Making sourdough bread

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A sourdough loaf is a thing of great beauty: chewy, crusty and with layers of flavour. Heavenly!

  • About the recipe
  • The recipe for standard sourdough loaves
  • The “stretch and fold” method
  • Bulk fermentation 
  • Making and maintaining a sourdough starter
  • Achieving a more tangy or a less sour bread
  • Shaping
  • Proving times: is it ready to bake?
  • Turning out the dough
  • Scoring/slashing the dough
  • To steam or not to steam
  • A rough timescale for making sourdough
  • Simple flavour variations
  • Some of my favourite flavoured sourdoughs
  • Recipes using any “discarded” starter

Reposting as my original post from several years ago vanished!

A sourdough loaf is wonderful to eat just toasted and spread with butter, but top it with a poached egg, perhaps with some crispy pancetta, and you have an excellent light meal.

I’ve been making sourdough bread for several decades now and I am certainly no expect. Indeed, I am still learning, which is one of the many wonderful things about cooking.

Sourdough is the type of bread I love coming back to time and time again: whether an unapologetic no-frills one with just strong plain white flour, one with wholemeal flour or spelt in there, one with spices or, as occasionally I do, an “all out” one, crammed with all manner of extra goodies.

Sourdough breads use a starter that captures the wild yeast in the air, rather than relying on commercial yeast. You can buy starters online but it is easy to make from scratch: I’ve given details for this below.

The starter can also be used in a host of other gorgeous bakes: I’ve given links to several of my favourites at the bottom of this post.

About the recipe

There are so many recipes for sourdough that it can be very daunting if you are starting out on your sourdough journey. I got the gist of this recipe and the starter on holiday when watching a daytime TV programme back in the late 90s when making yeasted bread at home, let alone home sourdoughs, was by no means “a thing”. I’ve since adapted it: not using as much flour when feeding it to avoid having an unwieldy amount!

I am certainly no expert but the recipe below is the recipe that I use to for a standard sourdough loaf. It is pretty much the same recipe I’ve been using all those decades and is the one I use when teaching sourdough making at cookery schools as the standard recipe.

Now the dough is left partly at room temperature and partly in the fridge. As room temperature is variable, and you want to be able to control the dough’s fermentation/expansion at any stage, chilling is the best way to do this. So don’t be afraid to pop the dough in the fridge if it seems to be expanding too quickly, as this will slow it right down. Honesly, it can stay in the fridge for hours.

Based on the recipe below, I vary things from time to time when I am baking at home. For example:

  • using much less starter on a hot day (sometimes around half the amount in the recipe): that way, the fermentation and rise of the dough is not as speedy so I have more control over it and there is less chance of it over-proving (risking the dough collapsing when it is turned out!)
  • once the stretch and folds have taken place I generally leave the dough for just a couple of hours before shaping (as in the recipe below: so its bulk fermentation – takes place once shaped). However, I occasionally leave the dough for the best part of a half a day straight after the stretch and folds for its bulk fermentation (before shaping). Honestly, I find it really doesn’t matter: see whichever works best for you.
  • I occasionally use a Dutch oven or cast iron casserole dish to bake the dough in: this traps the moisture as the dough bakes, giving a superb crust as well as boosting the rise that takes place in the oven (the oven spring).
  • I sometimes bake in a cold oven rather than preheated oven – although my preference is in a hot, preheated oven as I always get better oven spring that way.

 

The recipe is certainly good as an introductory sourdough loaf; as it doesn’t have a very high water content compared to some recipes, it is easier to handle. But you, you can tweak it in several ways, such as adding more water for a more open texture in the baked loaf.

Full guidance for making and maintaining a starter, handling the dough, shaping and the like are below the recipe, along with ideas for flavour variations. If you are new to sourdoughs, I really recommend reading those sections first.

The recipe for standard sourdough loaves (makes 2 medium loaves)

  • 800g strong white plain flour (or a mixture of strong white and strong wholemeal: 650g white, 150g wholemeal works wonderfully)
  • 180g active starter, fed earlier that day*
  • 490ml cold water
  • 15g fine sea salt
  • fine semolina or rice flour for the bannetons/baskets

*if it is a very hot day or the kitchen is very warm, you can reduce the starter to about 90-100g or so, otherwise the dough might expand far too quickly and become hard to work with.

You will also need two medium bannetons, dusted generously with a mixture of fine semolina and/or rice flour. Or loaf tins that have been well oiled

(1) Add the flour, salt, starter and water to the bowl of an electric food mixer.

(2) Mix together to give a fairly rough dough then knead on a medium setting for about 5 minutes. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and leave for about 30 minutes.
NB: this initial kneading starts off the gluten development: essential for the structure of the bread.

(3) With lightly wet hands, do a few stretch and folds for about a minutes (see The “stretch and fold” method below). Cover with a damp cloth again and leave for about 20 minutes.

(4) Repeat until you have done 5 “stretch and fold” sessions in total, letting the dough rest for about 20 minutes between each session.
NB: the dough become more resistant to the stretches as the gluten develops. It will also become more aerated and less sticky.

(5) Cover the dough again and leave at room temperature for an hour or two. It is absolutely fine to leave it for 2-3 hours if you wish, but you can leave it even longer if aiming for a more tangy loaf.
NB: if it is too warm, keep an eye on it as you don’t want it to rise too much and get out of control as it will have lost some of its ability to rise later, once shaped. Also, if the kitchen is very warm and the dough is rising too quickly at any stage, simply pop it into the fridge to slow things down: all will be fine!

(6) Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and split into two. Shape each piece (see below this recipe for shaping tips).

(7) Place in the medium-sized bannetons that have been liberally sprinkled with fine semolina or rice flour, seam-side upwards and dust a little more semolina/rice flour over.
NB: if using loaf tins, oil them well and pop the dough in with the seam downwards, so you have a smooth top as they will prove and bake in those tins

(8) Leave at room temperature overnight (or about 7-8 hours in a warm kitchen) until well risen – not quite to the top of the bannetons – before popping in the fridge for about 2 hours.
NB: the chilling slows down the fermentation and rise and helps the oven-spring and makes the dough easier to score. You can chill for several more hours if you prefer a tangier loaf.

(9) Turn the oven to its highest setting until it comes to temperature. While it heats up, place a couple of solid baking trays/solid griddle pans on higher shelves (for the dough to bake on) and a solid metal roasting tray on the bottom shelf (to create steam when the dough bakes).

NB: if you only have one tray/griddle you can bake one loaf at a time: just keep the other in the fridge – still in its banneton – and it will not over-proof while the first bakes. If baking in loaf tins, you just need the solid metal roasting tray on the bottom shelf for creating steam when the dough bakes.

(10) Place a sheet of greaseproof on the bannetons and gently invert the bannetons onto the hot baking trays/griddles. It might be easier to place the hot tray/griddle on top of the banneton and gently tip upside down – but be very careful not to burn yourself. Alternatively, pop into a Dutch oven.

(11) Slash the surface of the turned-out dough quickly a few times with a sharp blade, going about a centimetre deep: see Scoring the dough below.

(12) Place in the oven and pour a mug of cold water (or a few handfuls of ice) into the hot roasting tin: see To steam or not to steam below. There is no need to create steam if using a Dutch oven.

(13) Bake for 10 minutes at this highest setting and then turn the temperature down to 200C(fan) for a further 40 minutes or so: you want a darker golden colour, or even take it further, which will have the most amazing crust with a fabulous flavour. If using a Dutch oven, remove the lid after 30 minutes and continue to cook for 15-20 minutes.

(14) Transfer to wire racks to cool fully before slicing.

The “stretch and fold” method

When I started making sourdoughs back in the 90s (yikes!) I was dismayed that once the dough had its final proving and was turned out for baking, it would start to spread out in front of my very eyes: a sad, sad sight! What happens is the acidity of the starter breaks down some of the protein in the flour so it loses some of the structure it had earlier.

It could then be a challenge to handle the dough as it could be too sticky or gummy to do much with it.

For me, the “stretch and fold” method, in place of traditional kneading, gives me a dough that is easier to handle and very reliable loaves every time – as well having loaves with a more open internal crumb structure.

The stretch and fold method takes a little longer than kneading traditionally but it is by no means labour intensive: you simply pop back to it every 20 minutes or so for just a few minutes at a time. I absolutely swear by this method for all sourdoughs as it is by far the most reliable approach for me in terms of effective gluten development and the best dough structure.

The stretch and fold method is the one I also use for any dough that has a high water content such as focaccia and ciabatta.

The stretch and fold steps:
  • using very lightly watered hands (wet hands don’t stick to dough!), hold part of the dough and then grab the other part of dough and stretch it upwards, to just above the bowl or so. Let it fall back over itself.
  • give the bowl about a quarter-turn and repeat this process a few more times, fairly rapidly, for about a minute.
  • that is one stretch and fold session.

After this, you repeat every 20 minutes or so for couple of hours to have given a total of 5 “stretch and fold” sessions. If you miss one session or do an extra session, it is really not going to be an issue!

With later stretch and folds, you’ll find the dough becomes smoother and silkier, as well as a little more aerated. When you stretch it, the dough hangs together in one piece, as it has built up strength as the gluten has developed.

Bulk fermentation

After the stretch and folds, you let the dough have a bit of a rest and then shape it and pop it into the bannetons for its bulk fermentation: think of this as a slow, gentle rise. This is key to helping both the flavour and structure develop.

I typically do this at room temperature overnight, although if you prefer a tangier sourdough you can start it off for several hours at room temperature (or until it has increased a little in volume) before popping the dough in the fridge for a day or so. It is important to be guided by the room temperature:

  • if too warm, the fermentation process speeds up and the dough could get out of hand and rise too much – in which case chill it in the fridge for a few hours. You can even do a bit of alternation here: some time in the fridge, some time at room temperature and so on….
  • if too cold, the fermentation process will be slower so it will take a lot longer for the dough to increase in volume. That is fine: patience is arguably the most important skill when it comes to making sourdough!

Making & maintaining a starter

The starter is the heart of the sourdough loaf and contains natural/wild yeast and micro-organisms that allow the bread to rise. Acids are also created: if you get more acetic acid (from wholegrain flour in the dough and not feeding the starter as often), you get a tangier loaf. See “Achieving a more sour or less sour bread” below.

You can buy sourdough starter, but it is easy to make – just don’t be put off by around two weeks of waiting until it is ready to use properly. Once made, it will keep almost indefinitely if well looked after.

The starter I mainly use is many years old and keeps well in the fridge. I feed it just once a week or so, but it can go for a couple of weeks without feeding.

Making a starter from scratch:

It was fun dechipering my scribbles for my first starter all those decades ago, but this is essentially what I did, and is what I recommend whenever I give sourdough classes:

Day 1: mix together about 50g each of strong plain white flour and water to make a thickish batter. Cover with a clean cloth and put it in the airing cupboard for two days.

Day 3: the mixture should have some small, thick bubbles appearing. Mix in another 50g flour and 50g water, cover and leave it for a day, this time at room temperature such as in the kitchen.

Day 4: feed it with another 50g of both flour and water, cover and leave it for another day at room temperature.

Day 5: there should be more bubbles in and on the starter. You can remove about half of this mixture*, then feed it with another 50g of both flour and water and leave it for another day at room temperature.

*without removing, you can eventually get too much starter! You can give this “discard” to someone who wants a starter or already use it in other recipes: there are a few ideas at the bottom of the page

Day 6: the starter should now be very bubbly (how a white-ish chocolate aero bar might look like!) and have a slight vinegary aroma to it.

Day 7: feed with another 50g each of flour and water.

Day 8: you can use the starter to make your first sourdough loaf, but ideally leave it a couple of days before giving it another couple of feeds to build up its strength.

Maintaining and feeding the starter

The starter is then a very easy thing to look after, needing chilling and the occasional feeding (at least weekly. I tend to keep about 200g starter. However, the starter needs a couple of feedings in the days before you want to make a loaf.

To feed it, mix in equal quantities of strong plain flour and water, which keeps the starter at 100% hydration. I go for about 50g or so of each when I feed it. Years ago I went for 100g or so of each, but that soon got out of hand!
NB: I sometimes add rye flour, spelt flour or wholemeal flour instead of white flour for feedings, although you can decant some of the starter into a separate jar so that you have specific rye starters and the like.

I store my starter in the fridge, giving it a weekly feed to keep it going. Make sure you don’t put a tight-fitting lid as the build up of gases could make the starter jar explode! I just cover mine with a clean cloth.

If you leave the starter too long without feeding you will find a clear liquid starts to float on top. That is fine: you simply stir it back in. However, if it develops a black liquid (for example if you’ve been away for a few weeks or so), simply pour that liquid away and discard the top of the remaining starter. Give it a few feedings and your starter will bounce back happily!

Feeding the starter before you want to make bread

When I want to make a loaf, I give the starter more regular feeds close to when I make the dough. For example, if making the dough on Friday, I feed the starter on Wednesday, on Thursday and then again on Friday morning. That way, the starter is very active and bubbly and gives the best, most reliable results.

Achieving a more sour or less sour bread

While a sourdough loaf does not actually need to taste sour, some sourdoughs definitely have a sour tang. This level of sourness is down to personal choice: I prefer a sourdough with a definite sour tang but I know many people who prefer not to have much of a tang.

The key thing is to experiment with what works best for you.

For a more sour loaf:

Any of the following will work towards giving you a more sour loaf:

  • feed the starter less frequently (about once a week) so that the starter produces more acetic acid: the acid that gives the tangyness
  • stir in the clear liquid that collects on top
  • use some wholemeal flour in the starter for a couple of feedings, especially the feedings in the days leading up to making a loaf
  • use less starter in the recipe, not more: reduce by about a third or so. Don’t add more starter as you might think: too much and the dough will rise too quickly, not allowing enough acetic acid to be produced ie) the acid that gives a tangier bread
  • once the dough is shaped and in the bannetons, leave it in the fridge for longer: I sometimes go for 36 hours or so for a really tangy loaf
For a less sour loaf:

Similarly, the following will give you a loaf that is not as tangy:

  • feed the starter more often so it produces more lactic acid: the acid that gives a more subtle, creamier note (yoghurt-like), without the sourness
  • discard any clear liquid that collects on top
  • use more starter in a recipe so the dough ferments more quickly and the shaped dough takes less time to rise

Shaping

Even well made and well shaped dough will spread somewhat if left to rise without anything supporting them, so bannetons are perfect to use. I tend to use wicker bannetons, which also give a lovely ridge to the surface of the bread.

The bannetons need sprinkling generously with rice flour or fine semolina to stop the dough sticking to it. If you use normal flour, it will absorb some of the moisure from the dough, become very sticky and make it hard to turn the dough out in one piece.

When shaping the dough so it is ready to pop into the bannetons, you want to get surface tension on the dough. This will help the dough maintain its shape when turned out for baking. Tips for this are with the different shapes I have referred to below:

An oval loaf

For shaping for a standard oval loaf, using a rectangular banneton:

  • turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface
  • flatten the dough (with very lightly wet or oiled hands if it feels sticky) into a rough rectangle, with the longer edge facing you
  • lift the right edge into the middle and then the left edge is folded over that.
  • give the dough a quarter turn, flatten it down again a little and gently repeat this folding once or twice more or until you feel the dough firm up and hold its shape easily.
  • give dough a gentle roll on the work surface to smoothen it up a little or cup your hands behind the dough and roll towards you, pushing down lightly at the base of the dough to increase the surface tension even more
  • pop this into the banneton with the seam facing upwards.
A boule

For a boule I use the oval loaf as my basic “template”, rolling gently to form a smooth ball before popping into the banneton.

Baguettes:
  • cut the dough into equal pieces.
  • lightly flatten each piece into a rectangle a little shorter than the banneton or baking tray
  • roll up the dough fairly tightly
  • roll it gently on the work surface, putting a little more prssure at the ends to give a tapering effect.
  • place in baguette bannetons or baguette trays.

If using baguette trays, the shaped dough proves and bakes on the trays: I tend to place a strip of greaseproof along the trays to prevent any chance of sticking.

For bâtards (basically mini baguettes!) use a smaller amounts of the dough and shape as for baguettes.

Proving times: is it ready to bake?

The proving of the shaped dough is important: too much and it can collapse as it is turned out and at the start of baking; too little and the bread can be dense.

It’s impossible to say precisely how long a dough needs to prove as it depends on many factors such as:

  • the room temperature
  • the strength of the starter
  • the amount of starter used
  • other ingredients in the dough (fat and sugar slow things down, for example)

If it is a hot day, for example, the proofing times can reduce significantly. You can get around this by using a little less starter or popping the dough in the fridge.

To test the dough is ready to be baked:

  • lightly press a floured finger just over a centimetre or so into the dough. If the hole slowly starts to fill and a little bit of indent remains, it is ready to bake.
  • if the indent fills up quickly it is over-proofed*
  • if the indent stays as it is, it is under-proofed so give it a bit longer before testing again.

*If over-proofed, you can just bake it and you will still get a nice bread. You could also simply re-shape it gently, pop it back into the banneton and let it have another rise: but keep an eye on it!

Turning out the dough

I usually turn out my sourdoughs onto a solid griddle pan that gets heated in the oven – set to its highest temperature – for about an hour.

You can use solid baking trays or skillets instead. I have also sometimes used a large flat casserole dish lid, inverted, heating it in the oven while it comes to temperature: a make-shift Dutch oven!

Scoring the dough

Scoring the dough allows you, to some extent, to control the direction of the dough’s expansion in the oven. Without scoring, the dough can burst at random places. Mind you, that can often look charmingly rustic.

I use a razor blade making a few quick, purposeful cuts across the top of the turned out loaf, often cutting vertically and going about a centimetre in.

For ears I go in at about 45°, which opens up the dough as it bakes – as in the loaf below.

Key scoring tips:
  • if the shaped dough has been in the fridge, it will be easier to score
  • dust the top of the turned out dough with a little flour before scoring: this helps prevent tearing
  • the blade has to be sharp and free of any bits of dough so that as you swipe it, it cuts quickly and effortlessly

A few of my typical scorings are in the bread below. One day I will get into the more elaborate scoring but to be honest, I normally want to get the dough straight into the oven to bake!

To steam or not to steam

I always introduce steam for my sourdoughs (and indeed most of my non-sourdough breads) as it gives the loaves the most wonderful crust. Steam also keeps the surface of the dough softer for longer in the oven so that it can keep rising: once the surface has firmed up, it won’t rise much more.

You can cook the dough in a Dutch Oven (or Spring Oven), or use a large cast iron casserole dish with lid. This creates an “oven within an oven”, trapping the steam that comes from the dough as the water evaporates so the crust stays softer for longer and can therefore rise further before firming up.

Without using a Dutch Oven, there are several ways to create the steam that helps the bake. I put a solid roasting tray on the base of the oven while the oven is getting up to temperature. When I put the dough into the oven I pour a mug or so of cold water onto the tray or a few handfuls of ice cubes to create the steam and then close the door and let the dough bake.

A rough timescale for making sourdough

As a loose guide, my typical schedule for making a batch of sourdough loaves during a working week is given below. This schedule allows me to get on with other things as normal and simply pop back to the dough in a relaxed way, which is exactly as it should be:

Day 0 – the evening before making the dough: feed the starter to get it going for making the dough the following day.

Day 1 – morning: feed the starter again and leave it until later that day until active/bubbly

Day 1 – early evening: make up the dough, give the stretch and folds, rest it for an hour or so, place into bannetons and leave overnight at room temperature

Day 2 – morning: refrigerate the dough for a couple of hours

Day 2 -late morning: turn out the dough, score and bake.

Simple flavour variations

  • use a mix of strong plain flour and flours such as rye, wholemeal, spelt…(500g strong plain & 250g other flour is a good proportion to start with)
  • use a little smoked flour: I tend to oak-smoke some wholemeal or rye flour and use that. Not too much: about 150g smoked flour to 600g unsmoked
  • replace about half of the water with a good quality ale or cider.
  • gently work roasted garlic cloves into the bread before shaping, or add these at the start with the flour so they crush throughout the dough
  • add a generous handful of sultanas to the dough to give lovely sweet bursts to the finished loaf – especially when serving the bread with cheese
  • add about 100g finely chopped walnuts and two grated cooking apples (peeled and cored) to the initial dry mixture
  • work in some chopped ripe Camembert and caramelised onions into the dough gently prior to shaping
  • for sourdough focaccia, increase the water to about 700ml and after the bulk fermentation, gently tip the risen dough onto lined baking sheets, splash over some extra-virgin olive oil and any other flavours (rosemary, chunks of Parmesan, slices of garlic, roasted garlic cloves…..). Cover and leave to rise for a few hours at warm room temperature and bake.
  • for a sweet sourdough, replace about 10% of the flour with cocoa powder, add about the same weight of caster sugar as cocoa powder to the flour before forming the dough. Gently work in about 150g of chopped dark chocolate to the risen dough before shaping. A few dried cherries (or cherries that have soaked in liqueur) or cranberries mixed into the dough is wonderful: perfect spread with salted butter!

Some of my favourite flavoured sourdoughs

Beetroot & toasted walnut sourdough
Chocolate, cranberry & orange sourdough
Cheese, olive and tomato sourdough
Cheese & ale sourdough
Green olive and rye sourdough
Pear, walnut & Gorgonzola sourdough loaves
Saffron and poppy seed sourdough

Recipes using any “discarded” starter

Contrary to some schools of thought, nothing gets wasted. Nothing. So I hesitate to use the word “discarded”.

However, the list below gives some of my favourite ways of either using starter that gets removed prior to feeding or simply dipping into your starter to bake something other than a typical sourdough loaf:

20-minute sourdough flatbreads
Sourdough bagels
Sourdough crumpets
Sourdough chocolate and cherry brownies
Sourdough English muffins

However, you can simple mix in some of the “discarded” starter to a normal bread dough to boost its flavour.

Author: Philip

Finalist on Britain’s Best Home Cook (BBC Television 2018). Published recipe writer with a love of growing fruit & veg, cooking, teaching and eating good food.

8 thoughts on “Making sourdough bread”

  1. Thanks for all the useful hints. I often have issues with it collapsing when it comes out of the banneton so I’ll have a go at the folding and shaping before popping it in there and hopefully that will help.

    Like

    1. It is so frustrating when that happens. Yes the folding/shaping should work well and you will feel it form a tight ball which signals it is ready to go into the bannetons.

      Also using very heavy flouring in the bannetons – more than seems natural – gives it a light crust around the dough when turned out which also helps prevent any collapsing. Any excess flour will dust off the baked loaf

      Like

      1. Thanks for that. I’ve fed “Bertie” tonight so I’ll give this a go at the weekend. Fingers crossed I avoid a frisbee this time!

        Like

  2. Hi,
    I have been making bread using your method for years now (thanks).
    Always been complemented.
    Just recently I can’t make a decent loaf, they are always flat. So I have re followed the instructions here carefully this time, still flat.
    What could be going on?
    Thanks

    Like

    1. How strange it has just happened. It might be leaving the dough too long as it proves before turning it out – so it goes too slack to hold its shape. Or even the starter is not fully active. However, you could try letting them rise and then bake in loaf tins for support

      Like

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