Sourdough Glossary: Your Ultimate Guide to Sourdough Bread Baking Terms

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The ultimate sourdough glossary. Have you come across sourdough bread baking terms and not understood them. Never fear! Here is the ultimate list of sourdough bread baking terms explained!

This sourdough glossary pairs with my Beginner’s Guide To Baking Simple Sourdough Bread.

SOURDOUGH STARTER

A sourdough starter is a collection of wild yeast and bacteria that are used to raise bread. In fact, it’s actually a SCOBY – a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The yeast and bacteria eat the flour and water and create gas (carbon monoxide) which rises your bread. It’s a living culture and needs to be fed regularly, much like a pet. It can also be referred to as a starter culture or mother culture.

SOURDOUGH DISCARD

Sourdough discard refers to unfed starter which is removed from the jar before you feed your sourdough starter. It can be used to bake a myriad of things including pizza dough, crumpets, English muffins or even discard sourdough bread! Find out why sourdough discard isn’t actually as wasteful as you might think here.

ACTIVATION

Activation can refer to activating a dried starter that has been either gifted, purchased or just stored for later use. It can also refer to feeding your sourdough starter in order to “activate” it ready for baking.

HOOTCH

Hootch refers to the liquid which can form on the top of a hungry sourdough starter. It can form on top of, underneath or even in the middle of your starter. It’s relatively harmless and is the result of the bacteria and yeast eating all of their food and needing more. It will smell like alcohol and is a by product of the yeast and bacteria in your sourdough starter eating all of their food. You can read more about hootch here.

KAHM YEAST

Kahm yeast is a harmless yeast which can develop on the surface of your sourdough starter. You can read more about troubleshooting your sourdough starter here.

FLOAT TEST

The float test is performed by putting a teaspoon of sourdough starter into a glass of water. If it floats it’s said that it’s ready to bake bread with. If it sinks, you need to work on building your starter a little longer. There is much controversy over whether this test is accurate because you need to perform the test at the right time in your starter’s rise cycle for it to be accurate. Your starter needs to be fed and rising for it to be accurate.

An active starter that is ready to bake with should float when placed in a glass of water.

LEVAIN

Often levain is used interchangably with sourdough starter, however a levain is generally an offshoot of your starter. You take out some of your starter and “build” your levain for a specific recipe. Not all recipes use levains, however you will come across this term quite often when researching sourdough bread. Can also be referred to as leaven. You can read about scaling your starter here.

AUTOLYSE

This can also be referred to as the premix or fermentalyse. Traditionally, autolyse refers to the mixing of the flour and water – without the sourdough starter. However, many recipes (including mine) use the term for mixing and allowing the flour to absorb the water. It’s the first step in mixing the dough for a sourdough loaf.

Sourdough Autolyse
The autolyse looks like a shaggy dough at first but will change as the flour absorbs the water.

STRETCH AND FOLD

This is a method of moving the dough around in such a way that it strengthens the dough and develops the gluten in the dough. Stretching and folding is done in place of kneading the dough. You basically stretch the dough out and then fold it over itself. You do 4 stretch and folds per set by working your way around the dough in a clockwise direction. You’ll find more information on stretching and folding in my guide to baking simple sourdough.

how to stretch and fold sourdough

COIL FOLDS

This is another method of strengthening the dough and developing the gluten network. Coil folds require you to put your hands under the middle of the dough and stretch it upwards and then flap it over itself. It’s regarded as quite a gentle way to handle the dough, while still developing gluten.

LAMINATION

This process refers to stretching the dough out into a thin sheet on a wet counter before folding it up again. It is performed to create layers in the dough. Lamination is often used to add flavors to sourdough and in baking croissants. Lamination is performed during the bulk fermentation. It’s generally considered a more advanced technique because you have to stretch the dough out without tearing it, so it must have optimal gluten development. Lamination is generally easier with a higher hydration dough.

WINDOW PANE TEST

This is the test that is used to check for optimal gluten formation. It’s performed during stretch and fold or kneading to find out whether more is needed or if the dough can be left to bulk ferment. To perform the test you need to take a small piece of dough and stretch it gradually between your fingers to create a “window pane”. If the dough stretches without breaking the gluten has developed sufficiently. If the dough tears, then more development is needed.

GLUTEN

Gluten occurs as a result of two proteins found in grains like wheat. Gluten is what gives bread its elasticity and the network of gluten allows your dough to trap the carbon dioxide that the yeast produces. It’s this gas, held inside the gluten network, that causes your bread to rise. You can find out more about developing gluten here.

BULK FERMENT

This is the part in the sourdough process where all the magic happens. It’s where your dough does majority of it’s fermentation. It’s called bulk fermentation because the dough ferments as one “bulk” mass before being divided and shaped. It is sometimes referred to as the “first rise”. This is the part of the process that can make or break your loaf. Too short and your bread will be underproofed. Too long and your dough will be overproofed. Bulk fermentation is complete when the dough has just doubled, is domed on the top and is light and pillowy. You’ll see bubbles formed underneath the dough. You can read more about the bulk ferment and how it’s done in my beginner’s guide to baking simple sourdough or here in my round up on bulk fermentation vs cold fermentation.

Dough is perfectly fermented with a domed top, slightly tacky.

POKE TEST

This test refers to testing whether your bread has fermented sufficiently and is ready to bake. Basically you follow the rules below:

Under proofed – you push your finger on the dough and it springs back very quickly, filling the indent.
Over proofed – you push your finger on the dough and it leaves an indent that does not fill back up.
Perfectly Proofed – you push your finger on the dough and it leaves an indent that slowly starts to fill back in, but not fully.

As you develop your “sourdough instincts” you’ll start to get a feel for the dough and when it’s ready to go!

SHAPING

Shaping refers to the part of the sourdough process after the bulk fermentation where you shape your fermented dough into the type of loaf you desire. Shaping can take practice and requires some skills to get right. A silicone and stainless steel dough scraper can be handy tools when you are shaping sourdough.

TENSIONING

Tensioning refers to the process of creating tension across the surface of the dough during the shaping process. This makes scoring easier and facilitates the best oven spring.

RESTING

Generally refers to letting the dough rest between folding or shaping. Resting the dough allows the gluten to relax and makes it much easier to work with. For example, if you are doing a pre shape, you’ll let the dough rest before moving into final shaping.

BANNETON

A banneton is basically a shaping container used to ensure the dough retains it’s shape during the cold retard. Bannetons are made from rattan or cane and need to be floured to ensure the dough does not stick.

Bannetons come in various shapes and sizes so you can choose the one that suits the type of loaf you’d like to bake.

COLD RETARD

This is often referred to as the second rise, cold ferment, cold proof or cold retard. It happens after the bread has been shaped and placed into the banneton or shaping container. Even though it is sometimes referred to as the second rise, it’s not actually meant to rise your dough. It is a “retard” meaning it slows the fermentation process. The yeasts are not very active at low temperatures, however the bacteria that develop the flavor of the bread are still active. The cold retard can be used to develop the sourness of your bread. It can also be used to manipulate the timing of your bake. You can read more about the cold retard here.

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SCORING

Also referred to as slashing, scoring refers to making cuts in the dough to control where the dough will open up. Scoring can be simple, with just one very deliberate slash across the surface of the dough or it can be decorative like the dough pictured below. Scoring can be a way of putting your own personal mark on your dough. Scoring is best done with a sharp razor or bread lame.

Scoring sourdough.

DUTCH OVEN

A vessel in which to cook sourdough. Dutch ovens are generally heavy based, cast iron pots with lids. Dutch ovens can be used to cook a variety of foods but they have become popular for sourdough baking because of their ability to trap steam and giving the bread superior oven spring. If you’d like to know more about how a Dutch Oven works and whether it’s a worthwhile investment for your kitchen, you’ll find more detailed information here.

If you would like to see my fave Dutch Ovens, you can visit my Amazon Store here {this is an affiliate link}

CRUMB

Crumb this refers to the inside of the bread and the texture that it has when you cut it open. You’ll hear people refer to it as open crumb or tight or closed crumb. Open crumb is much sough after, however a more closed crumb can be just as tasty (and the butter doesn’t run through haha).

HYDRATION

Hydration refers to the amount of water in your dough or how hydrated it is. You can work out the hydration of a loaf by dividing the amount of water by the amount of flour then multiplying by 100. This will give you the percentage of hydration. Lower hydration doughs tend to be easier to work with (around 50 – 70%). Anything above 80% is considered high hydration and can be more difficult – but not always.

OVEN SPRING

Oven Spring is the goal when you bake – for your loaf of sourdough to burst up, to bloom in the oven and give you that gorgeous puffiness. Oven spring can only occur if the yeast in your dough still have a bit of energy left. It’s quite a skill to ensure your loaf of sourdough has the perfect bloom when it hits the oven.. 

Sourdough glossary - oven spring.
Oven spring is what makes your sourdough puff up and have a beautiful bloom in the oven.

I hope this sourdough glossary has been helpful to you in understanding sourdough that little bit better. I’d love to see you in our Sourdough Facebook Community! Come and join in the fun!

Are you ready to get started on your sourdough journey? This sourdough starter is a great place to start.

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