What I Wish I Knew Before My First Sourdough: 7 Tips from 7 Experts

updated May 1, 2019
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I am still quite a novice when it comes to baking sourdough bread, but fortunately I have lots of friends and books to consult. Community goes hand and hand with baking — from the neighborhood ovens of our past and present to the wide world of home bakers the internet has brought together.

One of the best ways to learn about bread is to talk about it. So in that spirit, we went to the people who had something to say about baking their first loaf. Here’s what seven pros wish they knew when they were just getting started.

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Peter Reinhart, Author of Bread Revolution and Baking Instructor at Johnson & Wales University

There are dozens of ways to make a sourdough starter, even though many of the sources make it seem as if there is only one correct way. There are a lot of myths about the importance of grape skins, potato skins, onions, dairy, and such.

All of these actually work, but none of them are actually necessary. Flour and water is all you need — nature and its wild organisms take care of the rest if you follow the steps.

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Rose Lawrence, Pastry Chef & Baker, Red Bread and Manuela DTLA

Here’s what I tell my students at the beginning of each class: Sourdough wants to happen! Your imaginary friends are real. They are a beautiful ecology of bacteria that make delicious food. All you have to do is create the conditions for life: water, salt, grain, and enthusiasm. If you’re sticky and covered in flour, you are doing everything right.

(Image credit: Sarah Owens)

Sarah Owens, author, The Sourdough Cookbook and Toast and Jam

If you have never made a fermented culture before, the magic and mystery of the process can seem a little esoteric. Likewise, if you have never baked a loaf of bread, the chemistry and specific measurements can make it seem like there is little room for error. Although it is important to follow instructions for a recipe initially to master the craft of baking, there is an equal amount of intuition required to really hone your baking skills.

Sourdough allows a great amount of flexibility as long as you understand the fundamentals of fermentation and what it takes to keep a starter happy and active. This is where baking bread can really become playful and a direct representation of what works for you and your lifestyle.

(Image credit: Leo Maurizio)

Maurizio Leo, The Perfect Loaf

Looking back, the foremost thing I wish I had known before making my first sourdough is to be observant. Our sourdough starters (and later the dough itself) are essentially living, dynamic systems, and we should step back for a moment at each step of the process to assess things. How does the dough feel? How does it smell? Is the kitchen overly warm or cool?

We have an opportunity to adjust the process to what the dough requires that day. Baking bread can rarely be done exactly as outlined in a recipe. As home bakers we need to be observant of our sourdough starter and the dough to adjust the baking timetable and process to suit.

I believe that temperature should be treated as an ingredient when baking — it’s that important. By observing the temperature of the kitchen, the water, the flour and ultimately the dough itself, we can adjust the process to ensure the dough ferments as needed. For example, if the kitchen is overly cold, we might mix with warmer water to bring the final dough temperature up and ensure strong fermentation through the entire process.

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Richard Miscovich, Author of From the Wood Fired Oven and Baking Instructor at Johnson & Wales University

Both humans and bread-making organisms need to be adequately fortified before lots of hard work. We don’t embark on a long day of physical work after a weeklong fast, and neither should your starter be expected to leaven a batch of bread if it is pulled, cold and hungry, from the back of your fridge.

Always remember the quality of your final loaf depends on the health of your starter. The starter is the dough’s engine and it needs to be healthy and active even before you build the levain.

The good news is there is not just one correct feeding schedule. There are plenty of ways to maintain the health of your starter to have it be perfectly ripe when you build a levain or start mixing a final dough.

For instance, cooler water and a lower ratio of starter culture to flour will ferment more slowly than warmer water and a higher ratio of starter culture. Both approaches will eventually yield optimum fermentation, but one will fit more easily into your bread baking practice — and the rest of your life.

(Image credit: Jonathan Cherry)

Andrew Whitley, Author of Bread Matters

Once I focused on process rather than ingredients, I began to realize that beneficial bacteria are as important as yeast — perhaps more so — in bread fermentation. To be sure, yeast generates carbon dioxide gas, which expands the dough. But such dough is likely to make tasteless, indigestible, and not very nutritious bread if the multiple benefits of lactic acid bacteria are not unleashed. This requires time.

It makes no sense to “speed up” your sourdough by adding a bit of bought-in industrial yeast. The result may look good enough, but everything we now know about sourdough bacteria (thanks to recent research) indicates that it will lack, in varying degrees, the attributes for which real sourdough bread is rightly prized: depth of flavor, digestibility (from the slow breakdown of gluten proteins that can trigger reactions in some people), bioavailability (for example, of minerals in the cereal bran layers that are “locked” unless released by phytase enzymes), and bioactivity (as in the production of short-chain fatty acids, which play an important role in gut metabolism and health).

None of these effects (and there are more) of lactic acid bacterial fermentation happens quickly. So we are fortunate that the natural yeasts in a sourdough starter tend to work at a complementary speed. We just need to let them do so, by creating the right conditions in our bread-making.

(Image credit: Sharon Burns)

Sharon Burns Leader, Co-Owner & Founder, Bread Alone Bakery

I wish I knew to trust my instincts and to be brave.

I was so afraid of making a mistake that it took me three times longer to feel confident about baking than it should have. I also would tell my old self to ask questions. Wear your curiosity on your sleeve! Stay curious.

(Image credit: Kitchn)

The Soul & Science of Sourdough

Kitchn is partnering with Modernist Cuisine, the brilliant masterminds behind a new masterwork devoted to bread, Modernist Bread (November 7, The Cooking Lab), in our series The Soul & Science of Sourdough.

We’re obsessed with sourdough bread and how it blends both soul and science, history and modernity, and we invite you to discover the magic of its fundamentals together. Bread is a treasured part of life — how can it fit in yours? Find out this month at Kitchn!