Cooking / Domesticity / Recipe Box

Recipe Submission: Homemade Sourdough Bread

Our first recipe submission brought to us by the lovely Phedre!

There are surely few things more exciting and fulfilling than baking good sourdough bread. Transforming flour and water into delectable food for your family feels like the pinnacle of housewifery every time you do it. It never ceases to be magical. 
Sourdough is the bread of choice not only because you can be independent of your yeast supply, but also because long-fermented bread is more nutritious and better tasting than its more quickly leavened counterpart. Making it yourself also opens you to a world of experimentation – from different flours, to different liquids, different rise periods, different liquid percentages, all the mix-in options… You can craft anything your mind can come up with. Or you can find one combination you really love and make it every time. The rules are incredibly flexible, once you’ve grasped the basics.
First off, you need a starter. If you happen to be so lucky as to know someone who bakes sourdough bread, you can get some from them and then just follow the instructions on perpetuating it. Instructions on making your own starter can be found all over the web though. It just takes a bit of time. Here’s a good example:
To perpetuate the starter once you’ve got one you simply dump out most of the ripe starter, add a bunch of flour (I add a heaped 1/4 cup), and stir in enough (chlorine-free) water to get a very thick batter consistency. You can ignore all the details people give about what to keep it in, what to stir it with, what the exact weight ratio of flour/water should be. None of that matters. Once you have an active yeast colony, you’re good to go and only long neglect will do it damage. For best performance though, feed the starter daily at room temperature or weekly if kept in the fridge.
Now, the first inviolable rule of sourdough baking: Only bake with a very active starter. It should be frothing if you’re using white or light flour. This was my biggest error starting out. I kept trying to bake with underactive starter. You will not make good bread if your starter either isn’t ready or is past its prime. Observe it regularly for a couple feed cycles to see what its peak activity looks like (it will look different with different flours, which is why it’s simpler to always use the same flour for the starter). Eventually you’ll get a feel for how long the starter needs after a feeding to get to its prime, and that’s when you bake with it.
Onto the dough. Let’s start with a simple white French country loaf. Take:
100 g of your starter (at its peak, remember?)
430 g flour – for now stick with white bread flour
250 g liquid – here’s a good place to use up some of the whey you drained off your greek yogurt, but you can just use chlorine-free water
10 g salt
Combine the starter, flour, and water. Leave out the salt for now. Get in there with your hands so it’s all well incorporated, but don’t knead. Now leave it for about an hour. This is called autolyse, when the fermentation and gluten development get a head start without the inhibitive properties of the salt.
Now sprinkle on the salt, and really work it in there. The dough will already be quite cohesive from the quick gluten development, so it’s going to take a bit of time and effort. Working out the hand muscles is very beneficial for a housewife!
Put the dough back in the bowl and cover it with plastic. Leave it for 30 minutes or so, until it ‘relaxes’.
Now you’re going to do what are called ‘stretch-and-folds’. You take the dough out, stretch it with your hands, and fold it into thirds, like a letter. Repeat in the opposite direction (or on the opposite axis, if that makes more sense). Now if you try to stretch and fold again the dough will feel much stiffer, which makes it a waste of time. This is why we let it relax. So leave it again for 30ish minutes and repeat. Do this a total of 4 times. This is all the ‘kneading’ you’re going to do!
Now comes the bulk rise. In a clean bowl, dump a bunch of flour in the bottom. Place your dough (shaped into a round) on the flour. Dump a bunch more flour on top. Pat it all over the loaf and be liberal with it. If any raw dough is exposed it will stick to your bowl as it expands.
Now come the hard part. How long to let it rise? It depends on 3 things – your ambient temperature, the kind of flour you used, and the hydration level of your dough. With this loaf you should be looking at roughly 7 hours from the moment flour touched water. Less if your house is warm, more if it’s cold. The dough wont expand as much as you expect if you’ve baked with commercial yeast.
Hard rule number 2: Don’t overproof your dough. Overproofed dough will not rise well in the oven, will have a flat flavour, and will not keep well.
The most common test of readiness is that a light poke at the loaf should spring back half way but no more. Really, you develop a sense for this with experience. Once the dough’s ready you can bake right away, but for maximum flavour and digestibility let it sit in the fridge for a day – say, 20-ish hours.
To the baking. Get a dutch oven / cast iron pot. Put it in your oven and let them heat together on 500 F. Whatever your oven may say, you should let it preheat at least 40 min. Once it’s preheated, take your loaf out of the bowl and put in onto a peel, a cookie sheet, or just onto the counter. Get the excess flour off.
Take the cast iron pot out of the oven, shutting the oven door quickly. Take a bread knife and slit the top of your loaf. Any shape is fine, but I think it’s nice to develop a trademark one. Make the cuts at a 45 degree angle and go very deep. I probably cut them an inch deep, if not more.
Now place the dough carefully into the pot, close the lid, and place it back in the oven. Lower the heat to 465 F and put the timer on 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, take off the lid, lower the heat to 435 F and bake to your desired colour – 10-15 more minutes.
Now take out the pot, tip the loaf onto your towel-covered hand and tap the bottom. It should sound hollow. Place it onto a rack to cool.
Hard rule number 3: Don’t cut into your loaf while it is warm. Wait an hour. If you cut it while it’s warm you will damage the crumb structure. Don’t do it. 
And now, enjoy!
I hope some of your try this. It is satisfying beyond words. I honestly love baking bread more than I love eating it (and I love great bread!). If anyone has problems or questions once they’ve embarked on the process, please feel free to ask for help here. Like I said, the combinations and flavour and texture options are endless, and I can give recommendations for that too. 
I cannot wait to try my hand at this! Thanks, Phedre, for such a great post.
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18 thoughts on “Recipe Submission: Homemade Sourdough Bread

  1. Baking bread is an art form and hard to figure out simply by using a recipe. This was a beautiful description. I’m glad you shared with us.

    • Thanks, Sis.

      It is a strange mix of art and science, which is probably why it feels so magical every time. But once you get a feel for it, it doesn’t take much to succeed. I’ve only been baking since January!

    • Those are your’s? They are beautiful!! My mom has a starter and I need to get some from her. We don’t eat much bread, but I am really trying to eat foods with healthy bacteria in them, and I love bread, so this would be a fantastic addition. How well does it freeze?

      • Thank you :)

        We find that there’s a certain amount of bread we can eat and feel great, but past a certain point we start to ‘feel’ it (ie/ feel suboptimal in a vague way). I think a well fermented sourdough is perfectly healthy (coeliac aside) if you have it in moderation and eat it as part of your usual caloric intake, not on top, as many people seem to do. Also, some people do better with certain flours than with others. For me, white flour digests best. Not much different than eating a bunch of potatoes.

        I haven’t tried freezing it. I bake fairly small loaves, as you’ll see if you make the above recipe, so they’re done in 2-3 days. Initially it was also comforting to know that if I fail the waste wont be huge. But the recipe is scalable, obviously, so if you liked it you could always bake a couple loaves at a time and freeze one, or bake a larger one and freeze part of it.

  2. This is great; I’m totally going to try this. We don’t eat bread much, but every once in a while my husband wants a grilled sandwich (Grilled Hawaiian: sourdough, butter for grilling, Swiss cheese, pineapple and ham – YUM!), so we buy a loaf. Baking a loaf would be so much better and more fun!

    • I bake once a week, but you could easily do it less. Just keep the starter in the fridge, feed it once a week, and let it have 1-2 room temperature feeds before baking to make sure it’s really active.

      Let me know if you need advice along the way, including with making the starter. I’m always happy to help :)

  3. My mom is going to bring me some of her starter and I can’t wait to try this. A couple of questions – when you say to really work in the salt, what are we talking, needing it well for 2-3 minutes? 5 minutes or just until you quite sure it’s well worked? I ask as I think it’s possible to over knead the dough, correct?

    When you do the stretch and fold, you only do it once in each direction before you let it rest again, is that correct?

    Do you need to grease the dutch oven first or is the season already on the enough?

    Last thing . . . do you realize what exactly it is that you are asking when you tell us not to cut into a warm loaf of bread?!

    • You only knead the salt in as long as it takes to work it in well. You can’t overknead bread dough. The more the gluten network develops the more air bubbles it can support, and therefore the better your crumb will be. On the other hand, the gluten develops well on its own with the long fermentation, so the stretch-and-folds are all you really need to do, but you needn’t worry about overworking it either.

      Yes, the stretch and folds are done once in each direction followed by a rest.

      The dutch oven doesn’t need greasing, nor seasoning! The dough detaches from it as it cooks, because the temperature is so high and the moisture in the crust evaporates.

      And, yes, I know it’s hard to resist the warm bread! I’m sure at some point you’ll test that rule, but I urge you not to do it the first time at least, so that you have a well-formed crumb as a base of comparison. Anyway, an hour later it’s still a bit warm ;)

      Good luck, and don’t forget to feed your starter and get it super active before you use it to bake!

  4. I love sourdough, and this recipe looks great!

    One quick note: all that sourdough feeding leaves you with a lot of extra starter, which can be turned into any number of things. One of our favorites is sourdough pancakes. I’ll link to the recipe I normally use (it’s not mine). It calls for whole-wheat starter but it works just as well with white starter, and is delicious if you add in frozen blueberries. I never bother to make regular pancakes now, as I always have extra starter on hand.

    • One quick note: starters come in different consistencies, so if your batter looks way too runny or too thick to make pancakes, you may want to add some flour or milk. I’ve never had to, though.

    • Sourdough pancakes are the best!

      Generally, old starter is a great way to make various quick breads and other soda-leavened thing more digestible. You can incorporate it into muffins, dinner rolls, banana bread, etc etc.

      My favourite use for old starter though is to make beers/fermented drinks. It works much better than whey and spares you the cost of buying prepackaged yeasts, not to mention being more satisfying.

      • I’m not really making beer in the usual sense (ie/ fermented barley malt + hops), although I can look that up for you. This is beer in the sense of non-fruit sugars fermented with yeast (if it was a fruit ferment, it would be called wine, if honey, mead). We don’t really have a special term for that in English, so most people call it beer.

        For example, my favourite is an old English classic, and an excellent spring tonic: nettle beer. Nettles are boiled, ginger and sugar are added, sourdough is spread on toast and floated on top. The result is sort of like a mildly alcoholic, mildly sweet soda.

        You certainly can use sourdough to make beer in the usual sense of the word. I haven’t tackled it yet because buying malt powder (the standard approach) seems too easy, but sprouting all that barley, plus the rest of the steps, seems too hard. The right approach, of course, is to start with the easiest route, figure out how to get the result you like, and then complicate things as much as you like. If you think you would like to try brewing beer I’d be happy to use your interest as the necessary push for me to experiment, and report on my results.

        Brewing beer for the family did use to be a standard part of a housewife’s duties!

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  6. I just cut into my third loaf of this. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you wrote this post. My goal is to only buy store bought bread for emergencies from here on out because I no longer like the idea of my kids eating it (you know that ingredient cellulose that is listed? I recently found out that is the stuff that is used to make cardboard. . . . yeah).

    This latest batch, the dough was stickier but I just left it that way to see how it would turn out. I also started it too late in the day yesterday so I put it in the fridge before it had time to finish rising. I took it out this morning to let it finish and put it in the oven right afterward. I didn’t think the loaf would turn out nearly as well due to the stickiness, but the bread is even softer than it was the other day and the flavor is amazing!

    The best part is, my kids love this. The test was sandwiches and toast. They have never liked sandwiches or toast with homemade bread before and just liked to eat it plain. They love both with this which makes life easier. I don’t mind not giving them the option of store bought bread, but having them not even miss it is fantastic. Thanks again, Phedre. I’m very excited about this.

    Also, it’s so incredibly easy (and makes the best toasted cheese sandwiches)!

  7. Stingray, I’m so happy to hear this!

    Bread seems like such a complicated and hard thing from the outside, but it is very easy in reality, and incredibly satisfying. I’m so glad to have made another convert :D

    With respect to the stickiness (or what is generally termed the hydration of the dough), the recipe I posted is actually about as low-hydration as you can go without losing that open crumb structure. The more water, the more open the crumb will be. Italian breads like ciabatta that have massive air holes are actually such high hydration that you can only handle the dough with wet hands (or a ton of flour on the outside) and you end up having to sort of ‘pour’ it in or onto your baking vessel.

    If / when you feel like experimenting, by all means try upping the water. Ciabatta and baguettes are about as high as you would go and it use roughly 70 g water per 100 g flour, or 70% hydration. At this point bread is no longer ‘fluffy’, but it has its own appeal.

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