Baking Sourdough Bread At Home: A Beginner’s Guide

This post is a presentation of the essentials of sourdough bread baking, a collation of information I’ve acquired through months of inhabiting artisan bread baking forums, reading books by the bread gurus and – most important of all – trying many different sourdough bread recipes. Consider it a short-cut to your own wide wonderful world of artisan sourdough bread baking at home. Hopefully, I’ve included everything you need to know to get started.

If you haven’t been following this series of blogs on the sourdough bread movement, you might like to check out my previous post and have a listen to the ABC Regional Radio podcast embedded therein. Compelling stuff.

But why bother with home baked sourdough bread, you might ask, when there are now sourdough bakeries aplenty? That’s a question that could yield a book, but I’ll cut to the chase.

  • Variety
    No commercial bakery can match the variety available to the home baker. In the 9 months I have been baking, I’ve averaged 2-3 bakes per week, and of those, most have been different breads. Multi-grain loaves of whole wheat, spelt, rye, barley, semolina, oats; simple pain au levain; breads based on classics from master bakers in Europe, the US and even Japan; humble white sandwich bread; ciabatta; stollen; Swedish limpa; bananabread; bagels; panettone far better than any I’ve bought; ale barm bread; walnut bread, pancakes, naan, pizza… all sourdough-based and almost all from recipes made freely available on artisan bread forums in the spirit of sharing and support that is typical of the amateur baking tribe.
  • Quality of ingredients
    Home bakers bake on a small scale, and thus are able to afford premium quality organic flours that would be economically unviable for commercial operations.
  • Minimal set-up cost
    The equipment required is cheap and basic, and most kitchens will already have almost everything. You do NOT need a breadmaker – in fact, it’s better without one.
  • Time-flexible
    Making your own sourdough bread is nowhere near as time-consuming as you might think. The process is quite forgiving and can be manipulated to fit your schedule.
  • Relatively effortless
    The hands-on time involved is minimal – a bit of hand mixing, less than 5 minutes shaping, and the average bake takes 30-45 minutes. I don’t even knead (there’s a far quicker, easier and IMO better option – the stretch-and-fold. More details below).
  • Personal satisfaction
    It is thrilling to bake your own beautiful bread! There are pleasures to every bake that you never tire of: the wonderful aroma that fills the house during the bake, the rising of the dough, the first exposure of the ‘crumb’ (inside of the bread) when you cut your initial slice – and best of all, the first taste. OK, I’m obsessed, an addicted breadhead, but I am far from alone. The artisan bread baking forums are full of folk like me! Start baking, and the odds are it will change your life as it has ours. There is something grounding, calming, and deeply satisfying about baking bread. Mystical even. But this is supposed to be a practically orientated post, so I’ll resist the calling to move into philosophical mode.


  • The Basics of Sourdough Bread Baking
    OK, to business. How do you get started? With a starter!

    The Starter
    A starter is a wild yeast culture made from flour and water. It’s a natural leaven – otherwise known as ‘sourdough’ – for making bread and other naturally yeasted baked goodies. Once it’s active, you can store it in the fridge between bakes. Take it out and feed it up when you’re planning to make bread. Then put it back in the fridge. Or, if you’re baking very regularly, just keep it out and fed.

    There are numerous ways to begin a starter. It took me some time and a few methods to get mine going. It was mid-winter, and I blamed my first failed attempts on the cold ambient temperatures (12-18C in kitchen). As it turned out, the temperature was not a factor – my refined fine-ground rye flour was. As soon as I switched to quality organic whole-grain rye flour in combination with plain white flour, voila!

    Here’s the method that was successful for me:

    What you will need
    1. White flour (no additives, but any good supermarket brand will do)
    2. Rye flour (whole-grain, preferably organic)
    3. Water (preferably filtered)
    4. A clean glass bowl or large jar
    5. Digital scales

    Day 1
    Add to the bowl:

  • 50g water
  • 35g white flour
  • 15g rye flour
  • Stir until well-combined, set aside on kitchen countertop for 24 hours.

    Day 2
    As per Day 1. In other words, you’re doubling your ingredients in the container, and leaving the mixture for another 24 hours.

    Day 3
    As per Day 2 (getting a sense of déjà vu?)

    Day 4
    Discard all except about a tablespoon of the starter mixture (if possible compost it, or use it in pancakes rather than trashing it). Mix in 100g water, 70g white flour, 30g rye and leave for 24 hours.

    Day 5
    As per Day 4. More pancakes for breakfast!

    Day 6
    You might notice some bubbles forming, and an acetone-like odour. This is good! Discard all but 1 tablespoon and feed again as per Day 5. Leave 24 hours.

    Day 7
    Continue to discard and feed your starter daily as per days 4, 5 and 6 for at least another week.

    Your starter is ‘active’ when after 24 hours it has doubled in volume, and is light, airy and of a mousse-like consistency. It is now ready to use for baking sourdough bread! Use it when it has peaked (8 to 12 hours after feeding, depending on your room temperature – the warmer your room, the faster it ripens).
    Note: In warm summer temperatures, you will probably need to feed it twice per day, or even three times, to keep it in premium ripe condition.

    Taking Care of your Starter
    You don’t need to keep discarding starter mix. Once you have an active starter, when you’re not intending to use it just store it in the fridge in a glass jar with a screw-on-lid. Take it out and feed it for a day or so before using – this will wake it up and get it nice and ripe again. You can leave an active starter for several weeks in the fridge. If you find a smelly liquid has formed on top (called “hooch”), just stir it in and feed the starter a few times. It will soon spring back to prime health.

    Some bread recipes require plain white flour starters, or 100% rye starters, or other flour combinations. You don’t need to keep separate starters. Once you have an active one, you can easily convert it by feeding it a few times with the flour or flour combination specified in whatever recipe you’re following. It’s probably best not to radically change its feed to begin with though. Eg: if you have a plain white starter and want to convert it to 100% rye, first feed introduce 30% rye with 70% white, then increase the proportion of rye gradually over the next few feeds until it is 100%.

    The same applies for different hydrations. You might want to try a recipe that uses a 75% hydration starter. If your stored starter is 100% hydration, just drop the water proportion to 75% of the flour content for a few feeds. Simple!

    Don’t be impatient, as I was. I was so eager to get going, I convinced myself that a few bubbles and an acetone-like smell were signs that my starter was ready. It was not. Without enough healthy yeast to leaven the dough, it won’t rise and your bread will be compact and flat. Ah dammit, here’s a pic of my inglorious first bread attempt – known in baking circles as…

    brick May 09


    …a ‘brick’!


    immature starterHere’s the starter that I mistakenly assessed as ready for duty

    active starter
    Here’s the same starter a few days later, this time fluffed up with healthy yeasty activity and genuinely raring to go. And the result?

    first bread
    My first real bread!

    If you’re not sure your starter is ready, it probably isn’t. The signs of an active starter are unmistakable and obvious: it will double in size, or more, within 8-12 hours (maybe up to 16 hours in very cold conditions), be light and mousse-like in texture, and aerated with bubbles.

    Where does the yeast come from?
    Debate rages endlessly. Some insist that yeast spores are floating around in the air, others that they are in the flour. The latter explanation has scientific backing. Me? I don’t care. It’s romantic to think that the yeast spores you invoke when you begin your starter are the same ones that the ancients used to make the very first breads, borne in the air down through the centuries, but my money’s on the scientists. Whatever, this really is a case of ‘build it and they will come.’ For me that’s magical, wherever the little beasties heil from.



    Equipment
    Some folk use expensive electric mixers, but I mix all my dough by hand (using a dinner knife to stir). And whatever recipes might specify, I’ve never encountered a dough that couldn’t be hand-mixed. So, up to you, but I wouldn’t be buying a Kitchen Aid or similar. All you need is:

  • Large plastic or glass mixing bowl
  • Smaller plastic or glass bowl, or large jar, for starter
  • 10L oblong plastic container (I use Décor)
  • A pizza stone or baking tile
  • Digital kitchen scales
  • Plastic dough scraper
  • Plastic spray bottle
  • Baker’s peel (or the back of a cookie sheet will suffice)
  • Bread pans (optional – I prefer shaping the bread myself and baking on a pizza stone)
  • That’s it! You can spend more if you like. Bannetons, brotforms, couche linen and other professional bakery equipment give panache to your breads, but you can get by perfectly well without them.



    Ingredients
    Flour
    I prefer premium quality organic flours. You can afford the best as a home baker, but it’s not about bucks for me. I love quality flavoursome breads. Why would I compromise flavour, or my own baking, by using supermarket flour? You can if you choose, though. It will work fine, and you’ll still be turning out far better bread than you can buy from most commercial bakeries (or from many boutique sourdough bakeries!). It just won’t be as good as it could be…and that’s unbearable for people like me.

    You’ll need a variety of flours. Start with a basic store of the following:

  • plain or all-purpose flour
  • bakers’ flour (higher protein than standard)
  • whole-grain rye
  • whole-grain wheat
  • fine semolina (for sprinkling over peel to prevent dough sticking)
  • rice flour (for coating couches or teatowels, if you use them at the shaping stage; rice flour doesn’t stick to dough as others do)
  • As you get more adventurous in your bread baking, you’ll probably want to seek out some spelt flour, durum semolina, barley flour, oat flour…the list goes on.

    Water
    Any potable tap water will suffice, but I prefer to use filtered water.

    Salt
    I use cheap sea salt (‘cooking salt’), without iodine or anything else added to it.



    Some Bread Baking Terminology
    Don’t get spooked by the jargon. You’ll pick it up bit by bit as you engage in the artisan bread baker forums, but here’s a short list that might help initially:

  • Autolyse: After the dough is mixed, many bakers like to let it sit for 20–40 minutes or so before adding salt and starter. This is known as ‘autolysing’ or ‘the autolyse’ (pronounced auto-leeze). During the autolyse, the flour hydrates and the gluten begins to develop. Longer autolyse periods may also enhance flavour. Note: the autolyse does not have the same effect for all doughs. Be guided by the recipe.
  • Bakers’ percentage: A universal system of communicating the ingredient proportions in bread dough so that the formula can be scaled up or down via simple calculation. Basically, the total weight of flour used in a dough (excluding the starter) is considered to be 100%; all other ingredients are calculated as a percentage relative to that. Don’t worry about it – you’ll pick it up. Learn as you go. The best way to begin is by trying a few recipes. (The only reason you might want to use bakers’ percentages is for calculating ingredient weights when re-scaling recipes; if you merely stick to the weights specified in recipes, you won’t need to do any calculations).
  • Bread porn: Artisan bakers’ term for pictures of home-baked bread. Most prized is the ‘crumb shot’ (a cross-sectional pic of a loaf that has been sliced to expose the crumb).
  • Bulk proof: The period after mixing the dough, usually 2-4 hours, during which the dough undergoes its initial fermentation.
  • Crumb: The soft, inner part of the bread, encased by the crust. In artisan breads, an open irregular crumb is generally considered a plus, rather than the tighter crumb you see in white sliced supermarket sandwich bread.
  • Proof: The final fermentation that takes place after the dough is shaped, prior to baking.
  • Score or slash: To make shallow cuts in the dough surface directly before loading into oven. There are two reasons for this: aesthetic and functional (slashing assists the bread to rise evenly and keep its shape as it expands, and also promotes oven ‘spring’ – that is, the rise of the dough).
  • Stretch-and–fold: An alternative technique to kneading (and one that I certainly prefer). Have a look at this video demonstration by US bread guru, Peter Reinhart, and all will be clear:






  • Procedure
    There are many ways to make good sourdough bread. You will develop your own preferences as you move through a few different recipes. My technique varies for different breads, but I usually adapt recipes to allow an overnight ‘retardation’ of the dough in the fridge after bulk proving (or, more usually for me, after post-shape proving – I often bake my shaped bread straight out of the fridge). I find overnight retardation fits my schedule well, and has the added bonus of developing flavour by slowing down and extending the fermentation process. You may prefer to mix your dough and bake your bread on the same day. As a home baker, it’s your choice!

    The following steps are a brief summation of the process I use in most breads:

  • Refresh starter until ripe and ready to use
  • Mix dough
  • Bulk proof (first stage of fermentation). I transfer dough to 10L oiled oblong plastic container with lid for this part. Stretch-and-folds are done once hourly to strengthen the dough.
  • Pre-shape, rest, then shape the dough
  • Proof (final stage of fermentation)
  • Retard overnight in fridge (or you can leave this step out and bake the same day if preferred)
  • Score the dough
  • Bake
  • Cool on cake rack for 2 hour mimimum before cutting your first slice


  • Shaping
    When I began baking bread, I didn’t pay any attention to shaping. After the bulk proof, I would just dump the dough into a bread pan, pat it benevolently to even up the surface, and that was that. If I was making a boule (round loaf), I’d form the dough into a ball with cupped hands and transfer it to a plastic-bag-lined round casserole bowl. I soon learned that the result of not shaping your dough properly is often a very irregular crumb with wonky features you don’t want – such as tunnels and caves. Here’s a video demonstrating correct shaping techniques (there are lots more, covering any shape of loaf you might wish to make – do a search):

    Once you’ve shaped your dough, you need some sort of mould to put it in that will retain the shape you’ve so lovingly given it while it proves. Pros and perfectionist home bakers use bannetons, brotforms, baskets and couche linen, which I see as a needless expense, since I’m happy with my breads having a rustic look. In the best tradition of the home baker, I improvise with teatowels, colanders, baking paper, bricks or blocks of wood – whatever works! If you are interested in my home-grown strategies to overcome a lack of pro equipment, let me know in the Comments (no private emails, please) and I’ll do a follow-up post on this.



    Recipes
    As mentioned, almost all the recipes I’ve tried have been courtesy of amateur artisan bread bakers posting on bread baking forums. There really is no need to buy books if all you’re after is recipes. There are some very well-resourced and skilful home bakers out there, who are ever-willing to share their knowledge. Peruse some of the many artisan bread blogs or forums and you’ll find any number of tantalising recipes, some based on classic breads made famous by acclaimed professional bakers, some developed by the posters themselves.

    Here’s a good one to start with; it’s an easy dough to work with and the bread is one of my favourites:
    Norwich Sourdough Bread

    Every Friday, breadheads submit pics of their latest baking triumphs to YeastSpotting! – something of an institution among home bakers. Well worth checking, as the pics are usually linked to the posters’ recipes.

    Below are links to my favourite artisan bread blogs and forums. Google and you’ll find many more. And although you don’t need to splash out on books, you’ll probably want to read the gurus once full-blown bread-baking addiction begins to take hold – see recommended texts below.



    Recommended Resources

    Websites/blogs:
    Bread cetera
    Farine
    The Fresh Loaf (my favourite bread site)
    Wild Yeast



    Bread Baking Books:


    Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes

    This expansive work of Hamelman’s is widely acclaimed as the bread ‘bible’. Written for professional and amateur bakers, it is detailed and technical at times, and many of the recipes are not sourdough based. Nevertheless, Hamelman’s writing is a joy, and this hard-cover classic is highly recommended for anyone seriously into artisan bread baking.




    The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread

    Peter Reinhart is another of the American gurus whose name and recipes come up all the time on artisan bread forums. This is his seminal text, and is well worth having. As with Hamelman, extremely well written. Gorgeous photographs. Again, though, only a minority of the recipes are sourdough.




    The Handmade Loaf

    Lepard is English, and the breads he covers are all European in origin. Makes for interesting reading and the photography is choice. Some good sourdough recipes, although most call for commercial yeast. His ale barm bread is one of my favourites. This book is far simpler in its treatment than the others I’ve recommended here, and more directly geared to the home baker. A good one to start with.

    Note: If you’re Australian-based, you’ll find that these books are available from Amazon at prices way lower than those local retailers are asking. As always, the more you order at one time, the cheaper the shipping works out. And yes, the above are affiliate links, which means I get a small commission if you click on them and then order. I refuse to monetise this blog with Google Adwords etc, but given the ridiculous amount of time I’ve put into this post I felt justified in embedding these Amazon affiliate links on this occasion. But go ahead and bypass them if you wish to order without dropping a few miserable shekels in my begging bowl. Your karma…

    I have bought all my bread books through Amazon, with the exception of Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf, for which I got a better deal through the UK online seller, The Book Depository. It’s worth checking their prices against Amazon’s, as they have free shipping. Most of the time, their prices are much higher for US published books, though, even factoring in Amazon’s shipping charges.

    There you go then. Everything you need to get started. What are you waiting for?

    Find this post useful? Buy me a coffee (if you’d like!).



    Related Posts:

  • Sourdough Rising – The Home Artisan Bread Baking Revolution
  • Song Of A Baker
  • 10 thoughts on “Baking Sourdough Bread At Home: A Beginner’s Guide”

    1. This is a very good beginner’s guide to sourdough baking, very comprehensive and thorough. The only thing I would add here is that your readers (including me, of course) would love to see a recipe of your own to complete this post. So here it goes: this is a beautiful Pain de Campagne recipe by the author of this post with beautiful bread pictures (sorry I am not used to the term “bread porn;” neither is my daughter, who I consulted with):

      http://sourdough.com/recipes/pain-de-campagne-100-sourdough

      Thank you for bringing something like this to your readers. Most enjoyable reading.

      Shiao-Ping

    2. Thanks for your generous appraisal, Shiao-Ping.

      For the benefit of readers who are not breadheads (yet!), Shiao-Ping is one of the brightest shining stars in the home artisan baking firmament. You won’t miss her posts if you start inhabiting home baking forums.

      Do not hesitate to try her recipes. I’ve baked many of them. Super-reliable, most are her own formulae, often based on classic breads by acclaimed master bakers. Shiao-Ping might be considered a medium channelling these master bakers for the aspiring home artisan bread baker. And nothing gets lost in the translation – I can attest to that!

    3. Question:I am visiting my daughter in Africa and she is baking bread. It is very crumbly —why would that be?
      Thank you,
      wh

    4. Hello Waltraud. It’s impossible for me to answer your query without knowing more about the bread your daughter is baking. Is it sourdough or yeasted? What sort of flour is she using? What’s the recipe?

      Sounds like the gluten is under-developed, or the hydration is too low, but these are just vague guesses. Best I can do without more information, I’m afraid.

      If she’s doing sourdough bread, perhaps you could point her to my post above. If she takes careful note of the content, she should turn out a very decent loaf of bread. I the post you’ll see I’ve linked to an excellent recipe (the Norwich Sourdough Bread With Rye), or she could have a go at my simple sourdough bread recipe, which is pretty much foolproof as long as she uses a good active starter and follows the directions exactly.

      Cheers
      rolanstein

    5. Yes please to: “If you are interested in my home-grown strategies to overcome a lack of pro equipment, let me know in the Comments”. I would be very interested indeed as I am being careful to hold back on buying too much at this stage. I find the sure way to kill off a passion is to go out and buy all the kit. Far better to make do and manage and work your way up. I did rig up a home made banneton with my first sourdough boule using a bowl, teatowel and regular bread flour. The boule stuck to the inner folds of the towel which were not dusted. For my French sticks I have twice successfully used a cotton teatowel dusted with flour and then pulled up to shape the sticks. Yesterday I was in the garden centre looking at small clay flower pots but I am concerned my oven is not too big and if it can accomodate. So any tips you have would be most useful.

      Yesterday I purchased an oven thermometer. An essential with our oven as heaven knows it does it’s own thing and I rather think it is hotter than it says and so I compensate which can be hit and miss.

      When you have the time and the inclination I look forward to any further tips. Thank you!

    6. Hi Doris

      Try proofing your shaped dough on baking paper. No flour, no mess, and you can just slide it straight into your oven when it’s time to bake. Cut it wide enough to fold the edges up the side of the dough, then put supports on either side on the outside of the baking paper so the dough doesn’t spread out too much. I just use two empty aluminium foil cardboard containers, or you could use a couple of lengths of wood (untreated, obviously).

      When I’m retarding in the fridge overnight, I just bung the lot in a 10L plastic Decor container with the lid on. Lay a food-grade plastic bag over the dough first, though, to make sure it doesn’t dry out and form a skin.

      I do think a pizza stone is essential, unless you always use containers to bake in. Unbeatable when baking pizzas, too, and so cheap.

      And the cheapest bit of kit is really invaluable: a plastic dough scraper!

      Along with a mixing bowl and digital scale (I’ve been using a cheap Target one for years, and it’s fine), that’s about all you need in terms of equipment. The most important elements in turning out superb artisan bread at home are top quality flour, passion for bread and experience.

      Cheers!
      rolanstein

    7. Thank you!

      Just yesterday I was watching some Youtubes and someone used greaseproof as a “banneton” lining in a bowl and then baked with it in a hot crock with a lid on it. Seems obvious really to use greaseproof … and then using the tubes or something as support. I think I can work with that and develop more possibilities. The only thing is – they oiled the greaseproof really well and you do not mention that. Maybe it does not need oiling? I can experiment.

      I noticed also yesterday you’ve mentioned your plastic box in other posts and then I remembered I have a useful oblong shaped box with lid that will fit in our fridge. Done.

      I’ve had a pizza baking plate for over 30 years and hadn’t thought to use that. It is heavy and meant for cooking the pizza in a hot oven. Just not big and would be good for boule sized loaves etc. Yaaay. I’ve heard of people using an unglazed tile but I will try the pizza plate first.

      LOL and as for the plastic dough scraper I have yet to get a decent sized one but for the moment found that really stiff up-until-now-no-good-for-anything scraper at the back of the drawer the other day and have been using that. Has been so useful.

      We already have a digital scale though I think I might need a new battery as I do not think it is registering so well these days. Or a new scale. It is about 10 years old and should be for mail but I put a bowl on it to measure and re-set to zero.

      As for flour, I now own a bag of organic rye flour and find that suddenly we do have variety of bags of flour. I have yet to push the flour boundaries even more and that is a whole world to discover.

      Thanks for your tips – most useful and I am sure others will appreciate too.

    8. HI Doris.

      Please note, I’m not referring to greaseproof paper. I use baking paper, which is completely different. It is not waxed, just heat-resistant, and one piece lasts me for multiple bakes. Very economical. And you definitely do not need to oil or grease it!

      Cheers!
      R

    9. Thanks for the clarification! I had no idea of the difference so did a bit of poking around on Wikipedia. Amazingly, the roll I have is called “Parchment Paper” which according to other sources suggests it is the same as Baking Paper. Yet to me, apart from looking whiter it seems just like “greaseproof” paper, and is relatively thin. I originally bought this catering pack as I use it for homemade party banners! I couldn’t imagine reusing it but I will experiment to see.

    10. Yep, parchment paper is the same as baking paper. Different countries, different names.

      You can definitely re-use it. It scorches on the edges and becomes brittle, but if you’re careful you can extend its life bake after bake. I get 5-10 bakes of bread out of a single sheet.

      Note, though, it’s best to yank it out or gently prise it away from beneath the bread mid-bake (say, at the 20-25 minute mark, or so). It should come away from the base of the loaf easily. If it doesn’t, give it more time. Removing it ASAP once the loaf is underway not only extends the usable life of the paper, but also allows the base of the loaf to crisp up more. I’m assuming the use of a pizza stone or similar.

      Make sure you remove it quickly, though. If you leave the oven door open too long you’ll lose heat and that will affect the finished loaf. Careful you don’t burn your hands when removing the paper! I’ve done that too many times to count. Ah, the baker’s battle wounds!

      Cheers
      rolanstein

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