Bake Sourdough Bread Without the Expensive Tools

Don’t let a want of fancy tools squelch your dreams of baking a beautiful loaf of sourdough bread

Some of the lessons that the COVID-19 outbreak has taught me:

  • Citizens can collectively act when a crisis erupts—and we can act quickly.
  • Black tea without any type of milk in it tastes good.
  • I might make a good backpacker.

I feel a bit like I’m camping indoors at my mom’s condo in Canada. In early March, I arrived with a carry-on bag packed with one pair of pants, five pairs each of underwear and socks, a few t-shirts, a toothbrush, a kombucha SCOBY and my sourdough starter. I also have my laptop and phone of course.

Now I’m here for the duration. I’ve long dreamt of living a more minimalist life and now I have my chance. That minimalism, as usual, extends to food.

Looking for a recipe for a simple dish? Combine a want of tools with a fear of grocery stores, add whatever ingredients you have on hand and sprinkle generously with creativity. You’ll be amazed by what you come up with. And you can’t get much simpler than sourdough bread. It contains only flour, water and salt. (Go here for the recipe.)

Just some newborn starters of the COVID-19 sourdough baby boom. Parents left to right, top to bottom: @beccagetspucked@ratatoeskri, @plant_based_mommas, @changemagnate@climate_action_mataro, @itsv.e.r.o, @tiffanynoelf, @numack_art@sustainablesamantha

Sourdough tools I usually use

Back in California, I have all the stuff for baking:

  • Grain mill for grinding part of the flour
  • Digital scale for measuring the flour, water and salt
  • Rubber spatula for scraping down bowls and glass measuring cups
  • Dough scraper for flipping the dough around and for cleaning my…
  • Giant wooden butcher block to work on
  • Banneton baskets for proofing the dough
  • My homemade lame for scoring the bread
  • Le Creuset Dutch oven for baking the bread

I have none of these sourdough tools here.

If you invest in one tool for your sourdough adventures, I’d recommend you buy a good scale. It makes measuring accurate and quick. But you don’t even need a that. Fortunately, a few years ago, I wrote up the measurements for sourdough bread by the cup for readers who don’t own a scale. I’m now one of them!

How I’ve been improvising

The night before I make the bread, I make a levain (i.e., a giant starter that makes the bread rise). And by the way, these days, I keep a very small smarter going in the background and make only the amount of levain I need for whatever I bake. This reduces the amount of discard I accumulate.

I usually make the levain in a glass measuring cup so I can see how much this wild yeast bubbled up. I couldn’t find a glass cup or large jar here (I’m working on building up a jar collection) so I’ve been using a ceramic mug.

When making the levain, if you don’t have a rubber spatula to scrape off the sticky flour and water mixture from your fork or jar, use a clean finger—and of course it is clean because you’re washing your hands constantly.

When shaping the dough, flour whatever pastry or cutting board you have. Or use a clean countertop. My mom has a small cutting board that can almost accommodate one loaf’s worth of dough. When I make two loaves, I’ll use the counter after cleaning it well.

Ordinarily, I proof my bread in a banneton basket. These light-weight, wicker-esque baskets allow the dough to rise while they create that appetizing coiled pattern on the loaves. If you don’t have a banneton basket, line an 8- or 9-inch bowl with a thin dishcloth and dust the fabric with flour. I couldn’t find an appropriate-sized bowl, only giant ones, so I proofed the loaf in a glass baking dish that I found.

My mom has one large knife that needs sharpening. The knife sheath contains a bit of steel that sharpens the blade a bit as you remove or insert it. So I pulled it in and out of the sheath several times to try to put at least something of an edge on the blade. I used that to score the bread as deeply as I could. Scoring is important. It enables your bread to expand as it rises.

If you don’t have a lame, use a knife to score the bread

No $300 Dutch oven? No problem! Cook your bread on a cookie sheet or shape it as usual and allow it to proof in the loaf pan that you’ll bake it in. I don’t grease my Dutch oven and so didn’t grease the cookie sheet. If you use a loaf pan, dust it with cornmeal to prevent sticking. My daughter has a very non-stick Pullman loaf pan that works without adding cornmeal to it. Your loaf pan may not be as non-stick.

The Dutch oven creates a caramelized crust by trapping water inside to create steam. Several people on social media asked if I put a pan of scalding water in the oven to create at least some steam. I didn’t do that with this loaf but I have with previous loaves.

Baking the dough on an inexpensive cookie sheet

After I slid the bread into the oven, I didn’t have high hopes for it even though the very elastic dough did taste delicious each time I tried a blob while it fermented. I set the timer for 35 minutes (10 minutes fewer than usual) and crossed my fingers.

The first loaf

It may not look as “perfect” as the loaves I bake with all the sourdough tools but this loaf made me so proud. It rose like crazy in the oven, had a moist, chewy crumb and tasted delicious.

This sourdough bread didn’t last long
Lockdown loaf made with very simple tools

There you have it—proof that you don’t need to go out and spend $500 on sourdough tools to make a delicious loaf of bread. The expensive gear is nice to have but you can make the bread without it. If you’ve been waiting to take the sourdough plunge until you have all the stuff, I hope you’ll feel motivated to give it a try.

As much as you can, stay home, stay safe!

17 Replies to “Bake Sourdough Bread Without the Expensive Tools”

  1. Thanks so much for your great post. I always learn something. Just wondering if you are using strong bread flour or just ordinary plain flour. Unbelievably flour has become a rationed item here in Australia, so I am thinking of giving just plain flour a go with my sourdough bread baking.

    1. Hi Pauline,
      Thank you for the kind words 🙂 I would have loved to have found some bread flour but the store was out. This loaf contained 80 percent whole wheat and 20 percent white. Tonight, I started pizza dough and used about 85 percent white flour and 15 percent whole wheat. The dough looks really good. I’m baking it tomorrow. So I think your plain flour will work.
      Happy baking,
      Anne Marie

  2. Jonathan Rabinowitz says: Reply

    I am so happy to read that you and your yeast are ok and thriving. Here in Texas I am baking sourdough every day and have figured out how to make mini-loaves, for distributing to twice as many people. I bake in a loaf pan, so instead of shaping one loaf and sticking it in the pan, I divide, shape 2 loaves, and put them in the same pan with a piece of folded baking paper between them. When done baking, just peel them apart, and there are two loaves with allover crusts instead of just one.

  3. Hello,
    I am so so happy to see this post. Gained a bit of confidence that I too can bake without Dutchoven, that blade for proofing etc etc.

    My starter is 6 days old and is bubbling well due to high temperature here in India.

    I have few set of questions in my mind for which I wish to seek your help

    1. How do I know that when should I begin my starter feeding from daily to 12hours?
    2. When I begin to bake my bread, the starter which I use to make leaven has to be the freshly fed one or the one which I will be discarding?
    3. As I see the leaven becomes my new starter. But won’t I have new starter everytime I bake a bread? Can that be considered one of the discard which I can use for my pancakes? If not, then do I find a new home for this leaven starter?

    I made pancakes from the discard today. For the first one, I forgot to add baking soda and salt, and so it turned out to be crepe like and the second one with soda became fluffy. I loved both

    I am sorry to bother with you so many questions…..

  4. Hi! Thank you for sharing this! I was debating whether I should get the proofing baskets but after seeing this, I think I’ll just use a glass bowl and kitchen towel. My starter is 6 days old and I named her Phoebe. She started bubbling at three days, so I’ve been feeding her daily. I can’t wait to make some sourdough bread! Can you please clarify what “freshly fed starter” means? Is it when you take 80% out and put 40 grams of flour and 40 grams of water to the remaining 20%? How long do you wait until you can make the leaven? Also, Phoebe doesn’t seem to rise as much as other starters. Is it because it’s only 40 grams? Would it be more visible if I did more?

    Thanks for continuing to inspire us with your posts. Stay safe!

  5. Hello and God bless!
    I wonder whether one can bake bread on a silicon sheet. And can/should this also be preheated for half hour -as I do with my iron cast pot- before baking? Thanks.-

  6. That is exactly how I have been baking bread for three months, I have a scale though, but I make a levain only to bake and keep only a large spoon of levain for the next time. Now my breads are instegram worthy to me and a delicious present to make.
    You are the reason I started on this journey, so thanks a lot !!

    1. Hi Delphine,
      I’m glad you’re enjoying your bread and that you’ve found my sourdough info helpful 🙂 I also now keep a small amount of starter alive and make only the amount of levain I need each time. I do miss my scale. I started pizza dough yesterday and lost track of the number of cups of flour I added and so added one too many. I’ll have to pay more attention next time.
      Happy baking,
      Anne Marie

  7. Michelle Snarr says: Reply

    I love this post! It prompted several chuckles. How did Mommy’s cherished cat-themed tea towel look after?

    1. Thanks Michelle 🙂 The tea towel is awfully cute. It had a bit of flour on it after proofing and looks fine now. Those are actually post-laundry pics.

  8. I would love, love, love to bake some bread but my doctor just put me on a gluten free diet. Do you have a recipe with gluten free ingredients? It may be too much to ask for…but I will do the ask. You always have such clever ideas.

  9. If the starter smells of alcohol (not yeasty), but bubbles and doubles quickly after feeding, what should I do?

  10. I had gotten some sourdough starter going a couple months ago but wasn’t happy with the loaves it produced and all the waste of keeping it alive. I stuck it in the fridge, though, and when I discovered your website and your recipes I decided to try it your way. I will admit that I generally avoid recipes that have 27 steps! =) However, I just took my second loaf out of the oven and they are beautiful and delicious. Those 27 steps were definitely worth it. And I love that it is mostly whole grain. AND I can keep just a small amount of starter going – that totally changed the game for me. Now that I have the maiden voyage behind me, I will try adding seeds and nuts. Thanks for all the encouraging posts.

  11. Hello Anne Marie! Thank you for your continual quality content and suggestions and reminders. A request for a future blog post: I constantly struggle with the timing for baking sour dough. I’ve tried to write it out but the process seems to end up running from very early in the morning to very late at night! Please would you write out a typical timing post about your process – maybe including which steps are more forgiving time wise than others? Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Heidi,
      Thanks for the idea. I am working on a book and have put schedules in it for any very involved sourdough recipes. I will add a bread schedule to my to-blog list. A lot of people could really use it right now!
      ~ Anne Marie

  12. Hello 😊
    Thank you so much for your inspirational posts.
    Perfect reading for these strange times.
    We are really enjoying our first attempt at sourdough using your clear information.
    There is just one part I feel slightly confused about…
    On your previous post on how to make sourdough your ingredients include half a leaven & the remaining leaven is your new starter. But what about my original starter (named Penelope) I took 35g out of to make this leaven? She still exists. Should I mix them?
    Thanks so much,
    Gemma x

  13. Hi there, I recently found you on Instagram and am curious as the the step between the final rise to when you pop it in the oven. If you are putting it in a basket or on a floured tea towel, how to do you get it in the oven or the hot Le Creuset pot? I’m trying to cut parchment paper out of my life and this seems to be the final step.

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