Sourdough Dictionary: Baking Basics

New to sourdough? The world of wild yeasts and sourdough bread can be a little bewildering for an amateur baker. From autolyse to cold retardation, it can feel like you need to learn another language just to keep up with a basic recipe. In this post, I’ll decode the jargon that most new bakers are probably unfamiliar with but are likely to come across in most beginner’s recipes.

Thankfully, sourdough is not as complicated as it seems, and knowing just a few vital terms will get you on your way to baking that perfect loaf of airy, chewy, tangy bread.


The French word for leaven. Levain is simply a portion of the starter used to make your bread rise, think of this as that little yeast packet that is added to regular bread recipes. Once you’re ready to bake bread, take a portion of your starter, feed it twice the amount of flour and water by weight (eg. 20 g starter, 40 g water, 40 g flour), and wait for it to rise, this usually takes about 4 hours for me in a 70 F kitchen. Once this levain is at its peak or just right after falling it’s ready to be used for baking. 


A very complicated word for an extremely simple process, autolyse is basically mixing the flour and water in your recipe and letting the mix rest for a period of time before incorporating the levain and any other ingredients. I usually autolyse for at least an hour. While it adds more time to your bake, taking this extra step allows for better gluten development, and a dough that is easier to fold and shape. Autolysis results in bread with better flavor, texture and oh-so coveted oven spring and open crumb.

Hydration Level

The ratio of water relative to flour in a mixture. Hydration level applies to both your starter and your dough and is one of the most important factors in mixing, and the final result of your bake.

Starter Hydration

I usually like to keep my starter at 100% hydration, this means I feed my starter an equal weight of flour and water, usually I keep back 40 g of starter and add in 80 g of water and 80 g of flour. This allows me to easily keep track of exactly how much water and flour my starter is adding to my final dough.

Dough Hydration

Hydration can vary greatly between recipes. The higher the hydration, the wetter and more slack your dough will be. When creating sourdough bread, a lower hydration bread 60% results in a slightly tacky dough that can be easily be shaped and is perfect for beginners. Higher hydration (80% to 90%) recipes usually yield bread with a more open and airy crumb with large, irregular holes, but because of the liquid content the dough becomes more slack and sticky and can be quite difficult to work.  

Stretch and Fold

The technique used to build strength in sourdough instead of kneading. This prevents air and gas bubbles from being knocked out of the dough, resulting in large holes and an open crumb the final bake.

Bulk Fermentation (BF, Bulk)

This is where your little community of yeasts does most of the work in creating strength and structure in your dough. During this period, yeasts ferment your dough mixture by consuming the flour and water in the mixture and producing carbon dioxide and other byproducts that causes your bread to rise. I usually aim for my dough to double in size during bulk, this can vary depending on the temperature of your kitchen and the strength of your levain. As a rule of thumb for most beginner recipes, you should bulk for as long as it took your levain to rise fully.

Cold Retardation

Final rise after your dough has been shaped. Most sourdough recipes call for a long fermentation period inside the refrigerator before being baked. This allows your bread to develop more intense flavors, while the cold temperature slows down the activity of the yeasts so they do not deplete their food supply, and your loaf to over-proof.


Cutting or slashing the dough with a sharp knife or razor before baking. This is an important step for creating a loaf with a good rise and appearance. As the water in your dough heats up and evaporates it forms steam, scoring creates weak spots in the dough where this steam can escape. Without this, the dough will burst in random areas as it rises. Scoring allows you to put your signature on your loaf, one last lovely touch before baking.

Et voila! You’re now ready to go forth and bake bread.

Did I miss a term that’s been stumping you? Ask in the comments and I’ll be sure to help you as best as I can.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Becki says:

    What you describe as autolysis, I thought was soaking the flour. I thought an autolyse means the rest time before salt is added. Please clarify? What does it mean to soak your flour or soak your dough? I do this to soften the bran and germ in my whole grain breads so that their sharp edges cut the gluten strands less. I combine all the flour with the water (and any oil I may be using) and leave it out overnight (covered). Just before bed, I feed my starter. In the morning, my starter is risen (if it was in a cooler room) and ready to use. I add the starter, work it in, then let it rest for up to an hour before adding the salt.

    1. You’re right, Becki. Autolyse is where flour is soaked in water called for in the recipe so it can fully hydrate, this encourages gluten development, by reducing the bran’s negative effect on gluten development that you described. On a chemical level the protease enzymes are degrading the protein in the flour, this encourages extensibility, why the amylase enzymes transforms the starches in flour to sugar humans can consume.

  2. This is a lot to digest, but I’m just going to hop in and learn as I go.

    1. That’s the spirit! I found that the best way to get familiar to these terms is just to start making bread. Always here to answer your questions.

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