Basic Sourdough Bread
100g sourdough starter recently fed and grown to its peak
500g white flour
Mix the starter and salt into the water until homogeneous. Add flour and mix until combined (no kneading needed). Cover and keep in a warm place for a few hours. If you want, you can stretch and fold the dough a few times during this step.
The dough will be elastic and slightly inflated (maybe 25%-50% increase in volume, you want it to go from dense to spongy). As to not deflate the dough, gently form the dough into a log with a smooth, taut top and put it in a loaf pan and cover so it doesn't dry out.
Let it rest in a warm place for several hours (3-6 hours) until doubled in size. The checkpoint you're looking for is a very jiggly dough. It should visibly move when you jostle the pan. If you need, you can slow this process dramatically by putting the dough in the fridge.
Bake at 450ºF for about 25 minutes, or until it's as browned as you want (check it at 20 minutes). De-pan right away and let it rest on a cooling rack. Ideally, wait to cut once it's cooled down, but if you succumb to the temptation of freshly baked warm bread I certainly won't blame you.
Traditionally (and for good reason), you bake the bread in a dutch oven. The easiest way to simulate this is to put another loaf pan on top, but upside-down. This is not critical, but worth doing.
I use King Arthur 100% All-Purpose flour (the red bag) for my starter. I use King Arthur bread or all-purpose flour for the rest of the recipe.
I am not including what brand of flour I'm using because I'm a shill. What flour you use has a huge effect on your bread, so I want to be as specific as possible for anyone that wants to follow the recipe exactly.
An Introduction to Sourdough Bread Baking
My philosophy when making food is to achieve excellent quality while minimizing effort. I believe the above recipe is close to as simple as you can make good sourdough bread. It is not a recipe for a sexy round crusty loaf you might see on Instagram. The recipe serves as a summary for the semi-experienced, so I have also written this very detailed tutorial aimed at beginners. Why did I write this tutorial? The world of sourdough bread is rife with hearsay, confirmation bias, and dogma. When I started sourdough baking I found dozens of insane "must-do" methods that were all different.
I have tried to follow scientific sourdough bakers* in my self-study with the goal of distilling the process down to the critical components, and I will share here what I've found to be most helpful. Undoubtedly, there are things I do that are unnecessary or outdated, and I hope to correct them as time goes on.
I have linked particularly surprising or controversial statements to a source that provides evidence for them. I have also included some other links just for fun. I recommend watching all linked videos all the way through because they're good and contain even more information than I've written here.*people who challenge ideas and ask questions then test them using controlled experiments
Yeast is a fungus that eats carbohydrates and expels gas (and other stuff). This gas is captured by gluten protein, inflating the dough like a balloon and giving it the light and fluffy texture you expect. Without this leavening, your bread will be hard, dense, and something you'd rather throw in the garbage than eat. Packaged grocery store yeast works great, but humans have been making leavened bread for thousands of years without grocery stores. Wild yeast exists naturally in flour and in the air, and you can become a wild yeast caretaker by providing a home for them in a sourdough starter. This sourdough starter is your leavening. "Sourdough bread" means "bread leavened with wild yeast."
If you can make amazing bread with yeast from the store, why bake sourdough? It's more work, after all. Reason 1 is that it's fun. Reason 2 is that sourdough tastes really good (thanks to the wild yeast). Reason 3 is that wild yeast always exist naturally, while store-bought yeast can go out of stock during once-in-a-century pandemics.
If you know anyone that does sourdough, undoubtedly they will gladly give you some starter. After feeding it with nothing more than water and flour, just a speck of starter can grow into your own lively colony in a day's time. However, many people choose to make their own starter from scratch. Here's how to do it:
combine equal parts (by weight) flour and water and store covered at room temperature
every 24 hours, discard half of the mixture
feed the starter by replacing the discard with more flour and water, again equal parts flour and water
do this for at least a week until the starter doubles in volume in a few hours after a feeding
After tending to your starter for a week or more, it's very exciting to see it come to life as a big bubbly mass! If you've never seen this process before, you undoubtedly have some questions.
Why do I need to throw away half of it every day? - You are supporting the population growth of yeast. Population growth is an inherently exponential process, and providing enough food for your yeast requires some proportional amount of new flour. If you never discarded any starter, you would end up with a swimming pool of starter before too long. However, this is not the real reason why discarding is important! As I learned the hard way, discarding is an important step to building a strong colony of yeast because it artificially selects for the fast-growing yeast! Your starter will be sluggish and ineffective if you don't discard. At the very least, it will take longer to become sufficiently active for baking.
As a matter of practice, I find that it's easiest to not discard the starter from your container, but rather to use a clean container every day and discard into the new container. Then toss the old container in the dishwasher (rinse it out first, wet flour is literal glue).
Disclaimer: I am aware of methods of making a sourdough starter that don't discard at all. I have not tried these but I would like to some day. I am always looking for ways to throw out unnecessary baggage!
What container should I use? - Some people say that using glass is critical for sourdough starter. I sort of don't believe this, but I happen to use it anyway because I already had a bunch of mason jars. They are convenient because they have built-in lid functionality (for preventing the starter from drying out and keeping the flies out), and they make it easy to see how the starter is progressing (clear straight sides). Because of this I recommend using glass mason jars as well. I use quart-sized Ball wide mouth jars from the grocery store (the 9th Degree Sourdough Masters exclusively use Weck jars).
By the way, don't make the lid tight on your sourdough starter container or else it can explode. No, I'm not joking. Those yeast work hard! Also, make sure to use a container that is large enough. It's possible for your starter to triple in size. This is why I use quart-sized mason jars.
How much flour and water should I use? - This doesn't really matter when you are just starting out. Any amount that is practical to work with (say, more than a few grams for sure!) but not so much that you waste a lot of flour and water. I think that a good middle ground is starting with 25g flour and water (so 50g starter in total), then discarding 25g every day and replacing it with 12.5g each of flour and water every day. If you find this small quantity finicky, you can scale it up however you want.
What kind of flour and water should I use? - It doesn't matter (probably). I think I have better results with 100% whole wheat flour in my starter, but it probably doesn't matter. One thing that is definitely true is that whole grain flours will make a starter that stays inflated for longer; the yeast digest the carbohydrates more slowly. White flour starters will inflate super fast and then deflate just as quickly. It can be hard to miss this and can make it look like your starter is dead if you aren't super attentive. Use whatever you have. Once you need to buy more flour, consider trying a whole grain flour like rye or whole wheat. Mixing flours is totally fine.
It's extremely common to hear people swear on their mother's grave that you must use organic, non-bleached, local, freshly milled, vegan, non-GMO, free range, antibiotic free, cruelty free, Kosher, halal, pre-blessed, .... flour. This is bubkus. You can make a starter with anything. Do these extra labels make a better starter? Possibly.
As far as water goes, I just use straight tap water. Apparently some people have water that is so heavily chlorinated that it kills the yeast. You can try leaving the water out overnight to evaporate the chlorine, or just buy some jugs of water at the store.
How do you use starter? What do I do with my starter when I'm not baking? - Storing starter between batches is not hard. I find the easiest and most consistent method is the following:
Use your starter in a batch of dough almost completely, but leave some starter in your jar, maybe a tablespoon.
Put your almost empty jar in the fridge.
The day before your next loaf of bread, take the starter out and feed it so that the final quantity is the quantity you need for your bread.
Store overnight at room temperature.
By the next day the starter will have doubled or tripled in size. Use to leaven your bread, and repeat.
You might be able to leave your starter at room temperature 24/7. I have had mixed success with this. When the weather warmed up this stopped working and something killed my starter and black mold grew in it. Whatever you do, make a backup: take a good portion of starter (100g or so) and spread it thin on a nonstick surface (parchment paper or a silicone baking mat). Let it dry very thoroughly, say, 2 days at room temperature. Store in the fridge or freezer (indefinitely). Hydrating a few of these starter chips and feeding like normal will get you an active starter within a day or two in case something goes horribly wrong (and you won't have to start all over).
Mixing the Dough
You've heard of kneading dough. You probably think it's necessary to achieve a strong elastic dough. Guess what? It's not. In fact, I find that most of the strength and elasticity I need comes from simply combining the ingredients and waiting. Sourdough bakers have known this for a long time, and they call this process "autolyse" (this literally means "self mix"). Simultaneously, they will tell you that an autolyse must be only water and flour, with no salt or starter involved. This is manifestly not necessary. You get wonderful gluten development by just combining all your ingredients at once and letting it sit for an hour. Some people worry that combining the salt with the starter so early will hinder or kill the starter. It doesn't, definitely not at these ratios.
However, truth be told, I don't completely abandon the dough from mixing to baking. I typically do one to three "stretch and folds" during the fermentation process. This is grabbing the dough at the edge, pulling it up as far as the dough will let me, and folding it on top of the dough. Do this 5-6 times around the perimeter of the dough. This requires zero strength. It's just grab, stretch, fold. No kneading. In fact, kneading would be counterproductive, as it would deflate the bubbles. The purpose of these stretch and folds is to develop a bit more dough strength and to homogenize the temperature of the dough (often it's warm on the outside and cool in the center). If I don't stretch and fold at all, the dough can be a bit too slack and won't hold its shape super well. I still get delicious bread, but it isn't perfect. This is more relevant with freestanding loaves. A loaf in a pan can get away with a lazier dough than a traditional circular loaf can.
The amount of gluten in your flour will influence how much water you need to add to it. My recipe works for me with my flour in my environment. If you just follow my recipe under different circumstances, don't expect it to be perfect. Each flour wants a different amount of water, and it will require some experimentation to figure out how much. For example, whole grain flours want much more water than white flour. In general, too little water and your dough will be stiff and your bread hard and dense; too much water and your dough will be amorphous, sticky, and very difficult to handle.
As a final note, throughout all of sourdough bread making you will be mixing a lot of starter with water, and starter with dough, and flour with water, etc. These ingredients can be a little tricky to mix, and when the flour starts hydrating, mixing becomes even tougher. Because of this, I like to dissolve my starter (and salt) in the water thoroughly before adding any flour. It's much easier to homogeneously disperse starter and salt throughout the dough this way because it's already uniformly dissolved in the water. The traditional method is to add starter to autolysed flour and water, and then add the salt on top, and then more water! You end up with an unwieldy superposition of substances that do not want to mix. It works but I think it's a huge pain.
Fermentation here refers to the yeast doing their business. Practically, this is the same as rising/proofing/proving the dough. This can be a surprisingly delicate process, but if you stick to a few key ideas, it should go smoothly. Here are some of the key variables you need to pay attention to to get fermentation right:
how active your starter is/how long it's been since feeding it
how much starter you use
the temperature of your dough
how long you ferment the dough
As someone who was looking to put in minimum effort, I was disappointed to find that the fermentation process really does need to be done a certain way to achieve what I would call excellent sourdough bread. I don't pretend to understand the fine detail of everything I'm about to say, but I will say that I have found all of these to be important steps that can't be left out.
The starter should be very active, meaning that it has grown to its peak after a recent feeding. If the starter is kept in a warm place, this may be just a few hours after feeding. If it's kept in a cooler place, this may be several hours, maybe even overnight. This also varies from starter to starter. I use 100% whole wheat flour in my starter, and I feed it and put it in a warm place. After about 2-3 hours it has at least doubled and it's ready to go. Whatever you can do do make it grow vigorously will help your final bread. Some people like to do multiple feedings spaced out by only a couple hours to really get it going. I haven't found this to be necessary, but I don't doubt it would make even better bread.
The inoculation of a sourdough recipe refers to the quantity (by weight) of sourdough starter compared to the total amount of flour. This is an application of Baker's Math, which I am going to ignore the existence of completely from now on (you can look it up if you want). Low and high inoculation will both provide good bread. Low inoculation is a good idea if your environment is especially warm or if you want to do a very long ferment (this will give that sour sourdough flavor!). High inoculation is a good idea if your environment is colder or if you want a fast rise. I don't know where in that spectrum my recipe falls, perhaps around the middle, but it works for my environment and routine.
One thing I resisted for a long time was using a proofing box. This is a large insulated box whose internal temperature you can control fairly precisely to make a controlled fermenting environment for your dough. You can buy these for a lot of money. Instead of doing that, I took a large Amazon box, put a $30 seedling heat mat inside, put a cooling rack on top of that, and voilà, a proofing box. Everywhere I say "a warm place" in this guide I really mean "my proofing box set to 85ºF." It isn't insulated or sealed super well, so it usually coasts at about 80ºF. Some people use the top of their refrigerators as their warm place. What's important is to somehow be consistent, that way you can rely on how long fermenting will take. There are ways around controlling the environment temperature, though, but I really just prefer using my proofing box.
A very common technique is retarding the dough by doing the last fermenting step in the fridge overnight. For whatever reason, every time I've done this I haven't gotten the results I wanted. You may find this to be wildly successful, but I haven't. At the very least, you have the option of putting the dough in the fridge overnight to pause or drastically slow down the fermentation. You should do this if you didn't start your dough early enough in the day to bake it before going to bed.
You don't want to under-ferment or over-ferment your dough. It needs to be just right. Both will result in sad looking loaves. My favorite way of telling if a dough is done fermenting is if it's very jiggly. Perturbing the pan should result in an obvious dough jiggle. Not quite like gelatin, but also not far from it. At the moment I can't think of a better way to describe this, so you'll need to try it for yourself! Here's a good guide.
Shaping the dough is important if you're making a freestanding loaf. I'm referring to those circular loaves with the craggy tops that bakers go gaga over. The function of shaping is to make a taut membrane on the top of the dough which acts like a hot-air balloon when the bread bakes, allowing the loaf to rise considerably (this is called oven spring). It also gives lateral stability to the dough so it doesn't spread out into a pancake. When you're baking a loaf in a pan, much of this is moot because the pan walls take care of this for you. Getting that taut membrane won't hurt, though, and does help with getting better oven spring which will provide a lighter texture in your bread.
Keep it simple here. Just bake at 450ºF, somehow completely enclosing the bread in a sealed environment. The reason for this is that it helps the surface develop a wonderful texture and it encourages oven spring. If you have a Dutch oven, use that. Otherwise you can easily simulate one by combining a cookie sheet and a large upside-down metal bowl. Many people will say to rig up all sorts of contraptions for creating steam in your home oven and I've done it dozens of times. Every time I have been a little skeptical and disappointed in the results. I recently learned that home ovens are designed specifically to expel steam quickly. That explains a lot.
If you can't be bothered to do anything but bake the bread directly in the oven, you will still be rewarded with delicious bread. In this case, I say spritz the top of the dough with water first before you throw it in the oven.
Imagine pulling a ripping hot loaf of bread out of the oven. You put it on the cutting board and slice into it immediately. What happens? A cloud of steam billows out of the bread. This is not ideal, because that water was supposed to be in the bread, and now it isn't. Further, the chemistry going on in your bread hasn't finished. If you can, put the bread on a cooling rack and let it rest for an hour before cutting into it.
If you ignore this entirely, I don't care. Who's going to get mad at someone for eating hot freshly baked bread???
Originally published May 6, 2021
Latest update May 11, 2021