Here’s how you can master baking sourdough bread at home

Published October 8, 2020, 4:58 AM

by Nina Daza-Puyat

Tell us what your starter’s name is! 

As AVP at Buensalido PR and Communications, Monique Buensalido has been busy hosting Zoom meetings, conducting webinars, and attending to clients’ needs. Somewhere along the way, in the past six months, she also managed to discover a skill she never thought was in her DNA: baking bread. 

The proud baker and her masterpiece

As the happy and grateful recipient of a loaf of Monique’s sourdough, I was blown away at how golden and crusty it was on the outside, and how soft, light, and chewy it was on the inside. I marveled at its fragrant aroma, its open crumb and texture, and its complex flavors. I could have sworn it was imported from a boulangerie in Paris, not from Monique’s kitchen in Alabang. 

This is an inspiring story of a young woman who, out of sheer necessity coupled with a little bit of panic, decided to confront the formidable task of baking her own sourdough bread head on. 

Sourdough has become one of the most sought-after breads to perfect in this pandemic and so many people all over the world have been taking on the challenge. 

Taking inspiration from Monique’s experience from clueless baker to confident baker, may we be inspired to embark on our own journey in making and mastering sourdough bread at home. 

What was the extent of your baking experience before you started this exciting journey in bread baking?

Except for heating up bread in the toaster, pretty much zero. I would dabble in cooking every so often if I was curious about a recipe, but in general, I had always been intimated by the precision and patience needed in baking. I am not known for either of those! But I’ve always loved, adored, worshipped bread. There is no form of bread around the world that I won’t say no to, from pandesals to baguettes to chapatis.

What was the very first thing you baked at the start of the lockdown? 

When the quarantine started, we couldn’t get to our neighborhood panaderyas for our regular supply of bread. Suddenly, bread in the supermarkets was running low on stock. Baking goods like flour and yeast were out of stock as well. I started to panic; the thought of having no bread was absolutely tragic and unacceptable.

I checked our pantry, and all we had was Maya flour and (old) baking soda. I Googled and checked what bread I could bake without yeast, and I found recipes for sourdough. But since it takes a few days to bring your starter to life, I tried Irish Soda Bread. All you need is flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk (made by combining milk and vinegar). 

I followed the recipe and was so happy when I pulled out a round, slightly misshapen loaf that looked similar to the photos online, and it was edible! The taste and texture reminded me of a scone. 

Monique’s earlier sourdough loaf

Who or what inspired you to try your hand at baking bread? 

My deep love for bread. It was more of the fear of having no access to bread. What a dark, dark world that would be.

Why did you decide to try making sourdough bread, and not something much easier like cookies or brownies?

Pangangailagan over dessert, haha! I didn’t start baking as a hobby, but as a way to keep myself and my family fed in case we would have no access to bread.

When yeast became available, I started exploring other yeasted breads, starting with our family’s favorite: pandesal. I’ve also learned how to make bagels, one of my favorite things about New York, and ekmeks (loaves sweetened with honey and olive oil) which is my absolute favorite bread from Eric Kayser Philippines. 

But it’s so rewarding to overcome the challenges of making sourdough, and the flavors from sourdough are just so mind-blowingly delicious. Such layered and complex tartness and textures from just flour, water, and a little bit of salt—no sugar, cheese, cream, milk, or ube halaya to give it its comforting and delicious flavors. It’s a perfect canvas for a myriad of toast or sandwich options: butter and jam, a selection of cheeses for a grilled cheese sandwich, avocado mash and eggs, and more.

How many times did you experience failure when you first started and how did you feel each time? 

Countless times! I’ve never baked before, and starting to read about it was so overwhelming; I had no idea what anything meant. Levain! Autolyse! Bulk fermentation! 

But especially in the beginning, I didn’t think of my first attempts as failures. Perhaps it’s because I had no basis to compare my results to, and being a complete novice, I was hardly expecting a perfect result. But each time I pulled out a loaf, I tried my best to identify which factor contributed to it, then I would tweak things one at a time so I could correctly determine if that had been the cause. Then more reading and research!

For example, a lot of my first loaves were undercooked. I would slowly bake the loaves longer than the recommended time to see what would happen. I would do research on why loaves end up gummy, and compared the answers to what I was doing. I found out how important the steam was in the baking process. I was still baking with my makeshift pan-and-kaldero combo, and it was a poor environment for creating steam. It was when I got my Dutch oven when I really saw great rise and good cooking all the way through.

 A beautiful color and rise using a Dutch oven

The first step in baking sourdough bread begins with a starter, one that is made by you or one passed on to you. What is a starter and how important is it in making sourdough bread?

A starter is basically a culture of wild yeast, but aside from making bread rise and give it good structure, it also gives complex flavors to the bread. A great starter will give your bread incredible and interesting flavors, plus will give you that gorgeous crumb that people go gaga over on Instagram. 

I got curious and wanted to make different types of starter with different types of flour, but it takes a lot of work—and flour—to keep starters alive. I’m already quite happy with the one I have, and he lives in the ref and only goes out to be fed every Sunday. 

Does your starter have a name? Why do people sometimes name their starter? 

Joshua Weissman! My starter was named after the American vlogger whose Youtube videos helped me understand what a starter was and how to bring it to life. I wasn’t planning on naming my starter, but over time I realized you tend to apply more love and care to something when you name it, like a pet or a plant. Because you feed it regularly, it really feels like a pet with its own unique profile and personality (because of the mix of flour you choose). 

Joshua is made with a combination of all-purpose flour (sometimes bread flour) and rye flour. 

Meet Monique’s beloved starter, Joshua!

What kind of skills does one need to build a strong and healthy dough that will hopefully turn into a golden, crusty loaf with a good rise and an open crumb? 

The willingness to ask questions? The ability to follow the recipe? One thing I can share is I really learned a lot from working the dough with my hands. You can use a mixer, but I’ve found that you get familiar with the condition of the dough when you use your hands. When I initially mix the starter with the autolyse, I can often feel if it needs more water or hold back. When I slap and fold the dough to knead, I can feel the changes happening and decide when to stop, instead of sticking to a time. 

Does it take a special kind of personality or character to become a good bread baker? 

I’ve heard that it really takes a patient and meticulous person to be a baker, to follow recipes and look at baking as a science to come up with perfect, measurable, and repeatable results. I’m neither patient nor meticulous, but I guess I just really, really love bread. 

Strictly speaking, bread is composed of a simple formula of flour, water, salt, and natural yeast (also composed of water and flour). How important is it to use the right type of flour or mix of flours? 

Incredibly important! Your flour (and the gluten amount in it) is what gives baked goods its structure and elasticity, and the different types also affect texture and flavor. 

When I was starting out, I wanted to know all the information about my ingredients and my processes so that if I needed to tweak or improve something, I knew all the factors at play. I really saw different reactions when I mixed water with certain flours. I honestly ended up getting the best results when I used reliable and known brands like Maya and Bob’s Red Mill, because I could trust in their traceability and consistency.

Most of the time I use bread flour and about 10 percent whole wheat, but I’ve also tried 50 percent whole wheat + 50 percent bread flour. I’ve also tried a 50 percent bread + 25 percent whole wheat + 25 percent APF and added honey to it. Feel free to experiment!

‘It’s the opposite of fast food. In its slowness, you discover its value. It’s unique, especially with each baker. It’s better for your digestion. It’s made with love and care. It’s meant to be enjoyed and appreciated slowly, not scarfed down in a hurry.’

There are many sourdough bread experts online, some of whom even give contradicting advice. Whose videos (and blogs or books) do you trust the most?

I just stuck to the ones that helped me understand the most: Joshua Weissman and Sarah Owens. Both of them explained the process of starting your sourdough as well as preparing your bread very well, and their videos made me understand the whole process. I also enjoy reading Serious Eats and The Perfect Loaf. 

Tell us about the first time you finally pulled the perfect sourdough loaf out of the oven. How did that feel? What was your family’s reaction?

Not sure if I’ve ever pulled out a perfect loaf, but it is just so rewarding and exciting when you pop off the lid and see that the dough ball you just put in 20 minutes ago has actually risen, turned golden, and looks like bread! The thing with baking is that you can only see until the end if you did a good job. I do remember the first time I finished a loaf after proofing it in a proper banneton and baking it in a Dutch oven. I was amazed; it looked beautiful! I was shocked that I was able to bake something that looked like it was baked in an actual bakery! Even my parents commented that it looked like it was a bread in a food shoot, and they took photos of it! Even better, it tasted great. 

What advice would you give people who are about to start on their sourdough bread making journey or to those feeling disheartened after several failed attempts? 

Sourdough may be incredibly complicated at the start, but there’s something so rewarding, romantic, and wonderful about creating bread in this manner. It’s the opposite of fast food. In its slowness, you discover its value. It’s unique, especially with each baker. It’s better for your digestion. It’s made with love and care. It’s meant to be enjoyed and appreciated slowly, not scarfed down in a hurry. It’s made for sharing. It’s damn delicious!

If you can find a friend with a starter, ask if they can give you some. Making a starter takes a bit long for those raring to get started.

It is possible to substitute tools when you’re starting out so don’t be pressured into buying all new items right away. You can find lots of substitutions online. Unfortunately, good tools and the right equipment matter, so once you get the hang of it and want to level up your loaves, see if you can invest in things like an oven, a cooking vessel, etc.

Embrace the failures! Sourdough is complicated in the beginning, and you will probably stumble a few times. You can read all the recipes and watch all the videos, but you won’t understand it until you bake that first loaf. But each mistake always points out something you can change or improve, so always look for that insight or piece of information. Each flat loaf or watery dough is a step closer to a perfect loaf. Also, don’t be pressured when you see pretty loaves on other people’s Instagram posts. Just focus on making your own loaf. 

Find a trusted person or group to consult with regarding your questions, experience, or at least commiserate with. Once you start baking, you will have many questions that a recipe won’t answer. Going to your trusted sources (The Perfect Loaf, Food 52, and Serious Eats are mine) will help. There are a few baking forums online. I also have a baking group chat with some friends where we share photos of our attempts, both good and bad, and discuss our bread dreams.

Quick tip: the weather affects your dough sometimes! There was one particularly humid weekend where I ended up with flat loaves. So again, once you get familiar with the dough, try to note down both your process and other external conditions to pinpoint possible factors that contributed to your bread result. 

My latest loaf: honey walnut sourdough

What lessons has this experience taught you, especially in the light of the pandemic? 

I have appreciated learning this incredibly essential skill, and I’m so thankful to have this knowledge. It made me appreciate the beauty of basics, especially when it comes to food. Just imagine this masterpiece we can create with just flour, water, and salt! The pandemic forced a lot of us to look inward and work with whatever we have, but sometimes, a few ingredients and a lot of love (and maybe a Dutch oven) is all you need to survive.

Kitchen and pntry must-haves in baking sourdough bread: 

  • Digital scale
  • Wide-mouthed clear glass jar for your starter (at least 8 ounces)
  • Bowls, spoons, small spatula
  • Dish towels (for covering the bowls as you autolyse and bulk ferment)
  • Proofing basket called banneton (it none, a bowl will do)
  • Two-gallon resealable plastic bags to put the proofing baskets in (to keep dough from drying out)
  • A bread lame or blade for scoring the proofed dough (to make an ear)
  • Unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour
  • Fine whole wheat flour (optional)
  • Water
  • Sea salt