Project Sourdough: From Failed Bread to Successful Crackers

I’ve always wanted to try making homemade sourdough bread but I’d heard it was a lot of work so never tried it. Turns out it is a lot of work, but I think totally worth it in the end.

After talking to a friend about her experience making sourdough bread and then watching the episode of the Netflix series called Cooked which explored the science of bread making, I decided to finally try it myself.

In the weeks leading up to my attempt, I decided to try various sourdough breads sold at local farmer’s markets and grocery stores, so I had a good benchmark and pretty high expectations going into this.

I should start by saying my sourdough bread did not turn out as planned. In fact, I was ready to call this attempt a complete failure. However, while I failed to make sourdough bread, I managed to make some very crispy sourdough crackers. So, rather than calling this a failed attempt at making sourdough bread, I’m going to call this a successful attempt at making sourdough crackers….

I followed this recipe (https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-sourdough-bread-224367) pretty closely so rather than going through what I did step by step in this post, I will be going over the steps that I did differently, that perhaps led to my not so succesful sourdough bread.

From start to finish it took me about a week and a half to do. I wouldn’t say it is exactly a labour intensive process, in fact the steps are quite simple and very straight forward. However, most of that time is spent waiting for the starter to ferment or the bread to rise.

My first experiment was trying different flours to make the sourdough starter. The recipe that I followed recommended using only plain white flour for the best results, but I decided to try three different flours to see how the starter would develop.

To make the sourdough starter, you basically add equal parts flour and water to the mixture over 5 days. The starter starts to ferment and become sour after the first few days due to the natural yeast in the air. The starter is also left on the counter at room temperature during the entire process which speeds up the fermentation process compared to if it was refrigerated.

I used three types of flours as shown below:

  1. A whole wheat, coarsely ground flour from a local farm
  2. An all purpose generic name brand whole wheat flour
  3. An enriched name brand white flour


Photo: three types of flour used to make starter. Unbleached, whole wheat, and coarse whole wheat

After the first day this is what the starter looked like:


Photo: three sourdough starters after one day of fermentation

As you can see, the first two starters have bubbles at the surface which is a good sign. The coarsely ground whole wheat flour (rightmost) appeared to be separating (you can see the liquid in the photo) so I abandoned it after the first day. The smell of the first two was also much more “sour” than the third one, which didn’t smell very good.

After day three I abandoned the regular whole wheat sourdough starter because the white starter was clearly rising better and smelt a lot better.


Photo: after day 3 – both starters rising nicely, but the white flour starter is the clear winner

The final addition of flour:


Photo: the final addition of flour after day 4

And after day 5:


Photo: sourdough starter after day 5 and ready to be used

Once the sourdough starter is ready, you use a surprisingly small amount of it (one tablespoon) to make two average sized loaves of bread.

I am going to skip the next few steps on the bread making process because you can read about it here (https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-sourdough-bread-224367) and that website probably does a better job at explaining the steps than I could. Essentially, you combine the starter with salt, flour, and water, in a series of additions, in multiple kneading, folding, resting, and rising steps (easier said than done!).

What I do want to talk about is where I deviated from the recipe near the end of the bread making process, and the unfortunate outcomes of these recipe modifications. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes and avoid the same blunders!

I should mention that I used two different kinds of flours to make the bread. I used the enriched white flour and the coarsely ground whole wheat flour.


Photo: white flour (left) and whole wheat flour (right) doughs during one of the rising steps

Lessons Learned #1: Use a Proofing Basket Lined with a Flour-Coated Towel

The last step before baking the bread involves letting the dough rise in a proofing basket for three to four hours. According to the recipe I followed, the “proofing basket” is ideally a wicker wooden basket, but a mixing bowl can be used. The important detail of this step is to line your proofing container with a dish towel that has been generously coated with flour.

The big mistake I made was not lining the bowl with a flour-coated dish towel. Instead, I tried to coat the inside of the bowl with flour without using a dish towel. This was a huge mistake. Getting one of my dish towels covered in flour seemed like a hassle, and I thought I could get away with only coating the inside of the bowl with flour. Boy was I wrong…

What happened is the sourdough stuck to the sides of the bowl when I tried to remove it from the bowl, and all the hours of proofing/rising went to waste because the dough was completely deflated (all the air was knocked out) by the time I freed it from the sides of the bowl.

The photo below shows you what the white flour dough looked like after I finally liberated it from the sides of my “proofing bowl”…


Photo: the dough that stuck to the sides of my “proofing basket” 😦

Lesson Learned #2: Don’t Let the Dough Sit on the Counter for too Long

After mistake number one, I was pretty demoralized. But I knew the show must go on, and I was determined to make the best of the unfavourable circumstances.

I reshaped the now completely deflated dough and placed it on my parchment-lined baking tray. I knew that ideally I would let the dough rise again for three to four hours in a proper proofing basket, but I was impatient at this point so I decided that I would let the dough rise on the baking tray for about an hour before baking it.

This was mistake number two…

It seems the proofing basket is essential to allow the bread to rise properly because the dough does not have enough structure to rise without it (I can just imagine all the bread makers out there nodding their heads in disapproval at my methods…).

By placing the dough on the sheet pan, I was hoping the dough would rise upwards. Unfortunately, it spread out, didn’t rise, and flattened out significantly. This could also be due to the fact that my dough was too wet. I am guessing this was the case and partially contributed to the failure to rise because the dough seemed very sticky at this point.

The photos below shows the dough after the initial shaping and after about an hour of “proofing” on the sheet pan.


Photo: loaves of bread after the initial shaping


Photo: after letting the dough “proof” for an hour. Dough is significantly flatter.

Baking and Post Baking

I was definitely concerned about the appearance of my now sourdough pancake dough, but at this point I decided that any attempt to fix it would just make it worse, so I put it in the oven.


Photo: sourdough loaves after baking


Photo: Cross section of sourdough loaves

As you can see from the above photos, my bread turned out VERY dense with very few air pockets throughout the loaves. The complete opposite of what you want in a good loaf of sourdough. On the bright side, the loaves still tasted like sourdough.

So, I was ready to call this attempt a complete failure and throw the loaves out because they were so dense that they were hard to eat, even with copious amounts of butter and nut butter.

Then I got the idea to slice the bread very thin and attempt to make “sourdough crackers”.


Photo: Failed sourdough bread turned into crackers. After taking the crackers out of the oven

So how did the sourdough crackers turn out?

After baking them for about 30 minutes, I have to say they turned out very well. They were definitely very cracker-like. They were very crispy and did not fall apart when picked up.

The one thing I wish I had done is to slice the crackers thinner because they were extremely crunchy! I really like crunchy/crispy foods but I have to say these crackers raised the bar on what I thought a crunchy food could be. Let’s just say that these crackers should have come with a warning label to not bring them to your office workplace or eat them within a 50 m radius of anyone trying the study or get work done…unless you really wanted to annoy them with your crunching sounds.

So that’s it folks. My first attempt at making sourdough bread. I would consider the bread a complete failure, but I am happy that I was able to salvage the dense sourdough pancakes and turn them into very respectable sourdough crackers.

I hope that you learn from my mistakes, and that your attempts will be much more successful than mine!

I would love to hear about your experience making sourdough bread so please use the comments section below to share your experience, or send me a message :).

That’s all for now. Happy bread baking out there.

-CJ

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