Sourdough bread has seen a huge resurgence in popularity in the last few years, partly due to its health benefits over regular conventional bread and partly due to the great taste! Its very easy to make but it takes many attempts to master it and even then sometimes you can get the timings wrong, but don’t let that scare you, if I can make it, anyone can!
Sourdough bread is made with a starter instead of store bought yeast. This is also referred to as a “leaven”, “mother”, “culture”, and many other names but they are all the same thing; a fermented mixture of flour and water containing a colony of microorganisms including wild yeast.
If you know someone else who makes sourdough at home or have a local bakery that sells sourdough bread, you could ask them for some starter and then then build up your own or you can make it entirely on your own if you wish.
Making the starter will take a minimum of seven days. This may seem like a lot of work at first but once you go through the process the first time that’s it forever, assuming you don’t use all of it. Just for example, I have had the same starter for 18 months as of writing this. So let’s get into the process. You’ll need a bowl or jar, wholemeal flour, water and a kitchen scales. I use this scale, as it’s robust, compact and relatively cheap and I’ve found this jar good for the starter as it has an air release valve which helps to stop overflow but whatever you have access too should be fine.
Weigh out 50g of wholemeal flour and 50g of room temperature water, approximately 23-24°C. Place in a clean bowl or jar and stir until fully combined. Cover loosely and leave at room temperature overnight.
Weigh out 50g of wholemeal flour and 50g of water. Add to the sourdough starter and stir until fully combined. Cover loosely and leave at room temperature overnight.
Throw away 100g of the starter. Then add 100g of wholemeal flour and 100g of water to the remaining starter and stir until fully combined. Cover loosely and leave overnight.
Throw away 150g of the starter. Again add 100g of wholemeal flour and 100g of water to the remaining starter and stir until fully combined. Cover loosely and leave overnight.
Throw away 200g of the starter. Then add 150g of wholemeal flour and 150g of water to the remaining starter and stir until fully combined. Cover loosely and leave overnight. At this point you should start to see bubbles forming.
Throw away 250g of the starter. Then add 200g of wholemeal flour and 200g of water to the remaining starter and stir until fully combined. Cover loosely and leave overnight. The starter should be full of little bubbles now and be very active.
The starter should now be very active and ready to use. It should be full of bubbles and have a slightly sour fragrance. If its not at this point yet don’t worry, repeat the steps from day 6 and keep an eye on it. Depending on the temperature of where you are keeping the bowl / jar or the time of year it could take a day or two longer. There are many variables with sourdough but the most important thing is time.
I’ll get back to how to maintain your starter towards the end after we have made our first loaves.
What you’ll need:
- 800g of strong white flour
- 10g of salt
- 460g of water
- 320g of sourdough starter
We’re going to make enough dough for two loaves in this recipe, so just use half the amount if you only want to make one.
Add the flour to a large clean mixing bowl. Then add the water and lightly mix together.
Cover and leave for 30 minutes. This process is called autolysing, it’s not an essential step for making sourdough but is something I have done for the past few months.
Autolyse just means that the water will hydrate the flour before fermentation begins and help form the gluten proteins more efficiently. It also reduces the time required for kneading and can help with the overall flavour profile of the bread.
Add the remaining ingredients, 10g salt and 320g sourdough starter and mix together in the bowl until a rough shaggy dough starts to form. Then turn the dough out onto a clean work top and begin to knead the dough. Use a scraper if you have one to get all of the remaining flour out of the bowl.
Resist the urge to add extra flour if you find the dough is sticky or wet. You can add a small splash of oil to your hands if you really need to stop it sticking. There is no estimated or correct duration to knead the dough for. Everybody is different. Different techniques, different psychical strength etc. Just keep working away and make sure to incorporate all the flour, eventually you will start to feel the texture of the dough changing from a rough texture to a more smooth and elastic one.
The best way to know if your dough is ready, is to take a small piece off and stretch it out over your fingers like in the video above. I’m using this dough knife but any knife will do. Hold it up to a light source and run a finger behind the dough. If you can see the shadow of your finger through the membrane like surface and it doesn’t tear then you are ready.
Now you want to form the dough into a rough ball and return it to the mixing bowl.
Cover with clingfilm or plastic wrap and allow the dough to prove for 4 hours at room temperature.
After 4 hours the dough should have doubled in size. You now want to turn the dough out onto a clean work top and “knock it back”. This just means you are knocking all the air from the dough which helps to equalise its temperature.
Work the dough back into a round ball and divide into two roughly equal parts.
Now we’re going to shape our loaves before our second proof.
In the video above, I’m pinching the edge of the dough and folding in towards the centre. Then fold in half on top of itself and drag the dough from the bottom until you start to feel the texture of the dough getting tighter. Rotate 180° and repeat if you wish to make a rectangular, longer loaf or keep rotating 90° to create a circular loaf.
Then place your loaf seem side up in a proving basket it you have one. I’d recommend these baskets as they are cheap, easy to clean and work great or you can use dutch oven or Pyrex dish lined with a floured tea towel inside as a good alternative. Cover the baskets or place the lid on the dishes. Now we want to leave the dough to prove for another 3 hours. Alternatively you could prove the dough overnight in the fridge for baking first thing in the morning.
Proofing in the fridge overnight allows the dough to prove longer and slower which helps to develop the flavour within the dough but also increasing its digestibility. As dough ferments or proves the gluten within the dough breaks down. The longer a dough is allowed to prove the more flavour it will contain and the easier it is for your body to digest. You can over prove dough though, which cause’s it collapse in on itself and loose its structure, so just be aware of your timings.
After the second prove, pre-heat your oven to 230°C / 210°C fan assisted or 445°F / Gas mark 8. Lightly flour your work top and turn your dough out with the seam side down.
If you are using a dutch oven to bake the loaves, it’s recommended to pre-heat them in the oven for 45-60 minutes.
Now we are going to score the dough. This will control how the bread expands for the duration of the bake. If you don’t score the dough, it will just crack and break apart in random places and while not detrimental to the taste of the bread, it doesn’t look as aesthetically pleasing.
Using a sharp knife or razor blade, cut the dough roughly half a centimetre deep from top to bottom.
Now we’re ready to bake. Place your dough into your dutch oven or Pyrex dish if you have one. Cover with the lid and pop into the oven for 30 minutes. If you don’t have either a dutch oven or Pyrex dish, you can place the dough on some parchment paper on a baking tray. Place a second baking tray or dish into the oven while you are preheating. Boil a kettle with some water and add it to a second baking tray. This will create steam in the oven and protect the crust from cracking during the bake.
After 30 minutes remove the lid from the dutch oven / pyrex dish and return to the oven for a further 20 minutes to finish baking and colour the bread. Again if you are baking on a tray instead, bake for 35 minutes or until you get a good colour on the crust.
Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack for at least one hour before slicing, and that’s it!
Maintaining your starter
The main thing to note is that your starter is alive. So it will need to be “fed”. If you leave it out at room temperature you’ll need to feed it everyday, which can get expensive. It can last roughly a week in the fridge and around a month in the freezer. So how do you feed it? Whatever weight of starter you have left after baking, you add the same weight of flour and water. So if I have 250g of starter left after baking, I’ll mix in 250g of flour, 250g of water, cover and return it to the fridge until I need it.
I typically bake on a Saturday morning, so Friday morning I’ll take the starter out of the fridge and let it come back to room temperature. Friday night I’ll feed it and then its ready to go for Saturday morning, then I feed it and it’s back to the fridge. This might sound like a lot of work but it’s relatively easy, it’s just a matter of remembering to feed the starter and check on it every now and then.
So get to it! If you start your starter today you’ll be ready to bake in seven days time. Just think about all the delicious bread you could be having right now…