Sourdough School

Sourdough School

Discover everything about sourdough baking at home. Beginner’s step-by-step guides to make your first sourdough starter and sourdough bread. Browse my sourdough recipes for detailed sourdough baking methods.

What is sourdough?

Sourdough is a natural levain, meaning that it’s made by fermenting flour to develop wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria. The yeasts and bacteria release carbon dioxide gas which leveans, or raises the bread. The fermetend culture used to make sourdough bread is called a sourdough starter. Fermented flour not only produces gas, it naturally matures the dough which improves its texture, flavour and rehology properties. A tangy taste and chewy texture are common in sourdough bread, but sweet flavours and lighter textures are still possible.

The origins of sourdough

The legend has it that some wet wheat grain was left on a rock in ancient Egypt and the farmers noticed it turned into a gassy substance. They discovered the mixture would rise and that when the heat increased further, it hardened. It led to the start of bread across the world, and it’s a fairly plausible explanation too! As time evolved, kneading and baking the dough in ovens instead of open fires led to sourdough bread becoming an accessible source of vital carbohydrates and minerals.

Until a couple of centuries ago, sourdough was the only way to make bread. Commercial yeast overtook sourdough bread production in the 1800’s, due to its ease of use and reliability. But we know that sourdough bread has a more complex flavour, and is much better for us!

How to make sourdough bread at home

Most sourdough recipes only contain flour, water, salt and a sourdough starter. Sourdough bread takes longer to make than yeast-leveaned bread. Typically a minimum of 6 hours is needed to sufficiently prepare sourdough bread, yet some methods undergo several days. You won’t need to be messing around with the dough all that much. Most sourdough recipes only require 15-30 minutes of actually doing stuff. The rest of the process occurs naturally. What’s great about sourdough baking at home is that it can fit around daily life, so once you master the basics you’ll be able to make a loaf or two without requiring your full attention.

Yeast vs sourdough baking skills

Making sourdough bread is a 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!

What is a sourdough starter?

Making a sourdough starter is a simple process, but you have to get it right if you want to make good bread. The only ingredients needed in a starter are flour and water. You just need to mix them together and put it in a warm spot and it will develop into a levain. You’ll need to feed your starter every day, sometimes twice a day. This is called refreshing the starter. After two-three weeks, a new starter will be strong enough to make some tasty bread!

Beginner sourdough bread recipe
Sourdough bread oven spring
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Beginner sourdough bread recipe
Sourdough bread oven spring

How To Make A Sourdough Starter?

To make a sourdough starter, take a bowl with 125 grams of white flour, 25 grams of rye flour and 150 grams of water and mix together with a spoon, spatula or your fingers.

Cover the container with plastic wrap (or use a container with a lid) and place it somewhere warm. The temperature of the starter is really important. If it’s too cold, it’ll takes ages until it becomes active, so you want to aim to keep it above 25C (78F) and no higher than 40C (104F). The lid on your container should not be too tight as you need oxygen to enter and so any excess gas that’s produced can escape.

Keep checking on your starter every 10 hours, but don’t touch it. Around day 2 you should see some bubbles appearing on the surface. This means that the yeast and bacteria are beginning to cultivate and create gas. It will have risen a little, and if you stir it you’ll feel the gas bubbles. Wait for the bubbles to die down a little, and get ready for the first refreshment.

Take a separate container or jar and weigh 50 grams of your starter, alongside 40 grams of white flour and 20 grams of rye flour and 60 grams of water and mix like before. Cover it and return to your warm place. After 24 hours your starter should begin to bubble again. If you don’t have any bubbles, maybe the lid was too tight or it wasn’t warm enough so make adjustments and give it another 12 hours.

Follow the same refreshment routine again, and every 24 hours. In a few days, it should start doubling in size between feeds. Don’t worry if this takes a bit longer, everyone’s climate is different. Just keep feeding every 24 hours until it begins to double in size.

At this point, your starter is pretty active, but it’s not quite ready yet. It’s now that you should begin to be more flexible with your feeding routine. Instead of feeding it every 24 hours, you should be looking to feed it when it sits at its peak rise. You can tell when this is by looking at it from above. When the starter is rising it will rise from the centre. When it’s stagnating at its peak it will fill out and be level (ignoring the bubbles). It will stay at its peak for an hour or two before it collapses from the centre first.

You should start noticing that the time between feedings decreases. At full activity, a starter should be doubling (if not tripling) in around 6 hours. To avoid all that discarded starter and getting up in the middle of the night you can change the ratio of the feeds so that it has less old starter, more flour and less water. This will make the starter slower to rise, but even more effective. The recipe I switch to is 20 grams starter, 30 grams white flour, 10 grams of rye flour and 20 grams of water. Keep feeding once it peaks and when you find yourself needing to refresh it every 12 hours and it starts to smell aromatic, your starter is ready to use!

You can now remove a portion of the starter to make bread, and continue feeding the remaining, or you can put it in the fridge after you’ve fed it and it will remain active for a week or two. See the full sourdough starter recipe for more tips and feeding routines.

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How To Make A Sourdough Starter

How To Make A Sourdough Starter

Making a sourdough starter for the first time is an enjoyably simple experience. The only things you’ll need are flour, water, time and a bit of warmth. There are no “super recipes” or “professional tweaks”, the process is the same to make every sourdough starter. The natural fermentation process does the work so it won’t require much effort to get started either. I’m biased but I can’t see a reason why anyone shouldn’t make their first starter?! I’m going to show you how to make …

Sourdough Starter FAQ’s

There are many questions that new sourdough bakers have about making and caring for a starter. Here are a few of the most common sourdough starter questions and answers.

Where to buy sourdough starter?

Instead of making your own starter, you can get started right away by purchasing one that’s been dried. You can find dried starters online, my favourite is here. 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 its original flavour may be lost to local bacteria as it adjusts to a new environment.

When is my starter ready to use?

The smell of a starter is one of the best ways to tell if it is ripe. It will have a rounded aroma that’s warm and natural. Watching how it rises after being fed is a great test also. It will triple in size within 5-6 hours (it’ll take longer if it’s cold) when it’s ready

After feeding a starter, how long do I have to wait to use it?

Aim to feed your starter at least 3 hours before you use it. Some bakers take their starter midway into its rise, others wait for it to reach its peak. A longer rise allows the bacteria and yeasts to multiply, producing a more active levain, yet this can also make the bread extremely sour! Also, don’t leave it so long that it collapses!

Is it necessary to discard every time?

When creating a starter, some of it is discarded when it is fed. Discarding is required to keep the ratio of ingredients the same. Not doing so will create more waste as the amount of starter will double (at least) after every feed. There are plenty of sourdough discard recipes available online.

Can I keep my sourdough starter in the fridge?

Once you have an active starter you can keep it in the fridge. If you don’t plan on using your starter every day it’s a great solution, as leavening ability is dramatically reduced at cool temperatures. A starter will keep for several weeks in the fridge.

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Making a starter is theoretically simple. The challenge is to get the starter active enough to raise the dough. A new starter requires regular feedings so it’s common to have to wait several weeks for it to mature. Sometimes extra tweaks are required. See my sourdough starter troubleshooting guide to learn how to boost your starter!


Get started with sourdough baking recommendations.

Equipment list for making sourdough bread

You can make sourdough bread with the equipment and utensils already in your kitchen but getting some basic tools will no doubt make things easier and more consistent.

Here’s a list of the bits I use, I’ve included links to these recommended products on Amazon if you want to check them out. If you buy through the links I’ll receive a commission which I really appreciate – and won’t cost you a penny more!

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Kitchen scale

Scales

Weighing in grams is essential for controlling consistency
bread proofing basket

Banneton bread proofing basket

Used in proofing so the bread holds its shape
Bakers Lame

Bakers lame

Using a lame to score bread is more accurate and rewarding than a knife

Baking Sourdough In A Dutch Oven

You can get started in sourdough baking without any specialised equipment. But after a few bakes, you’ll want to get some tools of your own. Quality sourdough baking equipment will improve the consistency of your favourite bread whilst making it easier and less time-consuming. You can see my home baking equipment guide here, but before you do, let’s discuss the topic of using a Dutch oven for baking sourdough.

Before you start baking, you’ll have to decide what you will use to bake your bread. You can either use a Dutch oven or bake it in the oven directly. A Dutch oven creates a mini baking chamber inside of your oven. With the lid on, it provides a tight seal enclosure, so the dough remains moist in the early stages of baking. For an explosive oven spring (an extra rise in the oven), the crust area needs to be moist to rise. Bakers not using a Dutch oven will spray the oven with a water mister or add water to a preheated tray at the bottom of the oven. Many bakers find that adding sufficient water to aid the oven spring will cool the oven so much so that it struggles to return to temperature, thus reducing the amount of oven spring. Most domestic ovens aren’t well-sealed, so the steam leaks out, meaning extra steam must be created. The bread bakes in a better-sealed environment with a Dutch oven, so less water is required. The downside of Dutch ovens is that standard ceramic versions discolour when preheated, so the dough is baked from cold. Baking in a cold Dutch oven means the temperature of the baking chamber slowly increases. This can be handy if you bake in a cooler climate as slightly under-proofed bread will enjoy a more significant oven rise. But suppose you are after a thinner and improved crust texture and control. In that case, the bread should be in immediate contact with the desired baking temperature.

Cast iron Dutch ovens or bread pans such as the Challenger can be preheated to offer a superior baking environment. The Challenger is bigger, allowing more choice in the type and size of bread you can bake. That said, they are more pricy if you are just getting started or a casual baker.

Baking without a Dutch oven means you’ll need to place an upturned baking tray or a baking stone to preheat in the oven. The dough is then slid onto the surface for baking which means heat is conducted directly into the bread. This solution provides excellent oven spring, lowers the risk of underbaked bases and has a bigger surface for baking larger loaves. Depending on the size of your oven, you may be able to bake several at a time.

Dutch oven baking is not a realistic solution if you want to make several loaves or sell your bread. Owning many Dutch ovens takes up a lot of space and is expensive to collect. Simply using a baking stone to bake sourdough is cheaper. You may also need to use a baking stone with your Dutch oven if you suffer from underbaked bases or poor oven spring.

The downsides of baking on a baking stone are:

  • Sliding the bread into the oven with a peel or board is another skill that you’ll need to learn
  • Lesser powered ovens struggle to return to temperature after the bread and water are added to make the steam
  • Flour and additional ingredients can fall into the base of the oven, giving you more cleaning and the occasional smoke alarm going off when they burn!

There are ways to improve your oven to make it more suitable for baking sourdough bread. See my upgrading an oven to make bread post to see the tricks and tools I use.

To summarise, there are pros and cons for each. The best way to bake bread is in a professional deck oven, but of course, it’s not a realistic investment for most home bakers! Dutch ovens are more beginner-friendly and provide fewer options for bread shapes. However, they are a great way to get started! You can get a decent one like the Uno Casa I recommend for around $50 (£40). Prices can stretch to several hundred bucks if you get a Challenger bread pan or a Le Cruset. If you already have a Dutch oven, you’ll be able to use it for bread if the manufacturing guidelines state that it is suitable for baking at 230C (450F).

I first embarked on my sourdough journey when I used to prepare par baked sourdough boules in a supermarket bakery I worked in. We’d plonk the frozen bread on a tray and bake for 25 minutes. The taste was pleasant, but not remarkable and I quickly forgot about sourdough.

A few years later I went to an artisan bakery and took a sourdough loaf home. When I cut into it I was amazed at the strength of flavour, a compassionate combination of acid and warmth, yet frustrated that I’d underappreciated sourdough bread for so long.”

My Sourdough Journey Gareth Busby

Sourdough Beginner FAQ’s

How long does it take to learn how to make sourdough bread?

Some bakers master baking sourdough on their first attempt. But this is rare so if you give it a go and it doesn’t work out the first time, don’t let it put you off. To help you there are several articles in this sourdough section that will accelerate your theory and practical knowledge of sourdough. Most people get something they are happy with after the third or fourth attempt.

Do I have to use the fridge for making sourdough?

Not at all. The reason I use the fridge in many of my sourdough recipes is twofold:

  1. Cold proofing brings out more flavour in the dough
  2. The dough can be prepared in the evening, left in the fridge overnight and baked the following day.
Can I use a tin to bake sourdough?

Yes! Sourdough bread baking is usually proofed in a banneton. A baking tin can be used for sandwich-style bread. It will be a little bit denser than yeast made bread, but much more flavoursome.

Can you make sourdough bread in a breadmaker?

Pop all the ingredients in the maker and mix. Leave to rest inside for 5 hours and then commence with the rest of the program and, a breadmaker might do the work for you. But it might not.

Sourdough is unpredictable so I wouldn’t recommend making it in a breadmaker, if you can start each stage manually you might have some joy.

How to store my sourdough bread?

The 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 oxygen flow which would make it go stale quickly.

What Ingredients Do You Need To Make Sourdough?

With so many choices of ingredients available at supermarkets and many disagreements that occur on social media groups, it’s hard to choose which ingredients you should be using in your starter and to make your bread. Here are my recommendations and a little about the science behind my choices.

What flour should I use for sourdough?

Bread flour containing 11-12.5% protein is ideal. All-purpose flour can be used, especially if it has a similar amount of protein. Still, for beginner sourdough bakers, bread flour provides more reliable results. With experience, you might want to try making sourdough with flour that was less protein. With weaker flour, you’ll increase the fermentation time to encourage the damaged protein to repair itself. If the flour is extra high strength for baking, 14% upwards, the bread can sometimes be dense and chewy if it’s not used correctly in high-hydration doughs, so it is best to swerve if you are new to sourdough.

High protein flour is ideal for use in a starter as it contains more minerals for the bacteria to consume. Organic flour also has more microflora which accelerates gas production and provides a more robust depth of flavour – but it isn’t essential.

Rye flour is an excellent addition to sourdough. I recommend switching 10-20% of the white flour used to refresh your starter with rye flour. The reason for this is the ash content of rye flour is higher, which means it supplies lots of nutrients and minerals for the microflora to consume. The result is a more active starter. Making 100% rye flour starters is tricky as rye contains pentosan proteins instead of gluten to trap gas and rise. This means it has a different behaviour when used in sourdough, which takes a bit more work to master.

How does changing flour affect a starter?

Many bakers like to change the flour in an existing starter but often find that it degrades. This is because the bacteria and enzymes that control the ecosystem of the starter culture need to adapt to the new ingredient. After a couple of sluggish days and several refreshments, the starter will recover, and its vibrancy will be restored!

Whole grain flour variations such as wholemeal, spelt, and rye makes excellent and healthy sourdough bread but is harder to make. Master making white sourdough loaves to start with, then experiment with whole grain flours.

Can I use tap water in sourdough?

Tap water is all I ever use in my bread making. High quantities of chlorine in your water can kill the helpful bacteria and slow down your yeast production. If you believe this to be the case, try a change to bottled. The temperature of the water should be cool, ideally 18-20C (64-68F). Ice-cold water can be used if it’s really warm in your kitchen. If the room is cold, you can use warmer water. This is a relatively simplistic overview of controlling dough temperature yet sufficient to get started. For optimum dough temperature control, read my guide on desired dough temperature.

What is the best salt for making sourdough?

I use sea or kosher salt in most of my bread, preferably small grains if you find them without additives. Table salt contains anti-caking agents, which can affect the structure of the bread. I have never noticed a difference when I’ve used table salt. I just prefer to keep my ingredients as clean as possible.

What other ingredients can I add to sourdough?

You only need four ingredients to make sourdough bread; flour, water, salt and a sourdough starter. As a starter is made from flour and water, it’s effectively three! There is no requirement to make sourdough bread any more complicated by adding extra ingredients. It’s fantastic without anything else. However, you might like to experiment with different flours and extra ingredients to explore new flavours and textures. Popular additions include; olive oil, seeds, nuts, beer, malt, dried fruit, chocolate and ancient grains such as spelt and buckwheat. But, changes in the proofing time and temperatures can also bring about alternate flavours, textures and aromatics. See my upgrading your sourdough bread guide.

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