Artisan bread is becoming all the rage these days, and what this actually means is going back to the traditional ways of making bread that have served our ancestors perfectly well for many many years. Sourdough bread is the most natural bread out there.
It requires no additives – it’s just flour, water, and salt. However, making sourdough does take a lot of time and the process is quite different from other kinds of bread.
In this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know in order to make your own sourdough bread and give you a recipe with exact step-by-step instructions at the end. So let’s dive in!
What Is Sourdough Bread?
While the most common method of making bread today is using baker’s yeast or instant yeast as a leavening agent, a similar process can be achieved naturally using only flour and water.
In fact, this is the way bread has been made for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Sourdough is made using the yeast and bacteria that naturally occur in flour.
During a slow, natural fermentation process, sourdough develops a texture similar to dough made with yeast, but with a more developed and pronounced flavor.
There is no need for yeast, sweeteners, oil, or any kind of additives, although different things can be added to sourdough to achieve a different flavor.
What makes sourdough so special? Many would say it’s the distinctive taste, but it might also be the unique texture or the crumb or the luscious caramelized crust. Here is how sourdough is different from other types of bread.
The crust on sourdough bread is definitely unique. It has a darker appearance and it can be very tasty. This is because the long fermentation process leads to the breakdown of enzymes and the development of protein structures which allow the crust to caramelize.
While sourdough crust is generally a bit thicker than with other kinds of bread, it can be both crispy and soft. It depends on the exact recipe you use and how you handle the bread while it’s baking and cooling down.
“Crumb” is the word commonly used among bakers to describe the internal part of the bread (everything except the crust, that is). Sourdough bread is considered a type of bread with an open crumb. This means it will have large air bubbles forming inside.
Many would describe sourdough bread as having a distinctive tartness in its taste. This is because the bacteria that participate in the fermentation process of sourdough bread are the same kind as those that give the distinctive taste to yogurt.
However, sourdough bread doesn’t really have to be sour. This will depend on many factors, including your starter, the type of flour you are using, and the overall conditions in which the bread is made.
How To Make Sourdough Bread: The Complete Guide
The Sourdough Starter
An active starter is basically a living culture of yeast and bacteria in a mix of flour and water. Making your own sourdough starter is not hard, but it does take some time – 5 days at least. Alternatively, you can also buy sourdough starter if you don’t want to make your own.
Creating Your Starter
What Do I Need To Make My Own Sourdough Starter?
Although there is always the option to buy sourdough starter or get some from a friend, making sourdough starter yourself is actually not that hard. To make your own sourdough starter you’ll need only two very basic ingredients – flour and water.
In terms of kitchen equipment, you really don’t need anything special. What you’ll need is a nice container in which you’ll keep your sourdough starter. Glass jars work well, as well as plastic containers, but stay away from metal containers for this purpose.
Other than that, you only need a mixing spoon and either a porous cloth or a lid to cover the container in which you are keeping the sourdough starter. Most likely, we all have all of these necessary items at home.
A kitchen scale would also be useful, because it will allow you to quickly measure the exact amount of flour and water you need to put into the mixture. However, this is not necessary and totally doable with measuring cups too.
Beginning Your Starter
In ideal conditions, your starter should be ready in 5 days (you can use it on the sixth day), but in reality, the process can sometimes last a bit longer. To begin your starter, you’ll just need to mix water and flour.
Some recipes call for equal amounts of water and flour (100g is a good measure, or approximately 1 cup of flour), while others call for 100g of water and 150g of flour. Both options should work, and with a little experimentation, you can discover which one you think is better.
You can use plain white flour for your starter, but according to some accounts, whole-wheat flour might work even better. All you need to do is mix the ingredients vigorously until you get a thick batter.
Even though you should start with a small amount of water and flour, make sure that the container you are using is large enough, as your starter will grow over time.
Two quarts, for example, is a good measure. Once you have the mixture ready, cover it with a porous cloth, or just place a lid on the container. Don’t close it completely, though, as some air should be able to circulate through the lid. The starter should be left at room temperature (around 70 degrees Fahrenheit), but out of direct sunlight.
Feeding Your Starter
From day 2 you need to start feeding your starter, and you’ll need to keep doing it as long as you want to keep your starter. The sourdough starter is really a living thing, and the natural yeast and bacteria inside need food.
But how exactly do you feed your starter? Well, you just add more fresh flour and water (equal amounts, around 100g). Some bakers recommend just adding fresh flour and water to your starter for the first 5 days.
However, according to others you should discard half of the existing mixture and replace it with fresh flour and water. Again, in theory, both should work.
During the first three days, you should feed the starter once daily, while after the third day you may begin to do it every 12 hours.
What you are looking for is bubbles. Small bubbles should be visible sometimes even after only 24 hours, but don’t worry if they don’t appear as fast. Over time, the mixture should be getting more frothy and start smelling sour but fresh.
How Do I Know My Starter Is Ready To Use?
By day five or six, you should be able to see large bubbles in your starter. The starter should be visibly raising after feeding (you’ll learn to recognize this movement quickly).
If there are not a lot of bubbles in the starter, it means it’s not ready yet. Don’t worry, dough, just keep on feeding your starter for some more days. If the temperature in your house is a bit cold, for example, the fermentation process will take longer.
Using Your Starter
Once you have made a starter, you can use it basically forever. When you want to use your starter, just take the amount you need to start baking and feed the remaining starter as usual.
Storing Your Starter
Sourdough starter can be stored at room temperature indefinitely, but you need to feed it every day. If you don’t bake that often, you can also choose to store your starter in the fridge. When stored at lower temperatures, the processes within your living starter will slow down, so it’s enough to feed it only once a week.
Where To Buy A Sourdough Starter
If you don’t want to make your own sourdough starter, you really don’t have to. Maybe you don’t have time, or making your own starter just doesn’t seem to work.
While you usually can’t just go to a store and get some sourdough starter, it can be easily found online both in fresh and dried form. On the other hand, you might also want to ask around and see if you have any friends or acquaintances that are willing to share a portion of their sourdough starter.
This is quite a common practice since the sourdough starter grows continuously and portions of it need to be discarded anyway. Moreover, bakers often take pride in their unique sourdough starter and don’t mind sharing some with others.
How To Make Sourdough
Obviously, flour is a very important ingredient when baking bread. In sourdough, it’s also the only ingredient besides water and salt, which points to its importance. This is why choosing the flour for your first sourdough attempt can be a little scary.
Even though many types of flour are available today, wheat flour is by far the most common for baking bread, and there are good reasons for this. Namely, wheat flour is rich in gluten, which gives sourdough bread its distinctive structure.
While making gluten-free sourdough is possible, the original recipe relies on gluten to give the dough it’s beautiful texture.
Now, there are also many types of wheat flour. Some of the most common include all-purpose flour, bread flour, semolina, and whole wheat flour. As you might have guessed, bread flour is probably your best bet.
It is a hard wheat flour with a high gluten content which makes it work perfectly for sourdough bread. Gluten gives the dough elasticity and strength, allowing the fermentation and rising process to happen without any issues.
On the other hand, regular all-purpose flour can work just as well. Sourdough can also be made from whole wheat flour, or you can use a mix of bread flour and whole wheat flour, rye flour, or basically anything that comes to mind.
These experiments are better left for later, dough. In short, for making your fist sourdough bread, we recommend using plain white wheat flour.
Temperature is an extremely important factor in the whole process of making sourdough bread, beginning with the starter and ending in the oven. In general, you want the whole fermentation and rising process of your sourdough bread to happen at room temperature.
A temperature of 76 degrees Fahrenheit or 25 degrees Celsius will keep the activity of the yeast and the bacteria in the dough at the optimal level.
Making Sourdough Bread: The 6 Steps
The word leaven comes from the French word levain, and it refers to the sourdough starter that actually gets mixed into your dough. It is basically the same thing as the starter, but the leaven phase refers to the part where you prepare your starter for mixing it with the dough.
If you have already made or bought or otherwise acquired your starter, this step will be easy. You just need to take a spoonful of your starter and feed it with some flour and water. Leave it at room temperature for approximately 12 hours, or overnight. In the morning, the leaven should be bubbly and smelling slightly sour.
If you are not sure if your leaven is ready to use, you can perform a simple test. Put some water in a cup (or any kind of container) and drop a spoonful of your leaven inside. If it floats, it’s ready. On the other hand, if it falls to the bottom of the cup, it might need some more time.
To make the sourdough bread dough mix, you’ll need the same ingredients as for your starter, with the addition of a tablespoon of salt. You’ll need more flour, of course. For a standard-sized loaf, you’ll need approximately 700g of flour, or 1.5 pounds.
The exact amount will depend on the recipe, dough, as will the amount of water you need to add. Different breads require different levels of hydration. Some traditional types of bread like ciabatta, for example, call for a more liquid dough, while other recipes call for a more dry dough mix.
In any case, mixing your ingredients well at the beginning, with the right amount of water, is crucial for the success of your bread. Mixing by hand is recommended because it allows you to get a feel of the consistency of the dough.
In general, what you are looking for is a sticky dough without any dry patches remaining. If the dough doesn’t feel sticky at all, it might be too liquid and you might need to add more flour.
After you have mixed your leaven with the rest of the flour and water needed for the dough, it’s a good idea to let the mix rest for some time. This first resting phase is called autolyse and it refers to a time period where you let the dough develop on its known, without kneading.
During the autolyse phase, the flour will soak up the water until it gets fully hydrated. The enzymes in the flour will start breaking down and this gives a jumpstart to the development of gluten in your dough.
Since more gluten means a more elastic dough, this is exactly what we are looking for. You can leave the dough to rest for anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours.
Now, you might have noticed that we haven’t mentioned salt yet. While adding salt to the dough mix is important, it shouldn’t be done before the resting phase. This is because salt slows down the processes that happen during the autolyse phase. So, once you have let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes, it’s time to mix in the salt.
The truth is, with sourdough, you don’t really ever need to knead the dough like with other types of bread dough. It is sufficient to gently fold the dough.
When you have mixed in the salt, it’s time for the first rising cycle of the dough, also called bulk fermentation. During this phase, you’ll actually get better results if you use the folding method, letting the gluten develop naturally, compared to kneading the dough.
So, what you need to do is gently pull the dough upwards without ripping it and gently fold it down. Turn the bowl a little bit to the side, and repeat 4 or 5 times until you reach full circle. Let the dough rest at room temperature for about 15 minutes, then repeat. You’ll notice the dough becoming more smooth and elastic as you repeat the folding.
For how long do you need to do this? The rising phase will take at least 3 hours, but it can also take up to 12 hours depending on the conditions and the ingredients you have used. If the temperature in your house is colder, for example, the rising will go slower. In any case, when it’s ready to use, the dough shouldn’t look dense and it should have grown to twice its original size.
Proofing refers to the final resting phase for your dough before it goes into the oven to become tasty sourdough bread. Traditionally, proofing baskets, also called bannetons, have been used for proofing sourdough bread.
These can be wicker baskets or they can be made of cane or some other kind of natural material. While they are really pretty and don’t require a lot of maintenance, you don’t actually need to get a real proofing basket. A large bowl or even a colander can work just as well.
In any case, before you put the dough in, sprinkle a generous amount of flour across the surface of your proofing basket or whatever kind of proofing vessel you are using. Some bakers also use a kitchen cloth. The cloth should also be covered with flour to prevent the dough from sticking. Gently rub the flour into the cloth with your fingers for best results.
The last and final stage of making your sourdough bread is, of course, baking. While this is not the most labor-intensive stage of making bread, it is maybe the most magical one. It is the time when you get to see the final results of your bread-making process and you want to take the time to get it right.
While what comes to mind when thinking about baking bread might be a large baking steel, the best option for sourdough bread is actually a dutch oven or a combo cooker. Basically, you want a vessel that radiates heat evenly and has a good lid that can lock in the steam.
With a nice cast iron or ceramic Dutch oven or combo cooker, this is exactly what you get. This kind of baking vessels creates an environment for your bread that is similar to that in professional baking ovens.
Sealing in the steam at the beginning of baking will create ideal conditions for the dough to rise as much as possible and create a wonderful soft crust. In a sealed baking vessel, the crust will not get too hard too soon, and the steam will support the caramelization process which leads to the wonderful dark-colored crust.
There are actually a lot of different techniques that bakers use for baking perfect sourdough bread. One of these includes steaming the oven before baking and then baking in an open vessel. Some bakers like to finish their bread directly on the oven rack.
However, if you are a beginner, we suggest just baking the bread in a covered Dutch oven or combo cooker. This method is quite simple and very likely to give you the perfect results.
Sourdough Bread Recipe
However, making sourdough bread is not nuclear physics. Why it does take a lot of time, all of the steps you need to do are fairly simple and it doesn’t require too much work overall, it is just spread over a longer period of time. So, let’s start with our sourdough bread recipe!
In terms of baking equipment, you really don’t need anything extra special to make sourdough bread. In fact, you probably already have everything you need somewhere in your kitchen.
After all, this type of bread has been made for hundreds of years, and bakers didn’t always have the fancy equipment we have today. You can use real bannetons or proofing baskets for your sourdough bread, but an ordinary kitchen bowl will work just as well.
If you don’t have a bench knife, you can also use an ordinary knife to cut your dough – although a bench knife makes it easier.
One piece of baking equipment we do suggest you pay special attention to is the vessel you are going to bake your bread in. As we have already mentioned, a thick-walled Dutch oven or a combo cooker with a tight-fitting lid is the best choice.
For example, the Lodge 3-quart Cast Iron Combo Cooker or Le Creuset Dutch ovens are both perfect for sourdough bread. In any case, make sure that the baking pan you are using can withstand the temperature of 500 degrees Fahrenheit (or 260 degrees Celsius).
To make things easier, here is a list of everything you will need in order to make sourdough bread from scratch:
- Mixing bowl
- 2 proofing baskets or large kitchen bowls
- 2 kitchen towels
- Bench knife for cutting the dough
- Kitchen shears or a pack of razor blades (to score the dough before baking)
- Parchment paper
- A Dutch oven or a combo cooker with lid
- Oven mitt
- Kitchen thermometer
- Kitchen scale that allows for measurements in grams
As you probably already know, the ingredients that you need for basic sourdough bread come down to three things: bread, flour, and water. Additionally, you might want to buy the sourdough starter if you don’t want to make your own for whatever reason.
In terms of flour, you have some freedom of choice here, but this is a recipe for sourdough bread made with white wheat flour. The best choice would probably be bread flour, but we have tried this recipe with all-purpose flour too and it worked really well.
For measuring flour, we recommend using a digital kitchen scale that measures in grams. While you certainly can measure your ingredients using measuring cups, there is quite a bit of room for error there when measuring flour.
This is because different types of flour have a different volume, and also measuring sifted and unsifted flour gives you results that are quite different. When you know exactly how the dough should feel at each stage, this is not a problem, as you can always just add a bit of flour or water to fix the consistency of your dough.
However, if you are just beginning, measuring your ingredients exactly can save you a lot of trouble. So, here is exactly what you’ll need for this sourdough bread recipe.
For The Leaven:
- 1 tablespoon (or approximately 15 grams) of active sourdough starter
- 80 grams of flour (or ¾ cup of sifted flour)
- 80 milliliters of water (or ⅓ cup)
For The Dough:
- 700 grams (or approximately 5 ½ cups) of flour
- 500 milliliters (2 cups) of water
- 1 tablespoon of salt
- Flour for dusting your proofing baskets/bowls (white rice flour mixed with ordinary bread flour works really well)
The Step-by-Step Guide
1. Prepare the starter
We’ve talked about making and storing your own starter before. If you have your starter stored in the fridge, you’ll want to make sure it’s active before you start baking. For best results, you might want to take your starter out of the fridge and feed it daily for 2-3 days at room temperature. This will make sure your starter is as active as it can be.
Note that this step is optional. Sourdough starter can be used right out of the fridge. If the starter is active, the colder temperature should just make the first rise of your dough a little slower. However, we do recommend taking it out of the fridge ahead of time to make sure everything is in order.
2. Make the leaven
The first step in making your dough is making your leaven. To do this, just mix 80 grams of flour and 80 milliliters of water with a portion of your active starter.
You can make the leaven the night before, or do it in the morning of the day you want to start your sourdough bread. In any case, give it at least 5 hours for the fermentation process to develop. If you are making the leaven in the morning, it’s a good idea to let it rest somewhere warm.
We are talking warm here, not extremely hot. A temperature between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit would be ideal. If you are resting the leaven overnight, room temperature should suffice.
3. Test the leaven
Before mixing the dough, check if your leaven is ready. It probably won’t be too hard to tell if it’s ready. The surface will look very bubbly if it is. However, especially if it’s your first time making sourdough, you might want to double-check.
To do this, simply take a cup of water and drop a bit of your leaven inside. If it floats, it’s definitely ready to use. If it doesn’t float, the leaven might need some more time.
4. Mix the dough
If your leaven is ready, it’s time to mix the dough up for the first time. In this step, we mix all of the dough ingredients together. Before you do this, you can set aside 50ml of water and let the tablespoon of salt dissolve in it. This will make mixing the salt in later easier.
The easiest way to mix the dough ingredients is by first mixing the leaven with water. Note that the water should be at room temperature, not too cold and not too warm.
When you stir in the leaven (it’s ok if there are some clumps remaining), start adding the flour slowly, until all of it is mixed in. The dough doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth at this point, but there shouldn’t be any dry flour remaining.
Once you’ve mixed together the ingredients for the dough (except salt), it’s time for the autolyse phase we have talked about before. Let the dough rest and nature do its wonders for at least 30 minutes or up to 4 hours.
6. Mix in the salt
After letting the dough rest for the autolyse phase, it’s time to mix in the salt you’ve dissolved in water. Gently mix in the liquid until the dough mix absorbs it.
7. Fold the dough (and let it rest)
We strongly recommend the folding method instead of kneading when making sourdough. The dough doesn’t need to be too smooth at this point, the right texture will develop on its own given enough time.
To do this, just gently pull the edge of the dough and let it fall down. Turn the bowl a little bit and repeat the same movement. Do this a couple of times until you reach full circle. When you do one round, let the dough rest for 20-30 minutes. Then repeat. This should be done for a total of 2-3 hours.
8. Let the dough rise
After folding the dough, let it rise on its own for 60 to 90 minutes. In this phase, the dough most likely won’t double in size, but if it looks larger than when you started, it’s fine. If you use a transparent container with markings, checking the size of dough will be even easier.
9. Shape the dough
Once the dough has risen, it’s time to shape your dough. This recipe will give you two medium-sized loaves, so you’ll need to divide the dough into two parts.
To do this, sprinkle a generous amount of flour on a working surface and turn the dough out on it from the mixing bowl. You’ll want to work gently with the dough to avoid deflating it. Again, no kneading. Use a knife to divide the dough into two equal parts.
When you have divided the dough, sprinkle a little flour on top of each part to prevent the dough from sticking. You’ll want to shape both parts so they are somewhat round. You can use your bench knife to gently shape the dough. When you are done, let the dough rest for another 30 minutes.
Now it’s time to prepare your proofing basket (or a large kitchen bowl). You can line the basket with a kitchen towel, but before you do it, rub sum flour into the towel to prevent the dough from sticking. Using a kitchen towel makes transfering the dough later easier, but you don’t actually have to use one. You can also just sprinkle the proofing basket generously with flour.
Before you place the dough into the proofing baskets, it’s time to shape the loaves. You do this in a similar way as you were folding the dough before.
Gently pull the dough and fold it over the top. Repeat until you reach full circle. When you are done, gently roll the dough so it’s upside down. Dust with flower, and flip over into the proofing basket.
Once in the proofing basket or bowl, the dough should rise for one last time. Leave it on the counter for at least 2 hours, or in the fridge overnight.
11. Preheat the oven
Before you do the final preparations for baking your sourdough bread, turn on the oven to preheat. You’ll want to heat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. You can also place your dutch oven/combo cooker in the oven to preheat, but this is not essential.
12. Transfer the dough into your Dutch oven or combo cooker
Transfer the dough from your proofing basket into the Dutch oven or combo cooker. With this recipe, we made to loaves. If you have two Dutch ovens at hand, you can transfer them both at the same time.
If your oven is big enough, you can also bake the two loaves at the same time. However, you can also use only one Dutch oven, baking the loaves one after the other. No problem there.
You’ll want to transfer the dough from the basket by flipping it so the dough is upside-down again. The seam side should be down this time.
You’ll want to start baking your bread with the lid on to lock the steam in. Bake the bread at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes and then remove the lid.
At this point, you might want to lower the temperature to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. After removing the lid the bread will need another 20 – 35 minutes until it’s completely done.
14. Let your sourdough bread cool down
Once you take the bread out of the oven, let it cool down completely before cutting. You can let it cool down on a wire rack. Alternatively, if you want the crust to be extra soft, wrap the bread in a damp kitchen towel and let cool like that.
15. Enjoy tasty homemade sourdough bread!
At the end, we have only one thing to say. Making sourdough bread by yourself is a wonderful experience. Don’t let the long recipes intimidate you. Making sourdough bread is definitely something that is best learned by doing.
Once you try it, everything will seem much more simple. Finally, if your first attempt doesn’t work out, don’t worry! It happens to everyone from time to time, and sometimes you just can’t control the outcome.