Sourdough is amazing. Every time I work with it I am in awe of its ability to leaven baked goods with such ease despite the absence of those little yeast packets from the grocery store. I do find though that many people get frustrated when working with sourdough–perhaps the most common complaint is that loaves of bread turn out small and dense rather than light and fluffy. But you can make light and fluffy bread! Here are three important techniques to get you there:
Be sure your yeast is fully active before baking. If your sourdough starter has been stored in the fridge, it has been living in a dormant state. Plan to feed the culture at least three times 8-12 hours apart prior to baking. By the third feeding you should have light, bubbly starter that’s doubled in size within 2-8 hours of being fed. Proper ratios are helpful here so check out this article on feeding your sourdough starter.
Knead your dough well to activate the gluten. It is very important to allow the gluten to fully develop so thoroughly kneading the dough is a critical step. If you are kneading by hand, plan for a minimum of 20 minutes (you can take breaks–such as kneading for 5-10 minutes at a time). If you are using a mixer to knead, check the dough often to ensure it’s not overheating (which can damage the yeast) and stop the process once the gluten is well developed. While there isn’t any danger of over-kneading when kneading by hand, mixers can abuse the dough if not watched. To determine if the gluten is adequately developed, perform the “window pane test”. Take a piece of dough and stretch it between your fingers. If the gluten is sufficiently developed, the dough should stretch thin–so you can see light through it–without the dough breaking. If it breaks before it can be stretched thin, keep kneading.
Plan for a long proofing (rise) period. As a natural yeast, sourdough tends to take significantly longer to rise than bread made with commercial yeast. Timing is dependent on the specific starter and conditions in your home so until you have determined the best rise period for your particular starter, plan for a 4-12 hour rise period (if you desire more sour bread, plan for 12-24 hours).