Making Sourdough bread

A sourdough loaf really is a thing of great beauty: chewy, crusty, an open crumb with layers of flavour that is much more than even the joyous standard home-made bread. Heavenly! And perhaps there is also something of a fingers up at those ridiculously expensive sourdoughs that can be bought……

  • Introduction
  • The “stretch and fold” method for making sourdough
  • Recipe for standard sourdough loaves
  • Simple flavour variations
  • The sourdough starter (making a starter from scratch; maintaining & feeding the starter)
  • Rising: bulk fermentation & the final proof
  • Shaping
  • 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
  • Too sour or not sour enough?
  • A rough timescale for making a batch of sourdough loaves
  • My favourite flavoured sourdoughs, including recipes for using the discarded starter

Introduction

I have been making sourdough bread for about 15 years and it is the type of bread I love coming back to time and time again. Often I make a standard no-frills loaf – when simplicity absolutely reigns! – but now and then I go for a loaf with added extras.

An unrushed home-made sourdough (and breads should never be hurried) can be made for mere pennies and can eclipse the expensive artisanal loaves that can be bought.

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

Although a sourdough loaf certainly can have a slight tang/sourness to it, it can also be quite mild. Personally, I like a slightly tangy bread, but even if it is on the mild side, you still have a great loaf.

A sour flavour, and various levels of sourness, depends on many factors such as the type of starter, the length of the bulk fermentation/rises and the like. I have given a few tips at the bottom of the post for a more sour or a less sour sourdough loaf.

The recipe for the starter is below the main bread recipe. It is based loosely on the wonderful Tartine method.

The “stretch and fold” method for making sourdough

For me the “stretch and fold” method, in place of traditional kneading, gives me reliable results every time. Stretching and folding is also the method 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” method is brilliant with a wetter, slack dough and is very easy. It 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 steps:

  • using very lightly oiled or watered hands, grab a mass of dough and stretch it upwards, right up and above the bowl, before folding it back over itself and patting it down lightly
  • give the bowl a quarter or so 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): after a while you will find that when you stretch it, the dough hangs together in one piece, meaning it is building up strength

This is one stretch and fold session. After this, you repeat every 30 minutes or so for couple of hours:

  • cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and leave it at normal room temperature for about 30 minutes.
  • repeat this stretching and folding every 30 mins or so apart for about 2 more hours
  • you then let the dough have its bulk fermentation (first rise) where its flavour really develops: I start off at room temperature before popping the dough in the fridge

The timings are not crucial, and you can get away with more stretch and fold sessions at long or shorter intervals, so go with whatever fits in best!

What will happen, and I always find this quite magical, is that after just a few stretch and folds, the slack, almost unmanageable dough, will come together and start to resist as the gluten develops.

Recipe for standard sourdough loaves (makes 2 medium loaves)

  • 700g strong plain white flour
  • 100g strong wholemeal flour (or rye flour)
  • 100g active starter – see Feeding the starter before you want to use it, below
  • 540ml cool water
  • 16g fine sea salt mixed with a tablespoon of water

you will also need two medium bannetons, dusted generously with a mixture of fine semolina and/or rice flour.

(1) Add the flours to a large bowl and add the water and starter. Mix together to give a shaggy, fairly sticky mass of dough: it doesn’t need to be kneaded.

(2) Cover with a damp tea towel and leave at room temperature for an hour or so: this is the autolyse step.

(3) 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.

(4) Do a stretch and fold session (see The “stretch and fold” method for making sourdough above).  Cover with a damp cloth and leave for 30 minutes.

(5) Repeat for four more stretch and fold sessions, letting the dough rest for 30 minutes between each session. Each time you will feel the dough becoming more resistant to the stretches as the gluten develops. It will also become less sticky: this really is a fascinating process.

(6) Cover the dough again and leave it at room temperature for a couple of hours to start to ferment. Place in the fridge at least overnight, or for up to about 48 hours, this time with the bowl covered with clingfilm or popped in a plastic bag. This will allow the dough to continue to ferment very slowly, developing the flavour.

NB: an overnight fermentation gives a milder flavour, whereas a 48-hour fermentation gives a stronger, more sour flavour: the latter is my preference flavour-wise! The diugh will have risen somewhat and have bubbles over the surface.

(7) Remove from the fridge for an hour or so to allow the dough to come to room temperature. Turn onto the work surface that has been lightly floured: don’t worry if it feels quite slack.

(8) Split the dough into two pieces and give each piece a couple of stretch and folds. Shape each piece, trying not to deflate the dough too much*. Place in the prepared medium-sized bannetons, seam-side upwards and dust a little more semolina and flour over. NB: see “Shaping and turning out” below.

*NB: I sometimes bake the dough as soon as it has been shaped, without using the bannetons, especially if I have been very light-handed with the shaping so the dough is very aerated. 

(9) Leave at room temperature for up to a couple hours to rise a little further, depending on the temperature of the room. When you gently prod the dough, the indent will remain.

NB: it is best to err on the side of caution here: if you over-proof, the dough will collapse when you turn it out. 

(10) 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 the water to create steam) and a couple of solid baking trays or cast iron skillets on higher shelves (for the bread)

(11) Invert the bannetons onto the hot baking trays/skillets and slash the surface quickly a few times with a sharp blade. Ideally, cut at an angle to the dough: about 45 degrees, but if going for specific patterns it is easier cutting vertically. Place in the oven and pour cold water into the hot roasting tin. NB: see “To steam or not to steam” below.

(12) Bake for 10 minutes at this highest setting and then turn the temperature down to 220C(fan) for a further 40-50 minutes: you want a darker golden colour, or even take it further, which will have the most amazing crust.

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

Simple flavour variations

  • use a mix of strong plain flour and flours such as rye, wholemeal, spelt…(700g strong plain & 100g other flour is a good proportion to start with)
  • 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!

The sourdough starter

The starter is the heart of the sourdough loaf and contains natural yeast and micro-organisms that allow the bread to rise, as well as acids: an abundance of acetic acid gives a tangier loaf, whereas if there is an abubdance 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 almost  a week’s worth of waiting until it is ready to use. 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, feeding it up to a couple of times a week.

– 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:

Day one: I mixed together strong plain white flour and water (about 200g of each) to make a thickish batter. I added a small chunk of crushed rhubarb and stirred it in. I then covered this mixture and put it in the airing cupboard until it had started to ferment which in this case took until the 3rd day. The rhubarb kick-starts things but you can instead use organic grated apples or chopped grapes, or even some fresh pineapple.

Day two: I did nothing – I simply let it do its thing!

Day three: the mixture had small bubbles throughout it, and a slight tang. I discarded the rhubarb, mixed in the same amount of both flour and water that I had initially – maintaining a thickish batter – and left it for another day.

Day four: I discarded about half of the starter, then fed it with another flour/water combination and left it for another day. I discarded half of the starter for two reasons: firstly, the next feeding of flour and water will have greater effect with a smaller amount of starter. Secondly, without discarding some there would rapidly be too much of the starter!

Day five: the starter was now very bubbly (how a white-ish chocolate aero bar might look like!) and had a sharp vinegary whiff to it. I discarded about half the starter again and fed it with the usual flour/water combination.

Day six: the starter was ready to be used to make my first batch of sourdough loaf.

– Maintaining and feeding the starter

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

To feed it:

(1) Remove about half of the starter. You can discard this, give it to friends or use it in other recipes such as flatbreads, crumpets or pancakes (recipe links at the bottom of the page). NB: if you don’t discard some of the starter each time you feed it you will rapidly have vats of it!

(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. Similarly, I feed the starter once I have used some in a recipe. 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.

If I am not going to use the starter within a couple of days I store it in the fridge, removing it and feeding it the day before I want to use it in a recipe.

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 a day before you want to use it

I give the starter a feed a day or so before I want to use it, so that is it hungry. The time between feeding and making up a dough depends on whether I want a tangy loaf or a milder loaf:

  • If I want a less sour and less tangy loaf I tend leave the fed starter overnight before making up the dough (or feed it in the morning and use it late afternoon). This relatively short time beteeen feeding and using doesn’t allow for much acetic acid to be produced, resuling in a milder loaf. The starter at this stage will be bubbly and mousse-like: as in the second of the two photos above.
  • For a tangier loaf, I might feed it up to 36 hours before using it so it has been well fed and has produced lots of acetic acid.

Rising: bulk fermentation & the final proof

Sourdough needs a longer, slow rise overnight (or for up to a couple of days in the fridge): this is the bulk fermentation. The dough then gets shaped and has a shorter rise at room temperature before baking.

The longer the dough has its bulk fermentation, the better the flavour and the more sour the final loaf will be. In addition, a longer bulk fermentation gives a better hole structure in the baked loaves.

For the bulk fermentation I usually leave the dough covered at room temperature for a couple of hours to start off the process before popping it into the fridge.

Once the dough has had this first long rise, it sometimes needs just a couple of stretches and folds to bring it together if needed before shaping, without knocking out all of the air. The shaped dough is then left to prove until it has increased a little (it will rise more in the oven), and I normally do this at room temperature for up to a few hours.

I judge the final proving by the look and feel of the dough – it should feel a little springy but firm. When you lightly prod the dough with a finger, the indent should remain.

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. Granted, it’s the flavour I really want, but a loaf that also looks great is most definitely not be sniffed at!

Note: the bannetons needs to be very well floured to stop the dough sticking. I tend to use a mixture of rice flour and fine semolina.

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. The result will be a dough that holds its shape nicely when turned out.

– An oval loaf

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

  • flatten the dough with 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 (but it really does not need to be perfect!)
  • pop this into the banneton with the seam facing upwards.

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

– For 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 use a smaller amounts of the dough and shape as for baguettes.

Turning out the dough

I turn out my sourdoughs onto very hot cast iron sizzle pans that are heated in the oven, set to its highest temperature, for about an hour. You can get baking stones for this or use solid baking trays.

For larger sourdoughs, I use a large flat casserole dish lid, heating it in the oven while it comes to temperature.

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

A very liberal dusting of fine rice flour and fine semolina really does facilitate the dough turning out perfectly onto a heated baking tray/cast iron skillet/baking stone. The dough will sit there happily for the few moments while you slash it and pop it into the oven.

Scoring/slashing 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 very impressive (charmingly rustic one might say) although making your own cuts on the surface allows you to control the final decorative touches.

I use a lame (above) and make a quick, purposeful cut or two across the top of the turned out loaf, going only about half a centimetre in. The handle makes it much easier to score but I have previously used a razor blade.

You can either slash at an angle to the dough (about 45 degrees) to the dough or cut straight into the dough vertically. Slashing at an angle opens up the dough so that as it bakes you can get an “ear”, as in the loaf below:

Key scoring tips:

  • the blade has to be sharp and free of any bits of dough etc: if it is in any way blunt then you end up fighting with the dough, putting more pressure on it and risk some deflation (to the loaf as well as to your sanity!). If there are bits of dough on it, you risk tearing the dough too much as you swipe the blade across it
  • dust the top of the dough with a little flour or ground semolina before scoring: this helps prevent tearing

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.

If using steam, 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 in the oven I pour in a pint or so of water onto the tray to create the steam and then close the door and let the loaf bake.

Too sour or not sour enough?

While a sourdough loaf does not need to taste sour, I do prefer a sourdough with a definite tang. To achieve this, I go for the following:

  • I feed it less frequently: maybe once in a week so that the acid has formed. Any of the alcohol that gets produced (it sits on top) gets stirred back in.
  • I use wholemeal or rye flour in the starter for a couple of feedings, especially the feeding given the day or so before using it to make up the dough
  • a longer bulk fermentation in the fridge once the stretches and folds have been done: chill for up to 48 hours

If you prefer sourdoughs to be less sour:

  • use the starter when it has been fed more recently eg) 8 hours or so.
  • go for rises at room temperature or using an airing cupboard rather than in the fridge

A rough timescale for making a batch of sourdough loaves

As a rough guide, my typical schedule for making a batch of sourdough loaves with a good, but not over-powering tang to them, 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:

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

Evening (day 1): make up the dough using this now active starter. Refrigerate for the bulk fermentation until either the following day or the day after that if you want a more pronounced tang.

Morning (day 2): shape the dough, cover and leave to rise for a few hours at room temperature.

Afternoon (day 2): turn out the risen dough, slash and bake.

My favourite flavoured sourdoughs

Beetroot & toasted walnut sourdough
Chocolate, cranberry & orange sourdough
Deconstructed pesto sourdough loaf
Cheese & ale sourdough
Pear, walnut & Gorgonzola sourdough loaves
Walnut & raisin sourdough

Recipes using the discarded sourdough starter

20-minute sourdough flatbreads
Sourdough crumpets

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Author: Philip

Very much into baking and general cooking.

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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