Sourdough starter woes? Use old dough
Learn to bake bread and you’ll encounter all kinds of French words: autolyse, boule, banneton. Today’s French bread phrase: pâte fermentée, or pre-fermented dough. Cut off a chunk of your bread dough before baking and you’ve got pâte fermentée.
Traditionally, bakers add a piece of old dough to their next batch of dough to add depth of flavor. But you can also use old dough as a substitute for sourdough starter. Feed the old dough with water and flour, just as you would a starter. Then use it in a recipe. No need for a separate starter that you have to keep alive between batches.
Here are step by step instructions with crappy yet informative pictures from my very own home kitchen.
- Cut a chunk of unbaked dough.
Make bread dough using commercial yeast, or get some refrigerated pizza or bread dough. Before baking, cut off a chunk of dough. Around 3–4 ounces is good, a little smaller than the size of your fist.
Ideally your old dough would contain only flour, water, and yeast. It will still work if your dough has additives like oil, butter, eggs, or dairy, but you won’t get as much rise. So if you’re making your own dough, try to set some aside before adding extra ingredients.
2. Feed old dough with water and flour.
Add 1/2 cup (four ounces) of water and 1 cup (four ounces) of flour to your old dough. More is also OK, as long as you keep the ratio the same. In this photo I used 1.5 cups of water.
Stir it up. It doesn’t need to be completely smooth. It’s OK if some of your old dough remains in lumps.
3. Let sit, covered at room temperature, until it doubles in volume.
You will see visible bubbles on the surface. You should see them pop and new ones appear. Now you have essentially made a sourdough starter.
This will take anywhere between three hours and overnight. Leaving it overnight is fine.
If brown alcoholic-smelling liquid appears on top, then you’ve let it go too long, but you can still use it — just go back to step 2 and add more flour and water. Pour off or stir in the liquid, either is fine.
My container was too small for it to double, so I stopped here. It took about three hours.
4. Proceed with whatever bread recipe you want to make, using your mixture in place of sourdough starter. Save a chunk of dough before baking and go back to Step 2.
If you plan to bake again:
- within the next 24 hours, leave your old dough on the counter, covered.
- within the next 3 days, store it in the fridge.
- longer than that, store it in the freezer.
Bring your refrigerated or frozen dough up to room temperature by leaving it out for several hours or overnight before going back to Step 2.
Here, I mixed in whole wheat flour, oats, and chia seeds. I took out a piece of dough for next time — my pâte fermentée — before adding the oats and chia seeds.
Why does this work? Because bread, at its essence, only requires flour, water, time, and heat. Starter, sponge, poolish, biga, barm, and the various other flavors of pre-ferments all supply flour+water+time. Using an already-mixed piece of dough rather than maintaining a separate starter simplifies the process.
Where does this technique come from? I invented it over years of bread baking. While I haven’t read this exact process in a book, my guess is a lot of other bakers have also come up with the same idea on their own. Experiment with bread and you’ll invent your own techniques too.
Happy bread baking!