Sourdough bread is one of the most satisfying foods to make. It is literally only flour, water, and salt. For it to work you will need a levain, also known as a sourdough starter, which is simply flour and water that’s turned into wild yeast. My sourdough starter recipe, and tips can be found here. Essentially, feed it the night before you bake. And the amount you feed it is half the amount you’ll need for the bake, but should be same weight or more than the starter itself.
Ask any friend who makes sourdough for some of their starter. Unless they are weird, they should be very happy to share. You can also buy it from a lot of bakeries these days, just ask.
My recipe and techniques for making a sourdough loaf is what works for me after trying several different versions. Mine is basically a combination of New York Times, Food52 Table loaf, Pioneer Woman, and Jim Challenger. I’ve also watched way too many online videos. I use the ratio of 62.5% hydration from Jim Challenger, but use the New York Times loaf size of 500g flour. Jim’s hydration ratio makes it so easy to work with, but his 400g flour makes a much smaller loaf. I really like doing 2 hour autolyse of just flour and water before incorporating the starter, followed by the salt. Rather than folding for ten minutes like Food52, I do a counter top slap and fold, followed by a lamentation, then two stretch and folds during bulk fermentation. All this probably sounds like a foreign language if you’re just starting out. It will make sense soon and you’ll be teaching others once you do it a few times.
Making sourdough is an ever-evolving learning process, and once you start to read your dough and starter, you’ll be making professional looking and tasty loaves in no time. You’ll make loaves for friends and neighbours, you’ll join the sourdough communities online, and you’ll acquire all the sourdough baking tools. I swear homemade sourdough tastes better than what you get in a bakery. Maybe because a home loaf isn’t mass produced, and attention to a single loaf’s development provides that care. Think a la carte versus banquet style ballroom dinner of 1,000 people. This won’t replace an artisan bakery, but I guarantee you that you won’t buy grocery store sourdough again. Read the label of ingredients on bread next time you buy it. It’s certainly more than flour, water, and salt. Interestingly my gluten intolerant friends get terribly bloated and sick when they eat regular bread, but have no issues with artisan sourdough. And next time you bake with yeast, you’ll feel like you’re cheating somehow and anything else, including sticky buns and dinner rolls will seem easy.
Tools of the trade
On equipment, the most important tools you need at the very basic level are a Dutch oven with a lid, digital scale, and bread flour. A Dutch oven is basically a big casserole like a Le Crueset. The purpose is to create an oven in an oven situation, so you are steaming the dough to open and bloom, plus also create the crispy crust. The digital scale is necessary because it’s way more exact than cup measuring and weighing out water and flour weight is different than volume. I bought my scale at Canadian Tire for $17. On the subject of bread flour, it provides a chewier crumb because of the gluten content. It also absorbs water differently, so if you find you have to make your recipe with all purpose flour, you’ll have to adjust the water content. The recipe below works best for 100% white bread flour. As soon as you modify to different flours, even with a portion of whole wheat bread flour, the water may not absorb the same. You’ll likely need a little more water than 62.5% of the flour. Once you get the hang of how the dough should feel, you can adjust on your own. There are all kinds of fancy flours and additions you can put in your sourdough, this is a basic recipe and will work for most beginners. I’ve only been doing this a couple months, and it works for me.
If you want to be fully prepared, get these items as well: bread proofing bannetons, bench scraper, bowl scraper, and a lamé or razor for scoring. A real expert also checks the temperature of developing starter and dough. That I do not do, but I do try to maintain a consistent temperature for the dough as it’s proofing and the starter is developing.
A banneton proofing basket is usually made with bamboo and typically oval shaped or circle shaped. You use it to do the cold proof overnight. It’s not absolutely necessary, but if you can find them (sold on Amazon but currently sold out on Williams Sonoma), I suggest you get them. They should be less than $25. In place of a banneton, you can use a collander or a regular bowl. While I’m waiting for my bannetons to arrive, I’m using the steamer basket of my InstaPot. Yep! A bench scraper is typicaly metal, and it’s used to scrape up dough from the counter top. Also easily available, it’s a great tool for other uses and can help make clean up easier. The bowl scraper is shaped so it can scrape from a Bowl. I just use a plastic rice spoon, but I can definately see how this would be good. Once this pandemic is over, I’ll head to my local Williams Sonoma for sure! The lamé is the razor you use to score your dough before you bake it. I use a razor blade I bought in the men’s shaving section at the local pharmacy. These are ultra sharp and a very thin blade. You can certainly use a sharp knife in its place. If you don’t score, the bread will expand where it wants to. With a razor, you have more chance to get the much admired “ears”.
How long does this take?
Making sourdough is a two day process, that is, after your starter is ready. It’s about 8 hours the first day, with most of the hard work happening in the first two hours. Then it goes through a cold proof in the refrigerator overnight for at least 12 hours. It bakes the next day for about 40 minutes. What I mean by hard work is the mixing of the flour and water, this only takes about five minutes then let it sit for two hours, and then incorporating the starter, which takes about 15 minutes. It’s squishy and messy and you use some muscle work, especially during the counter top slap and fold. The whole process doesn’t require traditional kneading.
The recipe below is for one loaf, you can easily double the recipe, but keep in mind that it will require more muscle work to mix it, especially incorporating the starter. When I double it, I like to keep it in separate bowls to mix. I’m often asked if it’s okay to use a stand mixer here. Professional bakeries certainly do, and it would work fine but I suggest you first start out with hand mixing to get the feel of a good textured dough. You can overmix it and produce a tough loaf.
Then every hour for 3-4 hours you’ll stretch and fold, or coil fold it a few times. You can also add the technique of lamination, which I’m experimenting with now. It’s a matter of stretching out the dough as far as you can on the counter, then folding it. So far I would say it’s made my loaf super strong and quite voluminous. Coil folds are super easy and takes less than 2 minutes. Then comes the fun part, you’ll shape it, rest it another hour at room temperature and put it to bed In the refrigerator.
Just keep in mind that you want to allow around 8 hours on the first day, most of which are 1 hour intervals of doing absolutely nothing. I wouldn’t start mixing a loaf at 9pm at night. I typically start around 1pm these days and have mine in bed around 8pm, that’s in the refrigerator for overnight fermentation. Then it’s only about 40 minutes to bake it the next day, you can leave it up to 48 hours in the refrigerator. If you go out at night, one day we will, you could easily get someone else in the house to do the coil folds. It’s not technical at all, and only takes a couple of minutes.
I’ll likely update these notes again, as I’m constantly learning as I go along. In the meantime, let me know if you make a loaf and please tag me on Instagram under @wherelizis
500 g bread flour
312.5 g Tepid water
100 g ripe starter
10 g salt
large Dutch oven with lid
Bannetons (use a collander if you dont have one)
two cotton tea towels
1. Once starter is ready and ripe, you can start making your bread.
2. Mix the bread flour and water in a medium sized bowl until there are no dry patches left. Cover it with a damp tea towel and sit it on a counter, not in direct sunlight. Leave for 2 hours. If you have to leave it for longer, that’s okay. This wait time is called autolyse and allows less mixing afterwards and the flour to fully absorb the water.
3. Incorporate the starter into the flour and water. Squeeze it and mix it in by hand until it’s no longer glossy. This is the messiest part.
4. Incorporate the salt into the dough mixture in the same way. Sprinkle a little water on top to help it. Now cover again and let it sit for about 15 minutes.
5. Now it’s time to slap and fold. Here’s a link to a video until I add my own video. Do this for ten minutes. This is the most physical part, but also super important. The dough will go from wet and sticky to being much smoother, stronger, and resilient. This step is absolutely necessary for the dough to develop a strong gluten structure.
6. Rest the dough in a heavy bowl or dish which you put a sprinkle of water on the surface. I use a lasagne dish. Cover it with the damp tea towel for an hour, you are now beginning bulk fermentation. Rest it on the counter covered, but not in direct sunlight.
7. Set your timer now for every hour for next three hours. At every hour, do the coil folds with dampened hands. At the last two folds, you will see the dough develop bubbles and increase in size. I like to stretch the dough out a bit, then coil fold it. If it’s more hydrated, the gravity will stretch it out when you lift it. Here‘s a link to a video on a coil fold until I add my own video.
8. If you’re ready to experiment, I highly recommend the lamination method in place of the first coil fold. This was a game changer for me, and it’s really fun. Dampen the counter top slightly and your hands. Put the dough onto the counter and stretch out to a rectangle, to the thinnest it will go without ripping it. Then you fold one side into the centre, repeat on the other side, then from the top and the bottom. Here’s a link to a video. This technique makes the dough instantly voluminous and can also be the step where you add extra ingredients, like chopped olives, seeds, and even cheese (save laminations for the last coil fold if you add cheese).
8. At the end of the (2-3) coil folds, you are now ready to do the first shaping. Lightly flour your countertop. Place the dough gently onto the counter top and stretch to a small square shape, don’t deflate it. Now pull each corner into the centre and then each side so you have a nice ball shape. Turn it over and roll it around a little to seal the seams and tighten the surface. Leave it to rest for 15 minutes so the dough relaxes. Have a look at the New York Times shaping videos.
9. This is the final shaping time. Get your second tea towel and sprinkle a little flour into the centre. Flip the dough so it’s seams side up. Gently stretch until it’s a square shape, fold over one half, pat it down gently. Fold the other side. If the dough is quite bulky, you can just roll it away from you. If you can get more surface tension still, pull a little of the dough from each side, starting from the top and cris crossing. Watch the NYTimes video tutorial link above, it will make sense. Don’t skip this second shaping, it adds even more volume to your loaf.
10. Gently place the dough seam side up onto the tea towel, then place it into your banneton or colander. Leave it for an hour, it will expand a bit more. Test the dough to see if this process is complete by gently poking your finger into the dough about 1/2 inch. If it springs back immediately, it needs to proof more. If it slowly springs back, it’s ready to go to sleep for at least 12 hours. Lightly dust the top of the dough.
11. Cold fermentation time, fold the towel over onto the banneton and put it into the refrigerator for at least 12 hours. The longer it does the cold ferment, the more the flavour will develop and also the easier it will be to digest.
12. To bake, preheat your oven to 500F with the Dutch oven and lid on inside the oven, at the same time.
13. When the oven is preheated, pull out the dough from the refrigerator and gently place it seam side down on a piece of parchment paper. Score it about 1/4 inch deep at a slight 45degree angle for a long head to toe score. Don’t worry about any other scoring for your first loaves. You should see some bubbles as the dough opens up a bit. That’s from all your hard work, enjoy it!
14. Pull out the Dutch oven from your oven. Gently lift the dough by the parchment paper into the hot Dutch Oven. Cover it and bake for 20 minutes with the lid on. After the 20 minutes, remove the lid and lower the oven temperature to 450F. At this stage you will likely see an ear and that the dough has risen, almost doubled in height. Bake for a further 18 minutes or until brown and caramelized. You’ll be tempted to pull it out early, but you really want it browned, including where it bloomed.
15. Let it cool for at least an hour. If you cut into it too early, it will go gummy. The steam is still cooking the dough gently. Don’t be tempted, restraint is required.
Let me know if you make this recipe and tag me on Instagram @wherelizis. Feel free to comment below or email me any questions.