Making sourdough bread

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

  • Introduction
  • About the recipe
  • The recipe for standard sourdough loaves
  • The “stretch and fold” method
  • Bulk fermentation 
  • The amount of starter
  • Hydration 
  • Making and maintaining a sourdough starter
  • Achieving a more tangy or a less tangy bread
  • Shaping
  • Is it ready to bake?
  • Turning out the dough
  • If the dough does not want to come out of the banneton!
  • 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 the “discarded” starter

Introduction

I have been making sourdough bread for about 20 years and it is the type of bread I love coming back to time and time again.

It is a wonderful thing 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.

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

The starter can 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

As sourdough baking really started to take off several years ago, I tried many different recipes as it is fun to try something in a different way.  There are so many recipes for sourdough that it can be very daunting. For example:

  • varying proportions of starter to flour
  • different mixing methods
  • timings
  • chilling or not chilling the dough
  • baking in a Dutch oven or not….

However, the recipe below is the recipe that I always come back to for a standard (but bloody good!) sourdough loaf, and it is the one I use when I teach sourdough classes at cookery schools.

I got the essence of the recipe from 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 adapted the recipe a little over the first few years I started working with it, namely reducing the starter somewhat: initially it was about 450g starter to 750g flour, which also allowed for quicker sourdough making, but it didn’t have the depth of flavour and it wasn’t consistent enough in the finished loaves – although I think that was mostly down to my inexperience!

The recipe below is certainly great 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 if you are more experienced, you can tweak it in several ways, such as adding more water. See “hydration” below the recipe.

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.

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

  • 750g strong white plain flour
  • 200g active starter (mine is at 100% hydration – see below recipe for making a starter)
  • 480ml cold water
  • 12g fine sea salt

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 to a large bowl and add the water and starter.

(2) Mix together to give a fairly rough mass of dough – squeeze it a bit to bring it all together.

(3) Cover with a damp tea towel and leave at room temperature for about an hour, after which time the dough will feel softer and stickier.

(4) Pour the salt over the dough and work it in with your hands until well incorporated: I find squeezing it in is the easiest way.

(5) Do a stretch and fold session (see The “stretch and fold” method below). Cover with a damp cloth and leave for about 30 minutes. It will become silkier and smoother with subsequent stretches and folds.

(6) Repeat until you gave done 5 “stretch and fold” sessions, letting the dough rest for about 30 minutes between each session. If you only do 4 it will be fine! Each time you will feel the dough becoming more resistant to the stretches as the gluten develops. It will also become more aerated and less sticky.

NB: you can add the salt at the beginning, knead as with traditional bread and go straight to step 7 below, but I find I always get a better final loaf, not least in terms of texture and volume, by doing the stages above

(7) Cover the dough again and place in the fridge at least overnight, or for up to about 48 hours for a tangier dough. This will allow the dough to continue to ferment very slowly, developing the flavour.

NB: the dough will have risen a bit and have bubbles over the surface.

(8) Remove from the fridge and turn onto the work surface that has been lightly floured. Leave it on the surface for about 10 minutes: don’t worry if it feels quite slack at this stage.

(9) Split the dough into two pieces and give each piece a couple of light stretch and folds, trying not to deflate the dough too much. Shape each piece (see below this recipe for shaping tips).

(10) Place in the medium-sized bannetons that have been liberally sprinkled with fine semolina, seam-side upwards and dust a little more semolina over.

NB: if using loaf tins, oil them well and pop the dough in with teh seam downwards, so you have a smooth top as they will prove and bake in those tins

(11) Leave at room temperature for 3-4 hours to rise a little further, and pop in the fridge for a final hour or so to chill down: the chilling helps the oven-spring and makes the dough easier to score. Alternatively, let it have all it’s proving time in the fridge.

NB: err on the side of caution here: if you over-proof, the dough might collapse when you turn it out. The risen dough should have a bit of a wobble but it should feel springy: I lightly press the dough with a finger and if the imprint slowly fills back in, leaving a bit of a dent, it is ready for baking so I pop it back in the fridge while I pop the oven on:

(12) Turn the oven to the highest setting until it comes to temperature. While it heats up, place a solid metal roasting tray on the bottom shelf (for creating steam) and a couple of solid baking trays or solid griddle pan on higher shelves (for the bread).

NB: I love using the griddle which heats up wonderfully and always gives me the best results. You can bake one loaf at a time: just keep the other in the fridge and it will not over-proof while the first bakes. If baking in loaf tins, you don’t need to heat up the griddle pan.

(13) Gently invert the bannetons onto the hot baking trays/griddles with a sheet of greaseproof on and slash the surface quickly a few times with a sharp blade, going about a centimetre deep: see Scoring the dough below.

(14) Place in the oven and pour cold water into the hot roasting tin: see To steam or not to steam below.

NB: for ease, I place the greaseproof over the dough while it is still in the banneton, place the hot griddle on top and carefully invert. You can dust the surface with a little flour before scoring/slashing which will give a more pronounced visual effect in the baked loaves.

(15) Bake for 10 minutes at this highest setting and then turn the temperature down to 220C(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.

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

The “stretch and fold” method

When I started making sourdoughs 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! Essentially, over the long time for a dough to be ready to go into the oven, the starter breaks down some of the protein in the flour so it can lose some of the structure it had earlier, and with a high amount of starter, this magnifies the issue.

I initially found it a challenge to knead the dough or to work with it 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 every half an hour or so for just a few minutes at a time.

The stretch and fold method is the one I use for doughs that have a high water content such as focaccia and ciabatta, whether the sourdough version or if using commercial yeast.

The stretch and fold steps:
  • using very lightly watered hands, hold part of the dough and then grab the other part of dough and stretch it upwards, to just above the bowl or so. and Folding it back over itself and patting it down lightly. Both hands will help you get the stretch.
  • give the bowl about a quarter-turn and repeat this process a few more times for about a minute (stopping as soon as the dough resists or comes together in one mass).

This is one stretch and fold session.

After this, you repeat every 30 minutes or so for couple of hours to have given a total of 5 “stretch and fold” sessions. You will find that it becomes smoother and silkier, as well as more aerated. With later stretch and folds, when you stretch it, the dough hangs together in one piece, as it has built up strength as the gluten develops.

Bulk fermentation

After the stretch and folds, you let the dough have its bulk fermentation. This is key to helping both the flavour and structure develop.

You can do this at room temperature for perhaps 5 or so hours depending on the temperature, but I always go for a chilled bulk fermentation for at least overnight, going for longer (2 days or so) if I want a tangier bread.

All you do is cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and pop it in the fridge. Eventually the dough will be have risen a bit, it will spread somewhat in the bowl (that’s fine!) and will have lots of air bubbles over the surface.

You then turn the dough out onto the work surface, give it a couple of gentle stretch and folds to allow it to regain its structure, shape it, let it prove and bake it.

The amount of starter

Some sourdough recipes use more starter than I use for the amount of flour below. Some recipes use a lot less and build it up gradually.

The proportions below (200g starter to 750g flour) give me bread that works for me. On occasion I halve the amount of starter and increase the water a bit ( to 500g or so of water), but most of the time I go for 200g starter.

Hydration

Hydration is often used when referring to sourdoughs, for both the starter and the dough. It is the proportion of total water compared to total flour. So my starter is equal amounts of water to flour, so it is a 100% hydration starter.

The dough in main recipe below is at 68% hydration, which is quite easy to work with and gives gorgeous bread. If you are interested in how that % is worked out (well, I am also a maths teacher after all!):

total amount of flour is 850g (the 750g plus 100g flour from the starter)

– total amount of water is 580ml (the 480ml plus 100ml from the starter).

So the overall dough hydration is 580 out of 850, which works out to be about 68%.

You can increase the dough hydration, which will give larger, more open holes but with a higher hydration, you get a dough that is slacker and potentially harder to handle.

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: more acetic acid gives a tangier loaf, whereas if there is an more lactic acid you get a less tangy loaf.

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.

Although in a week you can make a decent loaf, after a couple more weeks (with feedings every couple of days or so) it will develop its strength, resulting in loaves with a better structure and flavour.

The starter I mainly use is many years old and keeps well in the fridge. feeding it just once a week or so.

Making a starter from scratch:

It was fun dechipering my scribbles of my first starter all those years ago but at the time it was my pet that I was keen to create and nurture. I keep my starter at 100% hydration (ie: equal weights of flour and water whenever I feed it):

Day 1: I mixed together about 100g each of strong plain white flour and water to make a thickish batter. I then covered it with a clean cloth and put it in the airing cupboard for two days, by which time it had started to ferment, with bubbles appearing all over it.

Day 3: the mixture had small bubbles throughout it. I mixed in another 100g flour and 100g water – maintaining a thickish batter – covered and left it for a day, this time at room temperature.

Day 4: I removed* about half of this mixture, then fed it with another 100g of both flour and water and left it for another day at room temperature.

*without removing, you get too much! 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 5: the starter was now very bubbly (how a white-ish chocolate aero bar might look like!) and had a sharp vinegary aroma to it.

Day 6: I removed about half of the mixture and fed the rest with another 100g each of flour and water.

Day 7: I used the starter to make a loaf. It was not the best loaf in terms of open crumb, but it tasted good! However, I fed the starter every couple of days and a week later when I made another loaf, it was much better.

The starter just gets better and better from then on.

Maintaining and feeding the starter

The starter is a very easy thing to look after, needing only the occasional feeding, including a feeding a while before you want to make a loaf.

(1) Remove about half of the starter. It should not be wasted: you can give it to friends or use it in other recipes such as flatbreads, crumpets or pancakes (recipe links at the bottom of the page).

(2) Mix in equal quantities of strong plain flour and water, which keeps the starter at 100% hydration. I go for about 100g or so of each.

NB: I sometimes add rye 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, removing it and feeding it the day before I want to use it in a recipe to build it back up. I also feed it with about 100g flour and 100g water if I have used it in a recipe. With this “regime” (such as it is) I always have about 400g or so of starter ready to go: a perfectly manageable amount!

In the rare situation when I am not going to bake sourdough for a several weeks or so, I just give the starter a weekly feed. I have neglected it for a few months in the past but simply stirred it around (mixing in the alcohol that was floating on top), given it a feed and it has bounced back. It is a very forgiving pet!

Feeding the starter before you want to use it

I tend to give the starter a feed either the night before I want to use it if I am planning on starting a sourdough in the morning, or I feed it in the morning ready to start a batch later that day.

Mind you, there have been many occasions I have just made up the dough with the starter that had been sitting in the fridge for several days without feeding: and becuase the dough is left for many many hours fermenting and the like, it all catches up and the loaves still turn out very well.

Achieving a more tangy or a less tangy bread

While a sourdough loaf does not actually need to taste sour, some sourdoughs definiely have a sour tang. This is down to personal choice: I prefer a sourdough with a definite tang.

The key thing is to experiment with what works best for you and to enjoy the many different flavour profiles that sourdoughs have.

For a more tangy loaf:

I go for some of the following depending on how I feel at the time:

  • feed the starter less frequently (once a week or so) so that the starter produces more acetic acid
  • stir in the liquid that collects on top
  • use some wholemeal or rye flour in the starter for a couple of feedings, especially the feeding given the day or so before using
  • a longer bulk fermentation in the fridge once the stretches and folds have been done: I sometimes chill for up to 48 hours for a very tangy loaf
  • using less starter in the recipe ie) about 100g or even less. Not more 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.
For a less tangy loaf:
  • feed the starter more frequently so the alcohol and acetic acid will not be produced as much
  • use more of the starter (I’ve taken it up to 300g before: more starter will result in the dough rising more quickly so you will need to keep an eye on it or keep it chilled so it goes more slowly)
  • go for speedier rises at room temperature or using a warm place such as an airing cupboard rather than in the fridge

Shaping

Even well-trained and well-shaped sourdough loaves do tend to spread somewhat if the dough left to rise without anything supporting them.

I tend to use wicker bannetons to hold the dough which 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 as it proves. If you use normal flour, it will absorp some of the moisure from the dough, become very sticky and make it hard to turn the dough out in one piece.

Good shaping is crucial, and good shaping complements the other care that has already gone into the forming of the dough. If you just casually shape the dough into a ball and pop it into the banneton, it is likely to spread a lot once it has been turned out, so you want to get surface tension on the dough which will strengthen it during its second proving.

An oval loaf

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

  • flatten the dough with very lightly oiled hands into a rough rectangle on a lightly oiled surface, with the longer edges 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. I usually make a couple of quick cuts with a razor blade on top in a criss-cross.

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.

Is it ready to bake?

The proving of the shaped dough is important: too much and it can collapse as it bake; too little and the bread can be dense. To test it is ready:

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.

Turning out the dough

I 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.

If the dough does not want to come out of the banneton!

The very liberal dusting of either fine rice flour or fine semolina into the bannetons ensures the dough will turn out perfectly onto the heated baking tray/cast iron skillet/baking stone.

Once turned out, the dough will sit there happily for the few moments while you slash it and pop it into the oven.

Scoring the dough

Scoring the dough allows you to control (to some extent) 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, although making your own cuts on the surface allows you to control the final decorative touches.

I use a razor blade making a quick, purposeful cut (or several cuts) across the top of the turned out loaf, 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. For more general “designs” I cut vertically.

Key scoring tips:
  • if the shaped dough has been proving 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
  • dip the blade in water or even oil before scoring to give neat cuts

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

For years I never used steam when baking bread and thought my breads were fine. But I do use steam nowadays for my sourdoughs 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.

There are several ways to create the steam that helps the bake. I put a 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 to create the steam and then close the door and let the loaf bake.

You can cook the dough in a Dutch oven – or 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 evaporateds so the crust stays softer for longer and can therefore rise further before firming up.

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 1 – Morning: feed the starter and leave it until later that day until active and aerated.

Day 1 – Evening: make up the dough. Refrigerate for the bulk fermentation until either the following morning (or, for more of a tang, the morning of Day 3)

Day 2 – Mid-morning: shape the dough, cover and leave to rise at room temperature.

Day 2 -Around late afternoon: turn out the risen 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 the “discarded” sourdough starter

Contrary to some schools of thought, nothing gets wasted. Nothing. So I hesitate to use the word “discarded”. However, the list below is of my favourite ways of using the starter that gets removed prior to feeding so that there is no waste.

If you keep a small amount of starter that you just feed enough to prior to each use, you can feed some of it up to use in these recipes, too:

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

Author: Philip

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

6 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.

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    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

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      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!

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