Sourdough has this really amazing way of humbling us and inevitably teaching us what grace feels like. But, like a tight knit community, we're here for each other; ready to support, encourage and troubleshoot together. Here are the most common questions I get when it comes to sourdough. Remember, the more you bake and get your hands in the dough, the more you're going to learn and develop that intuition I always talk about in our workshops. But just as important, is asking for help! Feel free to leave more questions in the comments below and I'll be sure to add them here; our rolodex of tips of tricks.
"Hand Folding VS Mixer"
Our main goal with sourdough is to build gluten structure, and both tools; our hands or a mixer will do just that. If using a mixer, it should be set on the lowest setting. I do however, do suggest always, always, always to touch your dough and get a feel of the texture every time you bake, no matter what tool you use. As you become to a more experienced baker, you begin to understand what your dough needs more of; mixing, flour, or water, just by the touch of your hands. My personal preference is hand folding before the bulk fermentation. In my experience, it allows me to gain insight to the dough, become a more intuitive baker and creates the crumb and texture I love by creating more overall strength.
"How do I get a better rise?"
Sourdough is very elemental process that is influenced by temperature, time and ratio's of ingredients. And like all good things, it requires nurturing, grace and practice. My first thoughts when I get asked this question, goes strait to the health and the activity of the starter. Be sure to use your starter during peak activity; anywhere from 3-7 hours after feeding depending on the vigor and strength of your starter. Also, the more you feed and use your starter, the healthier she'll be. The next element that plays big part in rise is temperature. If your water was too cold when added to the mixing bowl, or your kitchen runs on the cold side, these things will all play a part in our final rise. Try leaving your dough to ferment in the warmest place in your home. Some leave it in the laundry room, or on top of the fridge. Mine always stays on the stove which is almost always cooling down form being used.
"What can I do about my dough always falling when it transfers to bake"
If you're having this issue, I would work on shaping first. Shaping creates tension and strength in our dough before going into its final rise in the proofing step. If you did one envelope shape for example, and your dough flattens out and doesn't seem to hold shape, try doing one more. Another point to make here, if proofing our dough at room temperature, we should be aiming for anywhere from 60-90 minutes, depending on the temperature of our kitchen. After 60 minutes, poke your dough and if she springs back slowly, she's ready to be baked. If not, check again in 15 minutes, or so. Proofing over 90 minutes at room temperature runs the risk of over proofing, which will result in a soupy, unshaped loaf that will fall when transferred.
"How do I adjust for different flours"
This is a great question that can truly only be answered by practice. I am a home baker that uses very simple, available and sustainable flours so I am not well versed in flours that go beyond all purpose, whole wheat, rye and spelt. What I have learned is that whole wheat, rye and spelt and many other ancient grains and are much heavier than all purpose and require more water. My rule of thump is to always add 25g more water if I am every using whole wheat, and to balance my whole wheat with all purpose white flour to help bring lightness. My ratio tends to be somewhere around 1:.25-.5 white to whole wheat flour. So, for every 1/4 cup or 1/2 cup whole wheat, I will have 1 cup of while to help support it. I will also take extra time to nurture my whole wheat loaves; doing folds ever 30 minutes for 4 hours before the bulk rise, to help build structure and strength. Also, the taste of a pure whole wheat or pure spelt is delicious, and some of the earthiest, deepest flavor bread I have every tasted, but don't expect a big raise or very soft crumb, change your perspective and redefine what it should look like before judging the final bake.
"How do I read my starer?"
"How often do I feed it and do I have to discard?"
I love this question and overall topic. Getting to know your starter is a beautiful experience that is truly unique to everyone. First off, it's important to feed your starter, not based on a schedule, but what the starter is telling you. If there are no bubbles, and it smells very acidic, almost like alcohol, then its most definitely time to feed it. But how much do we feed it? Sour dough starter is comprised of lactic acid, and acetic acid. A 1:1 ratio of flour and water, will favor the lactic acid and create a loaf that is earthy and beautiful, but not very sour. If you follow a higher flour ratio; you're favoring the acetic acid; resulting in a more sour loaf. This is purely based on preference of the baker, but also you can read your starter based on time; how fast she becomes active or hungry, and the smell. A healthy sourdough starter should smell slightly sweet, like a sun ripened apple. If it smells very acidic, and seems to be needing to be fed more often, try adding a higher ratio of flour, starting with 1/2 cup flour to 1/4 cup water, and see how she responds. A healthy starter should be fed daily, maybe every other day depending on the season and temperature, but always check for bubble activity and smell to guide you on that. Also, you can store your starter in the fridge for up to one week. I like to feed it, then put it in the fridge and then bring to room temp for bake day, using when doubled in size and active.
Discarding is something I do recommend to keep up the health of the starter and all of the bacteria in there happy and balanced. But, the amount of discard can be changed based on needs and goals. For example, if you want to grow the overall amount of your starter, you can discard a small amount, 2 tablespoons for example, over the course of the next couple feedings, while continuing the same feeding amount of flour and water. But, with every new ratio change, it is always best to save some of your starter and dehydrate it to have for back up in case something would ever happen to your starter, God forbid!
"How do I dehydrate some of my starter?"
So easy! Like I said above, it is so important to always a some of your starter saved just in case! Take a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, and pour 1/4-1/2 cup of active sourdough starter on to your sheet pan and let dry at room temperature for 2-3 days. Using your hands, just break it up and store in an air tight jar in a cool, dark place for 6 months to a year.
"My starter looks bubbly but it's not floating"
I have to admit, I don't always do a float test! A float test is a way to see if your starter is ready for baking. However, starter that was fed 2 hours after feeding, will float because there are tiny bubbles present. Is it ready to bake yet? No. Starter should be used at its peak activity which is unique to the starter; usually anywhere form 4-8 hours after feeding and it has doubled in size. If your starter looks bubbly, but is not floating, then it's on its way down from peak activity. Could you still use it? Absolutely! This isn't about baking the perfect loaf, it's about learning! Take notes and tweak your schedule next time.