I’ve been reluctant to write this down and post it because it’s a) over-explained on the interwebs, and b) so very, very subjective. Remember that term. The best advice you will get is to wing it and see what happens. Go Bob Ross on that thing and see if you have any “happy accidents.” But here it goes…
Truth is most “experts” you will come across are bread snobs—just like coffee snobs, audiophiles etc. etc. ad nauseum. I’m not. I like truckstop coffee, AM radio and warm, fresh bread. Good is almost always good enough. They’re not wrong but take any maxims with a literal grain of salt. Sourdough seems to be the epitome of bread-baking snobbery: dense vs airy, crust texture, good crumb/bad crumb, the internet is full of “subject matter experts” pontificating on what makes the best sourdough. But the truth is bread is bread, and it’s pretty darn easy to make a decent loaf. Under-baked is bad, but it’s hard to over-bake. Under-kneaded is bad, but it’s hard to over-knead. Under-salted is bad, but…well actually it is bad to over-salt. Don’t over-salt.
Sourdough is super easy. It just takes a bit of time to make.
Sourdough for the Regular Person
There are (to me) two basic techniques and two basic cooking methods. I use both and frankly I see very little difference in the final product (see the snob comments above 🙂 ). There are a lot of things you can do to address the “sourness” of the final loaf and I will mention a few later. But if your aim is to produce a good tasting loaf of bread without using commercial yeast, sourdough is well within most home bakers’ means.
I use several recipes that I have modified from a few sources. I prefer videos, as a lot of it is technique and developing texture and the visuals help build confidence you are on the right track. But be your own baker…
Bake with Jack videos: Beginners Sourdough I love Jack. He’s fun, encouraging and realistic about bread.
His recipe calls for folding not kneading and uses a stone in the oven. Be sure to check out his timing video as well to help build a good model for making the whole, lengthy process more manageable.
Cooking with Alex: A Non-Baker’s Guide To Making Sourdough Bread Alex is an experimenter and strives to simplify. His recipe uses kneading and a dutch oven.
Finally I found this video that has a woman producing a loaf in just one day which I have used to great success. I don’t use her recipe but the timing works well for me.
Just go ahead and make a starter. It’s easy. Lots of videos, web pages etc, etc. Try this method that is from a study into just what the heck sourdough wild yeast really is (spoiler alert: we don’t really know).
I made mine a couple of years ago. I used white flour, and tap water and have had no issues—it took about 5 days. But feel free to follow all the hints you will find online about distilled water or other flours.
- They encourage you to throw away half the starter in order to provide a better culture-to-food ratio (flour [starch] is food to the yeast). It’s not necessary but does help to get more food to the hungry yeast without filling gallon jars with fermenting starter.
- If it starts to smell like “nail polish” it just means it is hungry. Feed it more. Don’t throw it out. If it develops a bit of liquid on top, it is hungry. Feed it more. Don’t throw it out. If it doesn’t rise as fast as it used to, it is hungry, throw out half and feed it more. Don’t start over.
- I feed my starter with rye flour now. White still works when I run out but the rye does provide a bit more “sourness.”
- I keep about 4 or 5 tablespoons in a jar in a fridge. I feed it once a week with a heaping tablespoon or so of flour and equal amounts of water—discarding some first. If I know I am going to bake that week I will add 50 gms of flour and 50 gms of water (a half cup-ish total) and let it sit on the counter for a while (until it starts to double) before returning it to the fridge.
- Use an elastic on the jar to see how much it rises after you feed it in preparation to using.
- Starter can be high hydration and jiggly or low hydration and putty-like. As far as I can tell it doesn’t matter.
- Every month or so, if I haven’t been baking, I will pull it out of the fridge and feed it every day for a few days before discarding a bunch and returning it to the fridge. Does it help? I have no idea; but it reassures me the starter is still rarin’ to go.
Before we get to the recipe itself let’s talk about the process and the various options. Again, as far as I can tell, no one method works substantially better than another. If you watch the Jack’s timing video above, you will hear him talk about adapting the method to your lifestyle not vice versa. Just make it work for you. The only time I have ever made a “bad” loaf (according to my admittedly low standards) was when I forgot the salt. Don’t forget the salt.
Prepare the starter: I usually (but not always) take it out the night before and feed it so that I have around 100-200 gms of usable starter with a 5 tbsps or so left over. Or… if you are making an overnight loaf, it is more than adequate to feed it in the morning and starting the loaf a few hours later. Or… just use it straight from the fridge—I would suggest you would do this only if you have more than just the scrapings in the jar. But give it a try even if you do.
This part can be referred to as making the levain.
Hint: mark the starting level of the starter and then time how long it takes to double. That will give you a rough idea how long you will need to proof a one-day sourdough and a measure of how vigorous your starter is.
Mix: Mix the prepared starter (levain) with flour and water and salt. I usually mix the starter with water and then add flour and salt—purely because it’s easier. Salt killing yeast is a myth—look it up. Then I usually let it rest for 15–30 minutes or so—up to an hour.
Or just use starter straight from the fridge. That works too…it might take a bit more time that’s all.
Knead: I knead for 8-10 minutes. Sure there are lots of tests, but 8 minutes by the clock almost always does the trick. Eventually you will get to know the dough. Which will then change as you screw with flour or hydration. 8 minutes works for me.
Proof for 4 hours (I have a bread setting on my oven that can be used to speed that up).
Stretch and Fold: Instead of kneading just fold the dough. Give it a nice long stretch and then fold it over on itself. If you fold a lot each time the crumb will be closer (more dense); if you fold less it will be airier. Theoretically.
Fold 1—stretch, fold the dough in half—turn 90° and repeat. 12 times or so. Rest 2 hours.
Fold 2—stretch, fold the dough in half—turn 90° and repeat. 6 times or so. Rest 2 hours.
Fold 3—stretch, fold the dough in half—turn 90° and repeat. 6 times or so. Rest 1 hour.
This is varies slightly for the same-day sourdough—mostly more folds. See the end of this post for the timing on that.
Hints: have a bowl of water handy to wet your hands before each fold—it makes it easier. The dough will become less sticky with each set of folds.
Preshape: Put the dough (seam side up if you have been paying attention, which apparently you should. I usually forget.) on a lightly (lightly!) floured surface. Fold the four corners across the center, roll it over and pull it towards you in several directions to try and form a ball with a little surface tension. It’s all about the surface tension.
Rest for an hour covered with a cloth.
Note: if you are making two small loaves (as I usually do), divide the dough before the pre-shape.
Final Shape: the final shaping’s aim is to create a tight structure without degassing the dough too much. Dust the top of the dough with a bit of flour and roll it over. Fold the four corners over—it is like folding an envelope.
- If making a boule, roll it back over and pull it into a ball gently to try and create more surface tension.
- If making a loaf roll the seam down and pull towards you into a sausage shape.
Final Rest: You have tons of choices here. Bannetons are a thing—look them up. Supposedly they help wick moisture away from the dough and prevent sticking while providing shape. I use bowls. Floured cloths are also a thing to prevent sticking—they say rice flour is best, but who has that. I’ve started just lining two identical bowls with parchment paper and a bit of flour—works like a charm.
If you are attempting same-day sourdough, put the shaped dough in a bowl or container lined with parchment, seam side down and cover with a cloth. Proof for 1.5–2 hours or until it has doubled (although who can really judge what doubling is…seriously…?).
If you are proofing overnight, place in a lined container (parchment or a very, very floured cloth) seam side up. I use a square casserole for two loaves separated by a fold of cloth/parchment. Cover with a cloth and throw in the fridge overnight 12-20 hours.
The point of proofing overnight is manifold:
- it gives the (slower) sourdough yeast more time to produce gasses and rise
- it (supposedly) allows gluten to develop more
- it (allegedly) allows the flavours to become more intense.
Remember to take the dough out of the fridge 2 hours or so before you bake it.
When preheating the oven, regardless of the method, the longer the better. You want to get as much heat into the stone/dutch oven as possible. I usually do it for 45 minutes to an hour. But 30 minutes still works.
Method 1: preheat the oven with a pizza stone to 425°. Boil some water in the kettle.
Method 2: preheat oven with a dutch oven in it to 450°. My mom uses a pyrex casserole so don’t sweat the dutch oven. I use a cheap Lodge cast iron one on the boat . Mainly you want to contain the moisture — the rest is just heat retention.
If you are doing a same-day sourdough you will transfer the parchment paper directly onto the cooking surface. Easy-peasy. If you proofed overnight you will want to turn proofing container upside down onto a floured peel of some sort (I often use the back of a plate). If you are like me, you then have to gently peel the parchment/cloth away from the dough because it never actually comes away easily despite what the professionals say.
Slice the top of the dough: this allows the dough to continue to rise in the oven and controls where the inevitable split happens. There are all sorts of rules and techniques—look them up. I mostly just put a healthy slash into the dough: minimum half inch deep and usually the whole width of the loaf. I do this before I put it on the pizza stone or after I put it into the hot dutch oven.
Method 1: slide/place the dough on the pizza stone. Pour the boiled water into a cake tin or other container and quickly shut the door. It’s all about the steam baby!
Method 2: take the pre-heated container out of the oven. If you are same-day dough’n it, the drop the parchment directly in. Otherwise flop it from the peel/plate into the hot container. Remember, it’s hot! Seriously…hot. I almost always give it an extra spritz of water to add a bit more moisture, but the internet assures me this is not necessary and definitely not canon. Put the cover back on (with oven mitts!) and put into the oven. Turn the oven temp down to 425°
After 20 or so minutes remove the lid to allow the top to brown.
Method 1: Cooking time is around 30–40 minutes.
Method 2: 20–25 minutes with the lid on, 20–25 minutes wth the lid off.
It’s done: when a) the top is browned to your preference (seriously, go ahead and increase the temp and push it—that dark, dark brown thick crust is a neat texture) or when it is hollow sounding when you thump it on the bottom. I almost always just follow the clock and split the difference: 35 minutes for method 1 / 45 minutes for method 2.
Let cool: “they” say that you need to let it cool completely but that is bollocks. Who needs to trade supposedly increased flavour for warm, melted butter goodness? But the bread does continue to cook after you remove it from the oven so allow 15–20 minutes to cool if you can resist the temptation. Sometimes I just can’t.
I flop back and forth between the two recipes (which really are essentially the same). I finally bought a scale because it really is easier to be more consistent — but just keep track of the amount of flour it takes to make the dough tacky but not too sticky and you are good to go. When scaling I usually stick to Jack’s recipe. Regardless, I generally divide the dough into two small loaves, perfect for two people, one meal each. An uncut loaf keeps pretty well for a few days.
Alex the French Guy
- 1 part sourdough | (200 gm)
- 2 part water | (400 gm) 400ml | 1 3/4 cups
- 3 part flour | (600 gm) | 4 cups
- 12 gm salt|1.5 tsp | (2 gm per 100 gm of flour)
Jack the British Guy
- leaven: 50gm rye + 50 gm water (100 gms)
- 310 gm water
- 450gm flour (usually white)
- 1 tsp salt and a bit
Tips and Tricks?
- Seriously, you can’t “ruin” bread unless it’s raw. Even if you burn it, it’s still not inedible—sometimes it even tastes better.
- Play with hydration and moisture. Higher hydration can be a pain but it does change the texture.
- Want flavour? Rye and whole wheat flours tend to be more “sour.” Longer proofing in the fridge will build both gluten and flavour. Starving your starter a bit before you use it apparently adds favour. “They” say a less hydrated starter also increases sourness. Your mileage will vary.
- Parchment really is a convenient way to line containers. Strictly non-traditional, but who cares?
- Get a dough scraper. It helps with wetter doughs and really helps clean up. I spritz the crusty counter with water and then scrape it up into a paper towel. A quick wipe and you are done.
- Come up with a schedule that works for you. Don’t be a slave to the dough!
- Not feeling it? Just make a no knead loaf and save yourself the bother. The starter will wait.
- People take sourdough way too seriously. Don’t be one of those people. 🙂
- Make yourself a bullet point recipe—it makes the organizing the day easier:
- Feed up your starter in the evening
- Mix your dough, 30 minute rest
- 1st Fold (12 folds), 2 hours rest
- 2nd Fold (6 folds), 2 hours rest
- 3rd Fold (6 folds), 1 hour rest
- Preshape, 1 hour rest
- Final shape, into basket, refrigerate
- Remove from fridge
- 8 am autolyse (a fancy word for mix and rest)
- 9 am mix in salt & starter (kneed until mixed/sticky)
- 9:30 am first fold
- 10:00 am second fold
- 10:30 am third fold
- 11:00 am fourth fold (warm spot or proofing oven)
- 12:00 pm fifth fold
- 1:00 pm sixth fold (take of proofer)
- 1:30 pm pre-shape (and divide first if necessary)
- 1:45 pm final shape
- Final proof 1.5 hr or so
- 2:45 Heat dutch oven 450°
- 3:30 Reduce heat. Bake 20 min, 30 min with cover off