This sourdough bread recipe is the result of many years of tweaking, improving and simplifying. We love artisan bread and bake it on a regular basis. To be able to do that with our busy lives, the bread recipe and the process must be simple and easy to follow. Isn't it how sourdough bread has been for centuries? In our modern world there are way too many gadgets, tools, books and information, which tend to complicate things. There is no need for that, making fantastic sourdough bread at home is very simple once you learn a few basics and tips that I will show you here.
When I started out baking my own sourdough bread back about 8 years ago, I encountered numerous challenges and was never quite happy with the results for a long time. My bread didn't quite look the same as on the pictures from the bakers who inspired me. On top, the taste was not great either and often varied significantly from batch to batch.
Over time, as I gained experience and learned the 'tricks of the trade', my sourdough bread became consistently great and I was not afraid to share it with others. Many people who tasted it immediately loved its taste and texture, and were interested in learning how to bake it. I have successfully taught my method to a number of friends and family members, and I still keep getting requests. I hope this post will help all those aspiring to learn how to make amazing artisan (or artisanal if you wish) sourdough bread at home quickly and efficiently.
A lot has already been written about sourdough bread fundamentals. I am not going to focus on the concepts like autolysing, retarding, bulk fermentation, bench resting, proofing, steaming, scoring and baker's percentages. Knowing them hardly helped me with getting good results. Instead, I will focus on a very simple process that works very well for me, and will hopefully work for you.
Artisan Sourdough Bread Making Process
Step 1 - prepare a healthy sourdough starter
Good sourdough starter was THE MOST IMPORTANT factor to getting a decent loaf of sourdough bread for me. Get it right and your results will already be good.
There are hundreds of resources out there that tell you how to make a sourdough starter. All seem quite easy but none really worked for me. I would be able to get my sourdough starter rise and fall predictably but the bread made with it was never good. It would be dense and wouldn't get a decent oven spring. I would get huge bubbles in some spots, while other parts of the crumb would be dense and have tiny holes. It's a sign of weak sourdough starter. On top, my starter would be great initially, for the first 5-8 days, then it would get vinegary and thin. No matter how I tried to feed it, it would not live long.
What worked for me to get good sourdough starter going indefinitely:
- Buy a package of dried (organic) San Francisco sourdough starter online. Local yeast strains may not give you the results that you are looking for. I find it best to start with a known good strain of yeast.
- Follow instructions to get the starter going. Typically, all you need to do is combine one tablespoon of dry sourdough starter with a cup of flour and a cup of warm water, let it sit for a day to get the yeast going, then feed once a day.
- Feed it once a day, using a mix of white and whole wheat flour. My dry sourdough starter would turn vinegary after feeding it just white flour after about a week or so. I suspect that all purpose flour just does't have sufficient nutrients. Ever since I've started feeding my starter with whole wheat flour it looks very happy and healthy. I've had it going for the past 5 years.
- Increase the flour to water ratio in your starter. Many resources recommend a 50/50 flour to water ratio by volume when feeding sourdough starter, e.g. one cup of water to one cup of flour. I've had a much better luck with thicker starters. At 50/50 ratio by volume, my starter would again, become too sour after a few days, and, eventually, vinegary.
Step 2 - mix the ingredients
There are no tricks here, and no special steps. I just mix all of the ingredients together at the same time and let rest for an hour. You don't need to use the autolyse method in this recipe. I've tried both ways and saw little, if any, benefit. Without it, it's one step less to worry about.
Step 3 - dough fermentation with stretches and folds
At this stage the dough will undergo what is called 'bulk fermentation', where yeast will feast on sugars and produce ethanol and other derivative chemical components that give bread its characteristic aroma. The dough in this recipe will be quite wet and slack initially, so we will need to do a series of stretches and folds to strengthen the dough.
The purpose of the stretch and fold method is to stretch and align strands of gluten, which strengthens the dough. The same can be achieved by mixing but stretching and folding is more gentle on the dough and results in larger bubbles in the crumb. I do three stretch and folds over a period of 4-5 hours. By the time I am done the dough is smooth, soft and elastic, with some blisters showing on the surface. The dough is kept at room temperature, ranging from 67F to 72F, depending on the time of year. There are no special accommodations.
For sourdough bread to develop its flavor it's necessary to slow down one of the dough development stages. It can be either bulk fermentation or proofing. It allows the dough to develop deep flavor. In this recipe, I extend proofing time as this better fits my schedule.
Step 4 - shape the dough
After the final stretch and fold and about a 30 minute to an hour rest, I gently transfer the dough onto a smooth surface (countertop), divide into two equal pieces and shape. After the final rest in the bowl, and if you are gentle with it when transferring, the dough does not really need another rest (usually referred to as bench rest) before shaping. If I am in a rush, I shape and immediately place the dough into proofing baskets. If not, I will shape it, let it rest for 20 minutes, then give it one more fold and place into a proofing basket.
The dough in this recipe is fairly wet, but not wet enough to warrant using working flour. If you shape it on a smooth surface, there will be no sticking. However, after a while the dough will stick to the sides of the proofing basket quite easily. You can use a 50/50 mix of white flour and rice flour to prevent sticking. This helps, most of the time, but I am not a big fan of white flour on the bread's crust. Instead, I use sesame seeds. They guarantee no sticking every time and that the bread gets an additional load of toasty sesame seed flavor. I love it!
Step 5 - proof the dough
The final stage of the getting the bread dough ready for baking is proofing. This is THE SECOND MOST IMPORTANT factor to getting great bread. Under-proofed bread will be dense. It may have a nice oven spring but once you cut it you will see dense, poorly baked mass at the bottom and a few large hollow cavities at the top. Over-proofed bread will be flat and will have almost no oven spring. It will have an airy, open crumb though. A perfectly proofed dough will result in a great oven spring and an airy, open crumb.
So, how do you tell the dough is perfectly proofed and ready for baking? If you use the same formula and the same proofing baskets long enough, you can tell that the dough is over-proofed because it's spilling out of the proofing basket. When you turn such dough onto a flat surface, it doesn't hold its shape and becomes flat. When you score it, it goes even flatter.
The best way to test the dough for readiness is to give it a gentle poke with a finger. If the dough is sufficiently proofed the indentation springs back very slowly. If it's under-proofed, the dough will spring back quickly. Over-proofed dough won't have much strength and the indentation will stay as is.
Step 6 - score the loaves
Once the shaped loaves have sufficiently proofed, turn them over onto individual pieces of parchment paper and score to allow for a better oven spring during the initial baking stage. There are dozens of ways to do it but I have a very simple method that works wonderfully for me. All you need is a serrated knife. I use my old bread knife with serrated edge that does the job just fine. I used to use a lame with razor blades but got tired of losing the blades, cleaning them and in general, etc.
Scoring is more of an art that comes with practice. After you do it a dozen times, or more, you know how to do it right. Even then, every single score will be unique and the bread will look unique. Here are two technically identical loaves, that were score in a similar way. Yet, they look quite different. But that's the beauty of artisan bread baking.
My advice is start with about a half an inch cut that goes ALMOST from one end to another. Run the score too far and the bread will go flat. Cut too deep and the dough won't spring up. You can score on top, on the side, or at any angle you desire. You can even do multiple small scores. The important part is experiment and figure out what works best. A perfect score will produce a perfect oven spring and vice versa.
Step 7 - bake the bread
Now, grab a pizza shovel and send those loaves into an oven preheated to 500F. Bake with steam at 475F for 20 minutes and 25 minutes without steam at 450F.
There are numerous ways to steam an oven, from simple to downright crazy complicated, or just crazy. After trying a few and killing my old oven with a 'lava rocks in a cast iron pan' steaming setup, I settled on a simple and effective method that has worked for me for years. On The Fresh Loaf, it's referred to as Sylvia's Steaming Method, in honor of the member who created it. I've deviated from it over time but the idea is the same - a bread pan filled with water and a kitchen towel thrown in it. This setup allows for a slow, continuous release of steam. I place a towel in a bread pan then fill it with hot tap water. The pan then goes in the oven when I start preheating it. 45 minutes later I have a nice, steady steam going.
A good, thick baking stone completes my bread baking setup. After a number of cracked pizza stones and not so great results, I ended up buying a 3/4" thick kiln shelf from a local pottery supply store, which cut it to 16" x 20" for me. It's heavy and therefore permanently resides in my oven. I love it. With it I get much better oven spring in my breads. Despite several spills and many years of use, it's still going strong. I can easily bake two 2-pound loaves on it.
Step 8 - cool the bread
You are supposed to cool the bread for at least 1 hour before slicing. Personally, I've been breaking this rule ever since I started baking my own bread. There is nothing like a slice of hot sourdough bread right out of the oven with some melting butter on top. There are exceptions though, like the flaxseed bread which has a gummy texture when hot.
Sourdough Bread Formulations
I feed my sourdough starter every evening using the formula below, and that's what I use for levain in this basic sourdough bread recipe. There are no extra steps for building a specially formulated levain here.
|25g||Whole Wheat Flour|
Sourdough Bread Formula
|450g||Whole Wheat Flour||45%|
- 500 g bread flour
- 450 g whole wheat flour
- 50 g rye flour
- 750 g water (around 85F)
- 200 g levain
- 20 g kosher salt
- Two nights before bakingFeed mature sourdough starter using the levain formula above.
- The night before baking, around 6:00PMMix all of the ingredients in a large bowl, cover with a plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
- Thirty minutes to one hour later, around 7:00PMPerform a set of stretch and folds. Cover and let rest.
- Around 7:45PM and 8:30PMPerform two additional sets of stretch and folds. Cover and let rest.
- Around 10:00PMDepending on your ambient temperature, the dough should double in size by around 10:00PM. In my case, at around 66F - 67F ambient temperature the dough doubles in size in about 4 hours. If not, wait until it does, about an hour or so.Turn the dough over onto a flat, smooth surface. Divide into two equal pieces, pre-shape, flip and let rest for 20 minutes.
- Around 10:20PMFold the loaves one more time, pinch the seams (optional), dip into sesame seeds and place into 14" oval proofing baskets, seam side up. Cover with each with a piece of paper towel, then wrap with a piece of plastic wrap. Proof in a cool place (around 66F or lower) overnight.
- The morning of baking, around 7:00AMPlace the baking stone on the rack about 3 positions from the top. Place a kitchen towel in a bread pan, or a small cake pan, fill with hot tap water and place on a rack below the baking stone, to the side of the stone. Preheat the oven to 500F.
- Around 7:45AM - 8:00AMPrepare two pieces of parchment paper slightly bigger than the proofing baskets. Turn the dough pieces onto parchment paper. Score with a serrated knife. Using a pizza shovel, transfer the dough into the preheated oven. Using a water spray, spray some water on the sides of the oven to create some extra steam, and quickly close the oven door. Drop the temperature to 475F and set the time to 20 minutes.
- 20 minutes laterRemove the bread pan with water from the oven. Drop the temperature to 450F and continue baking the bread for an additional 25 minutes.
- 25 minutes laterRemove bread from the oven and set on a cooling rack to cool down for an hour. Then slice and enjoy.