Are you agonizing over the number of steps and terminology involved in the sourdough baking world? Ever wished you knew what was most important and what wasn’t?
Here is a list of the least important elements of the sourdough world that might just be overcomplicating your process:
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Signs you might be overcomplicating your sourdough process:
#1 – Making a Special Levain
By Levain I just mean using a Tbsp of starter or so with a larger amount of flour and water the night before to make enough active yeast before the next day’s bake.
This step is totally unnecessary if you maintain an already highly active starter. You can just use a larger quantity of starter in your bakes (the same amount as the “levain” called for in your recipe). This tip also cuts down astronomically on sourdough discard/waste, and the need for too much advanced planning.
Reasons you might want to use a Levain.
The use of a Levain would be helpful for hobby bakers who only want to maintain a teeny tiny starter (1-2 tbsp – not large enough for baking) – usually done to cut down on necessary feeding amounts. Any time you want to bake you would just bulk a portion of your tiny starter to whatever size you need it to be for your recipe by adding (equal parts) flour & water about 12 hours before you plan to bake…and that’s your Levain.
#2 – Getting overly concerned about terminology (biga, poolish, sponge)
These are just fancy names for starter “Imposters”. True sourdough does not contain commercial yeast, even if it did sit out overnight.
Sourdough bread should consist solely of flour, water, and salt.
See Know your Dough for more tips on what IS necessary to the sourdough process… and see the rest of this article to debunk the importance of the other fancy-pants terminology processes.
#3 – Getting lost in Baker’s Percentages
If you are confused by Baker’s Percentages don’t worry about it. I didn’t understand them until after 2.5 years of regular baking! You can totally master this art without ever doing baker’s math – at least until you decide you want to try.
Simple explanation: Flour = 100%. So, just multiply however much flour you want to use by .75 (for a 75% hydration dough) and that’s how much water you need. How much starter you use will affect your hydration levels, but not enough to worry about figuring out the calculations. Just be consistent and use the same amount of starter each time.
If you need a good starting point: use 500g flour, 375g water, 75g starter, and 1/2 Tbsp Salt. (75% hydration dough).
#4 – Religiously using an Autolyse
Autolyse simply refers to combining the flour and water to be used for baking before adding any of the other ingredients. It is done to improve flour hydration levels by offering more time for the water to absorb. This is typically recommended for 3-5 hours but some recipes even go as low as .5 hours, or, refrigerated, as long as overnight.
It can be helpful when using whole grain flours since the deeper hydration improves the ability of the yeast to process the wheat. However, it is unneccessary, especially when using good quality, high protein content flour – such as bread flour, or a mix of bread flour and other flours.
It is much simpler to mix together water, starter, flour, and salt all in at the same time. Doing this also prevents forgetting ingredients!
If you really want to keep it simple AND temporarily stave off the fermentation to still give your flour a little extra hydration, stick your dough straight from this first initial mix stage into the fridge overnight and pull it back out in the morning to begin working with it. (Dough will need to return to room temperature). This would be called Fermentolyse (since it contains starter).
#5 – Worrying too much about when to put the salt in
Just put the salt in already!
It might slow yeast development according to the experts, but certainly not noticeably to the average baker, and it definitely doesn’t prevent it. Just mix it in with your flour before/during the initial mix stage.
As long as your starter is happy and active, you’ll be perfect.
Also, don’t worry about making a salt water solution or dissolving the salt completely. The water may help make the dough easier to work with but the salt is almost impossible to dissolve and, honestly, it’s just an extra step and makes for very salty hands.
#6 – Trying too many methods and not mastering any
There are tons of methods out there – coil folds, stretch and folds, slap and folds, kneading, machine vs. no machine, lamination, etc, etc, etc…
Simply put, all the methods work, but they all take practice and “getting a feel for the dough”.
This typically results in overwhelm for newbie bakers and too many give up.
Stretch and folds are probably the easiest, cleanest, and simplest to learn to do by touch which is why I recommend them for newbie bakers. Master that, and then branch out.
#7 – Choosing to bake without a scale
For a beginner, it is impossible to “eyeball” your ingredients or get a balanced dough hydration without a kitchen scale. It also leads to unknown variables that could be affecting your results which will be impossible to troubleshoot.
They really aren’t that expensive. If you don’t have one, get yours today!
#8 – Expecting oven spring without investing in a Dutch Oven
Yes, there are other ways to get amazing oven spring. Yes, it is possible to bake without a cover… but it is difficult and inconsistent, especially if you don’t have a thorough previous understanding of sourdough, ovens, and steam.
If you are just starting out and want this to be the easiest, most fun possible process, get yourself a proper baking dish, my friend.
Read also: How to Achieve the Perfect Bake
How are YOU overcomplicating your sourdough process?
Is there anything else that you find overwhelming? Let me know in the comments below so I can make the process simpler!