Sourdough Bread

Updated 04/07/18

Every time I post a picture of a freshly baked sourdough loaf on social media, someone asks “Is the recipe on your blog?” Before I bake this weekend (that’s how I party) and post pics, I thought I better post the recipe here.

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On Twitter, I follow Joe Fitzmaurice, an Irish baker, who recently used a hashtag that sums up what I have written here: #EasyWhenYouKnowHow. I constantly refer to my blog for my own recipes. I forget them all. This one I have memorized, however. I could make it in my sleep. Sometimes at 5am, I do make it in my sleep. Although I list 27 steps down below, you can lump them together into a mere seven:

  1. Make a leaven
  2. Soak the grains
  3. Combine half the leaven with the soaked grains
  4. Turn dough during the bulk fermentation
  5. Shape dough
  6. Proof
  7. Bake

Sourdough Starter

Before you make your sourdough bread, you’ll need a starter. I have written posts on that herehere and here.

Recommended Equipment and Books

I hate to tell people to buy more stuff. You may find some of these items at yard sales or secondhand stores. I saw piles of Dutch ovens at a huge antiques fair recently. You don’t need all (or really any) of this BUT I find using the proper equipment results in better loaves. I’ve included some basic items here for those of you with no baking experience.

  • Kitchen scale. I highly recommend you get your hands on a scale if you plan to undertake serious baking. I measure my flour in grams because weight can differ greatly from volume. If you don’t have a scale, you’ll find the approximate measurements in cups here.
  • Dutch oven. It’s probably wrong to love an inanimate object as much as I love my Dutch oven. Commercial ovens inject the interior with steam, which creates sourdough’s nice crust. You can replicate this environment with a Dutch oven. The moisture from your dough will generate steam inside the sealed Dutch oven. If you don’t have a Dutch oven, bake in loaf pans or on a baking stone or cookie sheet. Mine is huge—6 1/2 quarts. A smaller one will work—5 quarts or even 4.
  • Banneton baskets. I proof my loaves in these wicker-like spiral baskets. I had trouble tracking them down and they cost about $25 each (not cheap). I have two baskets, so when I make three loaves, I just use a towel-lined bowl sprinkled generously with flour to proof the third loaf. Works well.
  • Razor blade or lame. The razor blade for scoring changed my life. With a good score, the bread can expand more, resulting in a better rise. 
  • Dough scraper. Use this to clean your cutting board and to flip your dough around.
  • Silicone spatula. I use these to scrape down the very sticky sourdough starter. If you have a limited budget, this is the one thing you might want to splurge on.

This is basically Michael Pollan’s recipe from his fabulous book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. He bases his recipe on Chad Robertson’s in Tartine Bread. I love both of these books. The pictures in Tartine Bread really help you along BUT the recipe spans about 26 pages (and you thought my post was long!). Michael Pollan’s is about four pages. Tartine also offers many delicious variations, such as the coriander raisin bread pictured below. (Oops, I accidentally used cardamom in these loaves, which tasted great.)

cardamom raisin

Ingredients for Two Loaves

I have been experimenting with freshly ground flour lately. So far, I have used only about 20 percent freshly ground as it tends to make a dense loaf. If you use freshly ground flour, grind it immediately before using as the oils in the grain turn rancid quickly. That’s a blog post for another day…

For the leaven:

  • 100 grams whole wheat flour
  • 100 grams white flour
  • 200 grams warm water
  • 35 grams recently fed sourdough starter

For the sourdough:

  • 600 grams whole wheat flour
  • 200 grams white flour
  • 200 grams spelt or rye flour
  • 750 grams warm water (adjust as necessary)
  • 1/2 the leaven
  • 25 grams salt combined with an additional 50 grams warm water
This is actually freshly ground sorghum but you get the idea
This is actually freshly ground sorghum but you get the idea

Directions

Try to do the following as you work on your bread:

  • Take lots of notes
  • Smell and taste the dough at its various stages—the smell, taste and feel all serve as clues to the dough’s progress
Four stages of sourdough, beginning top right clockwise: bulk fermentation; leaven ready to use; formed loaf in banneton basket; baked loaf

1. Begin with freshly fed sourdough starter.

2. The night before you make your bread, in a glass or ceramic bowl, make a leaven (basically a giant starter). Combine 100 grams whole wheat flour, 100 grams white flour, 200 grams warm water and 35 grams fresh starter. Cover with a plate to prevent crust from forming on top and place in a warm spot.

3. Soak the grains for the dough at the same time as you make your leaven. In a large glass, ceramic or wooden bowl, combine 600 grams whole wheat flour, 200 grams white flour, 200 grams rye or spelt flour and 750 grams warm water. Cover tightly with a plate to prevent a crust from forming on top. (You don’t need to place this in a warm spot as with the leaven.)

Pollan’s recipe calls for more water in this step—850 grams. I would suggest you start off with less and work your way up to more as you get more experienced at baking this. Even with the smaller amount of 750 grams of water, the very wet dough can freak new bakers out.

Good morning leaven
Good morning leaven (oops, it’s a little crusty on top…just scrape that off)

4. In the morning, combine 1/2 the leaven with the soaked grains. I use my hands to work everything in together. The remaining leaven is your new sourdough starter.

5. Combine 25 grams salt with 50 grams warm water and set aside.

6. Wait 20 minutes. Add salty water to dough and thoroughly mix it in with your hands. CORRECTION: The bulk fermentation begins now so note the time.

7. Wait another 20 minutes. Turn the dough for the first time. Wet your hand, reach under to the bottom of the dough, pull it up and fold it over on itself. Turn the bowl 1/4 of a turn and repeat for a total of at least 4 turns. The bulk fermentation begins now so note the time. 

If you want to add seeds, nuts, olives or raisins, do that after the second turn of the dough.

Seeds: Fennel, sesame, sunflower and flax seeds are good choices. I use about 1 ½ cups total. Toast for 10 minutes in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, soak the seeds in about 1 cup warm water for 30 minutes before adding to dough. The seeds will absorb this water. If there is any remaining water, strain it out. Soaking plumps these up. They taste so good. Skip this step if you prefer though.

Nuts: Toast as with seeds until fragrant. You don’t need to soak nuts after toasting but chop whole ones into small pieces.

Olives: Chop into smaller pieces if whole.

Raisins: Soak 3 cups golden raisins in warm water for half an hour and strain before adding to the dough.

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Coriander raisin dough after a few turns during bulk fermentation

8. Continue to turn your dough every 30 to 45 minutes.

9. End the bulk fermentation after 4 or 5 hours. My dough begins to break down around 5 hours so I rarely go past 4 1/2 hours. Your bulk fermentation may require more or less time, depending on your kitchen environment.

10. Liberally flour a wooden cutting board or your counter top.

11. Dump dough onto work surface and halve into 2 blobs.

12. Sprinkle with flour and with your hands, rotate each blob gently while pushing the sides toward the bottom of the blob. Don’t work the dough any more than you need to in order to achieve this.

13. Cover with a towel and wait 20 minutes.

14. Sprinkle your work surface with more flour. With your dough scraper, flip a blob over. You’ll now shape your loaves. Pull gently on one end of the dough to form a rectangle. Fold the dough in half. Pull gently on the ends (i.e., not the folded side) to form a rectangle again. Fold over again. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat this folding. Now turn the dough diagonally. Make a rectangle, fold it. Make a rectangle in the opposite direction, fold it. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat this folding.

You have folded the dough a total of eight times. This creates a tight loaf and helps create a better rise. But be gentle! Don’t pop any air pockets. These are gold! The dough gets more difficult to fold as you continue to fold it. This is the trickiest part. Don’t worry, your bread will taste great 🙂

Formed coriander raisin loaf
Formed coriander raisin loaf

15. Sprinkle banneton baskets or cloth-lined bowls generously with flour. Place formed loaves in baskets, top side facing down. When you drop the loaf into the Dutch oven, the smooth side will face up. Cover the loaves with a cloth.

16. Proof the shaped loaves. I get the best results from an overnight cold proof in the refrigerator. This overnight proof gives you a break BUT you can proof now for two hours at room temperature and then bake as outlined in the next steps.

17. After proofing the loaves, place the Dutch oven in the oven and heat at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. If you have refrigerated your loaves, remove the first one from the fridge before you turn on the oven. My Dutch oven is very large—6 1/2 quarts. A smaller one will do.

18. Pull the Dutch oven from the oven and remove the lid. Hold the basket above the pot. Drop in the loaf being careful not to burn yourself.

19. Score the loaf using a razor blade on a stick or a store-bought lame. I prefer the razor-blade-stick combo as the blade on the lame is not usually replaceable. Put the lid back on. Return the Dutch oven to the oven. 

20. Reduce the temperature to 450 degrees.

21.  After baking for 20 minutes, remove the lid. This is the moment of truth. Hopefully your dough has risen nicely. Before I peer inside, I ALWAYS feel a little anxious! I doubt this will go away…

If all goes well, you'll see a little puff of steam when you remove the lid and a nicely risen loaf
If all goes well, you’ll see a little puff of steam when you remove the lid and a nicely risen loaf

22. Bake another 23 to 25 minutes until the crust of the bread has browned and caramelized.

23. Place baked loaf on cooling rack.

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My students take their formed loaf home to bake
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Another student loaf baked at home

24. If you did an overnight cold proof, pull the second loaf from refrigerator.

25. Place Dutch oven with lid on top back in the oven. Heat the oven to 500 degrees for 15 minutes.

26. Repeat steps 18 through 23.

27. Devour bread after it has cooled. Resist the temptation to tear into it. The bread continues to bake after you remove it from the oven.

student loaves
Loaves students worked on in class, which I baked the next morning; they insisted I score with my initials 😉

105 Replies to “Sourdough Bread”

  1. I am just now starting down the sourdough path- made my first loaves yesterday! I will definitely be trying your recipe next week. Your instructions are very clear!

  2. I am very new to wild sourdough starter. I just began my starter on January 11, 2019, and just found your website a couple days ago. I was reading through these directions and wonder: so, you don’t grease the Dutch oven at all? I have a cast iron one I think will work for this.

  3. I have been trying a couple of sourdough starter and bread attempts before and ended up with heavy rocks or dead starters. You explain things really well so I understand the why and how. THANK YOU!

  4. These are the best sourdough recipe / instructions I’ve come across so far, and I’ve tried a few! Easy enough to make, though the dough is super soft and hard to handle, but absolutely worth it!

  5. Sydney Boland says: Reply

    Thank you for the awesome recipe!
    My loaves never seem to split the same way yours do–they don’t have same crusty look. Also, I do not have a dutch oven large enough to fit my loaves. Do you have any tips for baking on a cast iron skillet?
    Any help is much appreciated.
    Thank you 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Sydney,
      My loaves starting splitting well when I made my lame (the stick with the razor blade). The razor blade made a huge difference. And when I use it, I go deep. It took my bread to the next level. I haven’t baked on a cast iron skillet but I have baked on a pizza stone which I think would render pretty similar results. I would put the skillet in the oven to heat up and then pull it out and drop the loaf onto it. You won’t get that same caramelized crust as you would with a Dutch oven but you will get a delicious loaf. When I use my pizza stone, my bread rises like crazy.
      Enjoy!
      Anne Marie

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