There’s no better smell than a loaf of fresh baked bread! I’ve been baking bread, especially sourdough bread, since I was a teenager. Something is magical about baking your own bread. You take flour, water, salt, and yeast, mix it up and put it in the oven and you have bread. People have been baking bread like this for thousands of years all around the world.
If you bake the bread with yeast from the air in a sourdough starter it’s even more awesome! Your starter is like no other sourdough starter because it’s affected by the air in your home and the water and flour you use. You can make a infinite variety of bread by adding other ingredients and shaping the dough differently. This Basic Sourdough Bread recipe is perfect starting point for lots of variations.
I’m writing this series to share my favorite sourdough bread recipes and techniques with you. Routinely I bake several types of sourdough and I’ll be posting each of those recipes. I have changed my starter method since this post and I’ll write about that too. My mixing and baking methods have developed over time and I’ll share those as well.
Sourdough Starter Basics
I’ve had my starter for about 5 or 6 years. A friend of mine shared a starter given to her by her sister-in-law who worked at a bakery in Denver. I have no idea how long the bakery has been using the starter but I like to think it’s been around since the gold rush. My starter doesn’t have a name but it does have it’s sacred spot in the fridge.
I keep about 200 grams, or 1 cup of starter, and mix it directly into my dough without feeding it or letting it come to room temperature. Since my starter is well developed and strong, it works just fine.
Basic Sourdough Bread Recipe
Note: This is going to be a long post with lots of photos but I promise it’s a simple process. Trust me! Also, I use metric measurements because I’m a bread nerd but the method works very well with standard bread recipes. It’s what I do when I’m baking any bread, even my Daily Bread, because I don’t want to spend time kneading bread.
- 200 grams sourdough starter
- 300 grams water, room temperature is fine
- 500 grams bread flour, part whole wheat and part bread flour is great
- 11 grams salt
Pour the starter into a large bowl or container. I use these buckets with lids. Pour the water over the starter. Often I’ll add my whole wheat flour to the water and starter, mix it up, and let it sit for a few minutes. Other times I don’t. There’s no reason to do this rather than add it with the bread flour, it just depends on how I’m feeling that day.
Bread is not complicated, you just mix flour with a liquid and some form of yeast. In sourdough bread, the yeast happens to be wild yeast from your environment. This is even simpler since you don’t need to buy dried yeast. All the steps and temperature checking in most bread recipes only complicate the process. I promise, you can do it!
Add the bread flour and salt. If you are only using bread flour, just dump it right in there. Give it a quick mix and make sure all the flour is mixed in. There should be no clumps of flour under the dough. If you miss some it’s not the end of the world but now is the time to mix it all in. I use a spoon and stir purposefully.
Resting the Dough
Now you’re going to cover the bowl or container and let the dough rest for 20 to 30 minutes. This is called autolyse but it’s simply allowing the flour to absorb the water and relax a bit. There are lots of rest periods in this method. They are replacing the 10 to 15 minutes of kneading that traditional bread recipes call for.
Kneading develops the gluten in the wheat and gives the bread structure. The gluten forms an elastic network that traps the gas produced by the yeast as it feeds on the starch in the flour. Then the gluten network expands with the gas and makes the dough rise.
Resting the dough over several hours develops the gluten instead of kneading. This gives you a lot of flexiblility in baking because the dough can rest as long as you need throughout the day. Also you can put it in the fridge to proof, a fancy word for rise, overnight or for several days if you need to.
Start the Stretch and Folds
When I’m working with bread dough I use 3 sessions of stretch and folds to develop the gluten in the dough. I get my hand wet so the dough doesn’t stick to it, pick up the dough, stretch it up as far as it will easily stretch, and fold it over onto itself. Usually I do 3 stretch and folds before turning the dough over to the smooth side and covering it for another rest.
You can see how loose and clumpy the dough still is after that first rest. The first time you do a stretch and fold the dough will stretch pretty far but with each stretch it will get tighter. This is the gluten being activated and tightening up. You will notice a huge difference in the dough after the first stretch and fold session. Below you can see the dough before and after the first stretch and fold session. Instead of being rough and shaggy the dough is smooth and cohesive. Each time you work the dough you will see and feel how it changes in texture and airiness.
Second Stretch and Fold Session
After a 20 to 30 minute rest, it’s time for the second stretch and fold session. Wet your hand again, stretch the dough up, and fold it back over onto itself. Do this 3 times before turning the dough over to the smooth side and covering for another rest.
The resting periods are very flexible. I keep a loose idea of the time and when I come through the kitchen around the 30 minute mark I do the next stretch and fold. If it ends up being an hour, no problem. The goal is to do at least 3 stretch and fold sessions before the final proof of the dough. Just do a stretch and fold then cover the dough.
Below you can see the difference between the rested dough after the first stretch and fold session and rest and after the second stretch and fold session. You can see how much the dough relaxed and started to rise during that rest. Working the dough tightened it back up as more gluten was developed in the stretch and folds.
Third Stretch and Fold Session
After a good 20 to 30 minute rest, it’s time for the third and final stretch and fold session. The dough will be much more elastic this time and should be puffy from the rest. If it’s not, don’t worry. During the next resting period, which is also called the bulk ferment, it will get nice and puffy. Do your 3 stretch and folds then cover the dough.
You can see how the dough tightens up with this stretch and fold session. On the third stretch it pulled right up out of the container. Before you cover the dough, turn it over on itself to a smooth side. Below you can see how the dough looked before and after the last short resting period.
Now it’s time for a longer rise. This is entirely up to your schedule. You can let it rise for an hour or two before shaping, or you can let it sit until you get around to it. If it’s going to be more than 3 hours you can put the whole thing in the fridge and keep it overnight or even several days. What you are looking for is that the dough doubles in size. It will be very airy and puffy and probably have some big air bubbles in it.
Timeline for Basic Sourdough Bread
Any timeline for bread, especially sourdough bread, is very flexible. The dough in these photographs was mixed around 7am and by the bulk ferment it was around 6pm. A couple of big factors is how warm your room is and how active your starter is that day. I’ve had dough ready to shape after a 1 hour bulk ferment and others that took 4 hours to do their thing. Just watch it and know that if you can’t shape and bake the bread that day you can put it in the fridge until you can. You can also shape the dough and put it in the fridge to rise overnight then bake it the next day straight from the fridge.
Bread baking is generally very flexible and can be adjusted to fit your schedule. One thing that puts people off about baking bread is the strict timelines given in so many recipes. I used to follow those recipes exactly but finally realized that wasn’t necessary. It can easily fit your schedule and the timing of your day.
Once your dough is risen and puffy it’s time to start shaping your loaf. Tip the dough out on the counter and fold it over on itself a few times to make a ball of dough. Let it rest there for 15 or 20 minutes. Bakers call this a bench rest and it allows the gluten to relax a bit so you can shape the loaf easily. I quickly bring the sides in and roll it up to shape it.
Final Proof Set-up
After the bench rest it’s time for the final proof! I use a banneton basket lined with a cloth napkin and paper towels. You can use a bowl instead of a banneton basket if you want. This is a basket I thrifted and I use it for my round loaves. They usually come with a cloth liner but my dough always sticks to the fabric. I saw someone use paper towels instead and that works great. The cloth napkin stablizes the paper towels so they don’t tear when you are picking up the dough. Generously dust the paper towel with flour and set it aside while you shape the dough.
Shaping Basic Sourdough Bread
After the bench rest it’s time to shape the dough for it’s final rise. I wet my hands again and flip the dough over to the “bad” side. Starting at the top of the dough, pull the sides alternately to the middle almost like a braid. Take the end closest to you and roll it up to form a tight ball.
Next cup your hands around the dough ball and pull it towards you. This tightens the surface of the dough and forms what’s called a “gluten cloak”. A strong gluten cloak is what allows the sourdough bread to burst open in the oven along the slashes you will make on the dough. After pulling the dough 2 or 3 times you should have a nice tight ball of dough. It might take you a few times to get the hang of it but give it a try.
Final Rise for Basic Sourdough Bread
Set your ball of dough smooth side down on the flour dusted paper towel. If the dough is sticky you can dust the edges with flour. Lift the dough into the banneton or bowl with the napkin or paper towel. I fold the napkin over the dough and put the banneton into a plastic bag. Tie up the bag and set the dough aside to rise. If you are planning to let it rise in the fridge overnight and bake it in the morning, just put the whole thing in the fridge now.
After an hour check the dough and see if it’s risen enough. You are looking for the dough to be larger, puffy, and light. It won’t double in size for this rise but will be airy.
Get Ready to Bake!
During the final rise you want to get out your pan or whatever you’re using to bake the sourdough bread in. A friend gave me a beautiful stoneware cloche for bread baking. It’s great but there are other options you can use. For years I used a enameled cast iron dutch oven. You can also use a baking sheet. Whatever you use, get it in a 450 degree oven to heat for at least 15 minutes before you are ready to bake.
When the pan or dutch oven is really hot, carefully take it out and get ready to get your dough in it. Take the dough out of the bag and flip it over onto a sheet of parchment. You can turn it right onto the hot pan but I’m a firm believer in parchment so I bake everything on it.
Slashing the Dough
With the dough turned out onto the parchment, quickly slash the top with a sharp knife. There are special razor blades you can use but I use my sharpest knife. Slash the dough with the knife at an angle if you want the dough to open to the side and straight up if you want it to open more flat. I usually slash straight down the middle or in the pattern shown below. The big slash on the right is angled to the side and the 3 smaller ones are straight up and down. You’ll see how they open up in the oven when it bakes.
Baking Your Basic Sourdough Bread
It’s finally time to bake! Set the dough carefully on the hot pan. If you’re using a dutch oven, put the lid on. Bake at 450 degrees for 25 minutes.
Take the lid off, reduce the heat to 425 degrees and bake for 25 more minutes. When the time is up, take the pan out and let it cool for 10 minutes or so before taking the bread out to cool on a rack.
You can see how the big slash opened up to the side. Bread dough will rise a lot in the oven, it’s called oven spring. If you don’t slash the bread it will split open on it’s own wherever the weakest spot is.
Now you have an amazing loaf of sourdough bread! You can use it for so many things. Even if you don’t eat all of it fresh it makes the best croutons, bread crumbs, and bread pudding. I’ll be posting some of my favorite variations over the next few weeks so you can have more fun baking your own sourdough bread!