You Can Make Sourdough Bread with Unfed Starter (or Discard)
Have you ever wondered if you can bake good sourdough bread with unfed starter? Well, yes, you can. And you can leave the dough in the fridge until you’re ready to bake it. This is the simplest, most flexible method for sourdough bread I’ve tried yet.
In my previous post I talked about the small change I made to my go-to sourdough recipe. Everything else unchanged, the reduced amount of starter in my dough has produced more consistent results, namely great oven spring.
In this post, part two of a series of three on sourdough bread, I’ve made a few more changes (fueled by my recent successes), essentially creating for myself another sourdough baking method.
One is not better than the other–I’ve simply been curious about a simpler, more flexible way to bake my bread and lately it feels like the sourdough gods have been anointing all the loaves coming out of my oven because even with my very low expectations with this method the oven spring has been fantastic. So what changes have I made?
You Can Bake Sourdough Bread with Unfed Starter
This is the part where I say that with bread baking you can break some rules and still end up with a good loaf of bread. Every book and online source I’ve looked to for guidance on sourdough baking has told me that I had to have a freshly-fed levain (the portion of sourdough starter you are using for a bake) and it should be at its peak rise before I should even consider using it. And to make sure the yeasts are active and happy I had to feed my starter a few times before actually using it. For me, this required too much wait time. Even a single feeding required a four hour wait before my starter reached its peak. My starter is a few years old–Ida is robust and has performed well requiring no extra feedings before being used.
The original Ken Forkish method which my bread recipes have been based on has also been very good to me. I’ve learned simple but effective techniques that have made me a bread baker.
But I’ve long wanted to be able to observe the way yeast activity affects the behavior of dough and with the prescribed overnight bulk fermentation when all the magic happens, I’ve slept those important hours away instead.
For these recent bakes I mixed the dough in the morning instead of early evening and yes, used unfed levain. Even though most baking resources are firm about using freshly-fed starter I couldn’t see why the yeasts wouldn’t perform just as well feeding on the flour in the final dough. I’m sure early home bakers were too busy not to have taken this shortcut from time to time–I had to give it a try.
After pulling my starter out of the refrigerator and waiting for her to come to room temperature (to wake up the yeasts; about an hour) I took a small portion and mixed her directly into my dough–no feeding. As in the previous recipe I’ve begun to use a “fermentolyse” method wherein I mix the levain immediately with the flour and water. The same stretch-and-fold technique applies before leaving the dough alone for bulk fermentation.
The beauty of doing this during the day was that I would now be able to observe the rise (or fall) of the dough and see how long it would take for it to double in size. Of course, using unfed starter I did consider that yeast activity might be delayed.
After eight hours of bulk fermentation (ten with stretch-and-fold) my dough had risen beautifully. I didn’t notice much delay yeast in activity from my use of unfed starter. My previous 12-14 hour overnight bulk fermentation may have been too long–all the sugar was being consumed by the yeasts, inhibiting optimum rise in my loaves [which I corrected in my previous post by reducing the amount of starter (yeast), effectively increasing proportionately the “food” in the dough].
That idea of bakers getting “a feel for the dough”? By being able to see how bulk fermentation worked and that it took less time than I realized (considering the temperature in my kitchen and the size of my loaf) I’m starting to get it.
Extended Final Proof in Refrigerator
The original Ken Forkish method for his Overnight Country Brown which is my base method calls for a final proof time of about four hours. In my previous post I figured out that a shorter proof worked better for my bakes.
What I’ve done differently here is that after shaping the loaf, I stored it in the refrigerator to proof (or prove) overnight. I had never done this before either. The idea of refrigerator bulk fermentation or proofing is that it retards (slows down) yeast activity. The extra time at a cooler temperature allows for more flavor development and on the practical side, flexibility to bake your loaf when it’s more convenient. For the loaf pictured in this post I ended up proofing the bread for 19 hours in the refrigerator because I didn’t get a chance to throw it in the oven first thing the next morning. When I pulled the lid off my dutch oven I couldn’t believe the oven spring…and remember this was from an unfed starter. I was sold on this simpler method.
Bread Flour Is Better for Sourdough Bread
One last thing I will attribute to the improved results in my bread baking is the use of bread flour instead of all-purpose flour. The higher protein content of bread flour adds more structure and helps achieve better rise. I will note that protein content in flours varies by brand. I use King Arthur Flour for my baking. Their unbleached all-purpose flour has 11.7% protein while their bread flour has 12.7%. Others may argue that more protein may not always be better but where my biggest issue was getting consistently great oven spring in my bakes, I feel comfortable saying that the higher protein content has helped me achieve the results I’ve been after.
These ideas of using unfed starter, refrigerator proofing and using bread flour are certainly not revolutionary but they have been eye-opening for me. I no longer feel confined to one way of baking bread and I’m loving the new-found flexibility. When I first mixed the ingredients for this loaf I was convinced that it would be a failure, especially after it sat in the refrigerator for almost a day but this Chocolate-Raisin Sourdough Bread has been one of my best bakes so far. On the third part of this bread series I tested the limits of refrigerator proofing even further. Stay tuned.
Part One of this series: Orange-Raisin No-Knead Sourdough Bread
Part Three of this series: A Sourdough Baking Guide and Chocolate-Cherry Sourdough Bread
Note: For the techniques mentioned in this post, please watch these Ken Forkish videos.
Chocolate-Raisin Sourdough Bread Using Unfed Starter
If you’re looking for a simple, straightforward way to make sourdough bread, this is the recipe. Using unfed sourdough starter and proofing your dough in the fridge until you’re ready to bake it–doesn’t get more flexible than this. Feel free to omit the cacao powder and raisins for a plan sourdough loaf.
- 85 grams unfed starter (at room temperature)
- 460 grams bread flour
- 367 grams water (90-95ºF)
- 10 grams raw cacao powder
- 5 grams kosher salt (use up to 10 grams for flavor)
- 55 grams raisins (soaked for 30 minutes; use more if you like)
Day 1 (morning): If you store your starter in the refrigerator, take 85 grams and allow it to come to room temperature, about one hour. Make sure you have enough starter leftover to feed and store for future use.
Day 1 (morning; Mix the dough): Stir in the unfed starter and water in a bowl. Once the starter has been evenly distributed in the water add the bread flour and cacao powder (if using). Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let sit for one hour.
Day 1 (morning): Add the soaked and drained raisins and kosher salt to the mixture in the bowl. Combine the dough using a wet hand and folding the dough over from the bottom to top. Then Ken Forkish employs what he calls the “pincer” method to make sure all the ingredients are fully incorporated. Imagining your hand as a lobster claw (my description), cut through the dough pinching a few times, mixing, then pinching again.
Day 1 (morning; stretch-and-fold). Pick up one portion of the dough (without taking it out of the bowl) and fold it over. Repeat this folding step a few times, inverting the dough with the folds at the bottom of the bowl when done. This stretch-and-fold step should be done every thirty minutes, three or four times over the course of two hours. After the final stretch-and-fold, cover the bowl with a towel or plastic wrap to for bulk fermentation.
Day 1 (evening; testing for completion of Bulk Fermentation): Depending on the temperature of your kitchen your dough should have doubled in size eight afters after stretch-and-fold. A warmer kitchen would take less time and a cooler one, more time. You should see bubbles throughout the dough if you’re using a clear container and if you pull the dough a little it should be webby underneath.
Day 1 (evening; shape and overnight proof): Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface. The dough will relax and flatten when you take it out of the bowl. Taking one section of dough at at time, fold the sections over the rest of the dough until you have a somewhat tight ball shape. Then tighten the dough by pulling it towards you by cupping the dough with both your hands using your pinky fingers as the anchors. Tension is created on the surface of the dough as you pull it towards you. Rotate then repeat three to four times until the dough holds its ball shape. Transfer the dough on a floured banneton with the seam side down. Cover the entire proofing basket with a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator overnight. For my loaf, my dough proofed in the fridge for nineteen hours. It should be fine to bake the next morning. To test for readiness, poke the dough with a floured finger, making about a 1/2-inch indentation. If the dent springs back immediately, the dough needs a longer proofing. If the dent springs back slowly and doesn’t completely disappear, the dough is ready to bake.
Day 2 (bake): This recipe uses a dutch oven for baking. Preheat your oven to 475ºF with a rack in the center of the oven. Put the dutch oven with the lid on the rack while the oven preheats. Once the oven has reached temperature, take the dough out of the refrigerator and invert it onto a piece of parchment paper, leaving enough paper on either side to be able to lift it. Make sure you have oven mitts then take the (very hot) dutch oven out of the oven and place on the counter or stove. Remove the lid and rest one of your mitts on top of the lid so you don’t touch it by accident. Take the ends of the parchment paper and carefully lift and transfer the dough to the dutch oven. Cover the dutch oven and place it back in the oven. Bake covered for 30 minutes then uncover and bake for another 20-25 minutes, checking your bread at the 15-18 minute mark just in case your oven runs hot. When done, tilt the bread out of the dutch oven and let it cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes before slicing.