Updated: Apr 26, 2020
Buckle up your seatbelts because this is going to be a long post. However, if you're a new baker and are starting your sourdough journey, it will be worth the read. Although I already have some simple recipes posted, I believe this guide will make it much easier for me to answer the many, many questions that I receive daily about making sourdough bread. I'm also going to provide the sourdough starter and country bread recipe here so that you can access everything you need to get going in one place.
Let's start with the basics, as you probably want to make a sourdough starter from scratch. I will explain a few differences in terminology here, but if you want to go straight to the process for making a sourdough starter from scratch, just scroll down.
What is a sourdough starter?: Something quite incredible happens when you mix flour and water together. This mixture begins to absorb wild yeasts and bacteria from the environment, and the more you refresh it (refreshing your starter means you are keeping some of it, and adding fresh flour and water to it), the stronger and more active it will become. Ultimately, it will become so potent that you can make your bread rise in the oven. The period between refreshments is called fermentation, and thus when you use your starter to make bread you are using "pre-fermented" flour in your mix.
What do I call it?: Many people might give their sourdough starter a name, but that's not what I'm getting at here. Let's talk about the names and terms used in regards to sourdough, as these terms can be interchangeable yet they seem to confuse lots of beginners:
Sourdough vs Naturally Leavened: If you tell me that your bread is sourdough, the first thing that comes to my mind is that you have fermented your dough for a long period of time and that you used pre-fermented flour to make your bread rise, aka your sourdough starter. If you tell me your bread is naturally leavened, well, I'd think the same thing! These two terms are often used to designate the fact that a loaf of bread was made with a fermented mixture of flour and water - a sourdough starter. Feel free to use them interchangeably.
Sourdough Starter vs Levain: When your sourdough starter is ready to use after you make it from scratch, it is now known to be active. An active starter indicates it is healthy and when fed it will reach a point where you can add it to your final dough mix to begin the process of making bread. When it is at the point to where it rises and is ready for your final dough mix, your starter is now commonly referred to as a levain or a leaven (French and English words that mean to make something rise). After this peak point passes, your levain will start to decline in size and lose strength. Usually around 13-14 hours after you fed your starter, it will return back to the same state as prior to the feeding and is essentially an active sourdough starter once again.
Understanding Flour Types
Now that you have an idea as to what a sourdough starter is, you probably want to make one! In order to make one, you will have to buy some flour. My preferred flour for making a sourdough starter from scratch is dark rye flour. There are quite a few different flours out there these days, so I will make a simple list for you of the most common and easily accessible types of flour that you can find at a grocery store
Dark Rye Flour: This is my number 1 choice flour to use for creating a sourdough starter. Dark rye flour is milled from the rye berry and contains a great amount of nutritional value. As opposed to light rye, dark rye contains all of the bran and germ. Because of this, it makes the perfect flour to use to create a sourdough starter as all of these healthy nutrients make harvesting wild yeasts pretty easy to do. Rye flour has a low gluten and protein content,
Whole Wheat Flour: This is my number 2 choice to make a sourdough starter. Whole wheat (or whole grain, whole meal) flour is milled from the wheat berry and includes all parts of the berry: the bran, germ, and endosperm. This creates great nutritional value and a very optimal environment for harvesting wild yeasts.
Bread Flour: Bread flour is milled from the wheat berry but does not contain the bran or germ. Thus, it has much less nutritional value and isn't optimal for making a sourdough starter. That being said, it is still very possible to create your starter using bread flour! It may take you a bit longer than 5 days, but with regular feedings you will begin to create a strong starter. Bread flour is high in protein content, usually around 12-13% and that is the main difference between this flour and all purpose flour. Thus, it's not a good flour for things like cakes or cookies as they will come out very bread-like.
All Purpose Flour: Similar to bread flour, all purpose flour is removed of the most nutritional parts of the wheat berry. You can use this flour to make your sourdough starter from scratch, but you won't develop the type of flavor and activity that you would if you used Rye or Whole Wheat Flour.
For the purposes of this guide, I will not dive into other flour types and ancient grains like spelt, einkorn, and emmer. I will tackle these types of ingredients in a different blog post.
What Tools Do You Need?
I don't recommend you worry too much about having all of the bells and whistles but if you were to splurge on a few things, here is what I would recommend:
The first and most used thing you will need is a good scale. All of my recipes are weighed in grams and it makes it much easier for a baker to use the weight of ingredients
You'll need a variety of containers and tubs for your starter and doughs. This makes it easy for you when you want to mix and ferment your dough.
Proofing baskets help if you aren't confident enough in your shaping to let your loaves proof on a cutting board or sheet pan.
Loaf tins are great for your enriched breads or any old dough that you don't want to waste and want to bake.
How To Make Your Sourdough Starter
Here is my go to process for making a sourdough starter from scratch. I want this process to feel simple for you, as it is designed for someone at home and not a professional setting that demands consistency. No need to obsess or worry about exact temperatures, because you will succeed through trial and error and by getting to know your home environment. That being said, temperature is a very important part of this initial process so you will have to be mindful. I know that my kitchen is usually between 70-75 Fahrenheit, and on top of that I'm usually searching for the warmest spot in my kitchen to keep my new sourdough starter. Just keep in mind you don't want to keep it anywhere above 80 Fahrenheit as this will be too much.
I also live in a very humid and hot climate, so I don't need to always use 100% water in my mixes. The humidity in the environment here adds a little bit of extra moisture to everything.
In a nutshell, it takes about 5 feedings for me to be able to get my starter to an active state that is ready to make your bread rise. The daily process is very simple. The pictures above are sequential, from day one to five, and are all taken at the point of maturity when it is ready for another feeding.
What You'll Need:
500 grams Rye Flour
500 grams warm water
What You Need to Do:
Day One: Mix 100 grams of rye flour and 100 grams of water. You can use a glass mason jar, or any type of container that has a lid. I mix with a fork. Cover and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day Two: You will probably see some sort of activity depending on how warm your kitchen is. The smell may not be so pleasant. Throw away half of the mixture (try to essentially keep 100 grams) and feed another 100 grams of rye flour and 100 grams of water and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day Three: You may see the markings from a "rise and fall" of the new starter, along with nice bubbles and pockets. This is good. The smell should be getting a bit more bearable. Repeat the process of step 2.
Day Four: There will definitely be a good volume increase and a consistent amount of bubbling and air pockets. You should have a somewhat sweet and sour smell that is pleasant. You're in the home stretch. Repeat step 2 one more time.
Day Five: By day five, you have a ripe and sweet-smelling sourdough starter. You should see some movement of the bubbles when you move the container and a structure when you stir it. You are ready to build a levain. Alternatively, you can continue this process for a couple more days until you achieve the proper aroma and strength.
My Go To Levain
You will see in my recipes that I use the same levain build, or a slightly modified version of it when I mix bread. Whether the final bread is enriched, sweet, or rustic, I find this levain build to work just fine. There are many, many ways to build a levain but I believe using this one build makes life at home easy.
85 grams mature sourdough starter
150 grams King Arthur Organic Bread Flour
50 grams King Arthur Organic Whole Wheat Flour
175 grams warm water
Mix in a container with a fork and let rest at room temperature. It should be ready to mix in about 3-4 hours. You can use it immediately or put it in the fridge and use it later. Check out my bread recipes that you can use this levain in.
*Note that my ambient temperature for both of these processes is usually somewhere around 72-75 Fahrenheit.
How To Make Bread With Your Starter/Levain
So you've finally gotten past the scary stuff. Congrats, because now it's time to make bread. Here is my process for a simple country sourdough loaf.
What You'll Need (Levain Mix - makes more than you need)
85 grams mature sourdough starter
150 grams King Arthur Organic Bread Flour
50 grams King Arthur Organic Whole Wheat Flour
175 grams warm water
What you'll need:
600 grams Bread Flour
200 grams Whole Wheat Flour
200 grams All-Purpose Flour
20 grams Kosher Salt
210 grams levain (see build below)
Up to 800 grams warm water
I usually will mix with a fork or with my hand.
Since I incorporate a lot of mature starter into the mix, it is ready to use in about 3-4 hours, when it is in its "young" stage. This means that I use a high (50%) inoculation in the levain mix. Inoculation refers to the percentage of starter you use relative to the amount of flour. You'll know it's ready to use, not just because of the volume increase, but because when you pull at it you can see a web-like structure has developed. This is my cue to start mixing. Thus, you have to keep an eye on the structure and not just rely strictly on the clock. My ambient temperature is usually between 72-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
I recommend using up to 800 grams of water for a basic loaf of bread that is hand mixed. If you are new to baking, you can even use as little as 650 grams of water for the final mix amount. This will allow you to get comfortable handling dough and understanding fermentation. The more water you incorporate, the more possibility of a soupy mess you can get. So, the amount of water you want to use is depending on your ambition or skill level.
I will use a total of 800 grams of water, but I will start with only about 600 grams of warm water. I will break the steps down in a numbered list to make it easy to follow:
Add about 75% of your total water into a bowl.
Dissolve the 210 grams of levain into the water. It may not dissolve completely, which is fine.
Slowly add your flour with one hand while mixing with the other. You will, at some point, need both hands. Your goal is to incorporate the water into the flour. Once it starts to come together and feels dry, let it rest for 5 minutes.
Proceed to slowly add the remaining water, but save about 10-20 grams for when we add the salt in step 6. I usually will add 50g at a time, mix, and let it rest for 5 minutes.
Once all of your desired water is added and there is no dry flour, transfer to another tub or bowl and let rest for an hour. It's wise to transfer from the bowl you mixed in because you will start to get dried up flour particles interfering with your folds later on.
After an hour has elapsed, add the salt and the last bit of water. Squeeze the water and salt into the dough, but don't tear at it. The water and salt will absorb with squeezing and gentle folding for about 5-7 minutes. Trust the process and be patient, as at first, it does not seem like the water will incorporate.
After the salt is incorporated, perform a gentle "stretch and fold" every 30 minutes, for a total of 2 times. You can also get away with no stretches if you aren't a perfectionist and just want to eat good bread.
Depending on your ambient temperature, your dough may need up to 5 more hours to finish its first fermentation. Signs to look for are a smooth surface, bubbles, elasticity when you pull at the top, and a slight web-like structure at the bottom when you turn the dough out of the table.
Once you're ready to shape, flour your work surface and divide the dough into 2 pieces.
Get creative here. You can check out my Instagram feed for examples of how I like to shape.
Proof in baskets or bowls for about 30 minutes, cover with a plastic bag and put into your fridge overnight (8-12 hours).
You can bake these in cast iron pans or on pizza stones. Preheat either of these items with the oven to 500 degrees. By the way, I use the Ooni pizza stone as it is designed to withstand high heat. I've had plenty of cheaper stones crack at 450 degrees.
If using the cast iron, no need to spray the oven or add extra steam. If using the pizza stone, use a spray bottle after loading your bread into the oven and spray the sides and back.
You can lower your oven to 475 or 450 depending on your oven. Bake the loaf for 20 minutes on the stone/in the cast iron.
Let the steam out and then transfer your loaf to the top rack for another 20 minutes. I like to bake dark, so sometimes I go a little extra. I finish my bake with the oven door open to let all the moisture out.
They say to let your bread cool, but I say dig in. Warm bread with butter is the best.
FAQ - Frequently Asked Question
My goal with this FAQ is to be able to answer the many messages and questions about baking sourdough that I get. I try my best to answer all of your questions, but I'm not able to get to all of them. However, a lot of the questions tend to be the same. Here are my answers to your most frequently asked questions:
My new starter smells really bad. What did I do wrong?
Note that the smell of your starter after the first day or two might seem strong and strange. As long as you aren't seeing any mold, continue with your feedings for a week or so and see if you notice any of the sweeter notes begin to develop. Don't give up after a couple of days that your new starter has a strange smell to it.
I made my starter but then it died. How do I revive it?
When a starter "dies" you might see some strange dark liquids accumulate on the top of the mixture. The smell from your container will be really, really bad. If this is the case, you can get rid of all of the bad looking liquid and most of the starter and start to feed it with rye or whole wheat flour. Make sure you switch to a new container as well. This process could take a while because the lack of nourishment for so long will make your starter relatively inactive. You might just have better luck and a more enjoyable experience if you start from scratch and make a new starter in 5 days.
My levain doesn't float in water. Is it ready to make bread?
Although the float test is a fantastic way to see if your levain is ready to make water, it isn't really definitive. The best way to tell if your levain is ready to make bread is to check if it has been rising and falling predictably and has a pleasant smell. In addition, the texture should be bubbly with a weblike structure.
What is autolyse?
You may see this term often. I try not to use it as it seems to confuse and even intimidate many new bakers. This is a process in which you combine your flour and water and let it rest for a while before adding your levain and salt. The purpose of doing this is to let your gluten strengthen so that you ultimately have a smooth and strong dough to work with.
Why do your recipes make more levain than needed?
This is a fair question. Have you ever tried to make only exactly as much levain as you need for a single recipe? Sometimes you come up a bit short. Sometimes you spill it on the ground on accident. In other words, I build slightly more levain to always make sure I have what I need for my bake and a little extra in case something happens to it or my dough. I can also use the extra to feed later on when it returns to an active starter state past it's peak.
Why doesn't my dough stay together when I shape it?
If your dough is falling apart or grainy when you are trying to shape it, chances are it was not fermented for long enough. Try to make sure your bulk fermentation, or initial rise period, goes on long enough for your dough to develop the right amount of size and strength.
How do you get a dark crust on your bread?
Bake your bread hot and long for a good dark crust on the bake. I start my bakes at 500F, lower the temperature to 450 or 475, and usually finish it at 500 again. Don't be afraid to leave your bread in for 40 or more minutes during your bake.
How do you get an open crumb in your bread?
If you want to achieve an open crumb, just make sure you take care of your starter and keep it healthy. In addition to that, practice adding water slowly into your final dough mixes so that you can get a higher hydration in your bread while still maintaining development of gluten. If you practice these steps, you will find your desired results.
Can you bake sourdough bread on a sheet pan with no steam?
Yes, you can bake any type of bread on a sheet pan. If you do so, though, just keep your expectations in check. The benefit of cast iron or stone is that it is really, really hot when the bread hits it. This is what enables your bread to get great oven spring. Using a sheet pan, you will not get that amount of heat in the initial part of your bake, so your oven spring will suffer. However, just remember that you are aiming to make delicious bread. If your overall goal is to have great oven spring and a nice ear from scoring your loaf, then don't bake on a sheet pan as your expectations are not catered towards this method.
Do I need to score my loaf before baking?
No, you don't. Scoring helps a loaf rise in the oven in a controlled way and offers good aesthetics on your final loaf. But you can also achieve this by baking your loaf with the seam side up. The seam that you created when shaping your loaf acts as a "score" in a way and will allow your bread to get good spring and open up in a more rustic and natural way.
How do I know when my bread should go in the oven?
It depends on the type of bread, but generally you want to see a noticeable increase in size in your dough while it is proofing. If you are proofing an enriched bread like Pan de Coco, you want to see it popping out of the loaf tin and very jiggly to the touch. If you are baking a rustic loaf like the country recipe in this post, you will want to see size increase in your basket as well as a a soft springy sensation when you poke at the dough.
My dough was raw in the middle and burnt on the outside. What happened?
If this happens to you, you just simple under baked your bread. Also, make sure the convection fan setting is off on your oven as the fan can create a burned crust faster than usual.