Lessons in sourdough

I’ve been playing with sourdough bread for a good couple of months now. I’m still a long way from perfecting the ancient artisan technique of bread baking, but I’m doing much better than when I first started out. Along the way I’ve learnt many valuable lessons. This post will probably be less about giving you a recipe and more about sharing some of my learnings so I can hopefully encourage others to continue to practice and perfect their own techniques.

Sourdough baking takes commitment. You won’t get it right the first time, nor probably the second or third. But I can promise you there’s nothing quite like the feeling of cutting a thick slice of steaming warm sourdough, straight from the oven. Whether you like it slathered in butter or dipped in quality extra virgin olive oil, it’ll always taste better knowing it’s yours.

First, lets start with some fun facts:

  • Sourdough is an ancient artisan bread, which likely originated in Ancient Egyptian times around 1500 BC. It was likely the first form of leavening available to bakers.
  • Sourdough is made with a natural ferment yeast, often referred to as a ‘Starter’ or ‘Mother’. A starter is made with just water, flour and oxygen. There is loads of information on creating your own starter. I found these sites to be most helpful when I first birthed my starter back in November 2011.


  • In the United States’ “Old West”, sourdough was the only continuous supply of leavening in the wilderness areas, earning the mountain men, sheepherders, pioneers, prospectors and miners of the time the nickname ‘Sourdoughs.’ To carry the starter from camp to camp, they would add enough flour to make a ball of dough that was then buried deep in the flour sack. Water and warmth at the next campsite started it growing again. Cowboy cooks would take their sourdough starter to bed with them to keep the cold night air from stopping the crucial fermenting process.
  • Sourdough is actually healthier for you than regular bread, thanks to the fermentation process used. Fermented food uses microorganisms to convert sugars into lactic acid, creating a signature sour taste. Fermenting food is almost like kick-starting the digestive process so your body digests, absorbs, and gets better use of the nutrients in the bread.

As you can probably guess, I’ve done a lot of research into sourdough baking. I like the taste, but more so I like the satisfaction of eating something I’ve made completely from scratch. I don’t like processed foods so I avoid them wherever possible. Baking your own bread is cheaper too. You don’t have to own a bread maker to make good quality loaves (I don’t own one). I’ve made several loaves now and I’ve definitely had my fair share of failures.

I started out with just the recipes and research I had done online, no formal classes, no bread books, no help. It was a good place to start, but I do recommend going to a class or two if you want to get better. I recently did a sourdough class at Careme Pastry – Yep, they make pastry. But they also do sourdough. And they love sharing what they know.

At the class we were given a chunk of their 100+ year old starter they got in San Francisco – probably the most famous sourdough location on earth. We bakes sourdough and ciabatta and we were given more dough to take home and bake, and four loaves of freshly baked bread. Money well spent on a class with that amount of take-home goodies I think!

After the class I decided to try their process for baking bread, but with my own rye starter. While there was plenty of air in the dough to make those lovely holes in the bread, it didn’t rise. Now, when I baked bread prior to this class, the recipe I was using always rose really well but I never got the air pockets. I figured if I combined the two different ‘recipes’ (which are more like processes and guidelines) I would either hit the mark with both the rise and the air pockets, or I’d fail two-fold. Thankfully it was the former!

The two main differences between the recipes is that Careme’s process is all about percentage of ingredients, whereas Cherie’s (aka the first recipe I tried that was actually edible prior to taking the class) has a lot more ‘waiting’ time. What I mean is the process could drag out to three days depending at what time you decided to start.

I did some scribbles using my notes from both recipes and came up with the below. The pictures won’t make a whole lot of sense if you’ve never done sourdough baking before, but stick with it and you’ll soon understand!

My scribble!

*Phew* there’s a lot more chemistry to this bread baking business than I thought!

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