My Best Tips & Tricks for Sourdough & Artisanal Bread Making
Updated: Jun 25
“For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir”, they said, “Always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:33-35
As a consumer, baker, and teacher of true sourdough and traditional, European-style, fully-fermented breads, I am constantly amazed at the interest shown by people from every walk of life, for the process that produces this style of bread, “the staff of life”.
With this comes a great interest in how to overcome and understand the issues many have with their own bread-making process.
My Own Bread Making Journey
When I first learned to make this myself (now some 20 or more years ago) I also was intrigued, yet puzzled. I had not grown up with any skills in the kitchen at all beyond washing dishes, so making bread was something that I chose to figure out on my own as a means of feeding my family well, providing a healthy product for the table.
At first I knew nothing of organic vs. conventional, yeast bread vs. sourdough. In fact, the only thing I understood was the importance of utilizing “whole grain” flour instead of the white, starchy flours that were (and remain) so prevalent in the market place.
Soon I learned of the differences between “whole wheat” flour and freshly-milled, true whole grain flour and began purchasing freshly-ground flour at my favorite natural foods store. Eventually I bought my first grain mill and then purchased wheat berries through a friend. However, what this woman was acquiring was actually seed-grain, treated with chemicals to preserve the seed for conventional planting-yikes! Obviously I still had a lot to learn…
Eventually I was educated on the dangers of glyphosate, atrazine, and other chemicals utilized in the production of conventional grain. I also learned of the tremendous benefits of regenerative agriculture and the qualities of old-fashioned, non-GMO and less hybridized grains such as spelt, einkorn, emmer, rye and kamut. These new (to me) grains were exciting, and I began to experiment with sourdough bread-making after devouring the entirety of the Nourishing Traditions Cookbook (my nutrition Bible!)
There were a few failed loaves along this journey, several that became fodder for our chickens and pigs (such as the potato bread that came out so gross, no one could eat it but the livestock!) Yet I persevered, learning more and more one loaf at a time until finally, the perfect loaf was accomplished!
All these years later I continue to be challenged with new methods, mixing a variety of natural grains, and varied styles. Bouchon Bakery and The Village Baker became two of my most treasured books in my collection, while I also enjoyed the tutelage of an European-trained baker in my area.
Key Elements in Bread Making
So, what are the keys to producing that perfect loaf? Basic artisanal bread-baking in and of itself is not as difficult as some might think, though there are several nuances and key factors to keep in mind. These include:
1. Time and patience: a poolish requires about 4 hours to reach peak activity, while a sourdough takes from 5-7 days to accomplish the same. Proofing also requires at least 4 hours, although a proof time at room temperature of 7-8 hours produces a more flavorful loaf which also neutralizes anti-nutriends. Too much time at room temperature, however, and you will have a flat, dull loaf. Overnight in the refrigerator produces similar results.
2. Temperature: the temperature throughout the process of creating a starter, proofing, and rising is critical. Starters, whether poolish or sourdough, require a warm ambient temperature of at least 70°, but should not exceed 90°.
3. Water: chemicals in municipal water supplies will destroy the active yeast rendering an established starter useless, and impossible to create a new one. If in doubt, use spring water from the store, at room temperature.
4. Kneading: is critical for the development of gluten and thus is directly responsible for success or failure. Over-kneading will definitely ruin a loaf as well, rendering the final product crumbly and flat. Therefore it is exceedingly important to pay attention to the texture of your dough. The kneading process begins with the mixing in of sufficient flour and other ingredients, so do pay attention to moisture content and both appearance, and feel , of the surface. The final dough should be soft and pliable, elastic, and “smooth as a baby’s bottom”.
Note: The exception to this would be when making a European-style baguette or other bread in which instead of kneading the dough, one utilizes a stretch and fold technique, with a wetter dough. But this is for another article, the method is sufficiently different that we will address this separately.
5. Organic vs. conventional grain: while not necessarily for success in bread-making, for the health of all who may be consuming your product it is critical to avoid conventional grains, which are literally doused with chemicals including glyphosate, a known carcinogen, endocrine disrupter, and general toxin. Glyphosate has literally been found in 100% of human breast milk tested, and is persistent in our soils and our waterways.
A Few Tips for Bread Making
1. I always begin each batch either early in the day, or in the evening, in order to allow sufficient time for full development of flavor and texture, while also allowing for the neutralization of anti-nutrients. Thus, either day-long or night time (refrigerated preferably) is best; it’s difficult to manage the process when starting mid-day.
2. If using a Poolish as a starter, it is important to use only non-GMO yeast, such as SAF Instant Yeast. Nearly all baking yeast found on American store shelves is genetically modified, something we should all be avoiding across the board within our food supply.
3. Whole grain flour makes the strongest sourdough starter as the intact nutrients help to feed the “beasties” for the long-term. I typically use a combination of rye (flour) and spelt (flour) but other gluten-containing grains work also, aside from barley which has a much lower gluten content.
4. While not entirely necessary, making a secondary starter from the primary sourdough ensures a very energetic, “happy” base for your dough, ie, 1 cup starter plus 1 cup each flour and water. Allow this to acclimate and become busy before adding the rest of your ingredients. The process may take as little as 15-30 minutes, or several hours, depending on ambient temperature and yeast activity.
5. Utilizing unbleached flour for a portion of the dough, preferably the last 10-25% of additions, lightens the loaf and makes kneading and handling more manageable.
6. For ease of shaping the final loaf|loaves, dipping your hands in cold water frequently prevents the dough from sticking. Also, using a silicon baking mat makes for quick and easy cleanup in addition to providing the perfect surface for kneading and shaping!
With these hints and tips, you should now be prepared to commence making a great loaf of bread! You can find some great resources for bread making supplies on our Resources page. And to learn more, or to hone your skills, check out our sourdough & artisanal bread courses, both on our site and with the School of Traditional Skills.
I can almost smell the aroma now…
Favorite Tools for Bread Making
Traditional Sourdough Starter ¼ cup whole grain flour (rye, spelt my favorites here)
¼ cup untreated or spring water
Combine in a glass or stoneware container, cover loosely (no need for cheesecloth or other permeable material, a standard lid is fine). Daily for 1 week, add the same amount of each until the solution becomes bubbly and yeasty-smelling. It is now ready to go to work for you!
1 cup whole grain flour
1 cup untreated water, room temperature
⅛ tsp SAF Instant Yeast
Combine, cover loosely, and allow to work for about 4 hours, until bubbly.
Standard Bread Recipe for either of the above starters
1 cup starter
1 cup freshly milled or whole grain flour
1 cup untreated water
Combine and allow to rest for up to an hour, until bubbly. A dough hook works very well for this, and the beginning of the next step.
Work in 1-2 cups of flour, and then continue adding, about half a cup at a time until a cohesive dough is formed. Add 1 tsp unrefined salt towards the end of this process. Knead until smooth and elastic, cover with a cloth and let rest for at least 4-5 hours; 8-10 hours is best.
A silicone baking mat is a useful tool for both ease of kneading and shaping the dough.
Punch down dough, shape into loaves and let proof for an additional 35-45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 425°.
When loaves have doubled in size score with a lame or sharp, serrated knife. Gently place into the hot oven and toss about 2 cups of ice on the bottom of the oven to create steam. Turn the temperature down to 400° and bake for 25-35 minutes, turning out to tap the bottom to check for doneness; the loaf should sound hollow when the bottom of it is tapped. When done, allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing.