Busby's Bakery School

Getting Started With Sourdough guide for beginners

Welcome to this fully packed learn how to make sourdough guide designed for all sourdough beginners! I'm going to show you everything you need to know about baking sourdough bread in this tutorial. My aim was to make this the most thorough sourdough guide for beginners on the net, every detail about sourdough baking (that I can think of!) has been included in this peice.

It has taken me days and weeks to write so if you like this tutorial, please share it with your baking friends!

I first embarked on my sourdough journey when we started selling a sourdough boule in the supermarket I worked for. This bread was a par baked product that we would plonk on a tray and bake for 20 minutes. The taste was pleasant, but not remarkable. I quickly forgot about sourdough.

A few years later after my baking motivation heightened, I went to a proper artisan bakery and choose a sourdough loaf to take home. When I arrived back and cut into it I was amazed at the flavour, yet slightly pissed that I'd spent the past few years underappreciating sourdough bread.

I started to make some sourdough bread at home.

The home creations were pretty much all disasters. I couldn't grasp the waiting for days for the levain to rise. Actually, now I think about it, at one point I decided that the recipe I was following had been misprinted and the yeast had been mistakingly omited from the ingredients, so I added some.

This is a silly idea as sourdough is the yeast, or to be more correct, sourdough is a form of levain which contains a strand of yeast in high concentration. Levains are added to dough to make it rise, store bought yeast is another levain which contains a slightly different strand of yeast.

After a few disasters, I learned how to make sourdough properly and the following year, I was selling them in my bakery and at farmers markets.

The challenge of making sourdough

I'd like to make out that making sourdough is easy, but unlike some of the link bait you may have seen it's one of the hardest breads to master. I recommend if you are just getting started with bread baking to follow a few yeasted breads first. You'll gain confidence in handling and shaping dough following recipes with less variables that can go wrong. If you are not already following the learn to bake bread course it's a good place to start for bread baking beginners.

If you've got a bit of experience in bread making or your just one of those "go all in" sort of people this sourdough tutorial breaks everything down.

Where did sourdough come from?

Sourdough was the original levain used to raise bread. The legend has it that some wet wheat grain was left on a rock in ancient and farmers realised that it started to turn into a gassy substance.

The Egyptians found the mixture would rise and harden when the heat increased. Someone later realised that kneading it and baking it on the fire created an edible substance. 

This was the start of bread.

It is a fairly plausible explanation as wheat was being harvested at this time and the climate would have been warm enough to quickly ferment bread.

Fast forward to today and scientists have discovered that a strand of yeast named Lactobacillus Sanfranciscensis is created from the natural fermentation of hydrated flour.

This strand is formed from lactic acid bacteria and different to the one that we use as bakers yeast.

Sourdough bread is regarded in most circles as a higher grade than commonly made yeast levained doughs. Using it to levain bread raises the bread gradually, creating more flavour and maturity.

A sourdough levain introduces fermented flour to the dough which enhances the quality of the dough.

A  sourdough starter can often be years if not centuries old. The bread is easier to digest, has good keeping qualities and is packed full of flavour.

The lactic twang that many sourdough loaves of bread contain is generated from the mature starter making good sourdough bread arguably the pinnacle of bread baking.

An irregular holey texture is often found in sourdough bread, it’s just sort of bread I love to rip and dip in extra virgin olive oil!

What is the difference between sourdough bread and yeast bread?

Yeasted bread contains a strand of yeast called Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. The amount of yeast can be adjusted to speed up or slow dough the fermentation of the dough. It doesn’t taste or smell too pleasant, add too much and the dough will not be very nice!

Sourdough absorbs yeasts that are naturally airbourne. These get absorbed by a mixture of flour and water and over time ferment. Feeding the starter flour and water each day allows the yeasts and bacteria to replenish and maintain fermentation. As the mixture develops, lactic acid multiplies causing it to turn into a strong levain that is capable of making bread rise.

The sourdough starter is then continually refreshed every day to remain alive. A sourdough starter will last forever if correctly maintained. It is also possible to keep it in the fridge to retard. This slows down the action of fermentation therefore feedings are only necessary once a week to keep it going.

How to make a sourdough starter


What you need to start a sourdough starter:

  • A bowl (maybe two so one can be cleaned)
  • Spoon
  • Scales
  • A lid or cling film to cover the bowl
  • White bread flour
  • Water - tap is ok but it must be drinkable

Make a sponge

Take a small bowl or cup. In it add 50g of cold water, then add 50g of flour and stir with a spoon or your finger until no lumps remain. Cover with a lid or cling film and leave overnight at room temperature.

1st refreshment

At roughly the same time the following day, take 50g of the previous starter into another bowl. Add 50g of water then 50g of flour and mix until there are no lumps. Cover and leave overnight again.

The remaining starter that is not used is called discard. Usually, it is thrown in the bed but there are ways to make use of it, see below.

2nd refreshment

Repeat the same process as the previous day. Instead of taking 50g out of the bowl, the same bowl can be reused. If you want to do it this way, remove 100g of the starter and discard. Then add the water and flour to the bowl.

3rd refreshment

Repeat the same method used in previous days. By now little bubbles should be appearing and a whiff of alcohol should come from it - don’t drink it (well I suppose it would get you drunk but it won’t be very nice!) (the yanks are thinking, bloody Brits and alcohol….)

Anyway.

4th refreshment

Now we are going to test it to see how good it is. In a larger bowl add 30g starter, 130g water and then 160g flour. Again mix till it’s not lumpy. It’s going to be thicker this time which means harder to mix! Cover and leave for a day as usual.

levains used in bread making

What is the purpose of discard?

When we feed the starter with fresh flour and water we want to ensure that we push the sourdough to its maximum. Giving it too little food will be too easy for it and it won’t develop its activity as much as we want. So that we don’t end up with a massive amount of starter we discard a bit of the old one.

We could make sourdough without discarding but it would be massive after a week of feeding daily. The amount of flour needed to refresh it would scale up considerably. This would cause more waste.

Once the sourdough starter is activated after 7 days we can reduce or even eliminate the amount of discard we have by using some of the methods shown below.

levains used in bread making

What is the purpose of discard?

When we feed the starter with fresh flour and water we want to ensure that we push the sourdough to its maximum. Giving it too little food will be too easy for it and it won’t develop its activity as much as we want. So that we don’t end up with a massive amount of starter we discard a bit of the old one.

We could make sourdough without discarding but it would be massive after a week of feeding daily. The amount of flour needed to refresh it would scale up considerably. This would cause more waste.

Once the sourdough starter is activated after 7 days we can reduce or even eliminate the amount of discard we have by using some of the methods shown below.

5th refreshment

The sourdough should look like those sourdough pics you’ve seen on instagram now. Large bubbles, an intensely deep but pleasant smell and it should have pretty much doubled in size. This should be good to use now, but we are going to give it another couple of feeds just to be sure.

Repeat the 4th refreshment again. This time if you want to trade 20g of white flour for something a bit more hearty like wholemeal or rye you can do. It’s optional, so don’t go on a special journey.

6th refreshment

Instead of leaving the dough 24 hours before refreshing, change to a twice a day cycle. 

7th refreshment

12 hours later and you can now use your starter to make bread! Going forward, reduce the refreshment amount to lower the amount of discard. Change to 20g starter, 50g water and 50g total flour and continue feeding every 12 hours when you are not planning to make bread the following day.

If you are making bread with it then increase the amount of flour and water again. The amount of starter doesn’t matter too much, it adjusts to cope with the amount of food it has. However, you can’t go mad and expect 20g of starter to ferment 1KG of flour. In this instance build it up over two or three days, gradually increasing the amount of refreshment.

Sourdough starter refreshment schedule

You want to be feeding it at the same time or just after you will be using it. For example:

- 9 am Start making bread

- 10 am Feed starter 

- 8 pm Use sourdough for an overnight dough to ferment in the fridge

- 9 pm Feed starter

You don’t have to make bread twice a day, just giving you an idea of when to feed it. You don’t want to be using it straight after it has been fed as it will not be active enough yet.

If you are enjoying this guide, please take a moment to follow Busby's Bakery on social media by clicking on the links. If you think other bread bakers can benefit from this site, please share the page with them. It just takes a second and it really helps my motivation to keep writing more articles.

Getting Started With Sourdough Guide For Beginners 1
Getting Started With Sourdough Guide For Beginners 2
Getting Started With Sourdough Guide For Beginners 3
Getting Started With Sourdough Guide For Beginners 4

Making your first sourdough bread

A simple sourdough recipe

Equipment list for getting started with sourdough


  • Mixing /weighing bowls
  • Scales
  • Spoons
  • Bakers lame (ideally, but a serrated kitchen knife will do to start) 
  • Banneton bread proofing basket*
  • Dough scraper
  • Baking stone (a thick baking sheet will do)
  • Some kind of baking vessel that will hold a couple of cups of water in the oven
  • Bakers peel (wooden chopping board can work)
  • *If you don't have a banneton, you can make a temporary one using a bowl lined with a tea towel.


    Start the dough in the evening so it will be ready the following afternoon.

    Ingredients


        330g  White bread flour


        221g  Water 


        100g  Sourdough starter


          8g  Salt


            A  Handful of rice flour - if you can find some


    Method


    1

    In a mixing bowl, weigh the water and tare the scale. Weigh the salt, add it to the water and give it a whisk until it has dissolved. Use the salt-water bowl to measure the sourdough starter in. Weigh the flour separately and then it add it in the other bowl.


    Using a dough scraper or your hands incorporate the mixture so that it is fairly even, this should take 2-3 minutes. Cover the bowl with a bag or lid and leave the rest for 30 minutes. This is the autolyse.

    autolyse sourdough
    2

    After the rest, remove the cover and gently combine the ingredients and when the bowl is starting to hinder the kneading technique, take out the bowl and working from the outside of the bowl, fold the dough into the centre of the bowl quickly, moving in a clockwise motion. Repeat this for 3-5 minutes until the dough becomes a strong and a little gassy.

    3

    Cover again and bulk ferment on the worktop for 1 hour. At this point, remove it from the bowl and turn out onto a lightly flour dusted table. Imagine the dough has four sides like a square. Take one side and stretch it away from the centre as far as dough tension allows you easily.


    Fold over itself half way and fold that side over to the middle. Repeat on the three other sides. This is a stretch and fold. Click here to see a stretch and fold in more detail. After you've finished, cover and put back on the side.

    sourdough bulk fermentation
    4

    After another hour, repeat the stretch and fold process, cover and leave on the counter for 8 - 10 hours overnight and enjoy a hot cocoa or whatever it is you do before bed and have a good sleep. If it is warm then you might want to put it in the fridge overnight and when you get up leave it on the counter for a couple of hours before moving to step 5.

    sourdough bread dough having a fridge retard
    5

    The following morning, the dough should feel gassy and have some big bubbles braking the surface. If the dough does not look like this leave it on the counter for another hour or two. Take the dough out of the bowl, give it another stretch and fold and leave it covered, in the bowl like before on the side for an hour. 

    6

    The next step is to shape it into a ball. Lightly flour dust the workbench and turn the dough out on it. Position the dough so the smoothest side is against the table. Pinch the top of the dough with your hand and stretch it down to the bottom, turn the dough 45 degrees clockwise on the table.


    Repeat this 5-6 times until the dough is roughly ball shaped. Turn the dough upside down and pull it towards you 2-3 inches with your hands in the cupping position shown. It should be ball like now but if you can turn the dough and pull it towards yourself again if you like. It doesn't need to be perfect.


    7

    Rest the dough for 15 minutes on the table. Meanwhile line a banneton (or bowl covered with a tea towel) by dusting flour and some rice flour if you have it. If it's a new baneton you should wet the baneton with a water mister before dusting so the flour can stick.

    8

    Reshape into a ball shape. It may take a bit of practice but try to do this gently to retain as many gas bubbles as you can. Place the dough into the banneton with the smooth side downwards, the rough side we call the seam side. Place a large bowl upside down over it or use a plastic bag with neither touching the dough. Leave to rise.

    9

    The final proof should take around 8 - 10 hours, this time depends on the temperature of the dough and the room. It can take longer than this on a cold day and be done in 5-6 on a hot one. If you are going out, use cooler or warmer areas of your home to speed up or slow down the dough a little.


    The oven will need to be preheated for an hour beforehand so that it gets really hot. If you have a baking stone, place it in the oven to preheat. If not, use the thickest baking sheet that you have. Preheat the oven to 250C (480F) with a baking stone (or thick baking sheet) and place an additional baking sheet on the shelf underneath.

    10

    To tell if the dough is ready to bake, it will have risen to the top of the basket and doubled in size. You can also use the pinch test. Lightly flour the bakers peel, or line a chopping board with baking paper. Put the kettle on or boil some water in a pan so it is ready when the bread goes into the oven. Tip the baneton upside down to the centre of the peel. The bread should release, if it doesn’t, give it a bang on the top. 

    tipping sourdough out of the banneton
    11

    Using a lame or knife, cut a cross shape at the top of the dough, always cutting towards you. Make one cut, turn the bread 90 degrees to make the second before turning 180 degrees and making the final cut. Try to make one clean cut each time. Check the dough is not stuck to the peel and move the boiled kettle or pan of water near to the oven.

    first cut
    cut all the way
    turn the dough 90 degrees and cut halfway
    turn the dough 180 a make the last cut
    12

     As fast as it is safe to do so, open the oven door and slide the dough into the oven. If using baking paper the paper goes in the oven. Add a couple of cups of boiling water into the lower baking tray and quickly shut the door. Drop the temperature to 230C (450F).

    add a cup of water to a hot tray in the oven
    13

    After 20 - 25 minutes, open the oven door to release the steam and consider dropping the temperature down to 210 - 200C (410 - 390F) if the crust is already well coloured. Bake for another 15 - 25 minutes until the crust is a golden colour. You can of course bake for longer to get more caramelisation. 

    14

    Use the peel to slide under the bread to remove it from the oven. If you don't have a peel you'll have to take it out directly with oven gloves.Place on a cooling rack and cool for 2 hours (if possible).

    Getting started with sourdough

    How did you do?

    If you followed the sourdough guide for beginners, you should be able to make a great loaf, sometimes it takes a bit of practice to know how the dough should feel and how to shape it with your hands. There's some artisan sourdough tips below if you get stuck. Join Busby's Bakery School on social media and let us know how you get on! 

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    Sourdough guide frequently asked questions

    Maintaining your starter


    How to avoid twice a day feedings

    It’s a bit annoying to feed it twice a day, especially if you plan to bake once a fortnight. I get it.

    In this instance, at the 7th refreshment instead of decreasing the amount of refreshment, continue with the 30g starter, 130g water and 160g flour. This time cover and place in the fridge. Then it only needs feeding once a week. 

    To make sure it is active enough to proof bread at the weekend, on Thursday take 20g out on feed that separately as before, give the main culture a feed as well and put it back in the fridge. Continue feeding the separated starter twice a day until Saturday when it should be lively enough to use.


    Can I make a sourdough starter without discard?

    Yes and no. There is a method floating about the internet where after developing your sourdough starter, make bread and then  don’t feed it. Instead, cover it and put it straight into the fridge. The day before you are going to bake a loaf you feed it and leave it out at room temperature. After this feed, it should be active enough to raise the bread.

    This works providing you bake bread with it once or twice a week. It is recommended that you use more complex carbohydrates such as wholemeal and rye flour in your starter as they are more likely to keep active.


    Can I use discard for something?

    Yes there are recipes for crackers, crumpets and flatbreads available. You could also chuck in any discard into a yeasted dough recipe. This will enhance the properties of the dough, you just might need to reduce a bit of the water in the recipe.


    How do I know when my sourdough starter is ready?

    This is an important topic that I’d love to talk about. The float test is often used to test if the starter is ready. This is where a teaspoon full of the starter is dropped into a glass of water. If it floats then according to the method, it is ready. Flour has different densities and sourdoughs can be wet or stiff, both can give misleading results. This test is not accurate and therefore not recommended.

    A ripe sourdough starter should have large bubbles running through it which break up the surface. It should smell deep, sour and alcoholic, but not too rancid. It should smell nice, if you taste a little piece it should be fairly pleasant. If it doesn’t seem ready or nice, continue feeding and ramp up feeds to twice a day if not already.


    It’s been 2 weeks, why is my sourdough starter not ready yet?

    This is a common occurrence, don’t start again. Try switching to different brand of flour and make sure you are using bread flour. Give a good feed and it should come good. 

    If not, it could be your water so try some bottled water. I hear of people using distilled water, this shouldn’t be necessary. Drinking water is what is used in bakeries across the world, there is no need to try distilled water. 

    Alternatively, it could be that it is cold or you are at high altitude. In this case, place the starter in a warmer or more humid place such as the microwave (don’t turn it on) or near a heat source.


    Where do I keep my starter when I’m not using it?

    Unless you are using it every day, it’s best left in the fridge and fed weekly. The day before you make a bread, take a portion out to refresh.


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

    No worry, if it’s just a day or two just feed it as normal.


    Troubleshooting sourdough bread issues


    How to get the sourdough twangy flavour

    You can add some rye or wholemeal flour to get a bit more aromatics. The best way is to decrease the amount of starter used in a recipe to about 10% of the flour weight and increase the temperature of the fermentation. This increases the activity of the lactic bacteria giving the twang you are looking for.


    Why is the crumb gummy?

    This is either due to the oxygenation of the flour becoming too great or from baking dough that has been final proofed in the fridge. To counteract oxygenation the kneading and/or fermentation time needs to be reduced. Malt flour should also be removed if using.


    Adapting the basic recipe


    Do I have to autolyse sourdough?

    Not necessarily, autolysing decreases the amount of time you need to knead the dough. It also helps the oven spring a little. Sourdough is slower to activate than bakers yeast so it gets a smaller oven spring before the starch gelatinizes ordinarily. Autolyse the dough for a better oven spring and to reduce kneading time.


    Can I use other flours for sourdough starters?

    Yes they can. It is common to trade a portion of white flour with some wholemeal or rye. This gives it a slightly nutty, deeper aroma. You can separate a piece of sourdough and have two or more different ones if you like, or just build one from scratch. Rye and some other grains are more expensive than white flour so I tend to do this only once the starter is established.


    How to make rye sourdough?

    To start from scratch use the same method as the white version shown above. You might find that it gets a little more dry or sticky so you might want to increase or decrease the amount of water added in each refreshment. Rye sourdoughs can take a few more days to become fully active.


    Do I have to use the fridge for making sourdough?

    Not at all. The reason I use the fridge to bulk ferment this recipe is twofold:

    1. I like to cold ferment my dough to bring out more flavour
    2. The dough can be prepared in the evening, left in the fridge overnight and final proofed the following day.

    Without a fridge the bulk fermentation can be reduced by approximately half. This depends on the dough proofing temperature.

    Further reading: Bread proofing temperature


    Can I bake sourdough in a dutch oven?

    Using a dutch oven is a great way to bake bread and doesn’t require a baking stone. The sealed container retains moisture from the dough which is required for oven spring. Good reliable results can be achieved providing you are happy knowing that you can only bake one shape of bread in it.


    Can I prove the dough in the fridge?

    Kinda, if using cold fermentation I prefer to bulk ferment in the fridge instead of the final proof. If you final proof in the fridge the core of the dough will be at a cooler temperature to the outer areas when baked. This causes holes in the bread and a dense core, often both at the same time. Leaving the dough out to warm for an hour before baking does improve this somewhat but depending on the temperature of the dough when it comes out of the fridge can still lead to problems. 

    If you want to final proof in the fridge for timing reasons- for instance you don’t want to have to get up early and still want fresh bread, keep the dough size small or make longer breads like baguettes.


    Can I make wholemeal bread with this sourdough starter?

    Yes of course, prefermented flour from the sourdough will help it to mature. Just be careful of a gummy crumb. You could feed your starter with wholemeal flour as well if you wanted.


    Can I add yeast to a sourdough recipe?

    Yes but a few purists will not approve and you may get your post deleted in the wrong social media group! Actually I think it’s a good idea to add 1 gram of yeast to this recipe the first time you make it. It increases first time success rates! 

    Adding yeast to a sourdough bread will soften and lighten the crumb and flavour. It can be appealing but it’s noticeable - there is a bakery local to me that does this and despite how good it looks I don’t bother to get bread there, but they do sausage rolls to die for! 

    Helpful sourdough tips


    Why don’t you knead the bread properly at the beginning?

    I did give it a little knead for a few minutes. As we are going to use a long fermentation time it is best to reduce oxygen entering the dough and not kneading for long. The result for low or no-knead bread is a fluffy, open crumbed bread that is full of flavour - and it requires less work!


    What flour should I use for making sourdough?

    Bread flour in the region of 11-12.5% protein is ideal. Lower protein or all purpose flour can be used, this will create a more irregular, open crumb. If the flour is extra high strength, it can be a bit dense and chewy.


    How do I know if I have enough water in my recipe?

    Flour has different hydration levels, if you are not using the exact same brand and batch it will behave differently when making bread dough. If you think your flour needs a higher and lower water ratio than this recipe, don’t be afraid to make a change. It is best to change the water amount before starting the recipe, but if you think it needs a tweak when mixing your autolyse then I’ve got a couple of tweaks for you.

    When first mixing the autolyse the dough will feel overly wet in places, and dry in others. After a minute or two you should start to feel the consistency becoming even. It should feel sticky. If it is too dry, add some water usually in 0.5% increments. So if using this recipe you would  add an extra 20 grams.

    Add in these increments until it feels a bit more moist. Don’t worry about making it an even consistency, it’s best to not over mix it -it’l sort itself out naturally while it’s left to rest. 

    If the dough has too much water it will be runny and unable to hold in a mass. It will stick to everything like crazy too. It’s best not add extra flour to recipes, but if you do think you need to do it as soon as you can. Add a tablespoon at a time and give it a gentle mix. 


    Can you make sourdough bread in a breadmaker?

    Pop all the ingredients in the maker and mix. Put the timer on and delay of 5 hours and the breadmaker will do the work for you. Sourdough is unpredictable so I wouldn’t recommend making it in a breadmaker.


    What is the best way of creating steam in the oven?

    EIther using a water spray mister or by adding water to a pre-heated tray at the bottom of the oven.


    Can I use a tin to bake sourdough?

    Sourdough bread baking is usually proofed in a banneton. A baking tin can be used also if you want to make tin bread from a sourdough levain. It can come out a little bit denser but I find it really regarding making bread like this.


    Why does sourdough taste much better in San Francisco?

    A sourdough starter absorbs the wild yeasts and smells from the atmosphere it is in. For some reason the environment in San Francisco is ideal to generate flavour in sourdough.


    What is dried sourdough?

    There are two types of dried sourdough, one is a dried active starter. The other is deactivated sourdough this type is used in the commercial manufacture of hybrid style sourdough bread.

    You can buy dried sourdough starter from many sellers across the world. The most well-known dried starters are available from San Francisco where arguably the best sourdough bread is made. Starters require activation with water and they are ready to bake the following day.

    Buying a sourdough starter stops you having to wait a week for it to activate. The problem with buying sourdough starters is after a couple of days it will have absorbed the environment it is in so will lose it’s initial unique flavour.


    How big should the oven spring be when baking bread?

    You should only be looking to get a 10-20% rise in oven spring, most of this will be lost once after the bread continues to bake and during cooling. It can be tempting to bake the bread before it reaches its intended size and let the oven do the work. This can cause irregular holes and the crust to separate.


    How to store my sourdough bread?

    Best way to store sourdough bread is wrapped in a clean tea towel and placed in a cupboard or bread bin. This allows it to breathe a little whilst slowing down the airflow preventing it going mould or dry too quickly.

    Getting Started With Sourdough Guide For Beginners 5