Updated: Apr 6
Sourdough breads are almost as old as time itself. In fact, cultivating wild yeast (aka fermenting) was the only way to achieve risen bread before the advent of yeast in a package. Part (okay, a HUGE part) of my personal journey to Evolve at Home has been to return to the roots of our human heritage when it comes to feeding myself and my family. Our society of convenience and consumerism has become so far removed from the source of our food - how it's raised, grown, processed, and delivered to us - that we've allowed it to become a chemical cocktail of food-like substances in plastic packaging, shelf stable for our convenience (and detriment). It's time to evolve by going back to how things used to be.
So, sourdough. I love sourdough. I love baking sourdough breads and reaping the rewards of my labor by eating it (YUM!). Baking bread feeds my deep-seated desire to create, and it provides wholesome, nutritious food for my family. The fermentation process unlocks all those nutrients that wheat is so loathe to part with, and, let me tell you, homemade sourdough bread tastes unlike anything in this world. Honestly, I think the biggest part of the unique taste or experience of homemade anything is the energy and love put into it. That is one thing mass production will never be able to fabricate or replicate.
If you search "how to make a sourdough starter" or "sourdough bread recipes" you will get MILLIONS of search results. You can sift (haha) through them ALL day long and be overwhelmed and likely ready to throw your computer out the window or curl up in a defeated ball (we've all been there - just remember don't stay there). That's where I'm happy to help. I've been there, done all of that, and probably a bit more (no computers were lost thankfully). I've spent a year learning the nuances of sourdough, been through lots of trial and error, internet searching, book reading, blog scrolling (yes - those with 20 pages of life history...), Facebook group joining, Instagram Reel watching, and on and on. Trust me. While I don't claim to be an expert (one year does not a sourdough expert make), I hope I can give you a good place to start.
Starting with Your Starter
You will need a starter. Wait - what is a starter? It is this living organism that you nourish, care for, love, talk to, confide in, and bake with. Go ahead and name it because you don't want to forget about it. Through this cultivated partnership, you and your starter will make the beautiful bread together. My starter's name is Bartholomew, Bart, for short. He was born from a union of my first listless starter I cultivated from flour and water and my mom's starter named Sam. I tried making my own starter to no avail. So technically, Bart is the second of his name, but we don't stand on formalities in our house. I keep Bart in a mason jar and change the jar out every couple of weeks or so.
If you can, find a friend who has an established starter that can help jump start your sourdough journey. If you don't have a sourdough friend (you probably do - they're a quiet bunch so just ask), you can buy dehydrated starters off of Etsy or even my favorite place, Breadtopia.
If you're bound and determined to make your own starter - FANTASTIC! I will cheer you on from here. It takes about a month (sometimes two), lots of flour and water, and even more patience. Breadtopia is my hands-down favorite blog about sourdough. Here is how-to cultivate a starter. When your starter consistently doubles in size around the 6 hour mark, it's mature and ready to bake bread.
Feeding your starter revitalizes it and multiplies your friend so you have enough to bake with and store for the next round. Everyone and their dog (cats, too... maybe) has an opinion for feeding starters. I've tried several of them. Since my needs are simple, I keep Bart's meals simple as well. My go-to, tried and true, ride or die method is a ratio of 1:1:1. ARGH MATH, JENNA!? Stay with me - it's easy.
Using a food scale, weigh in grams how much starter you have. Then add that same weight of flour and water (41g starter: 41g flour: 41g water). Mix it all up, whisper some sweet words of encouragement, cover the container, and you're done! Let your starter friend sit on the counter with a cloth or lid perched on top (don't screw it down) for a few hours and watch the magic begin. You. Are. Fermenting. WOO! Once your friend has doubled in size, that's your signal to start gettin' busy baking bread. After you use what you need in your recipe, put a lid on your starter's container and refrigerate the remaining starter until next time. I typically wake Bart up 6-8 hours before I want to mix up some dough.
Sifting Through Flour
If you've dipped your toe in the water of home bread baking, you'll know there are so. many. flours. For me, this was a delightful exercise in reading and noting the various nutritional benefits, the age/heritage of the wheat, and the flavor it imparts on a finished loaf of bread. For some, it will seem an insurmountable, overwhelming pile of information that you'd rather avoid entirely. Thankfully, I have found a good starting point for you - Breadtopia and, for those of you who want a wonderfully in-depth "textbook," check out The Sourdough School by Vanessa Kimbell. The information is greatly detailed and is accompanied by pictures. In fact, this book served as the beginning of my Sour Notes notebook. Another great resource is the King Arthur website. Bart absolutely loves their organic, non-GMO whole wheat flour for his meals.
After wading through the varieties of wheats (side note: always buy organic, non-GMO), I found Einkorn. Beautiful, wonderfully complex, difficult to use but worth the hassle, Einkorn. What is this mythical flour? It is the most ancient grain still cultivated on earth and is untouched/unhybridized. So when you use Einkorn flour, you're using the same thing humans used 10,000 years ago. Talk about deep-seated connection to your food.
Einkorn has low gluten content because it has fewer chromosomes than our modern wheats, which means it's easier on the digestive tract, BUT it also means it's VERY difficult to use (so naturally, fledgling bread baker Jenna just HAD to start with that). Ever undeterred, after trying and failing at several Einkorn sourdough bread recipes, I found a wonderful recipe on Breadtopia that helped me achieve an open crumb sourdough using Einkorn whole grain (not whole wheat - there's a difference) flour. For ease of discussion, basically if you're grinding your flour at home, this recipe's for you! I had to adjust the flour ratios to our liking, but that is advanced sourdough finagling and a story for another day. :)
To accompany my Einkorn flour in the Breadtopia recipe, I have tried a plethora of stronger (more gluten) heritage grains. One of my favorites is Turkey Red, which has a wonderful nutty flavor that complements Einkorn's flavor very well. I spent most of 2021 grinding and sifting my my overzealous, yet well intentioned, purchase of 25lbs of organic Turkey Red wheat berries. Let me tell you, unless you have a plan for all of the bran that you sift off your fresh ground flour, it's just not worth it. There are many companies selling organic heritage grains either stone ground and sifted or, and this is cool, single pass, high-impact velocity milled. Learn more about it at Sunrise Flour Mill.
I found the Sunrise Flour Mill in November of 2021 when my Turkey Red supply was dwindling, and I was tired of grinding and sifting my strong white flour. This flour is a God-send. Dr. Jason heroically volunteered to be my guinea pig with their Heritage White Flour because he suffers the worst of either of us from the effects of grains. I baked discard sourdough biscuits (<-- that's my favorite recipe, and trust me, use buttermilk) with this flour and forced [hahahaha] him to eat at least 3, more likely 4, biscuits. I'm happy to report, no joint flare ups or digestion issues. And so, this is now my strong white flour that I mix with my fresh ground Einkorn to bake bread. Let me tell ya - it's the best bread I've ever made.
Why Grind Flour at Home?
It's the freshest, most nutrient dense flour you can get! It's also easier to digest because the enzymes are still kickin'. As soon as wheat berries are ground into flour, the clock starts ticking and the nutrients and enzymes start wasting away. I grind Einkorn and rye wheat berries (see overzealous yet well intentioned discussion above) and do not sift (so it's whole grain) either for my bread recipes. There are a myriad of online shops, Breadtopia being one, that have both flour and wheat berries you can purchase. There are several choices for home stone grinders. I chose Mockmill because they have an attachment for my stand mixer, it was a more budget friendly option for my hobby, and the reviews were encouraging. Fast forward a year - I absolutely love my Mockmill Mock.
Follow Directions... Seriously Do
Who else thinks recipes are more like guidelines? SAME! However, if I learned anything from reading other people's advice, and my own experience, it's follow the bread recipe exactly. Mixing up bread dough is not the time to get creative, folks. Once you're an expert (because you will eventually become a sourdough bread ninja), you can branch out and try things. Someone in a sourdough group I'm in said she just judges by look, feel, and smell if her dough is on-point. I hope to achieve that level of mastery some day. For now, get a decent food scale that can measure weight in grams and use it every single time. Always, always, always weigh your ingredients and use recipes that provide the weight of each ingredient. This will ensure consistency and control over your bread.
But, Jenna, why should I weigh my ingredients? I have measuring cups! And spoons! All the measuring devices! Well, as you will find out on your journey, a half cup of all purpose flour does not equal a half cup of whole grain flour. Neither does a half cup of whole grain flour equal a half cup of whole wheat flour. Neither does a half cup of whole grain Einkorn equal a half cup of whole grain Turkey Red. And my half cup of all purpose flour won't equal your half cup of all purpose flour. See where I'm going with this?
Weighing your ingredients will save you frustration. Yes, there are bread recipes that use measurements in cups and teaspoons. Yes, they will work if you follow them with the exact same ingredients as listed. However, for your sourdough bread journey, I highly recommend using a scale to weigh everything - even the water. I have achieved consistent results using different flours and the same recipe because I weigh my ingredients. It is one thing that gave me confidence to bake bread for Christmas using a flour I had little experience with.
The Trap of Comparison
If you join a social media group of sourdough bakers for support, advice, help, etc., you need to prepare yourself. Trust me when I say keep the blinders on and only look for information, data, instructions, and actual help because these groups run the gamut of the typical social media personalities. You know what I'm talking about. The spectrum ranges from the ones posting for validation of their perfect bread loaf (eyeroll) and, at the opposite end, the ones posting their absolute heartbreak and frustration that you can feel through the internet into your heart because the baker is just trying to get a decent loaf of bread and the universe seems to have different ideas.
Don't get sucked into these stories and get discouraged. Don't compare your bread with theirs. I have baked a lot of flat, sad, door stopper loaves on my journey (and probably will have a few duds here and there). You just have to keep trying. Keep your own Sour Notes detailing what you did for each bake - flour ratios, water, etc. - so you can adjust one thing each time until you achieve your sourdough nirvana. ---> Read that again. --->YOUR sourdough nirvana. :) Mine is a sandwich shaped loaf that holds a mountain of butter (see... we don't need those giant holes - the butter will fall out). I also don't make round loaves because it doesn't serve our purpose.
To encourage (or amuse) you, here's a gallery of some of my loaves starting with my first in Dec 2020 and one of the last I made in Dec 2021. I have baked at least one loaf a week during 2021. Trust me, there were tears and a whole bunch of frustration, but Dr. Jason and my dad bravely suffered through eating my mistakes. ;)
Be Proud of Your Accomplishments!
Who else is guilty of never feeling like what they make is good enough for anyone else? Yep. I'm working on that with NetworkCare and some soul searching. Anyway, for Christmas, I had grand ideas of sharing my homemade wares with our family, but I just about scratched bread off the list because I didn't think my bread was good enough to give as a gift. We do not have time to unpack that statement but not good enough to give. Wow. I'm letting that sink in.
Dr. Jason encouraged me to have faith in my abilities. He said, "No matter what it looks like, it's always delicious." Who can argue with that tasty homemade logic? So, I pulled up my britches and made bread for everyone. I baked EIGHT loaves in a week. I even went full whimsey and made round loaves. Guess what - everyone loved it. :)
Learning to bake sourdough bread is not easy. I started out like everyone does - pie in the sky expectations followed by a huge, bitter, butt-kicking dose of reality. So, my parting advice is keep at it. Be tenacious! You are evolving and developing a skillset that will be useful your whole life, likely in ways we can't even imagine right now.
I hope you enjoyed my [abridged] Sour Notes from 2021, and feel like you can start your sourdough journey. I'm looking forward to continuing my Sour Notes in 2022 and hope to provide updates here and there. I am absolutely thrilled to answer questions - just use the comments section so others can benefit. Or if you have advice/experience, please share in the comments! I'm still learning and evolving, ever seeking a better way to bake bread and live my life.
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