How to prepare the sourdough starter for baking
Once the starter is in the refrigerator, you will need to get it out of hibernation and prepare the sourdough starter for baking. To prepare the sourdough starter for baking, take the starter out of the fridge and feed it 8-12 hours before you plan to start making the dough. A healthy, mature starter should be bubbly and double in 8 hours. If your starter does not double before you begin making the dough, it is best to feed it one more time and wait for it to double. The best time to bake is when your starter is fully active and has doubled.
It is important to note that the time taken for the starter to activate depends on many factors. For example, the ambient temperature, the nature of the starter itself, etc. If your starter activates at a much faster rate, you can activate it the same day you are making the dough. Or, you can use either less starter or cold water to slow down the activation.
When a recipe calls for an active starter, take equal parts of refrigerator starter, flour, and starter to activate it. For example, if the recipe calls for 60 grams of active starter, take out 20 grams of starter and combine it with 20 grams of flour and 20 grams of water the night before you make your dough.
Once your starter is bubbly and has risen double, you can perform a float test to check if it is fully active and ready for baking. To do the float test, take a teaspoon of the starter and drop it in a bowl of water. If it floats, it passes the float test; and if it does not, it needs more time to be fully active. You can wait for some more time and check again or can feed the starter again and wait for 4-6 hours.
A sample timeline I follow:
FRIDAY NIGHT: Take the starter from the fridge and feed it with flour and water. Leave it at a warm temperature overnight.
SATURDAY MORNING: Mix dough, stretch, and fold, bulk fermentation.
SATURDAY NIGHT: Cold fermentation in the fridge.
SUNDAY/MONDAY MORNING: Bake day
I have elaborated on the baking schedule in my post on baking sourdough bread.
Troubleshooting sourdough starter
If the starter is not bubbly, it may need more frequent feedings. Also, check the temperature at which the starter is placed. It needs a warm spot to grow and develop bacterial and yeast cultures. Some new starters may take more time to become active and bubbly, which is completely normal. With so many factors influencing bacterial and yeast growth, it is important to be patient and continue to follow the discard and feed cycles. You can also stir the starter one or two times between the feeds which can help in increasing the oxygen levels in it. The starter is healthy as long as there are no molds/black spots on it.
If your starter develops black spots or has a pink tinge to it or is furry, you will have to throw it away and start again. Clean the jar thoroughly before starting a new starter. You may also consider changing the flour.
When making a new starter, it is normal for it to not smell good during the first couple of days. It can have a strong and pungent smell in the beginning, and it can stink as well. This only means that you have caught yourself some wild yeast and the yeast culture has begun in the starter. Keep continuing the discard and feed cycle and as the starter starts to mature and ripen, it will have a fruity and yeasty smell with an astringent note to it. Sometimes, a mature starter develops a funny smell – like nail polish remover or acetone. This means that the starter is hungry. Feed it to reduce the smell. The starter is perfectly normal. With a more frequent feeding cycle, the smell will go away completely. A healthy starter should smell yeasty or a bit like vinegar.
This is called hooch and happens if the starter is hungry. You can choose to throw it away or stir it back in – it does not make any difference to the starter. Just feed the starter right away. I prefer to stir the hooch back into it as this adds more sourness to the bread.
If the starter is placed in a very warm place, it eats up all the food quickly turning it very watery or liquidy. If this happens, you will have to place the starter in a spot that is less warm. Continue to discard and feed, and move the starter to a slightly cooler spot to fix this issue.
While it is important to feed the starter regularly, the starter will not die if you miss a feeding cycle. But feed it straight away once you remember and continue with the regular feeding cycle. While making a new starter, I prefer to set a reminder on my phone so that I can feed the starter on time. But I can assure you by experience that mild negligence will not kill your starter. Once the starter is well established and goes into the fridge, it only needs to be fed once a week. Consider setting a particular day of the week as a part of the routine to do it. Read how to maintain your established sourdough starter here.
This is easier said than done. It takes time for the starter to get mature and ripe, and it needs some love and care while it is developing. Remember there are no shortcuts to create a starter. Don’t rush into it as making and establishing a starter takes time. The only shortcut to make the starter fast is to have an established starter – consider getting some discard from friends and family who bake sourdough regularly.
Every starter is different and can behave differently. It may take anywhere from 7 to 14 days for the starter to be active, bubbly, rising double, and ready to bake. Don’t give up on your starter as long as there are no molds. It takes time but is absolutely worth it when we get to bake real bread with it.
How to make no-knead sourdough bread
MAKING THE DOUGH
- Make sure the starter is fully active before starting
- Mix water and starter together
- Slowly add flour and salt. Combine well making sure there are no dry bits of flour. The dough will be quite wet at this stage
- Cover with a tea towel and let it sit at room temperature for 1 to 1.5 hours. This stage is called the autolyse
STRETCH & FOLD
- After autolyse, we need to perform stretch and fold. I aim to perform six sets of stretching and folding at an interval of 20 to 30 minutes
- To perform stretch and hold, wet your hands. Gently loosen the dough from all sides of the bowl. Grab a portion of the dough and slowly stretch it taking care not to break it and fold it towards the center over the dough. Keep turning the bowl and repeat the process until all parts of the dough are covered. Carefully flip the dough and round it up. Cover and let it rest until it is time for the next set of stretch and fold. Pinch out any air bubbles that are formed during this process. You can see the dough develop structure and strength as you continue the stretch and fold. The messy and shaggy dough will slowly turn into a well-developed dough. See the pictures below or the video here to see the technique
- You can either do the stretch and fold in the bowl itself or put the dough onto the bench to perform the stretch and fold. If you are putting the dough onto the bench, make sure you mist it with water first. It is important to always wet your hands before handling the dough and handle the dough gently
- After the stretch and fold, let the dough sit for bulk fermentation. As mentioned earlier, the time for bulk fermentation depends on the ambient temperature of the place where the dough sits. The bulk fermentation is done when the dough is almost double and has bubbles on top. Gently pull the dough from a corner and see if it has fairly large bubbles underneath
SHAPING THE DOUGH
- The next step after bulk fermentation is shaping the dough. To shape the dough, firstly dust the banneton or tea towel well with rice flour
- Dust the bench lightly with flour and turn the dough onto it. The dough should gently pull itself down to the bench
- Pick one side of the dough and fold it to the center. Pick the other side and fold it to the center
- Now hold the dough gently and tuck it to form a log
- Carefully place the dough seam-side up on the banneton. Gently lift the sides of the dough and dust some more rice flour
- Take care to be very gentle with the dough and handle the dough as less as possible
- Cover the dough loosely with a clean shower cap or place a cling wrap loosely
- Place in the refrigerator overnight or up to 24 hours
BAKING THE SOURDOUGH BREAD
- Place the dutch oven with the lid on in the oven and preheat it at 230℃ for 30 minutes
- Score the dough with a razor blade or sharp knife. Make the cut approximately ¼ inch deep across the bread. You can score the dough to create designs/patterns you like
- Once the oven is preheated, take the dough out of the fridge. Gently flip it onto a baking sheet
- Take the dutch oven out of the oven and open the lid
- Carefully place the dough in the dutch oven and cover with the lid
- Place the dutch oven back into the oven and bake for 25 minutes
- Take the lid off and bake for a further 20 minutes
- Turn off the oven and open the oven door. Let the bread sit in the turned-off oven for 15 minutes for curing
- Take the bread out once cured and place on a wire rack to cool down completely
- Slice and serve