Sourdough Demystified: Sourdough Pizza on the BBQ

To see how I got to this point (preparing the dough) you can start at the beginning.

Otherwise, we’re picking up after bulk fermentation.

Preparing the dough is similar to bread except we don’t need to be as concerned with timing things perfectly (as with bread) and letting the dough “over-proof” a little can actually help us with shaping (the dough is more extensible the longer you let it proof). I’ve left the dough in the fridge for up to a week and it’s still made really tasty pizza. The longer you leave it, the more sour it gets. But you lose some of that fresh, “doughy” flavour, if you’re into that.

I usually make an obnoxious amount of this pizza, equating to 3 extra-large pizzas if you were to order them from an actual pizzeria. Leftovers for DAYS!

One thing I don’t cover as thoroughly as I ought to have in the video is the actual baking portion. If you have a pizza stone, get that thing as hot as you possibly can in your oven. Sourdough responds well to sudden heat transfer, so if you are able to heat up a stone with some decent mass, that heat will quickly transfer into your pizza in the first seconds of baking – giving it a lighter composition as the air bubbles within the dough get a chance to expand.

I bake on oiled parchment paper, and the oil gives the bottom of the pizza a pleasant crispiness which I’ve had difficulty reproducing without a little oil.

I find that my oven struggles to get hot enough to do an adequate job of baking pizza, and I’ve gotten better results on the barbecue with a cast iron plate.

Here’s a video of my current barbecue setup for pizza:

Sourdough Demystified: Baking Bread Loaves

We’ve let the loaves “cold proof” in the fridge overnight to develop more of those signature sour flavours, and allowing for a bit more rise. You will get a feel for when to shape and put your loaves in the fridge to allow for that last bit of rise, as opposed to putting them in a little too late and over-proofing. When you put the shaped loaves in the fridge to cold-proof, fermentation slows way down but doesn’t stop entirely, so we want there to be a bit of room for them to rise, so we shape just before our bulk fermentation has reached its peak rise.

For me, timing this accurately involves more intuition and trial and error, and it’s no big deal if your timing is a little off. The results will still be pretty good. And eventually, with enough repetition and exposure to a variety of different bakes, you’ll begin to develop a keen sense of timing for your own bulk and cold-proofing stages.

All of this culminates in the bake, and contributes to explosive “oven-spring” (the bread rising nice and high) when done well.

For baking, I’d suggest actually baking in a dutch oven as you will get more complete heat that way and really increase your odds of baking great bread. If you’re using a dutch oven, make sure to preheat the oven with the dutch oven inside so everything is insanely hot when you put the bread in there. I’ve found that you can use the parchment paper as a hammock and lower the dough into the dutch oven.

My best results have come from baking for 30 minutes with the lid on, then removing the lid for another 20 minutes or so of browning. I also put a ceramic plate in the bottom of the dutch oven to prevent the bottom of the bread from burning, though this isn’t necessary if you don’t mind a little charring on the bottom of your loaves.

In the video I don’t use a dutch oven, opting instead for baking on a couple ceramic plates while adding steam with a water pan. Sourdough needs to bake in a moist environment in order to get the best results, and normally a dutch oven would seal in all the moisture, so we need to compensate when not using a dutch oven by adding a bit of steam.

One of the biggest mistakes I had been making early on in my sourdough journey was cutting into the loaves too soon after removing them from the oven. I didn’t realize that they needed about 45 minutes to continue to cook and, most importantly, for the crust to thin out! I was getting crazy-hard crust until I started letting the bread cool before cutting into it.

Cutting into the bread prematurely is a great way to ruin a loaf. The crust will be tougher, and the inside doughier (not as thoroughly baked) as had we been patient and let the bread finish baking outside the oven.

Sourdough Demystified: Divide and Shape

As mentioned in the previous bulk fermentation post – once fermentation is complete we’ve reached a point where we can do whatever we want with the fermented sourdough (make bagels, pizza, bread loaves, etc).

Here we’ll be making bread with it.

Shaping Sourdough Bread Loaves

At this point we want to avoid squeezing the air out of the dough as much as possible, as the more we do so the denser the end result. Generally, it’s better to aim for an airier, less dense “crumb” which is the bread interior itself.

I’m working with enough dough to make two loaves, but if you’re working with a smaller batch, feel free to skip the dividing part and only shape one loaf. I tend to like baking larger loaves, but it’s up to you.

Next we bake our sourdough loaves!

Sourdough Demystified: Bulk Fermentation

Once the levain has risen and is showing lots of bubbles on top, we can see if we’re ready to move onto the next step (bulk fermentation) by taking a spoonful of the levain dough and dropping it into a full cup of water. If it floats, that means we’re good to proceed (because the dough is full of air, which is a sign of excellent yeast activity).

If the spoonful of dough sinks, wait a little longer. You may have tested too early, and there may be more time for the dough to rise. If you can’t get it to float, don’t advance to the next steps – it will just end in sadness with nothing works out from here on in. Instead, go back to working with your starter (at room temperature the whole time) discarding half, feeding (which is just adding flour and water), waiting for it to rise fully, discarding half, feeding.. on repeat until it’s obvious that your starter is very “active” – meaning it’s rising as quickly as possible after every feed. An active starter leads to an active levain which leads to a successful bulk fermentation which leads to a successful bake.

But your levain passed the float test! So you’re ready to move onto the next step toward actually baking BREAD (or making pizza, or bagels, etc… regardless of what we’re making this bulk fermentation stage is the same).

Here’s the process for bulk fermentation:

Once bulk fermentation is complete, you can do anything you want with it. I will be showing you how to bake bread, turn it into pizza, make bagels with it, or roll it into one big dirty log of cinnamon raisin brown sugary debauchery.

Sourdough Demystified: Mixing The Levain

Once the starter has strengthened to the point where it is consistently rising to double or triple its size within one day (or ideally, faster) and you’ve been discarding half (or more) at the top of the rise to mix in fresh flour and water, you may be ready to bake with it. You can test this by feeding your starter and letting it rise to double or triple in size. Take a spoonful of it and drop that spoonful of starter into a full glass of water. If it floats, you’re ready to move onto the next step (because it’s full of air bubbles, which is a sign of good yeast activity).
All we’re doing in this next step is scaling up the amount of dough we’re fermenting. There isn’t enough active yeast in the starter to cause a large amount of dough to ferment in a reasonable amount of time, so we work up to it gradually with this middle step: the levain. Here’s we’re essentially just making a larger starter. I’m preparing to bake 2 loaves, so I’m mixing a pretty large starter. Even if you’re only baking one loaf, having a larger starter is a good idea as having more active yeast going into the bulk fermentation (the step after the levain) will help with a faster fermentation time. To mix the levain, I combine most of my starter (you need to keep some of it for future bakes, so be sure not to use ALL of your starter!) with 5 heaping tablespoons of flour and enough water to achieve that thick doughey consistency – like thick peanut butter. I aim for a thick texture because a soupy consistency is more difficult to monitor for changes. A “stiff” dough will rise more obviously because it has more structural strength and does a better job of trapping all the gasses released during fermentation. A really runny dough will bubble at the surface, but it might not rise as much (because the gasses can get out through the top). Once mixed, wrap the levain in a clear bag so you can keep in the moisture and watch it rise. The rise will take only a few hours if your environment is, and it could take closer to 24 hours if you’re baking in a cold environment. It’s fall right now, so ours will probably rise in about 12 hours.
Once the levain has risen fully, we’re ready to move on to the next step, which is mixing a big ball of dough to ferment and then bake – called bulk fermentation.  

Days 5-8: Accidental Extinction

Lia and I ran into problems after having put the starter in the fridge overnight, then feeding and discarding too aggressively – potentially to the point where we lost most of our active yeast.

The starter is not rising very quickly at all. It almost seems to be slowing down. And because it’s so hot these past few days and the starter has been living on the kitchen counter – I know our rise is not being stymied by the weather. We’ve done something wrong. I think the yeast really didn’t like being put in the fridge overnight. My previous starter (which I dearly miss now, I had it for over 2 years and it was like a pet), handled all sorts of temperature changes without breaking stride – it was consistently hungry and produced a reliable rise every time.

This new, young starter is seemingly more finicky.

So the plan now is to guard against extinction by letting it over-proof and look for signs that the starter has fully risen and fallen before feeding it again. And when we feed it, we’ll be more careful about not discarding too much. With my previous starter, I could dump the entire jar out and the remaining residue was powerful enough to cause explosive rise. With this new one, we’ll have to build its strength slowly before we start abusing it with cold exposure and aggressive discards during feeds.

Essentially, we can’t advance until we sort this out and get that quick rise where the starter triples or quadruples in size over a few hours (in hot temps, and closer to half a day in cold temps). It doesn’t matter whether we’re getting a good rise if it’s taking 24 hours to do it in hot weather. That just won’t ferment a larger amount of dough fast enough when it comes time to bake anything substantial.

Sourdough Demystified Day 4: Ramping Up To A HANGRY Starter

The mission here is to get the starter to a point where it’s rising as rapidly as possible because that’s going to result in bread that rises beautifully during fermentation and then again during baking.

To do this, we need the yeast to become HANGRY. And the more we feed them, the hangrier they get. They’re greedy – they’ll increase their rate of consumption to account for a surplus of available food (fresh flour and water).

As you’ll see in the video, we want to avoid excessive “over-proofing” – which is simply leaving the starter too long without feeding it. Over-proofing happens when the yeast consumes all the fresh dough (causing a nice rise) but then they run out of fresh dough to consume so they stop producing those fart bubbles. Without those gasses being produced by the yeast, the dough deflates and drops back down again.

The yeast also react to the lack of food by becoming less aggressive in the rate at which they consume fresh dough. So subsequent rises will be slower until the yeast adjust to surplus feedings again.

It’s not a big deal at all if the starter over-proofs. Over the long term, mine lives in a perpetual state of near-starvation in the fridge (with me only feeding it every week or two). Starters can survive like this indefinitely, the yeast is very resilient.

But when it comes time to bake something, that fast rise is crucial. So we need to feed the start a few times (discarding most of the starter each time we feed it) to get the yeast all voracious again.

NOTE: DO NOT PUT THE STARTER IN THE FRIDGE! I did this in the video and it was a mistake! It ruined it. The starter was too “young” and not yet fully established enough to tolerate the cold temperature yet. It seems that you should feed your starter at room temperature for a couple weeks before risking putting it in the fridge.

Once the starter is good and active/hangry/fast-rising – we can move onto the next step toward baking something, which is to build a levain.

Sourdough Demystified Day 3: Discard Some Starter and Feed

Today we’re seeing plenty of bubbles in the starter. These have caused the dough to rise, and indicate that we have now successfully captured wild yeast.

The dough has almost doubled

The starter will now have a noticeably more sour, almost vinegary smell to it.

Plenty of bubbles, some new yellow tones, and a frothier consistency

Depending on your flour and local temperature, your starter may not have reached this point yet. If this is the case, wait another day (or even two) to see if those bubbles develop. If they don’t, your flour is likely the problem.

Assuming your starter looks like ours does, all you need to do for now is remove and discard half of it – then add another heaping spoon of flour and enough water to get the starter back to that “thick peanut butter” consistency. The discarded starter can be composted, or mixed into pancake batter, fried and eaten if you’re feeling hungry).

Check the starter again later in the day, it may be sufficiently “active” – meaning the yeast is consuming the flour and water at a rapid enough rate – to use for creating the “leaven” (the next step toward baking something). 

Next up – Day 4: Ramping Up To A HANGRY Starter.

Sourdough Demystified Day 2: No Starter Activity Yet

Oh god the EXCITEMENT. We’re waiting to see bubbles in the dough and hoping to see it rise a little bit. None of that is happening yet, so today we’re just going to perhaps smell the starter for our own benefit. This will provide contrast for future starter sniffing because over the next few days the smell should begin to change dramatically. Tomorrow we’ll check it again to see if there has been activity. 

The next post is Day 3: Discard Some Starter and Feed.

Sourdough Demystified: Making a Sourdough Starter From Scratch

I’ve had so many friends ask me to teach them how to bake sourdough bread, bagels, cinnamon rolls and pizza that it warranted a blog series of its own. My effort will be to highlight the most important steps only so as not to intimidate aspiring sourdough bakers with non-critical details along the way.

My goal is to create a series of videos you can follow in order to successfully develop your own sourdough skillset to the point where you can confidently bake bread, pizza, bagels, and any other sourdough-based creations you can think of.

Starting Your “Starter”

If your bread doesn’t rise, it will suck. Non-sourdough bread cheats during this step by simply dropping in store-bought (commercial) yeast. It rises in a fraction of the time, but with a fraction of the flavour of sourdough. We want that sour flavour and all of the nutrients that come with a slower fermentation process. So instead of using commercial yeast, we sourdough bakers capture “wild yeast” out of thin air, in what’s called a “starter”.

A sourdough “starter” is just flour and water mixed into dough, and left in a jar at room temperature for a few days to ferment.

Wild yeast (microbes which exist naturally in the air) finds its way into the jar, colonizes the dough and begins the fermentation process. During fermentation, the yeast is simply eating the flour/water dough mix and pooping out CO² and a bunch of other nutrients. Those CO² fart bubbles cause the dough to rise.

We will start all future bakes (bread, pizza, everything) by taking a bit of the our original starter dough and adding it to batches of new dough we want to rise for baking purposes. Down the road, we’ll always keep a little bit of our starter in the fridge so we’re ready to bake on a day’s notice. Otherwise we’d have to create a new starter every time, and that can take several days depending on temperature (warmer = faster).

Having a starter means we can have bread ready for tomorrow instead of having bread ready next week.

Assume Your Flour SUCKS

The biggest cause of failure for beginner sourdough bakers is they assume the flour they’re using will work for making sourdough. They’ve purchased expensive organic “bread flour” from the grocery store and so it’s easy to assume that it will work for fermentation. It probably is NOT suitable for sourdough fermentation, especially if you live in a challenging climate like Canada where the cooler temperatures really impede our efforts.

In cold places, we need all the help we can get. Making sure we have the very best possible flour to work with is probably the most important thing you can do in your entire journey of learning the secrets of sourdough.

Call your local bakery, and ask if they bake “naturally leavened” sourdough. If they do, ask if they’ll sell you a bag of their baking flour (or point you in the right direction for you to source it yourself). I use “strong baker’s flour” from Parrish & Heimbecker – and I buy it from my local bakery in 50 lb sacks.

This step can be a hassle, but if you’re not absolutely certain that someone else is producing excellent sourdough bread without commercial yeast using the flour you’re working with – you stand to waste a LOT of time.

It took me 9 painful months of utter failure to figure this out for myself. Do yourself a favour, get a big ol’ sack of flour directly from your most reputable local bakery. In my experience, the local baker was stoked for me to be learning something as tricky as sourdough, and was super supportive. 

Once you have your flour, all you do is mix a couple heaping tablespoons of it with room temperature water. Leave it in a jar with the lid loosely covering it (so airborne yeast can get in and out).

This takes a long time to get going, so leave the jar at room temperature on your kitchen counter and we’ll pick up where we left off tomorrow. Here’s the next post in the series: Sourdough Demystified Day 2: No Starter Activity Yet

If I gave you a bag of flour, and water, and you had nothing else to live on – you could live on that for a while. But eventually you would die.

But if you take that same bag of flour, and water, and bake it into bread – you could live indefinitely.

Michael Pollan in Cooked S1: E3: Air