Welcome to SourDom's beginners blog, the tutorials are:
How to make your own starter .
How to use short kneads  to handle moist doughs and bake a loaf with a yeast-based preferment.
The subtleties of proving  a loaf using a ‘biga’.
How to shape a loaf  using a hybrid recipe.
The final crucial steps  and putting it all together to bake a 100% sourdough loaf.
What you will need:
- Flour, water, salt, active sourdough starter
- Proving bowl
- tea towel
- very sharp knife or razor blade
- large piece of thick cardboard (see below)
- oven stone or metal oven tray
- spray bottle of water
In this final tutorial we are going to talk about the final stages of dough preparation and then baking. We are also going to put together the techniques from the previous tutorials and bake a proper sourdough loaf. If your starter isn’t ready yet (ie showing lots of signs of life when you refresh it) use one of the other recipes as you work through this tutorial, and adjust the timings accordingly.
The final stages of dough preparation are probably the most important steps in terms of the cosmetic appearance of the loaf. They are also some of the more technically challenging steps, and you will find that your loaves improve dramatically with practice. There are three components to this process, upturning and slashing the dough, transferring in to the oven, and the bake itself.
Slashing the dough is more than just a way of making your loaf look professional or distinctive. One use of it in times past was to distinguish your loaves when they were baked in a communal oven. But they are also a way of controlling the growth of the dough when baking. The more oven spring that you have, the more likely it is that your loaf will burst or split, with a resulting uneven appearance, or unsightly ‘hump’. So creating a weakness in the surface allows you to direct where the loaf will expand most. However the number and direction of these will also affect the crumb of the loaf. See Bill’s blog on slashing loaves . The fancy french term for the slash in the top of a loaf is a ‘grigne’ (lit. ‘grin’ ;))
see also Jack Lang’s sourdough tutorial for pictures of various styles of slashing
The two most critical factors in a good slash (of a loaf I mean) are the sharpness of the blade and the demeanour of the slasher (for more on this see details below).
To get the best effect use a razor blade or something similarly ultra-sharp. Bakers use a special tool to hold a dispoasble razor blade - called a lame.
(This is Bill’s handmade lame - available online from the online store )
I have been using a type of ’stanley’ knife from a hardware store for the last 6 months or so. It has the advantage of being able to lock the nasty blade out of the way (away from tiny prying fingers). It is also one of those ones that you can snap off the end of the blade after it has become a little blunt, rather than needing to replace the blade frequently.
Alternatively some would suggest using a sharp serrated knife.
In the tutorial on proving  we talked about the relative frailty of dough that has reached the peak point of proving. Overhandling at this stage will lead the dough to collapse as the swollen air sacs inside burst and the air escapes. This is especially likely if the dough has been left too long (referred to as ‘over proving), and the resulting loaf will be flatter than it should be, with less oven spring. So the key principle is to be gentle but rapid in handling the dough, and to transfer it in to the oven as quickly as possible. There are a couple of different ways of doing this.
Professionals use a special type of flat wooden shovel or ‘peel’. Dough is flipped or unmoulded onto the peel, then slid off the peel onto the floor of the oven. The cheapest and simplest way to emulate this for a domestic oven is to use a piece of stiff cardboard. Cut one panel out of a heavy duty cardboard box, and keep it somewhere handy.
Alternatively you can unmould your dough directly onto an oven tray which you can place in the oven. (This reduces the risk of your dough ending up in a sad mess on the floor). The disadvantage of this is that it reduces the extra spring that you can get from putting your dough directly onto an oven stone. One compromise (particularly useful with fragile or very sticky doughs) is to use a metal tray, but to place it directly on top of the oven stone. Half way through baking (by which time the dough will have set enough to reduce the risk of disaster) you can transfer the dough on to the stone, to finish baking.
There are a few variables that will effect the quality of the finished loaf. Advice about temperature of the loaf is hard to give, as it will depend a lot on the specifics of your oven, and the veracity of the oven thermostat. You might find it helpful to buy an oven thermometer to check the temperature that your oven achieves. Home bakers will often bake at around 200-210C, but it is possible to bake successfully at temperatures below and above this.
Perhaps more important than the actual temperature in the oven is the distribution of heat. In particular, having a good source of radiant heat underneath a baking loaf improves the height that it will rise to with baking (this is the “oven spring”). The best way to achieve this in a domestic oven is to use a reasonably thick ‘oven stone’ or tile, which is placed in the oven before it is switched on, and allowed to heat up well before baking. (I use an ‘unglazed quarry tile’ that is about 2cm thick. It needs at least 3/4 hour of heating in the oven before it is ready to bake on).
(This is Bill44’s stone and oven - it is far cleaner than mine ever looks…)
The other variable is the humidity of the oven. Professional bakers inject steam into the oven early in baking. This has an effect on the ’spring’ of the loaf, as well as the crust. Moisture on the surface of the loaf leads to gelatinisation of sugars and protein in the crust, and leads to a crunchier crust. It is difficult to copy this closely in a domestic oven, but there are various tricks that home bakers use.
Have a look at theartisan  for a great summary of suggestions from various cookbooks. The most common suggestions include
- spraying the dough with water before putting it in the oven, and then spraying again every few minutes for the start of the bake
- putting a tray with water at the bottom of the oven
- tossing some ice cubes on a tray at the bottom of the oven
I have had most experience with the second of these, and until recently have tended to pour 1/2 a cup or so of water onto a pre-heated tray at the bottom of the oven at the same time as I put the dough in. This generates a lot of steam, and I then tried not to open the oven door in the first 20 minutes of the bake to prevent it all escaping. The one potential disadvantage is that if there is too much steam hanging around it seems to slow cooking of the base of the loaf.
Spraying the top seems to reliably give a good crunchy crust.
Lets get down to business. For this bake use the Pane Francese (1) recipe , which is the original sourdough version of the recipe that we have worked on in these tutorials.
Refresh your starter (this step generates the active starter that we use for sourdough baking).
Add 1 teaspoon of active starter to 90g of flour and water. Stir, cover and leave for 24 hours in a warmish place (room temperature is fine unless your house is freezing).
Your starter will have increased in volume, have lots of bubbles below the surface (visible if you used a transparent container), and have a layer of froth or bubbles on the top.
Stir together the active starter, and 320g water. Add the flours and salt. Mix to a rough, ragged mess. Leave for 10 minutes
Turn your dough out onto an oiled surface or tray. Knead for 10 seconds only. Leave for 10 minutes.
Give your mixing bowl a quick wash, and dry. Toss around a little olive oil into the bottom and place the dough back into the bowl.
Quick knead on oiled surface. Put the dough back into the bowl
Quick knead for 10 seconds. Put the dough back in the bowl. Cover, and leave for 1 hour
Scoop your dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Slash the top if you like to see how it is going, but it won’t be ready yet (see proving tutorial ). Give the dough a fold (again see proving tutorial ). Put back in the bowl, cover and leave for an hour at room temperature.
Turn out your dough and fold. (Slash the top if you like to see how it is going). Put back in the bowl and leave for 1 hour.
Turn out your dough and slash the surface with a sharp blade. If there are lots of tiny air pockets visible below the surface it is ready to shape. If not give the dough a fold and put back in the bowl. Leave for 1 hour.
Turn out the dough and slash the top with a sharp knife. If it is ready - go ahead and shape now (it probably will be, but if your starter is sluggish or the room is cold it may still need longer).
Shape the dough into a ball (see shaping tutorial ). Let the dough rest for 10 minutes
Shape the dough into a baton (see shaping tutorial ). Place the dough seam side up in a proving basket, or wrap it in a floured tea towel.
Cover the dough and leave it to rise (at warm room temperature say 20C) for 3 to 4 hours.
Put your baking stone in the bottom of the oven and turn the oven on.
When your oven has warmed up get a few things together.
Get out your piece of cardboard, and toss a tablespoon or two over the top - spread it out with your fingers. Have to hand your spray bottle and your razor blade/stanley knife. Grab some oven gloves if you need them.
OK, now lets just run through in our mind what we are going to do, because the aim is to unmould the dough and get it in to the oven in less than 10 seconds. In slow motion the steps are
1. unmould the dough from its tea towel or proving bowl onto the cardboard ‘peel’. (When you do this sometimes it will end up a little out of shape. It is OK to gently push it back in to the desired shape, but remember we don’t have long!!) If your loaf sticks to the towel or to the proving bowl you didn’t use enough rye flour. Not much you can do about it this time, but you will know for the next loaf!
3. Slash the top. For this loaf make a long incision along the long axis of the loaf down the middle. There are all sorts of fancy cuts that professionals will make, but to start with keep things simple. Have the knife at a 45 degree angle to the surface of the loaf - the aim is to make a sort of superficial flap rather than to cut a straight line. Be bold and decisive. Think of a horror-movie throat slashing stroke and you will get the idea. The aim would be to make a cut about 1/2 to 1 cm deep, but don’t get too focussed on that sort of detail.
4. Pick up the dough on the peel, open the oven door, slide the dough off the peel onto the oven stone and close the door again.
- OK - got all that? If you are too slow with the whole business the loaf will tend to flatten out into a sort of frisbee or pancake before it has time to hit the hot surface of the oven stone. One last time before you do it just run through the steps. Ready now to give it a go? OK
- pick up and shovel into the oven
- close the door, breathe a sigh of relief
You got it!
Have your spray bottle to hand. Every couple of minutes for the first 10 to 15 minutes of the bake open the oven door quickly and give the loaf a quick spray with water. (Careful not to burn yourself).
Watch through the oven door and you will see a few things happening.
The dough will rise vertically (this is the oven ’spring’). The slash on the top will start to spread apart, and the softer dough underneath will bulge out.
After a little while the slash will stop spreading and the dough will stop expanding. At this point the top of the loaf has set, and can’t expand further. (If the loaf has not proved enough (ie is underproved) it may still try to expand, and the loaf will sometimes develop a bulge or split at the base where the crust is not completely set.) At this point if you open the oven and poke the top of the loaf it will feel firm, but the sides and base will still be softish.
As the dough cooks further the top will colour, and the rest of the crust will set. If the top goes too deep a colour before the base is set, it may be that you need a lower oven temperature. (It is for this reason that some bakers will lower the oven temperature after initially putting in the dough in a very hot oven. This maximises the ’spring’ effect, but then tries to prevent the top from overcooking).
To tell if the base is set put on an oven glove, and gently lift up the loaf. Tap on the bottom with a finger. If it is soft it is not ready. When it sounds hollow to tap, the loaf is ready to come out.
Take the baked loaf out and put on a rack to cool.
DO NOT give in to the temptation to cut into a hot loaf! The insides have not finished cooking yet, and the bread is not fully digestible when it is still hot from the oven.
Just as it is possible to make all sort of different cuts on the top of a loaf to make it look distinctive, it is also possible to add to the appearance of a loaf by adding different toppings. After you spray the loaf (but before you slash it) sprinkle it with sesame or poppy seeds, or perhaps rolled oats. Have a look at Jack Lang’s tutorial  for some ideas and pictures
Where to from here?
Fantastic. You have now baked a full monty sourdough loaf. If you have worked your way through these five tutorials you have made your own starter ; learned how to use short kneads  to handle moist doughs and bake a loaf with a yeast-based preferment; you have appreciated the subtleties of proving  with a ‘biga’; you have learned how to shape a loaf  using a hybrid recipe, and finally in this tutorial you have worked on the final crucial steps and baked a 100% sourdough loaf.
From here your loaves will improve as you become familiar with sourdough baking, and get the hang of some of the fiddlier elements. The main trick is for the start at least (no pun intended) to stick to one recipe, and bake it multiple times until you are happy with it. Keep a note book, and write down any changes that you make, or things that you try so that you can keep track of what worked and what didn’t.
In the next couple of blogs I will talk a little about timetables for sourdough baking, and also some more about sourdough recipes and how to vary them to your tastes and needs.