This recipe is great if you are just starting your sourdough-making experience. Once you’ve mastered it, then you really won’t need a recipe to follow — you’ll know what to do at each step.
- 500 g / 17.64 oz flour (see notes on flour below)
- 325 g / 11.46 oz warm water (see notes on water below)
- 100 g / 3.53 oz active starter (levain), see here how to make levain
- 7g / 0.25 oz salt (that’s a teaspoon of salt, you can use a bit more for a saltier bread of course)
- A pinch of sugar (helps feed the yeasts and results in more air pockets)
Can I play with these ingredients? Yes, you can (see notes on ingredients below)
Utensils and Equipment
You will need the following:
- a Dutch oven with lid to bake your bread (No Dutch oven? No problem – see notes on baking below)
- a kitchen towel or cling wrap
- a clean tower or baking paper
- a mixing bowl
- a dough scraper (not necessary but helps a lot)
- a Banneton, proofing basked, or a clean bowl for proofing
- rice flour, cornmeal or regular flour for dusting
- a sharp knife, razor blade or lamé (scoring blade) for scoring
Step By Step Instructions
1. Make the dough (10 mins + 30 mins)
Combine the water, the levain and the salt in your mixing bowl. Whisk until well mixed.
Add the flour.
Using your hands, with the help of a scraper if you have one, mix everything together until all of the flour is absorbed and you have a ball of dough. The dough doesn’t have to be perfect, in fact it will be weird looking and somewhat dry, that’s ok.
Cover the bowl with cling wrap or a damp kitchen towel and let it rest. It will autolyse on it’s own. Autolyse is the resting where the ingredients start working together on its own to develop the gluten in the flour. It saves you the effort of having to knead your dough. You can of course skip this step and instead knead your dough until you develop the gluten but I recommend using it this way instead as it’s more natural and much easier in fact.
Let rest for about 15 minutes. Then stretch and fold the dough (see the technique in the pics below), right in the bowl. Cover the bowl.
Repeat the same 15 minutes later.
Some methods call for taking the dough out from the bowl, working on it, then putting it back in – I do it the easier way and always work on the dough directly inside the bowl, then only take it out at the very end (if you dough is sticky taking it out gets tricky!)
Here is this step in pictures. Hover over the images for more details or click them to expand.
And here is the stretch and fold technique in two pictures and a video. With wet hands, grab one side of the dough, stretch it upwards and then fold it over the rest of the dough. Rotate the bowl quarter of the way and repeat this process. Do this 4 times, i.e. a full circle of the bowl.
2. Let the dough rise and ferment (4 – 9 hours)
Now the dough needs to rise.
Let the covered bowl rest on the kitchen counter for it’s first (bulk) rise and fermentation.
Now this is the first tricky part – there is no exact time frame when this will happen. In general, the dough is ready when it no longer looks dense and has doubled in size. This can take anywhere from 4 hours to 9 hours or even more depending on the temperature of your environment, the potency of your levain, etc.
The best way to go about this is to wait about 4 hrs then look at your dough. If it has grown that’s a good sign. If you can see bubbles under it’s surface, it’s even better. Now do the Dough poke test — gently poke your dough (it might be sticky but that’s ok). If it slowly fills up the dent and the indentation remains slightly visible, then it’s perfect (see further down for a video of this). If it bounces too quickly it’s still has time to go. If nothing happens or it collapses or it looks flat, lifeless, and feels loose or liquid-y, then you’ve gone way too far (it has likely over-proofed or over-fermented and is at this point unsalvageable). If you accidentally over-proof or over-ferment your dough, don’t throw it away. Put it in a container that will hold its shape and still bake it.
Note: You can always slow this process down and extend the rising time by putting your dough in the fridge at this stage, for example for an overnight sleep. That will also give the bread a more sour taste.
Optional but recommended step: Stretch and fold the dough
During this step you can perform a couple of stretch and folds to strengthen the dough. Do the first one around an hour into the bulk rise then do a series of stretch and folds roughly about every hour. This step helps the dough shape, rise and ferment better and will result in a more airy bread.
3. Shape the dough (5 mins)
Now we need to shape the dough and prepare it for it’s second rise, this time for a shorter period of time.
There are many ways of shaping the dough – use a Banneton, which is a bread proofing basket, or use a bowl lined up with baking paper or with a clean towel well-dusted with flour (so the dough doesnt stick to it). Choose whichever you feel comfortable with.
Prepare your shaping bowl – either line up your bowl with baking paper, or with a clean well-dusted towel, or dust your proofing basket with rice flour, cornmeal or regular flour. The point here is for your dough not to stick to the shaping bowl. If you are using a small Dutch oven for baking, you can just sprinkle its bottom with flour and shape the dough inside it.
Now you need to stretch, fold and shape your dough and this is again a tricky part. There are many ways to do it but here’s what I consider the easiest and the most efficient of them.
You can see how to do the technique in the video below but this is pretty much what you do:
- Loosen the dough from the edges of a bowl with a wet dough scraper or a spatula — just sliding it down the sides of the bowl around the dough.
- Wet your hands and carefully grab the dough on both sides, slowly but surely lift it straight up until it unsticks from the bowl, then slowly place it back down, folding it on top of itself, gently.
- Wet your hands again (wash them if you have to, so the dough doesn’t stick to them), rotate the bowl a quarter turn and do the same again.
- You will notice that now the dough is visibly tighter and is much easier to handle. If it falls apart instead, then it’s likely over-proofed or over-fermented, in which case look above for what to do with it.
- Again, wash and wet your hands, rotate the bowl another quarter of the way and lift the dough again, only this time put it down in your shaping bowl while keeping it into a ball-shape as much as possible.
Sprinkle the dough with flour, and if using the basket make sure you sprinkle the sides near the side of the basket well so it doesn’t stick while rising and so it flips out without catching later on!
This is how to do the stretch, fold and shape technique.
Expand the video to see it better.
4. Final rise (1 – 2 hrs)
Now the dough needs to rise again, but for a shorter period of time – about 1-2 hours.
Cover your shaping bowl and keep it on the counter half of this time, e.g. one hour. Then move it to the fridge for the other half, e.g. the second hour. Chilling the dough (it’s called retarding the dough) a little before baking it makes it easier to take out of the shaping basket, makes it easier to score because, increases it’s surface tension, which contributes to better oven spring and nicer crust.
During the last 30 mins of this step, turn on your oven to 230 C / 450 F to preheat it. You need a strong hot oven for baking sourdough bread. If you are baking your bread in a Dutch oven, preheat your oven with the Dutch oven in it.
5. Take out dough and score it (5 mins)
Getting your dough out of the shaping bowl is another tricky step.
If you used a baking paper lined bowl, then all you need to do is simply grab the sides of the paper, raise the dough and place it in the dutch oven (or in the oven rack).
If you used a dusted towel or a proofing basket, then carefully flip it and tap on it to detach the dough. If the dough surface breaks while doing that, it’s not ideal but it’s also not the end of the world (you will need to score it anyway so it’s like you’ve already done it). If you are baking in a Dutch oven it can be a bit tricky to flip the proofing basket into the preheated hot dutch oven. In that case, flip it on a sheet of baking paper on the counter and just lift the parchment and place it in the Dutch oven.
Dust off any excess flour that’s on your dough.
Score it. Make a slash about 2 cm / 1 inch deep across the dough in any shape you want — a single straight line, a triangle, a square, anything. This is done so the gasses can escape during baking and so your bread can open up nicely in that place instead of bursting on the bottom or the sides. The best to use here is a bread lamé but a sharp knife will work too, serrated knifes tend to be easier to work with for this, you can oil it a bit for even easier scoring.
6. Bake the dough (40 – 45 mins)
Place the bread into the preheated oven at 230 C / 450 F.
Bake the first 20 minutes with the lid on.
Remove the lid, and continue to bake uncovered for an additional 25 minutes or until deep, golden brown.
You can also take the internal temperature of your bread to double check that it is done. For sourdough, it should read about 95 C / 205 F.
When done, remove the bread from the oven, and wait for it to cool before slicing. That’s another tricky part because it will smell so good that you would want to bite into it right away. Don’t cut into it too soon though or else you could smash it and it will have a gummy texture.
Some notes on the baking process
A few words about the images from the baking process above.
I used a 65% hydration dough to make handling easier because I am still far away from being a pro on this. That, along with the fact that I only gave the dough 2 hours for its second fermentation, resulted in a sourdough bread with not as many air pockets as I expected and as I usually get. Ideally I would have done about 5 or so hours bulk fermentation and then about 3 hours of final rise. This time though I wanted to finish the entire process during the day so pictures can have natural lighting so I had to sacrifice a bit on fermentation time but the result was still excellent, supper yummy and irresistible — you can see a nibble missing from that little piece of bread in the last picture 🙂
I used an all-purpose bio organic flour from the store. In general, bread flour gives better results in terms of better oven spring and more air pockets, at least for me.
I actually did a bread machine test in parallel using the exact same ingredients and recipe. My bread machine has a 5 hour program for baking sourdough bread. You can see the results here and comparison between both breads. The bread machine sourdough turned surprisingly well too! Different but still good.
And here is a bonus — video of me cutting the sourdough bread. I recommend watching that with the sound on in order to hear the crackling of the crust as I cut through it!
Now, make you own sourdough bread and send me a picture!
Seriously, I’d love to see how you did! Simply email your sourdough pic to firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments you’d like.
Notes on flour
For your first loaves, use mostly white bread flour. All purpose is also ok but bread flour is easier to work with.
Later on when you get the hold of the process, you can try substituting a cup of the flour at a time with another kind of flour. For example, 3 cups white bread flour, plus a cup of whole wheat flour, or rye flour. WHOle wheat and rye make your bread denser so keep that in mind — if your bread turns out too dense for your taste, then just substitute half a cup instead.
And when you feel confident with the process, then try all sorts of different flours and combinations!
Notes on water
Use bottled water or filtered water. Household tap water usually contains traces of chlorine and that would be detrimental to the live organisms in your active sourdough starter mix (the levain). If you really have no option but to use tap water, then simply fill out a jar or a transparent cup and leave it in a place with direct sunlight for 2 hours — the sun rays will neutralize the chlorine in it.
Notes on ingredients
The most important thing to know here is the hydration percentage of your dough. The hydration is just a number representation the ratio between the amount of flour and the amount of water you used. 400g of flower and 260g of water will give you a 65% hydration (260 divided by 400, times 100 to get the percentage).
This is important because lower hydration percentage makes a drier dough that is easier to handle but makes thicker denser bread with less air pockets. A higher hydration makes very sticky dough which is difficult to handle but makes light airy and fluffy sourdough bread with lots of air pockets.
If you are only starting with sourdough-making — aim for a lower hydration dough. it will be easier to work with and will allow you to master the process faster. A dough that’s anywhere between 60%-70% is a good start. The above recipe is for 65%.
Once you master the process, then you can increase the hydration percentage. And you do that by simply using more water. For example to make the above recipe at 75% you will use 400g of flour and 300g water. Or 500g and 375g of water. You get the idea.
You can add oil or butter to your recipe, just keep in mind that it will count towards the hydration percentage to about half of it’s weight, e.g. 40 grams of oil or butter would equal to adding 20 grams of water.
If you use more active starter (levain) your dough will ferment and rise faster, if you use less, it will ferment and rise slower. For best results, try to keep it around 20% of the weight of the flour you use.
Notes on baking
It’s easiest to bake your sourdough in a Dutch oven. The size really doesn’t matter, although smaller is generally better as it’s easier to handle. The reason why Dutch oven works best is that it helps seal in the water vapors while your bread is baking. Vapor help your bread stay moist longer, bake more even and doesn’t develop a crust too soon. Without the vapor the crust will harden too quickly, forcing the bread to tear on the bottom and sides.
If you don’t have Dutch oven, don’t fret. There is an easy alternative which is almost as good as using a Dutch oven and you mostly likely already have it at home — a Pyrex bowl or another type of oven-safe glass bowl with a lid. Although it using a Dutch oven gives your bread a better seal when baking, you won’t really notice the difference if you use a Pyrex bowl. Just one piece of advice — place the dough on the lid and bake with the bowl on top, as a dome. It’s easier that way (especially when you transfer the dough from your proofing basket to the Pyrex for baking) and the vapors stay trapped inside the domed bowl.
Modern kitchen ovens have a program for baking bread which injects steam as the bread bakes, so if you have one of those then simply bake your bread on a plate or baking paper on the oven rack, using that program.
If none of the above applies to you, then simply bake your bread on a plate or baking paper in the oven, with an oven-safe container of water next to it. The water will evaporate as the bread bakes, providing it with the necessary water vapors.