Beginner’s Sourdough Bread
(By Hannah Dela Cruz, blogger and cookbook author)
Congratulations - your sourdough starter is finally matured and you’re finally ready to bake your first loaf! We’ll guide you through your very first bake with an easy-to-follow recipe that’s perfect for beginners.
What is Sourdough Bread?
If you’ve made your own Sourdough Starter, you’ll already know that sourdough is flour and water that’s been fermented. Sourdough Bread is simply bread that’s leavened or risen with a sourdough starter instead of commercial yeast.
The wild yeast in your sourdough culture are not as efficient as commercially available yeast, so the entire process of baking Sourdough Bread takes much longer; about two days from start to finish. You’ll find that the investment is well worth it. During this time, the large community of microorganisms within your sourdough starter predigests flour, unlocking nutrients and minerals in wheat that our bodies otherwise would not be able to absorb. In addition, the extended fermentation period allows the bread to develop deep, complex flavors that cannot be attained when using commercial yeast. Making Sourdough Bread both healthier and more delicious.
Although the process is long, a lot of it is hands-off. That’s because much of the hard work is being done by the wild yeast in your sourdough starter. The moment you combine your sourdough starter into your dough, the yeast begin feeding on sugars in the flour and start releasing carbon dioxide. Your job during the bread making process is to create a dough that’s strong and extensible so it can trap this gas and rise (stretch) without breaking.
A strong and mature starter is crucial to baking good bread. Making bread with a starter that has not fully matured will lead to a failed bake, frustration, and wasted time and ingredients. You’ll know your starter is ready once it begins to rise reliably, doubling or tripling in volume in a given amount of time after each feeding (usually 4 to 6 hours). This is a good indication that it can produce enough carbon dioxide to leaven bread. For more on how to tell if your starter has matured, see our article Sourdough Starter: From Creation to Maintenance.
If you’re not sure, you can perform a float test. To do this, feed your starter and wait until it looks like it has doubled or tripled in volume. Then, fill a glass, jar, or bowl with water. Gently scoop and place about a tablespoon of your activated starter into the glass. If your starter floats, it’s ready to use.
While it is a good indicator of determining your starter’s readiness, the float test can sometimes be unreliable. If you’re not careful, there’s a chance that you may pop the bubbles in your starter in the process of performing the test. This will cause it to sink even if your starter is actually active and ready. So it’s also important to look for signs of fermentation. These include a noticeable increase in volume, thick consistency and an even distribution of bubbles throughout your starter.
What Do I Need?
Aside from your starter, all you’ll need is flour, water and salt. This recipe uses a simple 1:2:3 ratio, this means 1 part starter, 2 parts water and 3 parts flour. Here we’ll be making one loaf of bread, but you can easily scale this recipe to create two or three loaves, just by following these basic proportions. Because bread contains such few ingredients, the proportion of these ingredients make a big difference in the way your dough feels and behaves. This dough has a moderate water content (about 71%), which results in a dough that’s easy to handle and is not too slack or sticky. For more information on hydration level, see our High Hydration Sourdough Guide.
You can use a variety of flours to make Sourdough Bread. We like to use a mixture of bread flour with a small amount of whole wheat for structure and flavor. The high protein content (11 to 13%) allows the dough to form a strong gluten network that allows that dough to capture the carbon dioxide released by the yeast, keeping the bread light and airy. A small amount of whole wheat lends a nutty flavor without impeding gluten development or causing your bread to be dense and heavy.
It’s entirely possible to make your first loaf of Sourdough Bread using tools that you already have in your kitchen. But we recommend a few specialized pieces of equipment that make baking bread a little more foolproof.
- If you don’t have one already, we highly recommend purchasing a kitchen scale. Volume measurements can be highly inaccurate, and because bread is so dependent on proportions, it’s best to measure by weight.
- You’ll also need a way to create or trap steam as you bake in your oven, the easiest way to do this is with a cast iron or enamel Dutch oven. Bread bakes at extremely high temperatures, and without steam the crust on your loaf will harden too quickly, preventing it from fully expanding. The Dutch oven traps steam that escapes from your dough during baking, this dissolves sugars on the surface of the dough that caramelize and help impart a shiny, crisp crust.
- Temperature dictates the speed of fermentation. Your dough should be at a temperature of around 75 °F to 78 °F / 23 °C to 25 °C to encourage fermentation. Being able to regulate temperature is essential for bread making to be predictable and increasing the likelihood of the success of your bakes. The Brod and Taylor Folding Proofer maintains a constant temperature that allows you to create an environment that allows fermentation to occur at an optimal level.
The Bread Making Process
Remember that the goal of bread making is to create a dough that can capture carbon dioxide produced by yeast. To do this, you need to create a strong and organized gluten network. Gluten is activated the moment flour is mixed with water. During the dough development process, you’ll strengthen the gluten by performing a series of “stretch and folds,” this is a gentle way of creating strength that also helps dough create stronger gluten bonds. The number of folds you perform depends entirely on how strong your dough feels. Your dough will start out very shaggy and sticky, but will gradually begin to look smooth, feel stretchy and only slightly tacky. Passing the “window pane test” is a great indicator of the strength of the gluten you’ve created.
Window Pane Test
To perform the window pane test, very gently stretch out a small portion of your dough until it’s very thin and appears translucent. If you are able to stretch your dough until it is thin enough to see the silhouette of your fingers through without tearing the dough, you’ve completed enough folds and have succeeded at building a strong gluten network.
Judging fermentation is the single most important skill you’ll develop as a bread maker. You need to bake your dough at just the right moment when the yeast have produced enough carbon dioxide to leaven and tenderize your dough, but have not exhausted their food source. Bake your bread too soon and you’ll end up with dense, heavy bread, too late and you’ll have bread that’s flat and gummy. Bread making is a skill that you’ll have to develop with patience and persistence. Your first loaves may not be perfect, but know that with every bake you are continuing to hone your skills and increase your knowledge and expertise.
As a beginner, you’ll need to rely on time in the process of developing a “feel” for your dough. We’ll give you time cues here which you can use as a guide. But remember to always look for signs of fermentation and adjust your process as needed. Your dough has properly proofed once you see a noticeable increase in volume (meaning your dough appears larger than it did when you first made it), it will feel like it’s full of air, no longer feel sticky, and when it’s ready to be shaped it will easily glide out of your bowl.
Making your first Sourdough Bread can feel a little overwhelming. But as you gain more experience and familiarize yourself with the steps involved, you’ll begin to gain more confidence and the process will begin to feel like second nature. Remember that bread making is a continuous learning process. But if you are willing to learn, it can be a transformative journey that will help you gain a closer relationship with yourself, the food you consume and the invisible world of microorganisms that surrounds us all.
Yield: 1 sourdough loaf
Timing: Active: 2 hours; Inactive: 12 to 20 hours; Total: 14 to 22 hours
Activating Your Starter
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Activate your starter: Mix 30 grams of inactive starter with 60 grams of flour and 60 grams of water (ideally 78° F / 26 °C). Stir thoroughly until no dry bits of flour remain. Cover your jar loosely and place it inside your Brod and Taylor Folding Proofer set at 78° F / 26 °C. Let it ferment until it has doubled in volume and appears bubbly, this could take 4 to 6 hours depending on the activity of your starter.
Your starter should appear well risen and should have an even distribution of bubbles throughout. If you’re not sure, you can perform the “float test.” (see above)
To perform the “float test,” fill a glass or a bowl with a few inches of water. Gently scoop and place about a tablespoon of your activated starter into the glass. If your starter floats it’s ready to use.
Mix your dough: Once your starter is ready, combine 100 grams of starter and 200 grams of water in a large mixing bowl. Stir thoroughly using a dough whisk, sturdy spatula or wooden spoon until the starter has dissolved. Add half of the bread flour into the bowl, and stir until no dry bits remain. Incorporate the remaining flour and 6 grams of salt into the dough. At this point you may need to switch to your hands and begin lightly kneading the dough until all of the flour has been hydrated. Don’t be tempted to add more water or your dough may end up too wet and may become difficult to manage.
Place the dough inside your proofer at 78° F / 26 °C with the filled water tray and let it rest for 30 minutes.
It’s helpful to set another timer for 4 hours at this point. Use this timer as a guide to determine the progress of your fermentation. At the end of 4 hours, your dough should be ready for shaping, but remember to look for signs of fermentation and adjust this time if you need to.
Strengthen your dough: After the initial 30 minute rest, perform your first coil fold. With your dough still inside the bowl, pick up the edge of your dough and stretch it as far as it will go, then fold it over itself. Turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat 3 more times. Your dough should begin to feel tighter as you fold. Remove your dough from the mixing bowl and place it inside a clean container (I personally prefer an 8-inch glass baking dish, but a clean mixing bowl will work as well).
Perform 3 to 4 sets of coil folds in 30 minute intervals as your dough ferments. Your dough will appear smoother and become less sticky as you continue to perform these folds. You’ll know your dough has developed enough strength once it has passed the “window pane test.” (see above)
Stretch and Fold
Rest: Allow your dough to rest untouched inside your Brod and Taylor Folding Proofer for 30 minutes to 1 hour (according to the timer you set after you mixed your dough, the amount of time will depend on how many folds you performed).
Once you’re ready to move on to the next step, your dough should feel very airy, look bubbly and should have visibly increased in volume by at least 50%. If your dough still appears flat and does not feel airy, continue fermenting your dough.
Shape the dough: Prepare your proofing container. This can be a banneton, if you have one, or an 8-inch mixing bowl lined with a tea towel that’s been dusted with rice flour.
Turn your dough out onto a lightly floured surface. It should easily slip right out of the bowl if it has been properly fermented. If it continues to cling to the bowl, let it rest for another 30 minutes before continuing.
To shape your dough, gently coax it into a rectangle, being careful not to knock all the air out. Fold the side of the dough closest to you towards the center, tap the dough lightly to help it adhere to itself. Pick up the right and left sides of your dough and fold both sides towards the center, folding one side on top of the other. Fold the top of the dough towards the center, it should now form a small square. Using your finger tips, pinch the top right corner and bottom left corner towards the center, folding one side on top of the other. Repeat with the remaining corners. Using a bench knife, carefully flip the dough over. Using the edges of your hands, gently round your dough by tucking it under itself and dragging it across your work surface. Your dough should appear round and evenly shaped, with a smooth top with no tears on the surface.
Gently pick your dough up using your bench knife and place it into your proofing container with the seam-side up. If the bottom has not sealed, do your best to pinch it closed to allow it to maintain its shape and tension while it rests overnight.
Overnight rest: Use the excess fabric to loosely cover your dough. Place it inside the refrigerator for an overnight rest.
Prepare for baking: Preheat your oven to 500 °F / 260 °C with a Dutch Oven inside. You’ll want your oven to maintain an extremely hot temperature for baking, allow it to heat up for at least 1 hour after it has reached the desired temperature.
Score your dough: Once your oven is hot, take your loaf out of the refrigerator and gently turn it out onto a piece of parchment paper. Using a very sharp paring knife, or a lame if you have one, score a ¼-inch deep cut down the center of your dough. Turn your dough 90 degrees and cut another gash across the center. This scoring pattern will allow your dough to open up evenly into a round shape as it bakes.
Scoring creates weak points in the dough that helps direct the expansion of the dough during baking. Without these your dough will burst in random places. You can get more creative with your scoring patterns as you become more comfortable with bread making!
Bake your dough: Place your dough with the parchment paper inside your Dutch oven and bake.
For a thin, light crust, bake your bread for 30 minutes with the lid on and 10 to 15 minutes with the lid off.
For a thicker, darker crust, bake your bread for 25 minutes with the lid on and 15 to 20 minutes with the lid off.
Enjoy: Place your baked loaf on a wire rack and let it cool completely, about 2 hours, before slicing. This will allow the crumb to set fully and prevent your bread from drying out too fast.
Store: Store leftover bread cut-side down on a cutting board. If you live in a drier climate, store your loaf in a plastic bag for up to 5 days.