Beginners Guide to Sourdough Bread Baking

/ / / Beginners Guide to Sourdough Bread Baking

Sourdough is a natural levain formed of wild yeasts and organic acids. It is believed to be first discovered by the ancient Egyptians. Wet grains were once left on a sunny brick and to the amazement of the farmers, the mixture rose!The natural transition was to bake the dough on the fire and later evolved to being eaten all across the world. Sourdough bread became the staple food of many for thousands of years.

Commercial yeast ( invented in 1890) accelerated bread production. It suited the modern style of making food at mass for a low cost and overtook popularity in many countries.

In recent years eating sourdough bread has become popular once more. The health benefits, digestive qualities and unique flavour have demanded its resurgence. Making, eating and baking sourdough is not just better for us, it’s also very fashionable. And what’s more, you can bake totally delicious sourdough bread using the steps in this sourdough bread beginners guide.

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Should I try yeast baking before sourdough?

Making sourdough bread is a little bit more complex than yeast made bread. If you’ve never made bread before you might prefer trying some yeast bread beginner recipes first. But, if you’re the sort to go all in, don’t worry – I’ll guide you through, step-by-step!

Making sourdough bread

Before you can start baking sourdough bread, you’ll need a starter. Here’s how it works:

What is a sourdough starter?

Making a sourdough starter is a simple process. The only ingredients needed are flour and water. They just need to be mixed together, given time, warmth and the mixture will develop into a levain.

After a couple of weeks of feedings, the starter will be strong enough to make some tasty bread!

How to make your own starter

To begin a starter, mix equal quantities of flour and water in a jar or pot. Place a lid loosely on top and leave for 24 hours.

The following day a portion of the starter is removed to be discarded. The remainder is fed with fresh flour and water.

Daily (or twice daily) feeds are repeated for 7-14 days or until there is enough leavening activity that the starter is ripe enough to use.

Best way to feed a new sourdough starter

I start by feeding my new starter daily. But after 3-4 days, I’ll switch to twice a day. My recipe uses 10 grams of starter with 80 grams of white flour, 10 grams of rye flour and 80 grams of water.

This builds an active starter really quickly and is great for all of my breads! My basic sourdough starter recipe offers accurate measurements and timings so check it out before attempting this recipe.

Is it necessary to discard every time?

When building a new starter a little bit of dough is discarded during the refreshments. It is required as it prevents you from making massive amounts of starter.

To minimise the amount of sourdough discard use these starter feeding methods once the starter is established. There are also plenty of sourdough discard recipes available online.

Making a sourdough starter

Making a starter is simple. The challenge is getting the starter active enough to raise bread effectively. Usually, a starter just takes time and regular feedings but sometimes a couple of extra tweaks are required. Don’t worry I have a sourdough starter troubleshooting guide if you need it!

Sourdough bread beginners recipe

It’s satisfying to make your own, but if you want to accelerate the process, you can buy a dried sourdough.

Where to buy a sourdough starter

You can pick up a dried starter from many bakery suppliers. My favourite is here. For commercial use (or just for a bit of fun) take a look at the sourdough library. There are thousands of flavours to choose from!

After a dried starter is activated it will start to lose its original flavour profile in a couple of days. This cannot be prevented as it’s due to the bacteria adjusting to a new environment.

When is my starter ready to use?

Once the starter is tripling in size within 5-6 hours (longer if it’s cold) it’s active enough to use. Aim to feed it 4 hours before you use it or follow one of the sourdough baking schedules shown below.

Once you are happy you have an active starter, we can get on with making the bread!

The equipment you’ll need to get baking

You can get started with sourdough without any specialised equipment. Though, after a few bakes you’ll probably want to get some baking tools of your own.

Proper sourdough baking equipment will improve the consistency of your favourite bread whilst making it easier to craft your baked delights. There are a few tools listed on this page that (affiliate) link to Amazon. I have drawn up a full sourdough equipment guide with many of my favourite tools to help you decide on yours.

Setting up your oven for baking bread

Before you get started preparing the dough you will need to decide on how you will bake your bread.

You can either use a Dutch oven or bake it in the oven directly. A Dutch oven offers a tighter seal so are beginner-friendly, though fewer bread shapes can be made and they are often expensive.

That said, in terms of quality, both make excellent bread!

Upgrading your home oven

It’s best to use a baking stone to get the best oven spring and a nice, crusty crust. If you don’t have one, use the thickest baking sheet you have. If you are baking without a dutch oven, place an extra tray with a deep lip below the stone when preheating.

How to make sourdough bread

Ingredients

~ 330g  White bread flour

~ 190g  *Water

~ 100g  Sourdough starter

~ 30g  Water 

~ 8g  Salt

A handful of rice flour (if you can find it) and some extra flour for dusting

*At the end of mixing, the desired dough temperature for this recipe is 24C. If the temperature of the room is around 22C, the water temperature should be around 17C. If it’s cooler or warmer, adjust the temperature of the water to get as close to the target temperature as possible.

Weigh the ingredients

Zero a mixing bowl on a scale and weigh 190 grams of water. Again, zero the scale and then spoon in 100 grams of your sourdough starter.

sourdough starter and water measured

Weigh the 330 grams of flour in another bowl then add the flour to the wet ingredients. Use a circular or figure of 8 movements with a dough scraper or your hands to combine. 2 – 3 minutes later the mixture will be fairly even.

Start the autolyse

Begin autoylsing by covering the bowl with a bag or lid and set aside. Whilst the autolyse is taking place, take a small bowl and weigh a further 30 grams of water. Weigh 8 grams of salt and whisk it in the water until dissolved.

Uncover the dough
Add salt to the water
Whisk the salt

Mix the dough

After 30 minutes the autolyse can end. Take off the cover and add the salted water. Fold the dough over itself to push the salt-water solution into the mixture.

Adding the second water
Adding the second water 2
Adding the second water 3

Once the water absorbs and the dough starts to cling together, switch technique. Stretch the dough with any gentle kneading method you like.

The kneading should last 6 minutes or 4 in a stand mixer (use a low speed!). Once finished, the dough should not feel wet or sticky. It will be strong, slightly silky and you’ll see some lovely long strands of gluten when it’s stretched.

Bulk fermentation

Return the dough to the bowl or container and cover. Leave to rest on the worktop for 1 hour.

Stretch and fold

Next, we’ll stretch and fold the dough to redistribute the ingredients. If a stretch and fold looks a bit challenging, you can simply knead the dough for 10 seconds instead. Afterwards, pop the dough back in the bowl, cover and leave to rest for another hour.

Repeat the stretch and fold

Do another stretch and fold and leave covered for its final hour.

Test if it’s ready

After the third hour of bulk fermentation, the dough should be ready to shape and begin its final rise. It should be fairly gassy by now, but not overly. It’ll have nice long luscious gluten that stretches out to pass the windowpane test.

The temperature of the room is important here. I’m doing this recipe at 22C, if it’s warmer you should reduce the time and if cooler a little longer will be needed. It will take a bit of practice to understand how sourdough bread feels like at each stage.

To fix, stretch and fold again and rest for another hour. Consider fermenting it in a warmer environment. Placing my dough in the oven with only the light on provides just enough warmth to increase the rate of yeast activation.

Pre-shape

Once you are happy that the bulk fermentation development is sufficient, the next step is to shape it into a ball.

Once it’s shaped, leave to rest on a lightly floured area of your worktop for 20 minutes. Covering it with a tea towel or upside-down bowl will prevent it from drying out.

Prepare the proofing basket

Banneton proofing baskets are readily available these days, you can see the banneton I recommend here. If you don’t have one you can use a large bowl lined with a tea towel.

Dust a layer of flour and rice flour (if you have it) on the inside of the proofing basket. Too much is better than too little, you don’t want the dough to stick!

If it’s a new basket, wet with a water mister first so the flour has something to cling onto.

Final Shape

Shaping a round bread

For a round-shaped banneton, reshape using the same boule technique used previously.

Shaping a long bread

If you are using a long shaped basket, the technique is slightly different.

Place the dough into the proofing basket with the smooth side downwards and the rough side (the seam) facing up.

Place in basket
place in basket 2
place in basket 3

Dust a bit of extra flour around the edges of the basket if you are worried about the dough sticking.

Final Proof

Using a large upside-down bowl or a loose-fitting plastic bag cover the banneton without touching the dough and leave it to rise.

Proofing in a covered banneton

The final proof will take around 2 – 3 hours at room temperature. Alternatively, place the covered proofing basket into the fridge overnight.

Preheat the oven

Preheat the oven at 250C (480F) ready for the bread. It takes around an hour for baking stones to heat thoroughly. If you are using a Dutch oven it can go into warm at the same time.

Testing if it’s ready

To tell if the dough is ready to bake we inspect it. The rounded base will have flattened and it’ll have risen to almost double its original size.

You can also use the poke test by pressing the dough with a wet finger and measuring how quick it takes to ping back. It should stay down for 2-3 seconds. Allow more time if it springs straight back up.

Ready to bake!

Proofing in the fridge 

If you are using the overnight fridge schedule, the poke test won’t work. If the dough’s nearly doubled like in the picture, you’re good to go.

Tip the bread

Depending on whether you are using a dutch oven or not, a different method is used to remove the dough from the proofing basket.

With a Dutch oven

Cut a piece of baking paper that’s the same size as the base of the Dutch oven. Then either tip the dough onto the paper and lower into the preheated skillet. Or, place the paper in the Dutch oven and drop the dough straight in.

Without a Dutch oven

Boil a cup of water, you’ll need to add this to the oven to make steam. Next, lightly flour a bakers peel. A flat board or tray will work well if you don’t have a peel.

Tipping the dough out of the banneton

Top Tip: Turn the proofing basket upside down so the dough falls onto the paper or peel. Give the basket a tap if you need to release the dough

Score the bread

Using a lame or serrated knife, slice one long cut towards you, turn the bread 90 degrees to cut halfway before turning 180 degrees to cut the other side.

first cut
cut all the way
turn the dough 90 degrees and cut halfway
turn the dough 180 a make the last cut

Bake in a dutch oven

Pop dutch oven straight in the oven, turning down the heat to 230C (450F). It will take 40-50 minutes depending on the power of your oven. After 20 minutes, open the oven door and remove the lid. Continue to bake at 210C (410F) until the crust is golden.

Bake with a baking stone or tray

Slide the dough on a peel
Slide the peel away to drop the dough in the stone
add boiling water to make steam
  1. Slide the dough onto the baking stone and then add a cup of boiling water to the lower baking tray. This will kick start the oven spring.
  2. Move your hands out of the way and quickly shut the door.
  3. Drop the temperature to 230C (450F).
  4. After 20 – 25 minutes, open the door to release the steam and consider dropping the temperature down to 210C (410F) if the crust is well coloured.
  5. Bake for a total of 35 – 45 minutes until golden. 

Remove from the oven and cool

Take out the oven using gloves or a peel and turn out onto a cooling rack. To check the bread is fully baked, test by tapping the bottom and if it sounds hollow.

Slide the peel underneath the bread to remove it

Cooling allows moisture to escape and the crust to harden. It is best to leave the bread to cool for a couple of hours before cutting.

That’s it!

That’s all you need to know to make your first sourdough bread. When you are ready to take your skills to the next level, visit the sourdough homepage. There are plenty of articles to help you master your sourdough skills.

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sourdough bread beginners recipe

Otherwise, let’s look at how to adjust this recipe and change the timings so it’s easier to fit sourdough bread baking around daily life.

Adjusting the recipe

Once you’ve mastered this recipe you can adapt it to suit your tastes or experiment with other flavours. Here are a few ideas that work:

Use wholemeal flour

For a wholemeal version of this bread, trade 100 grams of white flour with wholemeal and increase the first water by 10 grams.

Add some olive oil

For a softer loaf that keeps a little longer add 20 grams of extra virgin olive oil to the dough after the autolyse.

Double the recipe

This recipe is for 1 loaf of sourdough bread. If you want to make double for a bigger loaf or to divide into several you shouldn’t have a problem. You can also use the baker’s percentage to calculate the exact amount of dough you’ll need for more complicated weights.

Baking schedules

You can make this beginners sourdough bread recipe in one day or if it suits your daily routine can last a couple of days. Here’s how I plan my baking schedule so I can make bread and still do other stuff!

The timings are based on a room temperature at around 20C (68F). If it’s warmer or cooler you’ll find the fermentation speeds up or slows down respectively.

New starters may take longer, as your starter ages it’ll be more active.

One day bake schedule

Friday

20:00 Feed starter

22:00 Place starter in the fridge

Saturday

08:00 Remove starter from the fridge

09:20 Prepare the ingredients

09:30 Start the autolyse

09:50 Add the salt and knead

10:00 Bulk rise

11:00 1st S & F

12:00 2nd S & F

1300 Shape

13:25 Final proof

15:00 Preheat oven

16:00 Bake

16:40 Take out from the oven and cool

Prepare in the evening and proof overnight routine

Friday

07:30 Feed the starter

08:30 Place starter in the fridge

15:00 Remove starter from the fridge

17:00 Prepare the ingredients

17:10 Start the autolyse

17:30 Add the salt and knead

17:40 Bulk rise

18:40 1st S & F

19:40 2nd S & F

20:40 Shape

21:00 Final proof in the fridge

Saturday

09:00 Check dough – you can take it out the fridge to proof at room temperature if it’s not risen high enough

09:00 Preheat oven

10:30 Bake

11:10 Take out from the oven and cool

The overnight bulk rise method

If you start a bit late or your starter wasn’t ready till later you can use this method, it works just as well:

Friday

19:50 Prepare the ingredients

20:00 Start the autolyse

20:30 Add the salt and knead

20:40 Bulk rise in the fridge

Saturday

08:00 Remove from the fridge

08:00 1st S & F

09:00 2nd S & F

10:00 Shape

10:30 Final proof

12:00 Preheat oven

13:00 Bake

14:40 Take out from the oven and cool

Sourdough science

I found the science behind sourdough is really handy to know. Though it’s not essential you understand what’s happening at each stage. This helps massively when overcoming any issues you encounter! I’ve written an article on sourdough fermentation so you can learn more if you like 🙂

FAQ’s

I forgot to feed my sourdough, can I revive it?

No worries! If it’s just a day or two that’s missed, just feed it as normal. Keep feeding and wait until it smells nice and aromatic again. If it’s been a while, boost your starter with a gigantic feed!

How to get the sourdough twangy flavour?

You can add some rye or wholemeal flour for more aromatics.

If there is still not enough twang; decrease the amount of starter used to 10% of the flour weight, increase the temperature of fermentation and make the starter wetter when feeding.

This increases the activity of the lactic bacteria to provide the twang you are looking for. For less twang do the opposite.

Why is the crumb gummy?

This is either due to the oxygenation of the flour or a baking issue. To counteract oxygenation, the kneading and/or fermentation time needs to be reduced. Malt flour should not be used for long bulk fermentation.

How to tell if the bread is baked?

In the oven, sourdough bread should reach 93C (200F) and bake for another 5 minutes. Another way to tell is to tap the bottom of the bread. It should sound hollow. If bread takes over 40 minutes in the oven, consider using a hotter oven and baking stone/s to improve the bake. This could be the cause of gummy crumb.

How to make rye sourdough?

Start from scratch using the same method as the white version shown in the recipe. You might find that it gets a little sticky decrease the amount of water added in each refreshment.

Can I add yeast to a sourdough recipe?

Many people want to know if there is yeast in a sourdough recipe, the answer is yes BUT many purists will not approve.

Adding 1 gram of yeast to this recipe the first time you make it will increase first time success rates and the time it takes to rise.

Can you bake sourdough in a cold oven?

Baking with a cold dutch oven is a growing trend for home bread bakers. It saves many $$ in electricity costs. Neither oven is preheated before baking. Instead, the oven is turned on as bread goes in.

It’s worth a try as many bakers are happy with the results they achieve, but as the dough takes longer in the oven it can cause a gummy crumb and stale quicker.

I have another issue with my bread

Try the sourdough bread troubleshooting page to resolve your issue!

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10 Comments

  1. Thank you for these wonderfully detailed instructions and video – I read another post of yours to understand why a yeast based bread I’d made was sticky and it transformed my understanding!

    I’m trying out this sourdough recipe today – and I’m at the first bulk fermentation after the salt is added. My dough is still somewhat sticky – so I’m going to keep going and see what happens. Any ideas why?

    Also of note – I use a freshly ground flour – we’re on a farm and have wheat berries which I grind in a counter top grinder. I set it the finest setting to make the bread flour.

    And If I can ask one more question – my banneton is about half that size so I’m contemplating just shaping the dough and putting it into my dutch oven into our pizza oven (we have a pizza oven on the farm). Any advise you can offer is much appreciated.

    Thank you so much! your site is the best one I’ve read yet on bread making. So helpful and well laid out.

  2. Hi Michal, thanks for your kind words! It’s amazing that you have home-grown wheat! Truly inspiring!

    I’ve not experienced home milling myself, but milled flour has always been aged for a month or two before it’s shipped out. This allows oxygen to strengthen the bonds in the flour and the flour will also lose a bit of moisture. In modern times, most mills skip the need of storing flour by adding ascorbic acid (or another oxygenator) to freshly milled flour. What this means for you is if you leave the flour to rest after milling for a while you should expect it to be stronger and able to absorb more water.

    I know a lot of home millers don’t rest the flour and are still happy with their results. If you don’t want to rest it, use a little less water in your recipe to account for the moisture remaining in the flour.

    Did it firm up over the bulk fermentation? I hope so!

    By all means, putting the dutch oven in the pizza oven should work. I’d just be careful that it’s not too hot as it might shatter the Dutch oven! Wouldn’t want that!!

  3. Thanks Gareth – no it didn’t bulk up. Appreciate the knowledge about milling flour and letting it ‘dry out’. I’m currently doing a moisture / window test. I’ve got three bowls with 30g of fresh milled flour and testing at 65,70 and 75% water after an hour – we’ll see what I get and then I’ll try it again 😉 It’s a learning process.

  4. “A handful of rice flour (if you can find it)” After looking everywhere over a period of weeks for rice flour for dusting my baneton I searched the net and guess what? I bought a bag of brown rice, zapped it in my Nutribulet and et voila: Rice flour! (DOH!) Simple things eh….?

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