Sourdough Technique

Basic Sourdough Technique at the French Road Bakery, Cape Breton Island

Posted on April 22, 2012

This is how I make naturally leavened (‘sourdough’) breads. My method is partly based on trial and error, but also largely based on being something that is easy to live with, i.e. that doesn’t produce irregular sleep patterns, and also works in the context of running a small commercial operation so that I can make 100 or so at a time, twice a week in the summer which of course is different from making the occasional loaf or two at home. The technique also has to fit in with using a wood-fired brick oven, which presents considerable and specific challenges, albeit also yielding most pleasing, and often quite superior, results when all goes well.

Basic Technique used for all sourdough loaves (but not the Sprouted variety):

(Assuming a Saturday Market Day:)

Thursday 9:30am      Mix the starter so it’s fully ready by 5:00 pm or thereabouts. This involves taking about 1 kg of starter out of the fridge where it has been since the last bake and tripling it. So to 1 kg of starter I add 1 kg of water and 1 kg of fresh-ground rye (rye kernels ground fine at the slowest speed in my Nutrimill grain grinder.)

9:50 am       Mix the doughs so that all the flours have soaked for several hours before the starter is added. This adds smoothness and flavour to the breads, obviating any need for kneeding (I do not knead my breads, either with a mechanical mixer, or by hand).The flavour quotient comes, I believe, from the enzyme action that soaking (‘autolyzing’ to use baker jargon) affords. This makes the grain FAR more digestible and therefore user-friendly. Most problems with bread digestion, I suspect, are due to the overly rapid techniques used today featuring dough with special (often unlabelled) conditioners (including human hair from Chinese and Indian barbershops), mechanical mixing (10 minutes develops strong, elastic gluten strands equivalent to about 6-10 hours of slow soaking), and test tube yeast (single strain yeast which one never finds in Nature, fed on beet and other sugars, not naturally grown and propogated on wheat or grain as it really should be, and as my sourdough cultures are).

I started off only mixing the whole grains earlier since such soaking makes a significant difference in texture, flavour and digestibility as recommended by many of the whole grain baking gurus, of whom the one I have personally found the most helpful is Peter Reinhart, closely followed by Jim Lahey. But later I began to mix them all including the white loaves, not so much for improved results as for a far easier schedule. I am in my late 50′s and last year wasn’t in the best of health following a water-born bug in late 2010 which took a while (about a year ) to fully resolve, so I found doing 3-5 hours of heavy mixing late at night before a 14 hour Bake Day overly strenuous. Ergo: do the mixing in the morning when you are fresh, the sun is shining, and keep it simple at night. This is an example of tailoring the technique to other operational requirements, i.e. the fact that I need a good night’s sleep, things like that. They are important. And in the long run, they help you make better bread too.

OK, so in the evening I add in the starter along with any other ingredients that have soaked separately like walnuts or chia seeds, then wait an hour, do a stretch and fold, wait another hour and do another stretch and fold. My way of stretching and folding is simple. Usually I am (man)handling 5-7 kilos of dough, which is quite a lot, and I find that what I do is basically stretch it out in all directions as best I can, almost like making a pizza, and then roll it back up into a large ball and put it back in the (food-grade) plastic bucket. That’s it. I find that by the second stretch-and-fold the dough has clearly come together, is no longer sticky or irregular, and I get the feeling I don’t need to do the second stretch and fold at all. And in fact with ‘stickier’ doughs that have more than about 40% rye for example, I don’t bother. With fresh-ground loaves that have so much bran that there isn’t much of a gluten structure for trapping gas, I don’t stretch at all. These loaves are very high hydration and come out just fine. They are mixed Thursday morning, and again Thursday evening when the starter is added, and that’s all that’s needed. They also get a little bit of stretching when scaled and put in the loaf pans. But that’s the next section.

Friday morning:   Around 6 am I light the fire which requires 3-4 pieces of wood every hour or so for 3-4 hours (42″ long pieces for my 49″ * 37″ oven interior, whole beast weighing in at around 10,000 pounds including the cinder block, cement-filled, totally overkill base which is about half the weight). Then you have an hour during which the coals just keep heating up the bricks ( aka ‘mass’) and then another hour after clearing out the coals and lightly mopping the bricks to make them ash-free clean), making 5-6 hours in all from time of lighting the fire to time of baking.

This is why brick oven baking can be VERY challenging. You have to time your fermentation and shaping to when the oven is ready. Although you can wait a little after raking out – or delay raking out or extend the fire by adding wood – if you need to delay things due to slow fermentation, if fermentation is running ahead – which does happen when the weather and humidity are higher than anticipated and you don’t have a temperature-controlled bakery or proofing chamber which I don’t unfortunately – you cannot really rush the oven. So you have to know about 6 hours ahead of time when your dough is ready to be baked. You just don’t have this type of logistical concern with normal yeast-risen breads baked in push-button modern ovens. Which is why commercial yeast and electric/gas ovens are such amazing technologies in terms of churning out consistent, high volume, efficient and profitable production levels, even though they unfortunately tend to produce generally inferior bread. Indeed, there are many so-called ‘artisan’ loaves, both the semi-fake parbaked supermarket variety and those made by individual bakers selling at Farmers Markets, which use modern time-saving techniques, including convection ovens, whose breads are often not all that superior simply because the bakers don’t realise that so many of the techniques they have learned (using yeast, kneading with mixers etc.) are designed for high volume, non-whole-grain, products, and usually to knock many hours off the production schedule. 90% of bakers believe, for example, that you have to knead the dough in order to develop the gluten structure. It’s simply not true unless you are determined to bake a dough only a few hours after mixing it.


So after the fire is going for 2 hours, I start to shape. Actually, I put my fresh-ground 100% whole grain loaves (usually Rye and Spelt) into the loaf pans immediately after lighting the fire, because the longer they get undisturbed, the better they rise in the pan. So I scale the loaves, let them bench rest for 2-3 minutes whilst I wash out the dough buckets (food-grade white buckets sold at a marine supply shop downtown), then shape them into bannettons ($1.00 plastic ones at the wholesale downtown junk food supply depot type place) or put into loaf pans (very wet doughs go into loaf pans because they cannot hold a shape even in a bannetton, and the focaccios go pancake-batter-like into baking trays), and then when it’s time, usually around 12.00 or so, they go into the oven in sequence, the same sequence in which they were mixed and the starter added.

And about 3-4 hours later, they are all done. The 500g focaccios take 15 minutes, the first load of 680g  hearth loaves (usually whole wheat, walnut and light rye) take 25 minutes going in around 650F/ 340 C; then there might be more hearth loaves but nowadays I am usually putting in Dark Rye in loaf pans and large 1 kg white sandwich loaves, then also a sweet honey-butter loaf (lower temp is good with this one otherwise it has tendency to burn because of sugar and butter content), then last but not least the fresh-ground Rye and Spelts and Ezekiel-style sprouted loaves. If I have shortbread or crackers, they go in oven that is around 350-400.

Then after that, I collect pre-cut lumber in the back yard and put it in the oven so that I have good, warm dry wood for the next bake.

Then after cooling the bread is stacked in portable carry-racks; overnight the bakery is kept warm (in winter) and humidified so that bread doesn’t get too hard overnight (if cold and dry this accelerates the aging process considerably), then around 7.30 am it’s all loaded into the car, driven to market which is about 30 minutes away, then the table is set up, and sales go on until 13:00 pm, then a snack of Hartmut’s hand made sausages (wurst) with handmade sauerkraut, then some shopping, then home around 15.00 pm to collapse for a while!

So that’s the basic technique and process.


One thought on “Sourdough Technique

  1. I love this! While I don’t have a wood-fired brick oven, I do have a pizza stone, which helps my conventional oven retain and distribute high heat. My grandfather was a baker form Switzerland, and he taught me how to make Swiss bread, which requires the use of a stone (or a brick oven!)and at least a full day (or two) to make. I would love to try some of your techniques, as I have never had good luck baking rye bread or a decent whole-multi-grain bread. The secret to Swiss bread is in the rises. Although it contains only flour, water, yeast, and salt, the flavor and texture is distinctive. It is risen and punched down multiple times, the flavor developing with each rise. I make it several times a year- mainly during the holidays. (My father would rather have a batch of Swiss bread than any other holiday goodies!)
    Thanks again for writing this blog. Now for creating my sourdough…

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