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.
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.
I lost the $100 bet last Tuesday (that I’d be able to dunk a basketball after 5 months of training), and I wasn’t even all that close. But I learned recently that growth happens when your ego is in a position to be embarrassed, so I feel like I’m on the right path.
Then today I mashed a few low rim dunks and filmed it, and was able to compare it to dunk attempts on another low rim (same height, 9′ 5″). In comparing the footage, it looks like I’m jumping higher (or maybe I’ve just gotten better with filming in slow motion to make it look more epic!).
Filming dunk attempts has helped big-time. I can tell that I get way higher when my approach is full speed, and I don’t get nearly as high with a slower approach. My best jumps today occurred after I mentally primed myself by telling myself to approach the jump as fast as possible. Otherwise I just do a medium-speed approach and get only a medium-high jump.
All the gains come from max effort, so I need to keep on top of keeping my approach speed maxed out.
I’ve lost the $100, but I’ve gained a few inches and lots of technique. Beyond that, I’m more hopeful than ever that I’ll pull this off on a 10 foot rim in the near future.
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.
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.
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 starter will now have a noticeably more sour, almost vinegary smell to it.
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).
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.
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).
It may even be 34 inches. That white piece of plastic I’m trying to touch has a 1 inch piece of packing tape attached to the bottom, and if I can touch that tape I’m jumping 33 inches. The video replay of my best jump of the session looked like I smacked the plastic, but I won’t know for sure until I remove the tape and hit the plastic on its own. Then I’ll just keep removing a half inch at a time as my vertical improves.
I’m trying to achieve some level of balance with my reward system in order to encourage maximum jump efforts without discouraging myself with a target I simply never hit. I feel as though I’m more likely to have it in my head that I’ll be able to hit the plastic if it’s only 1/2 an inch higher than last time versus an entire inch. And the point of all this is to execute a high volume of maximum effort jumps. Having the target low enough to hit every time would feel great, but it wouldn’t lead to improvements in my jumping ability as quickly because I’m jumping as high as I already can, instead of jumping higher than I ever have before.
I look forward to the day when my vertical is in the high 30s and I’m touching 33 inches easily. But for now, touching 33 inches takes everything I’ve got. But the fact that it’s now possible for me just makes me want to train harder.
My next goal is to hang with 2 hands on a 10 foot rim.
I have a $100 bill clipped to the board beside these goals so I can see what I lose in September if I don’t accomplish them. I’m only looking at one goal at a time, one that’s just out of reach (literally). I’m doing it this way because the other forms of tracking were giving me a false sense of progress.
For example, I was tracking morning workouts. I was waking up at 5am and going outside and training. The problem is this doesn’t give me any indication of the quality of the workout. There’s no easy way to measure how much intensity I was bringing to the workouts. And what I need is maximum intensity for my vertical jump to improve.
So now I’m just tracking one goal at a time: something I can’t currently do, but that I can almost do. Then when I get it, I increment it up just a bit. Each goal has a deadline. I don’t know what I’m going to do if and when I miss the deadline. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that. If you have ideas, I’d love to hear them in the comments.
Craig Barclay, coach for the Trent women’s volleyball team, gave me some excellent advice last week. He said that I should start working on dunking smaller balls on a full-height (10 foot) rim. That way, I’ll be doing everything at full power in terms of getting off the ground – something I wasn’t necessarily doing when dunking on lower rims.
So, today I tried some single-leg dunks on a 10 foot rim.
I’m only just getting over the rim with my one legged jumps… but I think there’s room to grow with my single leg jumping technique. I should be able to get a little higher if I can attack the takeoff with more speed and drive my right leg up more explosively.
And I managed a new personal record today! I dunked a lacrosse ball with a two legged jump! I was super stoked about this. I felt like I got really good height, and I was happy to really throw the ball down through the rim at a good angle.
It looks like my hand is over the rim by a good amount if you pause the video at the apex of my jump, and this is really encouraging because I’ll be able to dunk a basketball once I can hit my wrist on the rim. Though there’s way more to it than that, as I’m slowly becoming aware of.
There’s also the significant factor of the skill needed to dunk a basketball, and this relates to timing, hand size (luckily I do have big hands and can palm the ball), and a variety of other factors – many of which are mental.
So – thank you Craig for the advice and for pushing me to a new personal best – dunking that lacrosse ball!