In 2013, my culinary resolution was to bake more bread.
I researched, tested, and baked countless loaves with both good and mixed results.
My journey began with a yeasted No-Knead Artisan Bread and eventually, I worked my way up to the holy grail: Sourdough.
Sourdough is unique because it does not require commercial yeast in order to rise.
It’s made with a live fermented culture of flour and water, a sourdough starter, which acts as a natural leavening agent.
Sourdough is known for its characteristic flavor ranging from mild to strong, chewy texture, and crisp crust. From a health standpoint, it dominates when compared to standard loaves. The naturally occurring acids and long fermentation help to break down the proteins and gluten, making it more digestible and easy for the body to absorb.
And it tastes darn good.
In this tutorial, I will attempt to explain the sourdough baking process based on my personal experience.
Over the years I’ve adapted and changed my method, until I found something unique to my baking preference and everyday schedule.
There is no kneading involved and you do not need a bread machine or a stand mixer.
I widely credit my knowledge to the lovely Celia from Fig Jam and Lime Cordial who initially inspired my sourdough journey.
And now, without further ado, I present the longest post ever (grab a cup of coffee!).
Before you begin, you’ll need a sourdough starter.
Simply put, a sourdough starter is a live culture made from flour and water. Once combined, the mixture will start to ferment which develops the naturally occurring wild yeasts and bacteria present within the mixture. A small portion of this culture is used make your bread rise.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Your starter must be kept alive with regular feedings of flour + water to maintain its strength for maximum rising power. It’s all part of the process- like feeding a pet.
How to Feed Your Starter
Every baker has their own method, and with practice you’ll eventually develop your own routine.
Here’s what I do: To begin, pour off some of the culture (about half) and then feed it with equal weights of flour and water. Whisk well with a fork until it’s lump-free. Let it rest at room temperature or in a warm spot until it becomes bubbly and doubles in size. Then, you can use it to make bread dough. This can take anywhere from 2-12 hours or more depending on temperature and the condition of your starter. Be patient!
Float Test: If you’re still unsure whether your starter is ready, drop a small amount (about 1 tsp) into a glass of water; if it floats to the top it can be used. If it sinks, your starter should be fed again.
Where to Obtain a Starter
All sourdough starters are different. They can be made from scratch, purchased online, or if you’re lucky someone will share a portion of their starter with you. Starters range from thick to thin in texture and can be made with a variety of flours. I use two different starters; one is homemade and the other was a gift from my friend Celia. She dried a portion of her starter and mailed it all the way from Sydney, Australia.
How To Use Your Starter
After you have fed your starter, and it’s bubbly and active, pour some out of the jar to weigh or measure. That’s it. Then, don’t forget to feed what’s left in the jar with more flour and water to keep the process going.
If you only bake a few times a month, keep your starter in the fridge and feed it once a week. If you’re an avid baker, store your starter it room temperature and feed it at least once a day.
Want to Know More?
I could go on and on about sourdough starters, and I do in my upcoming book: Artisan Sourdough Made Simple. You’ll find more details on the subject, including instructions on how to create your very own sourdough starter from scratch and keep it alive. There’s also a FAQ section for troubleshooting. You can pre-order the book here!
Mix The Dough
Once your starter is bubbly and active, you can mix the dough.
Whisk the water and starter together in a large bowl. This recipe also includes olive oil, which you’ll mix together with the wet ingredients. Then add the flour and salt. Squish the mixture together with your hands until the flour is fully absorbed. The dough will look rough and shaggy.
Tip: for best results, weigh all of your ingredients using a digital kitchen scale. Use bread flour instead of all-purpose flour for better gluten development and a higher rise.
The next step is to let the dough rest or ‘autolyse’ for about 30 minutes. This will make the dough much easier to handle.
Autolyse: the first resting period by which the flour hydrates and gluten begins to develop. Strong gluten = good bread. Your dough will be easier to shape after autolyse. For timing, autolyse can range anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 hour or more, depending on the type of bread you are making and your own personal baking schedule. I find that a minimum of 30 minutes works best for this recipe.
*A Note on Salt- as you continue to bake you’ll notice that some bakers prefer to add the salt only after autolyse. This is because salt slows down the gluten development. I’ve followed this technique for years, but no longer continue to do so and have updated this section to reflect my current method. I prefer to mix all of the ingredients at the same time. It produces excellent loaves (plus, you won’t forget to add the salt later on!). I’ll leave the choice up to you.
After the dough is mixed, it’s ready to rise.
Cover your bowl with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel. Leave it in a warm, sunny spot to rise. This initial rise is called ‘bulk fermentation’ and is very important to the development and strength of the dough.
Your dough is ready when it no longer looks dense, and has increased in volume about 1 1/2- 2x its original size. This can take anywhere from 3-12 hours depending on the temperature of your ingredients, the potency of your starter and surrounding environment. Remember, because sourdough bread does not contain commercial yeast, it will take considerably longer to rise. In the summer, it can take anywhere between 3-4 hours @ 85 F whereas in the winter, about 6-12 hours @ 65 F. It is very important to watch your dough and not the clock. It’s ready, when it’s ready. Be flexible.
Tip: allow the dough to rise in a bowl or clear container with measuring marks. You can visually track its growth and won’t be tempted to rush the process.
Bonus Tip: during bulk fermentation, you have the option to perform a series of ‘stretch & folds’ to strengthen the dough. Simply gather a portion of the dough, stretch it upwards and then fold it over itself. Rotate the bowl 1/4 turn and repeat this process until you have come full circle. For this dough, which is quite dry and not that easy to stretch, repeat this technique 1 to 2 times, spaced 30 minutes to 1 hour apart. You don’t have to be exact with your timing here, so don’t worry. Although this step is not mandatory, it will increase the total volume of your bread which is really nice.
Cutting + Shaping
Before you begin, divide your work surface in half; lightly flour one side (for cutting) and leave the other half clean (for shaping).
Remove the dough from the bowl, and place it onto the floured section so that it does not stick.
Cut the dough in half to make 2 loaves, or leave it whole for a single loaf.
Tip: you do not need to ‘punch down’ the dough; it will gently deflate as you fold and shape it.
To shape, use a bench scraper to move your dough to the non-floured section of your work space (if there is too much flour present, it will be difficult to shape- brush away any excess). Starting at the top, fold the dough over toward the center. Give it a slight turn, and then fold over the next section of dough. Repeat until you have come full circle. Then flip the dough over and place it seam side down. Using your hands, gently cup the sides of the dough and rotate it, using quarter turns in a circular motion. You can also pull it towards you to even out the shape. Repeat this process until you are happy with its appearance.
*When shaping, the idea is for the dough to catch enough surface tension on a non-floured area in order to create a tight ball.
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I bake my sourdough in a Dutch oven.
The pot traps in heat and moisture which is essential to baking good bread. These elements play a key role in how the slashes will open up or ‘bloom’ and the Dutch oven helps to control this process. So, unless you have a professional deck oven with steam injectors, this happens to be a very reliable alternative. Go Dutch.
*In the past, I’ve tried baking on pizza stones and cookie trays with no luck. My bread would tear at the bottom and sides. I used various steaming methods to remedy this, however I found them to be very cumbersome and not realistic for everyday use. Nothing worked; the lack of moisture in my oven quickly hardened the outside of the bread before it had a chance to fully rise. As a result, it caused my bread to ‘blow out’ (as they say). Using a Dutch oven is a great solution.
After shaping the dough, generously coat the bottom of your Dutch oven with cornmeal.
Place the dough inside where it will need to rise again (please read tip below- it’s important).
This time, the dough will rise for a shorter period, about 30 minutes- 1 hour. It is ready when the dough is slightly puffy and no longer dense. Again, factors such as the temperature of your dough and surrounding environment will effect the growth rate.
Tip: this particular dough is considered to be ‘low hydration’ which means it does not contain a lot of water. They are easy to handle and hold their shape very well. That’s why I do the 2nd rise directly in the Dutch oven; it does not spread out.
On the contrary, if you are working with a high hydration dough or if you add more water to this recipe, it might spread out like a pancake due to the increased moisture content. This is normal. As an alternative, instead of doing a free form second rise (as indicated above), place your dough in a cloth lined basket or shallow bowl. I use a small pyrex mixing bowl. It will contain the dough and hold its shape properly.
Oven Spring: achieving a good rise requires some effort. Please refer to *note below.
Slashing: right before your bread goes into the oven, make a slash about 2-3 inches long in the center of the dough; this allows the steam to escape and the dough to expand. You can use a serrated knife, paring knife, or bread lame.
*It is important not let the second rise go for too long. This can be difficult to judge. 30 minutes- 1 hour should be sufficient but you will need to experiment and make adjustments if necessary. An over-proofed dough will have exhausted all of its strength, and your bread will not get the boost it needs to produce a nice, round loaf.
Preheat your oven to 450 F. Place your bread into the oven (lid on) and reduce the temperature to 400 F. Bake for 20 minutes. When you remove the lid, your bread will be pale and shiny. Continue to bake (uncovered) for an additional 40 minutes or until deep, golden brown. Keep in mind that all ovens are different; you might have to make minimal adjustments to these temperatures.
Tip: during the last 10 minutes of baking, crack open the oven door. This allows the moisture to escape, leaving your bread with a crisp crust. Or, remove the bread from the pot and let it bake directly on the rack. The latter produces a more crisp crust.
Bonus Tip: you can also take the internal temperature of your bread to double check that it is done. For sourdough, it should read about 205 F.
When the bread is ready, remove it from the oven and transfer to a wire rack. Cool for at least an hour before slicing. Don’t cut too soon or else the inside will have a gummy texture! Patience…
*I used to preheat my Dutch oven before baking, but I have found that this is no longer necessary. This saves on both time and energy.
CONGRATULATIONS!! You’ve made it to the end!
Just one last thing- baking sourdough bread is more than just a recipe… it’s an understanding. You’ll notice that there are similar recipes out there and yet no two loaves look alike. The process is all about method, timing and personal touch. Use this tutorial as a guide and make your own adjustments as you go. Once you’ve established a baking schedule (see mine below) the process becomes an imminent rhythm. In the end, you will have created your very own masterpiece that is the ultimate reward.
And don’t forget to eat your mistakes.
PS: If you’d like more information on sourdough baking, including how to create a sourdough starter, all new recipes, shaping techniques, and scoring patterns, click here for my upcoming book: Artisan Sourdough Made Simple. Thank you!
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WINTER WEEKEND BAKING SCHEDULE
Bread baking is all about timing. Here’s what I do for weekend sourdough:
- Friday Evening: remove starter from the fridge and pour off any liquid from the top. Scoop some into a bowl, give it a feed and cover. Leave on the counter overnight.
- Saturday Morning: check the starter- if it’s alive and bubbling, time to make the dough. If not, give it another feed (this is common). Remember to use the water test mentioned above if you’re unsure.
- Saturday Afternoon: make the dough. Leave on the counter to bulk ferment overnight. The cool winter temperatures slows down the rising process so don’t worry about it billowing over. In the summer, I would bulk ferment overnight in the fridge.
- Sunday Morning: cut and shape the dough. Place in Dutch oven for second rise. Slash. Bake. Cool. Eat.
**This post has been updated 2017**
- 5.35 oz / 150g active, fed starter
- 8.80 oz / 250g warm water, preferably filtered
- .90 oz / 25g olive oil
- 17.65 oz / 500g bread flour (not all purpose)
- .35 oz / 10g fine sea salt
- fine ground cornmeal, for dusting
- To make the dough: Whisk the starter, water, and olive oil in a large bowl. Add the flour and salt. Squish everything together with your hands until all of the flour is absorbed. Rest (autolyse) for 30 minutes.
- After the dough has rested, work the dough in the bowl into a rough ball,about 15 seconds.
- Bulk fermentation: Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel. Leave it in a warm, sunny spot to rise. Your dough is ready when it no longer looks dense, and has increased in volume about 1½- 2x its original size. This can take anywhere from 3-12 hours depending on the temperature of your ingredients, the potency of your starter and surrounding environment. I make my dough in the afternoon, and leave it to rise overnight. See my Winter Weekend Baking schedule (in post above) for more details.
- Stretch & folds: During bulk fermentation, you have the option to perform a series of 'stretch & folds' to strengthen the dough. Simply gather a portion of the dough, stretch it upwards and then fold it over itself. Rotate the bowl ¼ turn and repeat this process until you have come full circle. Do this once or twice spaced an hour apart. Although this step is not mandatory, it will increase the total volume of your bread.
- Cutting & shaping: To cut and shape the dough, divide your work surface in half; lightly flour one side (for cutting) and leave the other half clean (for shaping).
- Remove the dough from the bowl, and place onto the floured section so that it does not stick. You do not need to 'punch down' the dough; it will gently deflate as you fold and shape it.
- Cut the dough in half to make 2 loaves, or leave it whole for a single loaf.
- To shape, use a bench scraper to move your dough to the non-floured section (if there is any flour present, it will be difficult to shape- brush away any excess). Starting at the top, fold the dough over toward the center. Give it a slight turn, and then fold over the next section of dough. Repeat until you have come full circle. Then flip the dough over and place it seam side down. Using your hands, gently cup the sides of the dough and rotate it, using quarter turns in a circular motion. You can also pull it towards you to even out the shape. Repeat this process until you are happy with its appearance.*See note below.
- Second rise: Coat the bottom of your Dutch oven with cornmeal. Place the dough inside for a second shorter rise, about 1-2 hours. It is ready when the dough is slightly puffy.
- Slashing the dough: Right before your bread goes into the oven, make a shallow slash about 2 inches long in the center of the dough. Use a bread lame, a sharp pairing or serrated knife.
- Preparing the oven: When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 450 F.
- Place your bread into the oven (lid on) and reduce the temperature to 400 F. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the lid, and continue to bake (uncovered) for an additional 40 minutes or until deep, golden brown. Keep in mind that all ovens are different; you might have to make minimal adjustments to these temperatures.
- During the last 10 minutes of baking, crack open the oven door. This allows the moisture to escape, leaving your bread with a crisp crust.
- You can also take the internal temperature of your bread to double check that it is done. For sourdough, it should read about 205 F.
- Cooling: Remove the bread from the oven, and cool on a wire rack for at least an hour before slicing. Don't cut too soon or else the inside will have a gummy texture!