Crusty, rustic sourdough bread with a creamy, airy crumb is one of the most rewarding bakes you will ever pull out of your oven. The process takes about 2 days and although there may be a lot of steps involved, this guide will show you exactly how to make a Basic Sourdough Bread with a sourdough starter and only 5 ingredients in your own kitchen.
I don’t think I can count how many loaves of bread I’ve created since I published the first version of this recipe in 2018. I was a new baker and writing the blog post helped me make sense of the bread baking process. Since then, I’ve baked a loaf of sourdough every week (sometimes multiple times a week) and each loaf taught me a different lesson, helping me improve my understanding of baking and the magical world of fermentation.
I thought it was finally time to update this recipe and share those lessons with you! In most instances I’ve simplified my process, and in every case I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the purpose behind every step.
There’s lots to know about sourdough, feel free to jump around:
- Take me to the recipe
- What is sourdough bread?
- Why I love this recipe
- What you need
- Step-by-step instructions
- How to strengthen your dough
- How to shape sourdough
- Importance of scoring
- Baking with steam
- Frequently Asked Questions
What is sourdough bread?
Sourdough bread is a type of bread made using a sourdough starter.
All yeast-raised bread is created through fermentation, however, sourdough bread uses a wild yeast culture instead of commercially available yeast. Commercial yeast is much more efficient at metabolizing sugars, so while dough leavened using commercial yeast can usually proof (ferment) in an hour, using sourdough can take upwards of 4 hours.
During this long fermentation process, yeast and bacteria metabolize the sugars in flour and convert them into carbon dioxide and organic acids (lactic acid and acetic acid). CO2 causes dough to rise, giving bread its characteristic light and airy texture. While lactic acid and acetic acid impart the unique, tangy, pleasantly funky flavor of sourdough bread.
The benefits of fermentation extend beyond flavor and texture, it also gives the microorganisms present in sourdough the time to predigest flour. This makes flour more easily digestible and unlocks nutrients in wheat that our bodies cannot normally absorb. This makes sourdough bread naturally more nutritious than other types of bread.
Why I love this recipe
This Basic Sourdough Bread recipe is great for beginners because it has a relatively low hydration level. Hydration level is the amount of water in a recipe relative to the amount of flour (this includes the water and flour in the sourdough starter as well). So if you are making this with a 100% hydration sourdough starter, this recipe is about 71%. This results in a dough that’s not too slack or sticky and is very easy to work with.
If this is your first bake, or you’re new to sourdough, stick with recipes that have 75% hydration level or less.
What you need
- Sourdough starter - The main leavener for your Basic Sourdough Bread, it tenderizes your dough and causes your bread to rise. You'll need a mature starter to create this recipe.
- Bread flour - Bread flour has a protein content of 12 to 14% and is made out of hard wheat varieties. This makes it “stronger” than other types of flours and allows it to form stronger gluten networks which is essential for bread with a soft, creamy crumb and crispy crust.
- Whole wheat flour - Whole wheat flour adds a lovely nuttiness and earthiness to bread. I always add between 20 to 30% which is enough to impart a mild nuttiness but will not weigh down your bread. If you don’t keep any in your pantry, feel free to use all bread flour instead. You can even substitute the same amount of ancient grains like Kamut, einkorn or spelt.
- Water - If possible try to use filtered, well or bottled water. It’s commonly thought that the chlorine and chemicals in tap water can negatively affect or even kill the microorganisms in sourdough.
- Salt - Not only does salt add flavor to your bread, it also helps strengthen the gluten network in your dough. Leave it out and your bread may collapse as it bakes.
Must have tools
- Mixing bowls: a large mixing bowl with lots of room to make your dough
- Dutch oven: steam is essential when baking sourdough bread. The easiest way to add steam in your oven is by using a Dutch oven.
- Spatula or wooden spoon
- Kitchen scale: precision is key with bread baking, measuring by weight is much more accurate than volume measures
Tools that are nice to have
- Lame and razor blades: a specialized tool for scoring bread, if you don’t have one, use a sharp paring knife
- Banneton: proofing basket, wicks excess moisture away from the dough as it proofs
- Rice flour: prevents the dough from sticking to your proofing vessel and will not scorch in the oven
- Proofing Box: a temperature controlled kitchen appliance that maintains a consistent temperature where fermentation can occur at an optimal level
Although it takes a long time to make sourdough bread, the entire process takes about 2 days from start to finish, a lot of it is very hands off.
The first day is the most involved, you'll spend about 8 hours activating your starter, mixing and strengthening your dough, then finally you'll shape it and let it rest in the fridge overnight. But don't worry you'll only be handling the dough 5 to 10 minutes at a time during this period, the rest of that time you'll let the dough rise untouched as it ferments.
On the second day, you'll score the dough and bake it. Letting the dough rise in the refrigerator over night slows down the yeast, but not bacterial activity so your dough will continue to develop richer, deeper flavors. You can even bake straight from the refrigerator so it also adds a bit more flexibility to the process.
It’s very important to make sure you commit enough time to working with your dough and letting it proof. Remember that proofing is what makes delicious, light and airy bread. If you don’t let your dough rise for enough time you’ll end up with a dense gummy loaf, frustration and lots of wasted time and ingredients.
There are quite a few steps involved in making sourdough bread and while it may seem daunting and confusing now, if you work at it, the process will begin to feel like second nature. You’ll develop a feel for your dough, and while your first few loaves may not be perfect, with each bake you’ll learn new lessons, gain expertise and improve your skills.
- Activate your starter: Feed your starter at least 4 hours before you are ready to mix your dough. Ideally, you should use your starter when it is at its peak once it has doubled in volume, and before it sinks.
- Mix the dough: Combine the ingredients together in a large mixing bowl and stir until no traces of dry flour remain. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest for 1 hour.
- Strengthen the dough: Complete a series of folds in 30 minute intervals. Let the dough rest for 1 hour after you’ve completed your last fold.
- Shape the dough: Shape the dough into a boule or a batard and place it into your proofing basket.
- Cold proof: Place the dough into the refrigerator overnight. This will slow down fermentation, and intensify the flavor of your bread.
- Preheat the oven: Preheat your oven to 500 F with the Dutch oven inside
- Score the dough: Cut a large gash on your dough, about ¼-inch deep. Scoring creates a weak point in your dough where steam can escape, this allows your dough to rise in the oven without bursting in random places.
- Bake with steam: Bake your bread for 25 minutes covered and 10 to 15 minutes uncovered, depending on how dark you want your crust.
Sourdough Bread Recipes You'll Love
- Sourdough Cinnamon Raisin Milk Bread
- Spelt Country Loaf
- Sourdough Oatmeal Sandwich Bread
- Sourdough Discard Sandwich Bread
Bulk fermentation is the most important step in the bread making process. This is when the yeast digests the sugars in the flour and transforms it into carbon dioxide, resulting in fluffy, airy bread. It's important that you give the microorganisms enough time to complete this process or you'll end up with gummy, dense bread.
The amount of time it takes to complete this step in the process will depend on your environment. If it's too hot your yeasts will be overactive and fermentation will occur quickly, too cold and they'll be sluggish and it will occur slowly. Fermentation occurs at an optimum level between 78 to 80 F. I use a proofing box, which keeps my dough at a constant temperature of 78 F. In these ideal conditions, my bulk fermentation usually takes about 4 to 5 hours. This may be different for you depending on the conditions in your kitchen.
Signs of fermentation
I'll be giving timed cues in this recipe but remember that fermentation is highly dependent on temperature, so times may be differ for you. Pay attention to the signs of fermentation instead of depending on the clock.
- Noticeable increase in volume
- Dough looks bubbly
- Build up of air bubbles in your dough
- Dough is no longer overly sticky
- Edges of the dough look domed and not flat
How to strengthen your dough
Yeast and bacteria do most of the work in creating a really good loaf of bread. Our jobs as bread bakers is simply to create the right conditions to take advantage of their hard work. This mainly involves creating a strong and organized gluten network. Since this dough is quite wet, it will be quite difficult to knead. Most sourdough recipes are no-knead, instead you’ll complete a series of folds.
How to stretch and fold
Pick up one side of the dough and stretch it upward
Fold the dough over itself, give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat until all sides are folded
How to coil fold
Pick up the middle of the dough and pull up until the ends release from the container
Tuck the ends of the dough under
What is the windowpane test?
The windowpane test is a great way to take the guess work out of determining whether you've developed enough strength and structure in your dough. It demonstrates that you have created strong gluten bonds that can capture and hold on to the gas that's produced during fermentation.
How to perform the windowpane test:
- Gently pinch a portion of your dough with damp fingertips.
- Stretch it as thin as possible without, until it appears translucent.
- Position your fingers behind the translucent dough, if it's thin enough to see the silhouette of your fingers: you've passed!
- If your dough rips easily your dough is not ready and you should continue with your coil folds.
Once you've passed the windowpane test, you can stop folding and continue to the next step of the process.
How to shape sourdough
Shaping coaxes your dough into its final form, and allows it to rise up instead of spread out. It also creates surface tension which results in a crispy crust. You can use this shaping method for either a boule (round) or batard (oval).
1 Turn your dough out on to a clean surface. Flip the dough over. Lightly flatten the dough out into a rectangle.
2 Working with the longer side of the rectangle, fold the bottom of the dough towards the middle and the top over that (like you’re folding a letter).
3 Pick up the shorter sides of the cylinder and gather them towards the center. Gently place the dough inside your proofing basket, seam side up.
4 Pinch the seam shut. Wrap the towel over the top of the dough.
Importance of bread scoring
In addition to adding a decorative flair to your bread, scoring serves a very practical purpose.
The water in your dough will quickly evaporate as it bakes in the hot temperatures of your oven. Scoring creates a weak point in your dough, this directs where steam can escape from. If you don't score your dough, water vapor will exploit the weakest point in your dough, causing your bread to burst in unwanted places.
How to score sourdough bread:
- Turn your proofed dough out on a piece of parchment paper that will fit into your baking vessel.
- Secure a sharp blade on your lame. *Carefully rub a thin layer of vegetable oil on your lame so it can easily glide on your dough.
- Starting on one end of your dough, and with a quick and confident motion cut a large about ¼ to ½-inch deep until you reach the other end.
- Score your dough from end to end to ensure it can rise and open fully as it expands in the oven.
You can score your dough with decorative elements, but remember to create a gash large and deep enough to let steam escape.
Want more info on scoring? Check out my guide on How to Score Sourdough Bread.
Baking with steam
Adding or capturing steam while your dough bakes is an extremely important part of baking crusty bread. During the first few minutes of baking, the extremely high temperatures of the oven speed up fermentation, causing yeast to produce a large of amount of CO2 before they eventually die off. This results in a dramatic rise called oven spring. Without steam, the crust of your dough will harden before your dough can rise fully, resulting in a flat, dense loaf.
There are many ways to create steam in your home oven, the easiest way is by using a Dutch Oven.
Frequently Asked Questions
Absolutely, the long fermentation process allows the microorganisms in sourdough to predigest flour making the nutrients in wheat easier for our bodies to absorb.
No, here’s why: whole wheat flour absorbs water at a different rate than white flour, and needs a lot more water. Substituting it for the bread flour here would make your bread heavier and tougher.
Although not ideal, you could substitute all-purpose flour. I would not substitute a whole wheat, ancient grain or pastry flour in this recipe.
Dense and gummy bread is usually the result of under-fermenting. This is usually caused by using a starter that’s either immature or too weak. Before using it to make bread, make sure your starter has matured, is healthy and is rising dependably over the course of 4 to 6 hours.
If you don’t think your starter is the problem, it may be because you did not let your dough ferment for a long enough period of time. Try adding an hour or two to your bulk fermentation and making sure your dough has risen before shaping it.
You can bake your loaf on a baking sheet or a preheated pizza stone (if you have one).
Preheat your oven with a baking tray on the bottom rack of the oven. Once you're ready to bake, load your dough into the oven and pour boiling water into your baking tray. This will create steam. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, then remove the tray and continue baking your bread for another 10 to 15 minutes depending on how dark you like your crust.
After baking with steam, transfer your bread to a parchment-lined baking sheet and continue baking until your bread reaches your desired browness.
Sourdough Bread Recipe
Basic Sourdough Bread
- 28 grams sourdough starter mature, unfed
- 56 grams water
- 56 grams all-purpose flour
- 270 grams bread flour
- 30 grams whole wheat flour
- 200 grams water
- 100 grams sourdough starter active
- 6 grams salt
- 15 grams all-purpose flour
- 15 g rice flour
- Activate your starter: Mix the unfed starter, water and all-purpose flour in a small container. Let your starter ferment until doubled or tripled in volume (about 4 to 6 hours).
- Mix your dough: In a large mixing bowl, combine water and active sourdough starter. Stir until the starter is almost completely dissolved. Fold the whole wheat flour into the starter mixture. Add all of the bread flour and salt. Stir using a wooden spoon or your hands until no dry traces of flour remain.
- Fold the dough: Complete a set of stretch and folds by picking up one side of the dough and folding it over itself. Repeat until all sides are folded. Transfer the dough to a lightly-oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 1 hour.
- Strengthen the dough and bulk ferment: As your dough ferments, perform 3 to 4 sets of coil folds inside the bowl at 30 minute intervals, cover your bowl with plastic wrap after you complete each fold. Your dough should appear smooth and pass the windowpane test after the last fold.
- Bench rest: After your last fold, let the dough rest for 1 hour untouched in a warm place. Your dough should look puffy and should increase in volume during this period.
- Shape the dough: Prepare your proofing basket (you can use a small mixing bowl lined with a tea towel dusted with rice flour).
- Turn your dough out on a lightly-floured work surface. Lightly flatten the dough out into a rectangle (be gentle so you do not pop the air bubbles build up during fermentation).
- Fold the top of the dough towards the center and then fold the bottom of the dough over that, like you are folding a letter. Pick up the sides of the dough, fold it in half and place it in your proofing basket, seam-side up. Pinch the seam shut. Fold the tea towel over your dough.
- Cold proof: Place your dough inside the refrigerator and proof overnight.
- Prepare for baking: Preheat your oven to 500 F with a Dutch oven inside for at least an hour.
- Score: Turn your dough out on a piece of parchment paper. Cut a long slash with a sharp knife or a lame on the dough to let the steam escape.
- Bake: Place the dough with the parchment paper into the Dutch oven, turn. Bake for 30 minutes with the cover on and an additional 10 to 15 minutes with the cover off, depending on how dark you would like your crust.
- Serve: Transfer your baked loaf to a cooling rack. Let the dough cool completely, at least 2 hours, before slicing.
- Store: Store any leftover slices in a ziplock bag for up to 5 days at room temperature.