How to Make Sourdough Bread | The Ultimate Guide to Sourdough Bread
How to make a simple sourdough bread loaf for beginners with step-by-step instructions including making a starter. You can also find a host of other great tips and tricks for sourdough baking in our dedicated Sourdough Section now.
What is sourdough and sourdough bread?
Sourdough bread is slow-fermented bread that requires no commercial yeast in order to rise. Instead of yeast, sourdough uses what is known as a ‘starter’ which is a mixture of fermented flour and water that contains wild yeast and good bacteria to make the bread rise. We show you how to make your own starter below.
As sourdough bread was being made before we introduced yeasts as we know them today, sourdough is actually the oldest type of leavened (that is risen) bread, and would have been used in Ancient Egypt.
Do I need a sourdough starter? Can I buy a sourdough starter?
To make proper sourdough you do indeed need a starter. However this is not as difficult as it might first sound, given the simple ingredients. It is perfectly possible to make your own starter but you do need one ingredient not everyone might have - time.
Starters typically take 7 days to prepare, and this is because this is the length of time it takes for the natural airborne yeasts all around us to find their way into the dough. Sometimes it can even take up to 14 days to grow your yeast, it is not an exact science and depends on the environmental conditions to some extent.
If this is not for you, purchasing a sourdough starter from a good bakery is also another option.
How do I make a sourdough starter?
Making a sourdough starter just involves mixing your flours with water in a clean jar and waiting. Wholemeal flour rather than white flour is recommended as this actually will speed up fermentation time because it contains more nutrients for the yeast to feed on.
- A clean jar big enough to allow plenty of room for frothing and expansion
- A fork to mix
- Roughly 150g wholemeal flour (wheat or rye or spelt)
- Roughly 250 ml warm water
Each ingredient should be roughly equal in volume (although not in measurement) to make a thick batter.
- Mix the flour and water together thoroughly - the more you whisk the more air you get into it, which helps to generate an abundance of yeast spores.
- Put the lid on and leave somewhere fairly warm (but not too warm or you might kill any yeast which likes an optimum temperature of around 38°C.
- The next day when you visit your starter mix you will be looking for small bubbles. You may or may not see any at this stage as sometimes they are produced and then disappear while you were away.
- Look to see if you have a brown liquid developing on the surface. If you have it’s time to feed. This liquid is called a ‘hooch’ and has an unpleasant smell to it.
- Feed your starter by whisking in another 150 g of flour and another 250ml of warm water.
- Tip out half of your starter and discard it. Add another 150g of flour, and another 250ml of cold water this time and mix.
- The texture will be like a thick pancake batter at thai point.
- Leave again somewhere not too warm (it can be a little colder than at the beginning now).
Days 4, 5, 6…
- Visit every day and repeat the same process of feeding as you did on day 3.
- If you smell your starter you’ll notice the smell begin to change and become more complex as it matures.
- As you watch you’ll notice the starter will rise, and bubbles will form on the surface and throughout.
- It will become obvious the longer you keep it when it is actively rising and when it is falling back and running out of yeast and therefore needs feeding again.
When is my starter ready to use?
Your starter is ready to use when it shows all the following signs:
- bulk growth to about double in size
- small and large bubbles on the surface and throughout the culture
- spongy or fluffy texture
- pleasant aroma
You can also try the float test: drop a small dollop of starter into a glass of water. If it floats to the top, it’s ready to use.
Where should I keep my starter?
The answer to this depends on how often you plan to bake with it. If you plan to be baking a few times a week then it is best to keep your starter at room temperature so it is ready for use, and keep feeding at least once a day (depending on how much it rises and falls).
If you do less baking you will want to keep your starter in the fridge to slow the growing process down so you won’t need to feed it so often. At this cold temperature, feeding just once a week will be sufficient. To begin growing it again sufficiently, you will need to feed your starter at room temperature before using.
How long can I keep my sourdough starter?
Whilst there are claims of starters being kept and used for over a hundred years (!), in reality the starter is made up of the yeast and bacteria in the environment in which it is prepared - not the one it came from. So when you acquire an older starter you are in fact changing its composition when you begin to look after it.
Although generally the longer a starter has had to develop, the more complex the flavour, a much older starter does not necessarily make a superior start to one that is ‘only’ a few months old.
All starters will need to be kept fed in order to survive and this is going to be the key to keeping it going.
Many keen bakers have kept their starters alive and healthy for ten years or more!
Can I use yoghurt as a sourdough starter?
Plain yoghurt is a different technique to using a traditional sourdough starter, and won’t give you a true sourdough. It will however give you a tasty bread and is therefore worth experimenting with in its own way.
Yoghurt also has the benefit of helping to lower the pH, creating an environment that discourages harmful bacteria and mould. It provides extra nutritional value and increases the ‘sourness’ of the flavour, which some people actually prefer. Natural yoghurt is great for encouraging wild yeast to multiply much faster.
The yoghurt must be plain, unsweetened and free from any thickeners, as this will contain the necessary live cultures for growth.
We give a recipe for a yoghurt based ‘sourdough’ loaf below.
Simple recipe for sourdough loaf bread
This recipe assumes you have already made your starter (see above for recipe and method).
- 500g strong white flour
- 1 tsp fine salt
- 1 tbsp clear honey
- 300g sourdough starter (see above for recipe)
- Oil for greasing
Bulk fermentation stage
- Mix your ingredients. Tip the flour, 225ml warm water, salt, honey and your starter into a bowl, or a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix together with a wooden spoon, or on a slow setting in the machine, until combined. Add a little flour if it’s too sticky or a little warm water if too dry.
- Knead for 10 minutes. Tip onto a lightly floured surface and knead until soft and elastic. If you‘re using a mixer, turn up the speed a little and mix for 5 mins.
- Leave to rise for 3 hours in a warm place. Place the dough in a large, well-oiled bowl and cover before resting. Sourdough takes much longer to rise than conventional dough.
Proving the dough
- Knead and shape your dough. Tip the dough back onto your work surface and knead briefly to knock out any air bubbles. Shape the dough into a smooth ball and dust it with flour.
Prove your dough in a bowl or proving basket (banneton). Line a medium-sized bowl with a clean tea towel and flour it really well or use a proving basket if you have one.
Place the dough, seam-side up, in the bowl or proving basket, cover loosely and leave at room temperature until roughly doubled in size (4-8 hours). Alternatively, prove your bread overnight in the fridge. Remove it in the morning and let it continue rising for another hour or 2 at room temperature. The slower the rise, the deeper the flavour you will achieve.
Baking your soughdough
- Preheat oven and add a dish of water for steam. Place a large baking tray in the oven, and heat to 230°C. Fill a small roasting tin with a little water and place this in the bottom of the oven. Remove the baking tray from the oven, sprinkle with flour, then carefully tip the risen dough onto the tray.
- Slash the top of your dough gently a few times with a sharp knife. Bake for 35-40 mins until golden brown. If you tap it on the bottom it will sound hollow when ready.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Leave for around an hour to firm before eating.
Can you make sourdough bread in one day?
The basic nature of sourdough bread making is that it involves time to prepare the starter. However the short answer to the question above is that, yes it is possible to create a version of sourdough bread (and a delicious loaf too) in just one day. So, depending on your requirements, you can decide whether you want to make a planned-ahead loaf using a traditional starter, or give the following recipe below a go, which makes use of yoghurt instead of a starter.
Remember, the basic premise of nearly all bread making is that a longer rise will give you a more developed flavour. So if you start baking at the beginning of the day, you’ll give yourself the best chance of having a quality loaf to be proud of by the end of the day.
Note: this recipe is not a true sourdough bread as it does make use of instant yeast as well as yoghurt and sour cream in order to accomplish results on the same day. A true sourdough does not use yeast or yoghurt or sour cream, which you are using to replace the traditional starter.
- 375g bread flour
- 500g plain natural yoghurt with cultures
- 240g sour cream
- 1 tsp salt
- Scant 1 tsp instant dry yeast
- Heavy-bottomed iron skillet or oven proof pan if you haven’t got one
Bulk fermentation stage
- Mix together all ingredients in a bowl using a dough hook if you have one or alternatively by hand. The dough will seem very wet compared to traditional doughs but this is what you are after.
- Remove your dough from the bowl, give it a quick wipe out and lightly oil. Pat your dough into a round ball and place back in the cleaned and oiled bowl and make sure it gets an even cover of the oil.
- Leave to rise. Cover the bowl with a clean plastic bag and place it in a warm setting for about 6-8 hours, or doubled in size. You can also leave overnight for 8-10 hours and this works fine too. The longer the developing time, the stronger the flavour you’ll get.
- After your long bulk fermentation rise, turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead lightly (you don’t want to knock all the air out) for about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Pat your dough into a ball, and place it back into your mixing bowl in a warm spot. Cover with a plastic bag and leave to rise for around 60 mins, or until doubled in size. Place a dish of hot water into the bottom of your oven to create steam while baking. Preheat your oven to 230°C.
Baking your sough dough
- Remove your dough and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove and tap the base - it should sound hollow and have a nice crust.
- Transfer the loaf onto a cooling rack to let the bottom breathe. Let it cool and firm up for at least an hour before you cut into it.
Soda bread - another (quick) alternative to sourdough bread
Soda bread is not sourdough. What it is is a quick bread to make which is named after the baking soda (or, sodium bicarbonate) that is used as a leavening agent instead of the traditional yeast that you develop normally in making your starter.
Like sourdough, soda bread contains just a few ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. The buttermilk in the dough contains lactic acid, which reacts with the baking soda to form tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide – much like how the lactic acid reacts in sourdough. Sometimes people add other ingredients to their soda bread such as raisins and/or nuts.
The main reason a person might want to consider baking a soda bread loaf would be, like with the yoghurt and sour cream loaf above, to save time. No need to develop a starter with soda bread and you can easily have it on the table in time for tea too!
What does soda bread taste like?
Soda bread will not give you the sourish or tangy taste so enjoyed with a sourdough loaf. What it will give you is a mild, enjoyable soft textured loaf. It needs to be buttered or spread with jam or savoury spread to be enjoyed best as it can have a tendency to dry out quickly.
What is the difference between soda bread and sourdough?
- Different leavening agents. While sourdough makes use of the starter to make the dough rise through the gases released from yeast and bacteria fermentation, soda bread rises from the gases produced during the chemical interaction between baking soda and acids in the dough.
- Reaction times and time to make. As explained, sourdough is a slow process to make because you are waiting for a natural fermentation to occur, taking a week or more. Soda bread on the other hand works completely differently; as the buttermilk reacts with the baking soda and gives off carbon dioxide gases as soon as they have contact with each other. As such you can prepare and bake a soda bread loaf much more quickly than a sourdough loaf.
- Different flours. Generally sourdough is made with flour from harder weather varieties which have higher gluten in them for helping the rise. Soda bread on the other hand does not need to rely on the flour to get the rise as it makes use of the soda instead, therefore softer wheat flours are typically used instead.
Recipe for basic soda bread
- 280g plain white flour
- 280g wholemeal flour
- 1 ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp dark muscovado sugar
- 425 ml buttermilk
- Preheat the oven to 230°C. Dust a baking sheet with flour. Sift the flours, bicarbonate of soda, and salt into a bowl and stir in the sugar. Make a well in the centre and pour in enough of the buttermilk to make a dough that is soft but not too wet and sticky.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured worktop and knead briefly into a large round 5 cm thick. Dust lightly with flour and using a sharp knife, make the top of the loaf with a deep cross.
- Place the loaf on the baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 200°C and bake for a further 20-25 minutes. Tap the bottom of the loaf to check if it sounds hollow. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Best eaten fresh with butter and/or toppings of your choice.
Top tips for making your sourdough starter
- Use wholegrain flours such as spelt, rye and emmer. These are best for making a starter as they contain more food for the yeast to feed on.
- Keep your starter loosely covered with a clean, wet tea towel to allow the natural yeasts and bacteria to more easily reach your starter, which is what you want.
- Try to keep your room temperature between 22-24°C to get the best results.
- Feed more flour and water if you have made a larger quantity of starter and allow plenty of space in the bowl or jar for rising.
- Try to be consistent (as possible) for feeds. Once fully complete, if refrigerated and only feeding weekly make a note on a calendar or diary so you don’t forget to feed!
Top tips for making your sourdough loaf
- Use your sourdough starter at its peak. The peak is the point when your starter is just at its peak height in the jar, before it begins to deflate (Usually between 4 and 12 hours after feeding and with lots of air bubbles will appear on the surface of the starter.
- Add a little sugar to your recipe. There is a reason many sourdough recipes contain a small amount of sweetness and it isn’t just for flavour. The sugars give the yeast something to feed on and thus help to get carbon dioxide into your dough and therefore make it more airy in texture. You can choose from sugar or honey, maple syrup, molasses or even potato starch.
- Try to avoid knocking the air out of your mature bread dough when you fold it and prepare it for the bread tin.
- If you wish for the distinctive outline on the side of your loaf, you can use a proving basket (called a banneton). Usually made from natural cane woven in a spiral pattern, they come in oval or round shapes. You will need to flour the basket really well before using, pushing flour into all the grooves. It doesn’t need washing. You can equally use a bowl just as well.
- Spray the surface of the shaped dough before baking for more rise. We use steam or a Dutch Oven or pan of water in a conventional oven to get as much water as we can into our sourdough. Hydration is very important in making sourdough as it gives the flexibility to rise even further, and with this the open texture and soft crumb that is so delicious.
- Don’t overwork your dough! Sourdough needs to be degassed gently - so it’s really important not to manhandle the dough, but just gently pushing and folding the edges into the centre.
- Use sifted flour to make your loaf less dense. Removing some of the denser particles from your wholegrain flour will keep the air pockets in.
- Make your oven hotter for a higher rise. A really hot oven will give you a higher rise so go as high as your oven will allow. After 20 minutes or so once your loaf has developed a good crust, then you may turn it down a little if you need to.
- Freeze half your sourdough bread if you can’t eat it all in one go. Sourdough bread freezes really well so you can easily freeze half for another day. Defrost on a wire rack and cover with a tea towel, so that the bread doesn’t dry out or develop a soggy bottom.
Common mistakes when making sourdough
Baking before the starter is properly ready.
It might sound obvious but trying to make your sourdough before your starter has properly established itself is going to lead you into some difficulties. You are far better off waiting a full week or longer and testing your starter using the float test than attempting to bake too soon.
Using tap water that hasn’t been left or filtered.
Strange as it may seem using water straight out of the tap can affect your yeast because of the chlorine in it. Leaving it out for 24 hours or using filtered water eliminates this problem.
Using water that is too hot or too cold.
This is a major rule in bread making generally. Yeast likes it between 32˚C-35˚C.
You don’t autolyse your dough (though this is optional).
Autolysing refers to mixing the flour, water and starter but without the salt and allowing it to sit for a time. The sitting allows the dough to hydrate and the yeast to take hold.
The reason for not adding the salt at this stage is that it can interact with the yeast and retard the leavening. Although some people choose to omit this stage, other bakers swear by the importance of autolysing to make a stretchy dough which won’t tear and thus improve the final bake.
Having said this, the basic recipe on this page does not include an autolysis stage; it is worth experimenting to decide whether it improves results for you as many people find the ‘all in one method’ works fine for them.
You do not allow your dough to develop gluten properly.
You’ll know when your dough has the right amount of gluten in it if you practice the "windowpane test": if you take a small piece of dough you should be able to be able to stretch it between your fingers to create a thin patch of dough that you can see light through. Without this ‘stretchiness’ there isn’t enough gluten in your dough to make your bread rise.
You under or over proof your dough.
This applies to all bread-making. At the proofing stage you are looking to get the air bubbles back in your bread for a fluffy, even texture. Not leaving it long enough will result in uneven holes in your bread, and a heavier/denser texture.
Although under proofing dough is common due to impatience, it is possible to overproof your dough dough, by leaving it too long which is where your air bubbles will have popped and there will be no gas left.
Your baking time is too short.
If you don’t leave your bread in the oven for long enough according to your recipe (making reasonable adjustments for your oven) you can end up with underbaked bread which is doughy and damp. If in doubt, you can remove your bread form the oven and tap the bottom - it should sound ‘hollow’ which is how you know it has been baked for long enough.
You cut into your bread too soon!
We can’t blame you, you want to try your delicious sourdough loaf. However the final resting time is actually part of the process of finishing your loaf. Allowing the bread proper time to rest will allow it to evaporate remaining moisture at its own speed, rather than disrupting this process by letting air get to it before it is ready.
Sourdough Bread Resources
Other resources and links that you might find useful for sourdough bread
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