Over the past two weeks, as millions of Americans started working from home and sheltering in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 across the country, King Arthur Flour’s website saw its highest traffic since the day before Thanksgiving. Bill Tine, King Arthur’s VP of marketing, told Eater’s Meghan McCarron that usually the site’s top post is a recipe for easy cheesecake. But since the pandemic hit, millions of people, homebound and bored, have flooded King Arthur’s servers in search of recipes for bread — more specifically, sourdough bread, in all of its glorious forms.
To those who are taking this quarantined time to get into baking bread, can I just say: welcome.
I started baking bread regularly at home a few years ago and have learned a few things along the way, namely that you need very little to make a loaf of bread that’ll feed many and please all. A mixture of flour, salt, water, and wild yeast will result in a delicious loaf, no matter how you do it, and while the process may feel intimidating at first, just remember: Humans have been doing this very thing for millennia. We just didn’t always have Instagram to make bread-making appear harder — and the resulting loaves more perfect — than it need be.
Begin with a good recipe
With that said, there is no shortage of sourdough recipes from which to choose: The best online recipes are Claire Saffitz’s guide for the New York Times, Sarah Owens’s table loaf recipe on Food52, and King Arthur’s artisan loaf recipe. If you’re interested in delving deeper into sourdough, books on the subject abound. For a comprehensive, all-encompassing guide, I recommend Owens’s Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More, and if you’re looking for a more hearty, whole-wheat-leaning loaf, Parisian sourdough priestess Apollonia Poilâne’s Poilâne: The Secrets of the World-Famous Bread Bakery is a solid go-to. I’ve written up my own bread recipe here (an amalgam of a few recipes I’ve used over time) and made a basic, instructional video that leads you through the process at this link.
Make your starter
Guides in hand, the first thing that you’re going to need to make bread is a sourdough starter. A starter — also known as a levain, a mother, or a pre-ferment — is a lively mixture of flour and water combined with wild yeast and good bacteria captured from the air. It’s the ingredient that enables your sourdough bread to rise and what gives it its signature tangy flavor.
If you don’t have a starter right now, don’t worry. This King Arthur Flour recipe will teach you how to make your own at home, and though the slow process means you won’t be able to make bread right away (you’re waiting for your starter to come alive — you’ll start to see some activity after three days), you’ll get bragging rights for having made yours from scratch. Alternatively, Cook’s Illustrated’s Andrew Janjigian is teaching people how to make their own #quarantinystarter through his newsletter, and baker Lexie Smith has enlisted volunteers through her site Bread on Earth to send dried sourdough culture to interested parties around the world. You’ve got options!
Tools you need to get bread baking
If you’re hoping to utilize this time of social distancing to learn this new skill in the absence of, say, taking up water skiing or bocce, there are a few tools you can invest in to make the most of your bread-making process.
A kitchen scale
Most every baker will encourage you to invest in a kitchen scale, as nearly every bread recipe is written out in weight rather than volume. Different flours have different weights by volume and with a scale, you can get more precise measurements on smaller quantities of your ingredients, like salt and starter. I recommend the My Weigh KD-8000 scale, though any scale, preferably digital, should do.
A bench scraper
I am borderline obsessed with my bench scraper. As the headline of this 2017 Bon Appétit story proclaimed, “Once You Have a Bench Scraper, You’ll Never Be Able to Live Without One.” It is sadly true. I sometimes consider tucking mine in at night. A bench scraper, when you hold it in your dominant hand while shaping dough, gives you more leverage and command than if you were only working with your hands. Even when I don’t end up using it to shape my bread, it’s a magical tool for scraping up bits of dried dough from my countertop, about 10,000 times more effective than a wet cloth. I love this one from King Arthur Flour — it has just the right heft.
A flexible razor blade
I’d say the third most important tool to bake a successful loaf of sourdough is a good pack of flexible household razor blades — they’re about $10 for 100 of them. You’ll use one of these to score the top of your loaf right before it bakes, and you want to have at least a few extra in your kitchen drawer to swap in as the previous blade starts to dull. Typically, bakers will use a tool for scoring called a lame, which is a razor blade attached to a handle. It makes the process of scoring slightly more ergonomic and precise, but I’ve found a simple razor blade alone works, too, especially if you’re not looking to get too decorative or detailed with it.
Some at-home bakers and most, if not all, commercial bakers own wicker baskets called bannetons (otherwise known as brotforms or proofing baskets). While they are not necessary, they do help bread keep its shape during the proofing, or fermenting/rising, stage so it’s not too slack and loose when you’re ready to put it in the oven. I find bannetons to be useful when I’m working with wetter doughs, as they wick away some of the surface moisture and encourage the dough to keep its shape. Bannetons also come in a variety of sizes, though ovals and rounds are the most common. In the absence of a banneton, a large bowl with a floured tea towel is a perfectly acceptable alternative for when your dough is rising, whether overnight or over a few hours.
A Dutch oven
When it’s time to bake your bread, at-home bakers enlist Dutch ovens with lids to create the steamy environment necessary to give their loaves a crusty, crunchy exterior. This Lodge version is $45 and is perfectly serviceable for this purpose, though you can use most any heavy cast-iron or enamel pot, as long as it has a lid. (I bought my used Le Creuset from a reseller on Etsy, where they’re much cheaper and just as good.) If you’re not in the market for a new pot, there are alternative methods: I’ve used a baking sheet topped with a pasta pot as a jury-rigged solution. Just make sure that no matter what you use, you preheat your oven to 500 degrees at least 45 minutes before baking, preferably with your pot in it. Don’t have a lidded pot but you do have a loaf pan? I’ve put loaves of sourdough in this King Arthur 9-by-5 loaf pan plenty of times. Just tent the pan loosely with tin foil when you do, removing the foil 25 or so minutes into the baking.
What you don’t need
One thing you do not need is a dough whisk. Don’t bother!
If you want to understand more about the health benefits of sourdough bread, Vanessa Kimbell’s Sourdough School: The Ground-Breaking Guide to Making Gut-Friendly Bread gives great background. And for using your sourdough starter in many non-bread baked goods like banana bread and rye brownies (do it), Michelle Eshkeri’s Modern Sourdough: Sweet and Savoury Recipes from Margot Bakery is a fun resource. (One technical note: Shipping is likely delayed on these and the above titles through Amazon, so try your local independent bookstore online. Many are still fulfilling orders through their warehouses. In a pinch, I’ve downloaded one or two of these on my Kindle.)
All of these things — or, if you prefer, almost none of them, save for a sourdough starter — should help you hit the ground running in the sourdough bread department. If you want even more tips, Bread on Earth and the Fresh Loaf are good resources for any and all questions. And remember: While sourdough is a type of science, it’s certainly not rocket science. It should be fun and weird and cool and — above all — a good way to pass the time. I believe in you.
Dayna Evans is a Paris-based writer with a bread-baking newsletter you can subscribe to here.