are caused by the mineral and chemical content of the water you use.
For example, if it’s hard water that gushes out of your tap, then it will likely contain high levels of magnesium and calcium minerals. While this provides plenty of food for the yeast, it can also increase the pH of your dough, which slows down its activity. The minerals can also interfere with water absorption by the protein in the flour and have a tightening effect on the gluten.
In contrast, soft water lacks minerals, which leads to sticky and slack dough. This is why many sourdough bakers prefer to use moderately hard water that is slightly acidic, with a pH just below 7. Luckily, most tap water is not too extreme in either direction and is usually suitable for sourdough baking at home.
However, bakers must also consider the chemical composition of their water…so many things to think about, right?
But don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as you might think!
Many of you will know that tap water often contains chlorine (at very low levels). While this useful chemical protects us from nasty diseases such as cholera and coronavirus, it can have an effect on the microbial cultures living in your sourdough dough.
Want to learn more about the microbes involved in fermentation? Check out our blog on fermented foods.
So, how do you solve the issue of chlorine?
Simple! Dissipate the chlorine by leaving some water in an open container overnight. You could also use charcoal to filter it out.
Moist…woops, we said it! Does sourdough like it wet? You bet! 70-90% wet to be precise.
Sourdough hydration refers to how much water is present in the dough. The higher the percentage, the higher the water content.
If you’ve baked other types of bread then you might know that sourdough is a wetter dough than most, which makes it a little more challenging to handle. However, bakers are rewarded for their efforts. Here’s how higher hydration levels affect a sourdough loaf:
1. A softer and more spongy texture with an open crumb (holes in the bread)
2. A thinner and crispier crust
3. A more developed sour flavour
4. A more active ferment
As mentioned earlier, the higher the hydration, the harder it is to handle and shape, so bakers often introduce extra steps to help it rise. For example, you may want to consider stretching and folding, autolysis, and pre-shaping. But more on this later…
Beginners may find they want to work at slightly lower hydration levels and work their way up.
Click here for our guide to sourdough bread hydration and how to calculate and adapt it
The water listed in a recipe’s ingredients list is not the only water used to affect sourdough. Professional bakers will often inject steam into their ovens to improve the baking process.
Steam helps to cool the surface of the sourdough, which benefits the loaf in a few ways:
1. Enzymes on the surface of the loaf can keep doing their thing: turning starch into reducing sugars, which react with amino acids to produce a crust with a distinctive taste and brown colour (known as the Maillard reaction). The sugars also contribute towards the caramelisation of the crust.
2. The steam condenses on the surface and impedes crust formation. The softer surface allows the sourdough to continue fermenting and releasing gas bubbles, enabling existing bubbles to expand and increase the volume of the bread (known as oven spring).
We recommend home bakers who don’t have a commercial bread oven like us use a Lodge Combo Cooker because the steam from the dough cannot escape and it ensures a soft crust. It holds heat well so the dough has a long cool down.
You will only ever need to buy one Dutch oven in your life as they are so sturdy. Even if your oven is not sealed tight, the temperature of the dough can be maintained in this bread-specific Dutch oven until it is time to release the lid and allow the crust to caramelise.
Baking sourdough at home? We recommend using a dutch oven
This part of the sourdough bread guide is where things start to get really interesting!
Experimenting with different types of flour in both your starter and your sourdough bread dough yields incredibly unique results and allows bakers to incorporate a huge variety of nutrients, flavours, and textures into their bakes.
The type of flour you use to bake your sourdough will affect factors such as gluten development, hydration, crust, crumb, handleability, and rise.
Want to maximise the success rate of your sourdough? Or learn how to boost the nutrition of your next loaf? Perhaps you wish to use more sustainable ingredients in your baking this year?
Then our nifty guide to sourdough flour will show you which type you’ll knead to produce your ideal loaf…get it?
You can use almost any wheat or cereal-based flour for your sourdough, organic or not.
However, organic flour is milled from pesticide-free crops which have only been nourished by natural fertilizers. Not only does this reduce the likelihood your sourdough bread will be contaminated, but it also means that the farming system used to produce it is more sustainable and kinder to the environment.
Arguably the most important of all the ingredients, wild bacteria and yeasts are the magicians of the sourdough baking process.
After the flour has been mixed with the water, the humble microbes are invited along to join the party simply by letting the air get to the starter mix (some are also already present in the flour).
It’s for this reason that Ed (Co-Founder of BReD and Head Baker) believes that the starter we have at our vegan bakery is best suited to our kitchen and consists of microbes that live on him and our staff.
The starter is an extension of the baker!
Sourdough baking is applied microbiology. In other words, we can thank the yeast and lactic acid bacteria for much of what makes sourdough, well, sourdough.
Without a healthy bacteria and yeast population, sourdough starters will not ferment. The mix will simply remain flour and water.
In sourdough bread, the microbiologically active starter acts as the rising agent. The yeast feeds on the carbohydrates from the flour to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide. The latter gets trapped in the bread dough, ultimately making it rise.
The sweet and tangy sour flavours of sourdough bread that we’ve all come to know and love are produced as by-products of microbial activity.
In addition to the flavour, other benefits of eating fermented sourdough include increased nutrient content, the removal of antinutrients, and improved digestibility.
This section of our sourdough bread guide will go over some of the essential pieces of equipment you’ll need, as well as other items that are nice to have and some that will make your life that bit easier.
Of course, you could try baking sourdough with no special equipment at all, as long as you have an oven to bake it in and have a good eye for measurements, fermentation, and dough consistency.
Nevertheless, for a more consistent bake and easier handleability, most of us will require at least a few tools to help us bake the perfect sourdough loaf!
The chances are you already have some of the tools you’ll need to bake sourdough bread but if not, most of these can easily be found online.
Alternatively, you may be able to substitute some of the tools. For example, instead of a banneton, you could use tea towels dusted with flour placed in a colander.
Discover the essential sourdough baking equipment here.
Want to up your sourdough baking game? Looking to buy a sourdough fanatic an amazing gift? Or do you enjoy having the best gadgets for everything? Then here are some extra special kitchen tools :
If you’re ready to take your sourdough bread to the next level, then milling your own flour at home is a great way to go! Not only does this provide you with lots of fresh nutty flavour, but it’s also packed full of nutrition. Flour is at the peak of its nutritional value as soon as it has been milled and will gradually lose its nutrients over time.
Kitting out your kitchen with the Country Living Hand Grain Mill might set you back a bit more than some of the budget grain mills but it’s definitely worth it! Made of solid cast aircraft aluminium, it has high carbon steel grinding plates with numerous settings, so you can adjust the coarseness of your grind. They also have a lifetime warranty!
Tired of plopping your nicely risen sourdough dough from a great height into your Dutch oven and getting a lopsided bake? Scared of burning yourself on the side as you try to flip it directly into the centre? Then you need a baking cloche!
This one, handmade at Netherton Foundry, is made from spun iron, which is typically half the weight of a cast-iron pan but with similar cooking properties. Your dough can be flipped onto the circular tray base without damaging the delicate gluten structure and the dome design retains the steam in the same way that a Dutch oven does. What’s more, the cloche can also be utilised to make things like pizza or English breakfast muffins.
It’s so frustrating when you’ve gone through all that trouble to bake a perfect loaf only for it to be torn apart by a blunt or unsuitable knife. At our BReD bakery in Whistler, we use the FibroxTM Pro Pastry Knife and its sharp-edged curve effortlessly cuts through our loaves without crushing the light and open crumb inside.
How can something with only a few ingredients be so complicated?
The truth is, although the ingredients are simple, the process of baking sourdough is not.
Due to weather and humidity fluctuations, a baker must adapt their methods, including regulating temperatures, timings, and measurements. Furthermore, depending on the microbes that populate your sourdough starter, fermentation activities are also variable.
Luckily, this section of our sourdough guide will answer all of your questions and demonstrate troubleshooting steps for common challenges faced by bakers.
There are several reasons why your sourdough might have a dense and heavy texture but luckily, there are also several easy adjustments that you can make to improve this. First of all, how old is your sourdough starter? If you’ve made it from scratch and you’ve only made a few loaves, then it’s very likely that your starter is simply “not old enough” yet to rise bread properly. It can take several months before it is active enough to produce the best results.
If your starter is mature and active, then here are some other troubleshooting tips you may wish to consider:
The amount of water you add to your sourdough will affect the dispersion of the other ingredients and how quickly it ferments. In turn, it also influences the crumb; the higher the hydration level, the more open the crumb (lots of holes) and the softer the texture.
Water is important. In addition to the hydration levels, the steam that occurs during baking also has an affect on the density of the bread. A Dutch oven or baking cloche will trap steam and prevent it from escaping, causing it to condense on the surface of your dough. Subsequently, the surface remains softer for longer and allows the inside of the dough to continue fermenting, releasing gas bubbles and increasing the volume of the bread.
Alternatively, if you’re lucky enough to have a steam oven, you can control the steam that is injected directly into the oven. Just remember to remove the lid or stop injecting steam for the last 15 minutes of baking – this will give your loaf a chance to caramelise.
Using different flour types with varying gluten content has a profound effect on the outcome of your bake since it is the gluten that holds the dough in shape while the yeasts do their thing. The higher the gluten content, the more likely your dough will rise, so try opting for a strong white bread flour for best results.
But it’s not just the gluten content that influences the density of your loaf; although whole grain flours add a beautiful complexity of flavour, they can also produce a heavier loaf. In which case, you could sift your flour to remove some of the bran to prevent it from cutting through the gluten strands.
Sourdough fermentation is a precise art. Underproof your dough and it won’t have enough time for gluten formation or to produce enough carbon dioxide. Overproof it and your friendly microbes will run out of food (sugars and starches) and you risk the breakdown of the precious gluten strands.
Over time, you’ll get used to catching your ferment at the right time but generally, your dough should approximately double in size (if using strong white flour, heavier flours will rise less) before shaping. It should have risen significantly but still be on its way up. If you allow it to start deflating, you risk ending up with a denser loaf.
This is a common troubleshooting problem for bakers but one which this sourdough guide hopes to fix relatively easily! This phenomenon occurs when the bottom of the loaf bakes faster than the top and could happen for a number of reasons.
Firstly, we recommend buying a thermometer to sit inside your oven, since not all ovens will be calibrated to the temperature stated. Once you’ve ensured that your oven is baking your sourdough at the correct temperature, try the following troubleshooting steps:
Many ovens will have heating elements at the top and bottom. If your loaf is placed too close to either, it may result in an uneven bake. Try baking it on a higher shelf to prevent burning the bottom of your sourdough.
If your oven is too small to move your loaf any further up from the bottom heating element, then try using a pizza stone, baking tray, aluminium foil, or other heat insulator as a barrier to deflect the heat.
Before flipping your sourdough into its baking vessel, try misting the surface using water. This will cool the surface temperature as it bakes and should prevent a burnt bottom.
If you use a convection oven, try using it with/without the convection turned on. Different ovens use different convection air flow patterns, so may have an impact on the bottom of your sourdough bread.
Aluminium and steel have a much higher thermal conductivity than cast iron, which has a higher thermal conductivity than ceramic, baking stone, and pyrex. Check out our essential sourdough tools guide for the best advice on baking vessels.
There’s something so appetising about biting into a crunchy sourdough loaf with a soft and spongy interior, so how do we get that crust just right? Here are our top tips:
If you’ve read the above section on water, then you’ll know how important steam is for the formation of a thin and crispy caramelised crust. Steam released during the first stage of baking will enable surface enzymes to remain cool, impeding the development of a thick and chewy crust.
You can create steam by using a steam oven, Dutch oven, or baking dome/cloche. Alternatively, try experimenting with a water mist spray or a baking tray of ice placed under the loaf in the oven.
To encourage your sourdough crust to form as a thin, crispy layer, then stop steaming for the last 15 minutes or more of baking. Turn off the steam setting on your oven or take the lid off of your baking vessel. Experiment with different timings to find the best crispy crust for you!
If the above steps fail to produce a better crust, did you ferment your dough for long enough? Fermentation produces volatiles that are deposited on the crust, adding to its colour and texture. The aerated protein structure created through fermentation will also contribute to a delicious caramelised crust.
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. It’s time to busy your hands and get those tastebuds stimulated!
From a sourdough starter recipe to basic sourdough bread, tasty toast toppings, sourdough discard crumpets, leftover sourdough bread pudding, and even vegan pizza toppings for your sourdough pizza dough, we’ve got you covered with our ultimate guide to sourdough recipes:
If you’re looking to up your toast game, then wow do we have some delicious toast topping ideas for you. From baba ganoush and sprouted peas to fried ripe plantains with chipotle-spiced avocado, here are our 10 Tasty Toast Toppings (Vegan-Friendly).
Love sourdough but hate food waste? So do we! Luckily, although the name would suggest otherwise, there are plenty of useful things you can do with sourdough discard. Check out our article on What to Do With Sourdough Discard for some of our favourite recipes.
Can you ever have too much bread? Well…no, but sometimes life happens and we’re left with a stale loaf hidden away at the bottom of the bread bin. Do we chuck it? Never! Make sure you read our leftover bread recipes and get inspired to create something new and delicious.
Gone are the days when we could only order the vegetarian pizza with no cheese! Nowadays, we have plenty of vegan pizza options available. But there’s still nothing quite like homemade pizza, particularly when it’s made using sourdough dough…here are our favourite recipes to help you create the perfect vegan pizza.
And if you need more inspiration, why not pick up a copy of BReD: the cookbook from your local book retailer?