The last time I baked sourdough bread, which was back in December, I took some step-by-step photos. I'll try to answer some common questions while sharing my sourdough routine.
I took my starter out of the fridge. It looks black and scummy on top, and smelled as bad as it looks. Ed takes one look and said "I can't believe you can make anything good out of that!"
But this is normal. I try to use my starter every week to keep it good and healthy, but over the Christmas rush, it had been neglected and looked rather bad. But with a little encouragement, I can get it looking good again. It may take an extra feeding but it will soon be teeming with natural yeast.
At 9:30 a.m. I fed the starter 1 cup of whole wheat flour and 3/4 cup water. I stirred it well, covered loosely, and placed in in a warm place (the top of the fridge.)
The starter was rather sleepy since it had not been used for a while. It wasn't until 4:30 p.m. that it had fully doubled.
I fed it again. Since there was now two cups of starter, I fed it with 2 cups flour and 1 1/2 cups water. I had to place it in a larger container.
Now it is acting perky. Only three hours later, the starter had grown to the 6 cup line, not quite doubled, but obviously growing. I love to see those bubbles in there!
At 9:30 p.m. the starter had doubled. Since I had enough starter to bake bread, I didn't feed it again. If I needed more starter, I could have fed it now.
Now that my starter is doubling in six hours or less, I'm ready to bake bread. If you starter takes a long time to double, use it for pancakes or biscuits until it becomes stronger. I learned this lesson the hard way! Raising bread calls for a robust starter!
At 7:00 a.m. the next morning, the starter had risen to its ultimate height during the night and then dropped. You can maybe see on the sides of the pan, the line that it had reached. This is fine.
I mixed up my bread dough with my starter and placed it in a bowl to raise. I used the Whole Wheat Sourdough recipe and made a double batch. (Don't try a double batch unless you have a large mixer or super strong arms!)
I had 1/2 cup of starter left. I fed it with 1/2 cup flour and 1/3 cup water.
I went away for the morning. One thing I like about sourdough bread is that it doesn't need babysat as carefully as regular bread dough.
When I arrived home at noon, the dough had raised to fill the bowl. This is a large Tupperware Thatsa bowl. That is a lot of dough! I shaped the dough into loaves (and forgot to take a picture.)
My starter had also doubled. I put it back in the fridge since the busy holidays meant I wouldn't be doing more baking for a while.
My house was cool that afternoon and the bread dough was rising slowly. I should have found a warmer place for it. Since we were going away in the evening (the crazy schedules of Christmas!) I didn't have time to wait for it. Finally, even though the loaves weren't to the top of the pan, I put them in the oven anyway. I slit the top of the loaves and spritzed them with water hoping to get a good oven spring. (And still didn't take any photos.)
And it did rise! They didn't look perfect because their fast rise in the oven blew out the sides of the loaves, but the bread tasted wonderful. I'm not complaining!
I'd love to answer any other questions you have. You can check the sourdough page to find all my other sourdough directions.
And please don't feel bad if you don't find sourdough success immediately. I've been baking bread since I was ten years old (we won't say how long ago that's been) and baking sourdough for at least four years. Some things do become easier with practice. Some of my first sourdough attempts weren't fit for the dog. Don't be afraid to try to bake sourdough, but don't give up on the first try.