Beginner's Guide to Making Sourdough Bread
Tangy, chewy sourdough bread is a lot easier to make than you think. Plus, it's a great project to do while a lot of us are working from home. Bonus: The kids can help and it makes a great learning opportunity about chemical reactions, measuring and math, home arts, and of course, snacks! I'll walk you through how to make sourdough bread, with lots of tips and advice along the way.
Making homemade sourdough bread may seem like a lot of work, but most of the work is just waiting for the dough to rest. The most important thing to remember when making sourdough bread? Practice makes perfect! So, if you don't have a showcase loaf the first time around, don't worry. The more you bake, the better you'll get, and the prettier your loaves will look.
Sourdough bread is special because it does not require a commercial yeast in order to rise (though, you can use one). It's made with a starter, which acts as a leavening agent. I like to think of it as a bread pet: You must feed it, take care of it, and watch it grow! And as well as tasting amazing, sourdough bread — because of the long fermentation and resulting naturally occurring acids — breaks down proteins and gluten, making it easier to digest than store-bought bread.
A sourdough starter is a simple combination of flour and water, miraculously (well, with a bit of chemistry) turned into a live culture with naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria (the good kind) present in your kitchen. Like a good wine, each starter has it's own terrior, making your bread unique.
Your sourdough starter could take about 10 days of care and feeding before it's ready to use to bake sourdough bread, so build that into your timeline. Feed your starter every day at the beginning to help it grow (like a kid), then check in on it at regular intervals to make sure it's still going strong (like a cat).
You can make your own sourdough starter, order one online, or if you're lucky, get some from a bread-making friend or family member. (Some sourdough starters are handed down from generation to generation.)
Depending on how often you bake, you can store the starter in a jar in the fridge and feed it once a week (casual baker), or keep it on the counter and feed it once a day (avid baker). You can also freeze sourdough starter and wake it up when you're ready to bake.
Tip: I would suggest starting with rye flour (if you have it) for the first two or three days to give your starter a jump kick, then do your feedings with bread or all-purpose flour. Rye flour is a little easier to work with (less gluten means less stirring) and has a lot more nutrients in it to get the yeast started initially
Let's Bake Sourdough Bread!
1. Prep your starter
The night before you plan on baking, remove your starter from the fridge (if that's where you're keeping it) and feed it so it is ready to work.
Pour off about half of the starter and feed it with equal parts flour and water. Whisk it well until it is lump free, then let it rest in a warm spot until it doubles in size and has bubbles on the surface. This can range from 2 to 12 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen and the strength of your starter. (Sometimes I like to mark my jar with two rubber bands: one at the start line of the starter, and one where I would like it to be before I start making the dough. This way, there's no second-guessing. You can also use a marker on the outside of the jar.)
Tip: If you're worried your starter isn't ready, or just a little unsure what to look for, try the float test. Drop about 1 teaspoon of starter into a glass of water. If it floats, you're ready to start baking. If it sinks, give your starter a feeding and check it again 6 to 8 hours later.
2. Mix the dough
Using your happy, active, well-fed starter, mix it with the water, salt, and flour. The dough will be very sticky. Use wet hands when handling the dough if you need to.
Tip: If you have a digital scale, weigh your ingredients instead of using measuring cups. You'll have more consistent (and better tasting) results. You can use a combination of all-purpose flour (for texture), bread flour (for strength and rise), and a bit of whole-wheat flour (for flavor).
3. Take a nap
Let your dough rest (autolyse). This jump-starts gluten development and makes the bread much easier to handle. Plus, strong gluten means great tasting (and textured) bread. This is when the flour absorbs the water and fully hydrates, helping the gluten form and enzymes break the starches down into simple sugars (creating flavor). This step can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours, depending on your recipe and technique.
Tip: There is much debate in the bread world whether you should add your salt before or after the autolyse. Some prefer to salt after, because the salt can slow down the gluten development. Others add it with the initial ingredients so you don't forget to add it later (an unsalted bread is worthy of the bin). Which should you choose? It depends on how confident you are in remembering to add salt!
4. Give a tuck
Fold, don't knead, your dough. First, it's a lot easier for you to simply fold the dough over on itself a few times. Second, it's a lot better for the bread. The crumb will have a better structure and nicer holes when it's worked less. Stretch the dough a few times in the bowl by lifting it up, then folding it over on top of itself. It will go from shaggy to smooth.
Tip: Some folks like a "tight crumb" (when the bread is fairly dense) and others like an "open crumb" (when the bread is full of holes, i.e., air pockets from the yeast). My hubby likes his bread dense, but I like it light. The stronger your gluten development, the more CO2 your bread can trap, and the more air bubbles will appear in your bread. Of course, there is a fine line between a good amount of air bubbles and having so many that all of your filling/spread seeps out of your bread!
5. Shape the dough
If you're making smaller loaves, lightly dust your work surface with flour and cut the dough in half with a bench scraper or knife. If you're make one large loaf, place the dough on a flour-free surface (otherwise it's difficult to shape). Choose a starting point and fold the dough over toward the center. Give it a ¼ turn and fold over the next section of dough. Repeat until you're back at the start.
Flip the dough over and place it smooth-side down in your prepared proofing basket (see tip below). If you're going for the free-form look, gently cup the sides of the dough and rotate it, using quarter turns, until you're happy with the shape.
Be very gentle when working with the dough. You put in a lot of work to develop beautiful air bubbles through fermentation. Don't loose that structure by over working it.
Tip: Don't have a proofing basket (banneton)? Use a colander, fruit basket, or mixing bowl lined with a clean dishtowel and coated generously with flour.
6. Bulk fermentation
The long rise, or bulk fermentation, is where the magic happens. This helps develop flavor, structure, and texture in your sourdough. Some folks like to leave their dough in a warm spot, covered with plastic wrap and a clean towel for 3 to 12 hours. It will take longer in the winter than the summer, and shorter with a strong starter (or one made with yeast) than a weaker starter.
Letting the dough do a slow fermentation in the fridge takes out a lot of the guesswork. The temperature controls the rate at which your dough ferments, so you don't need to worry if your kitchen is too hot (ferments too quickly) or too cold (isn't ready to bake). It's ready when the dough has doubled in size.
7. Let it rise (again!)
Wake up the dough from its long, cold sleep. This is a shorter rise than the first, letting the dough recover from all the work it has been through and to activate the natural yeasts. Caution: don't let your dough proof too long – it will use up all of that gluten-strength and won't end up in a nice, high, round loaf.
Now is the good part, where your kitchen fills with the smell of homemade bread.
Baking bread in a Dutch oven will keep a moist, humid environment and let the bread get a good rise and develop a perfect crust. Make sure to let your Dutch oven (and lid) preheat in the oven for about 30 minutes before baking, to make sure it's nice and hot. But, of course, be VERY careful not to burn yourself.
Tip: If you don't have a Dutch oven, try a large roasting pan with a lid, or a baking sheet or pizza stone with a roasting pan lid on top to capture steam.
Right before baking, gently dump the dough onto a piece of parchment paper, and dust with flour. Score the surface decoratively with a sharp knife. Carefully remove your very hot Dutch oven from the oven and quickly transfer the loaf with the parchment paper into the pot. Put the lid back on and bake, covered for 20 to 25 minutes. Then simply remove the lid to release excess moisture (steam). Continue to bake for 10 to 15 minutes until the crust is a deep golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom. If you're not sure your bread is done, you can check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. It should be about 205 degrees F.
Tip: Right before baking, use a serrated or paring knife to cut a few slits in the top of your dough. This allows steam to escape and the dough to expand. Keep it simple with a few 2- to 3-inch cuts, or go fancy and make it into a beautiful decoration.
9. Cool down
As mouth-watering as your bread may smell and look, make sure to let it cool for at least one hour before slicing. It's still working a bit inside the loaf, and if you cut it open too soon, it will be a gummy mess. When you are ready for your first slice, use a good serrated knife to cut through the crust so you don't smash the tender crumb on the inside.