A Visual Essay: No-Recipe Sourdough

Wednesday morning: Starter (fermented flour and water) taken out of refrigerator and fed half a cup of flour and water, each, to activate.
Half the starter is poured in a bowl; another cup of flour and warmish water is added; the mixture is set out for most of the day to enhance action of yeast and flour. (I’ll cover this and return the half-emptied jar to the fridge until next baking day.)
Wednesday @ 10 pm (I got caught up in binge-watching, but that’s the nice thing about sourdough: It’s patient): bubbly starter on the left and autolyse (regular flour and water mixed to develop gluten) on the right. These will be combined, with increments of flour, to form a shaggy dough. ~ I am sorry to say that I do not use a recipe, nor ever have. If you need a recipe, here’s my advice: Online guidance involves thermometers, scales, and special tools, none of which are necessary; bread is made the world over with simple ingredients in simple ovens. But if I had to guess, I’d say my finished dough consists of about two cups of water; a tablespoon of salt; and five or six cups of flour. All of that includes the contribution from the starter, the autolyse (a 3/2 mix of flour and water the consistency of mashed potato), and the added flour when kneading. (Don’t fret over amounts, and skip the autolyse if you want to. If you simply add flour to the stuff that’s been sitting out, you’ll still get a respectable loaf of bread.)
Once I’ve mixed the starter-mixture and the autolyse, I add about a tablespoon of salt dissolved in 1/4 cup warmish water.
More flour until I have…
…a shaggy dough. It will be sticky and stretchy: That’s how you want it. Some of the flour may not be entirely mixed in, but that’s okay. The unmixed bits will absorb water and disappear.
Plopped in a crockery (I’ll cover it) to rise overnight. I set mine on the counter, but you can rise sourdough in the fridge. The main thing is that it will take much longer–hours–than bread risen with yeast from a jar, so you have to be patient.
Next morning! The dough is full of bubbles and three times its previous size.
The dough has been lightly kneaded with a bit more flour so that it takes shape. It is still tacky and stretchy, unlike the drier elasticity of non-sour-dough bread. This is what you want. Note to new bakers: Do NOT punch down dough as so many recipes needlessly advise. Dough is not the enemy. Be kind to the dough, and it will be kind to you.
Risen, seam-side up, in colander lined with flour-dusted cloth. This can take a hour or two. You want the dough to look a bit tighter on the surface and maybe twice its size, though sourdough doesn’t “double in bulk” the way traditional bread dough does.
Flipped onto baking parchment; surface is slashed to prevent cracking in the oven. Notice how relatively flat the dough is — deceptively so. The dough is full of nicely trapped gas bubbles that will expand on baking. I lower the dough, parchment paper and all, into a Dutch oven.
Baking at 400 degrees in a covered Dutch oven for first half-hour traps steam and prevents crust from breaking; second half-hour, uncovered gives the lovely brown crust.
Eh voila, the bread, ready to eat 24 hours after I set out the starter (so by noon on Thursday). Prepare to become addicted.

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