Because I am new to baking, I figured that it is like anything else that you are new at ... you learn the tricks-to-the-trade after you have pulled your hair out. So I am helping out the new sourdough bakers with some tricks that I have learned from the experts here at Sourdoughs International.
1. A proofing box is a must. This is one of the very few ways to regulate your temperature correctly. Sourdough like certain temperatures, especially when activating. On my proofing box, I have pushed a thermometer through the box mid-way. Then I can read the temperature from the outside without disturbing it.
2. Sourdough cultures will activate and bubble up, then bubble down. Sometimes we miss it and think that it is not activating correctly. What you do is, clean off part of the inside of the jar, from the top down to the culture. That way you know for sure if the culture is activating.
3. Jar size. I use a 1 quart (1 liter) wide mouthed canning jar. The lid is just loosely placed on. I also put a wipe board piece on top, so that I can see when the last time I fed it was and which culture it is.
4. Washing the culture. So many times cultures get washed when it is not needed. If a culture needs washing you will know it. The smell is very, very rank! There will be no question in your mind that something is wrong. The smell of each one of our sourdough cultures from Sourdough International smells different. The smell may not seem normal but trust me it is.
5. When I heard of sourdough, all I could think of is I will have to stay home for the rest of my life to keep this culture going. That is not the case. If you are not going to be using your culture for an extended period of time, put it in the fridge. It can stay there for several months without any attention. Then when you need it, get it out and re activate it. I do recommend re activating it every three months if you aren't using it.
6. Bread machine vs. oven. Like I said, I am new to this baking thing and one of the reasons is that I am not a patient person. I use the bread machine and have found that it works pretty good. I don't get the holes in the bread like you would if you bake it but the taste is well. The crust is also softer than if you bake it. You will get a perfect loaf of sourdough if you do it the right way, in the oven.
7. Big no to salt. Never add salt to your original starter.
8. When a recipe calls for sugar, most bakers use white sugar. With sourdough many other sweeteners can be substituted, including brown sugar, corn syrups, and honey.
9. One of the major advantages of doing your own baking is your ability to adjust the recipes to your own health standards. Wheat, rye, high-fiber grains, oats are a few examples. Oil may be substituted for butter. Did you know that a slice of most home-baked sourdough bread contains no cholesterol and less than 150 calories?
10. Another great hint when working with other flours is the ratio. With rye bread especially. Rye bread: if you use 25 percent rye flour and 75 percent white flour the bread will be quicker rise and leaven. If you use 50 percent rye flour and 50 percent white flour this is when you get the best taste. If you use 75 percent rye flour and 25 percent white flour you will get a very intense taste. Also, when you are using rye flour there is a really different smell. You will think that you might need to wash it but it is just the unusual smell of the rye and it activates faster. Whole wheat Ffour; whole wheat flour can be substituted for white flour in most recipes.
11. I have two different converting yeasted recipes to sourdough recipes. Substitute a cup of starter for each package of yeast and then subtract about 1/2 cup of water and 3/4 cup of flour from the recipe to compensate for the water and flour in the starter. You’ll probably want to play with the ratio between the water and flour and adjust the amount of culture to get the results you want but this is a good starting place. Or if it calls for 2 tsp yeast, replace it with 1/2 to 1 cup active sourdough starter.
My best advice when it comes to sourdough is to play with it, experiment with it, and try things.
Sourdoughs are amazing things. Each has its own personality and traits. I have to laugh at mine sometimes because they react so different to the same treatment. I had 3 out at one time and working with them. One took off like a race horse out of the gate (Sourdoughs International's Original San Francisco). Quick activation. Fast leavening. Just wow. One was average (Sourdoughs International's Giza). Just took the suggested time and amount of flour and water. Was happy to be going along at an average speed. My third one was being slow and moody (Sourdoughs International's Yukon). It was stubborn to activate. It wanted more attention. Didn’t rise as fast. But it was well worth the wait.
Play with your culture. Try new things. Try different flours. The seasons can affect sourdoughs. Some like more flour and water than others. You don’t need to be precise. Just try and see what works best for you. This is why I suggest that when you first activate your culture that you split it and keep a back-up, in case you do something that can’t be reversed (which I have done).
By trying and experimenting, you might come across that amazing bread that no one else has ever come up with. That is the fun in baking with sourdough. The possibilities are endless.