A good sourdough starter is like gold. I have tried in years past to make a sourdough starter but have failed miserably. They always had that layer of hooch on the top and it smelled like rotting. I tried to dump the hooch off but my starter was completely flat. A few months ago I turned to my guru for advice: Peter Reinhart. In his book Crust and Crumb he gives steps to make a starter using pineapple juice in the first few days of “trapping.” This has worked for me and we have been enjoying the results ever since. Merlin is a great little starter. I keep my starter in the fridge and I feed it every two weeks when I am not using it. Also, my starter is a 1×1 ratio of flour to water, by weight. A more solid starter works but this wet one seems to produce superior results.
I took the 3-2-1 method of sourdough and tweeked it a bit for my baguettes. The dough is fairly wet but after its ferment in the fridge it will become more workable. Also, if you sprinkly a little bit of flour on your work-space for the first shaping you will notice that it is much easier to manipulate. You don’t want baguette dough to be stiff. You want it to be fairly tacky so that it will stick together for both shapings.
I have tried many methods for shaping baguettes. The one that works everytime and produces consistent results is from Mark Sinclair.
Baguette recipe: by weight
150 grams Starter
250 grams Water
420 grams Flour
8 grams Salt–I almost always use Kosher coarse grain
This will produce two 12″ baguettes.
Mix until dough comes together. Kneed for 3 min with KA on setting 2. Place dough in lightly oiled container, roll around so that the whole dough ball is covered, and then refridgerate for 24-36 hours. When you are ready to bake take dough out of fridge and let sit for 1 hour in order to take the chill off. Shape according to Mark Sinclair method. Preheat oven to 500F at the start of your shaping and have a pan or cast iron skillet on your oven flour.
Right before baking score the top of your dough and pour 1/2 cup water into whatever pan is sitting on your oven flour. Close the oven dough and wait 2 min. Put your baguettes into the oven, mist the top of them with water, and bake for 2 min. Mist the top again and bake for 2 min. Mist the top for the third time and bake for 2 min. Mist the top for the fourth time and bake for 20 min at 450F. All of this misting allows your baguettes to rise without ripping the crust. You want to keep your crust moist for the first half of baking so that it can expand and not split.
Let your baguettes cool for at least an hour before cutting. Sourdough breads have a longer shelf life than most breads. Sourdough breads get better the longer you let them sit uncut. These loaves still had a crisp crust and soft crumb on day two.
Good luck with your sourdough. Wild yeast breads require 50% skill and experience, 30% hope, and 20% magic.