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Author Notes: I've tried many methods of baking sourdough and through a combination of lots of different ideas and recipes have found a general formula and process that works for me, so I wanted to share that. I don't use a scale or measure things in bakers percentages, this is kind of a "rustic" method that's all about using your hands to mix dough and keenly observing textures to determine when to move on to the next step. Just have fun and don't get too hung up on technical details and specifics! —Lily Applebaum
Makes 2 loaves
- stiff sourdough starter -- I had success building mine based on Maurizio's instructions here: https://www.theperfectloaf.com/7-easy-steps-making-incredible-sourdough-starter-scratch/
- 6 and 2/3 cups flour, see note below
- 2 and 2/3 cups your hottest tap water
- first thing in the morning, OR right before bed (about 8 hours before you'll mix your dough): feed your starter as you normally would; I feed mine entirely with rye flour, especially at times of year when my kitchen is cold
- selecting your flours: I've found sourdough benefits from a combination of flours to control fermentation and flavor. If you're working with regular AP and whole wheat flours from the grocery store, which is usually what I do, I recommend adding some rye flour too. This ratio has worked best for me: 3 C AP, 3 C whole wheat, 2/3 C rye. If you're using a very low or no gluten flour like spelt, buckwheat, oat or a higher percentage of rye, swap one cup of AP flour for bread flour so that the dough will be stronger. If your kitchen is really cold you might want to consider bumping up the amount of rye, spelt, buckwheat or oat. The sourdough loves these whole grain (ish) flours and will generate more activity to counteract the slow fermentation in cold temps. Conversely, if it's really hot out you should use less so you don't get exploding dough. You can make the loaf with all AP flour, but I still recommend just a tiny bit of rye or something with more activity in there to ensure you get bread with lots of bubbles and sponginess.
- Once you’ve chosen your flours, in your largest mixing bowl mix all of the flour and all of the water. I just stir using clean hands. Mix until all of the flour is hydrated by the water, and if you need more water add it in little bits at a time. Wetter dough will give you a more open and spongy texture, but will also be harder to work with, so err on the side of less water if you’re new to sourdough.
- Leave the dough mix to rest for about an hour, covered at room temperature. Pro tip: plastic shower caps make great rinseable and re-usable bowl covers.
- At the tail end of the hour of resting, get your starter which should by now have risen to its full height and be falling back down. You can tell if there’s a line of residue above the line of volume of the starter, indicating that at one point the volume was higher. You should see lots of bubbles. Scoop out half of your starter and drop it in to the bowl of dough. Feed the remaining starter and put back at room temperature if you’ll bake again this week, or into the fridge if you wont.
- Mix the starter with the dough by pinching and folding until it’s no longer visible. Now you’re ready to start kneading. Many sourdough folks say not to knead the dough, but this has always worked for me and produced a great bread. We build up the gluten in this step so that as the dough ferments, it has “rungs on a ladder” to keep climbing up and rising. That’s how I understand it, anyway!
- To knead, you’ll basically be stretching and folding the dough. I do this by putting my hand underneath the whole mass of dough, scooping half of it up, pulling it up and stretching it, then folding it back down on itself. Then I give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat. I do this for 10-15 minutes which can get tedious and difficult, but it’s worth it!
- You can use the “windowpane” test to see when your bread is done; basically you stretch a small piece of dough between the index and thumb of both hands, and if you can stretch it thin like a windowpane without it breaking, it’s ready. If it’s like, 80% there I’d say it’s fine too, I often call off kneading at that stage.
- Add the salt to the dough and knead to combine. If you’re adding mix-ins to the dough, here is where you do that as well. Make sure that any dried fruit has been soaked almost to the point of being rehydrated, and drained.
- Cover the bowl again and leave to ferment at room temperature for anywhere from 8 - 12 hours. The longer it sits the more sour it will get, so something to keep in mind. If you really don’t want the sour flavor or it’s hot in your kitchen, give it if the full 12 hours in the fridge overnight. It should have risen a bit and have some bubbles near the top or visible along the sides.
- An hour before you bake preheat the oven to 500 degrees and put a pan in to the topmost rack of the oven filled with tap water. This will create the steam needed to get a shiny crispy crust.
- Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. I freeform shape both loaves and bake them together on one sheet, just for speed and convenience, but you could shape one, bake it on its own, and then shape the other.
- Now you’re ready to shape the dough. You’ll divide it in half and shape one half at a time in to two rounds. This video from “Bread monk” really illustrates what I do, but you basically want to hold the dough mass in the air and form it in to a ball by slowly stretching the top and sides downward to the bottom, creating surface tension. Don’t put the dough down on any surface unless it’s *covered* in flour because it will be very sticky. Once it’s shaped, place it on the cookie sheet as far over to one side as you can, then repeat with the other dough mass on the other side of the sheet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8J50Ad0KGvw
- Slash the top of each loaf with a sharp knife or razor blade, just a simple slash down the middle or a curved one on either side of the top will do. This allows steam to escape while baking so that the bread holds its shape. Do this the instant before you put the loaves in to bake.
- Every oven is different so it’s hard to advise on baking times and temps. I like to do 20 minutes at 500 degrees, then the remaining time at 450 or 425 if it looks like it’s really cooking, usually another 40 minutes. Start with this method and adjust as you need for your own oven. The bread is done when it’s deeply brown all over, if you used whole grains it might even look almost burned, and knocking on the bottom of the loaf with your knuckles produces a “hollow” open sound, not a dense short sound.
- Leave the bread to cool on a wire rack; it should be completely cooled before you cut in to it, which is the worst part about this whole process. If it’s mostly cool, you can leave it to cool the rest of its time in the fridge. I always store bread in the fridge, wrapped in a paper bag.
- This is the process and method that I’ve found consistently works for me, I hope it works for you too! Once you know what the dough is “supposed” to look like you can experiment with different kinds of flours, mix ins, levels of hydration, etc. I just made a bread where I used canned pumpkin to supply some of the hydration, and that worked beautifully! Enjoy!
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