3 Lessons from Sourdough Screw-ups

by Heather

I make mistakes so you don’t have to.

“I Screwed It Up!!”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said this to myself. Three times in particular come to mind, and in each situation, everything turned out fine (or almost fine). Bottom line, it wasn’t the disaster I was imagining in my mind.

The first time

The first time I was sure I screwed everything up, I left an unbaked loaf in the fridge for three days. My normal schedule is this: prepare dough and ferment on Wednesday, bake one loaf on Thursday, and bake the second loaf on Friday. However, last week, I somehow got violently ill on Friday morning and the bake just wasn’t happening that day. I figured most of the yeast and bacteria would have died by then and the loaf itself would be dead, but I went for it anyway. When I flipped it out of its’ basket, I noticed it was very flat and almost runny. I could barely score it, because there was practically no surface tension left. But into the cast iron it went, and I crossed my fingers.

Taking the Lid Off the Cooker
It definitely didn’t look this good.

45 minutes later, I pulled out a terrible-looking flat loaf of sourdough (sadly, no photos), but I was optimistic because it smelled amazing and the crust felt nice. I figured, worst case scenario, I could turn it into croutons. But after it cooled, I sliced it and the crumb looked surprisingly good. It was only about two inches high, but I spread butter on it and it was thoroughly enjoyed by my husband, kids, dad and step-mom! My husband even said he liked how sour it was. No kidding, it fermented for 72 hours! So, obviously leaving your loaves in the fridge for three days is not ideal, but if it happens, it’s not the end of the world.

The second time

The second time I was sure I screwed everything up, I forgot to make the leaven the night before. For some reason, I just fed my starter instead. I realized my mistake in the morning when I went to measure my 200g of leaven and only had 153g. Immediately I thought, “I screwed it up!” But then I wondered what was the worst thing that could happen if I baked with 75% of my leaven. I figured it might be flat, or taste far less sour, but was that really so terrible? We would still have fresh bread, after all, so I went for it. Lo and behold, two absolutely perfect loaves of sourdough resulted from this mistake.

Unfed Starter
My unfed starter, be

The third time

The third time I was sure I screwed everything up, I forgot to make the leaven the night before – AGAIN! Who makes the same exact mistake twice? This girl, apparently. I was determined to prepare and ferment my dough that day, so I decided to experiment. I made my leaven at 6:30am, turned on my oven for a microsecond (or maybe like 30 seconds) then shut it off and placed my leaven jar inside. My theory was that the higher heat (measuring about 85°F – 95°F) would help boost fermentation, theoretically allowing me to prepare my dough in as little as a few hours.

Two hours later, the jar was bubbly and completely full. Two hours after that, it had overflown the jar and made a mess in my oven (I placed the jar in a bowl after this). It failed the float test, so back in the warm oven it went. A little over an hour later I tested it again, and it floated! So it took about 5 hours in a warm oven to ferment to the point where it passed the float test. This probably isn’t ideal either, but it’s all about making the most of a not-so-ideal situation.

Active Bubbly Leaven
Active, bubbly leaven

Lessons learned? Sourdough is incredibly forgiving. It doesn’t care if your measurements aren’t exact. It doesn’t care if you forget about it. It doesn’t care if you “encourage” its fermentation with heat. IT. DOESN’T. CARE. Those yeasts and bacteria are still in there, working away to bring you a delicious end product. So if you find yourself in a position thinking “this will never work”, I implore you to give it a shot anyway. Continue on like everything is fine, and in most cases, everything will be. Fake it ‘til you make it!

Let me know about your experiences and screw-ups with your sourdough baking below – I’d love to hear your stories!

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