There are bazillions of sourdough recipes in the wild, foaming with traffic from eager bakers trapped in quarantine, ready for their sourdough starter baby with a punny name to graduate into a tube of sustenance and distraction during dark times.
Sourdough recipes are more involved than regular bread recipes, that’s for sure. There are many steps, and bakers can’t seem to agree on many of them. That’s no accident, a great sourdough bake needs to be adjusted to our kitchen and our starter.
What to expect when you’re expecting Sourdough
This article is not a sourdough recipe or guide. It’s more of a guide for reading sourdough recipes. It’s everything I wish I knew after reading my first sourdough recipe. When we get that faithful link from our baker friend with the only caption saying “just do what it says,” read through it, take it in, then come back here for some added context. (For some decent recipes, check the links at the end of the article.)
Let’s break down a standard sourdough bread recipe, look at what varies between them, and how to adjust the recipe fit our kitchen.
A typical sourdough recipe comes down to four things:
- Component ratio: How to adjust recipe measurements to fit the size loaf we want.
- Component ingredients: What are we using to make our sourdough? What kind of flour?
- Time, Temperature, and Yeast: This is what varies from baker to baker, and what we need to know to compensate in our steps.
- Steps: The bulk of the recipe, from crucial technique to flourishes and rituals.
Whether our recipe measures in grams or ounces or cups, the thing that really matters is the ratio between ingredients: Starter to Water to Flour.
For example, 50 grams of starter, 50 grams of water, and 100 grams of flour is 1:1:2 in ratio short-hand.
It can also be expressed as a Baker’s Percentage: 100% flour, 50% starter, 50% water. When using Baker’s Percentages, everything is relative to the weight of the flour, so flour is always 100%.
Once we have the ratio, we can scale the recipe to whatever total quantity we’d like, whether it’s a small 300g bun or a big ol’ 1.5kg absolute unit.
The ratio also tells us the hydration of the bread (baker percentage of total water content). Higher hydration can make the bread’s crumb more open and fluffy, but it can also make the dough stickier and more difficult to work with. This is one of the common things that vary in recipes, whether explicitly or indirectly.
We can use a Bread Calculator to figure all of this out ahead of time, and tweak the components to meet our goal.
Tried at 60% hydration loaf last time but want to bring it up to 75% this time? Plug in our measurements and tweak the water or flour components until our hydration ratio where we want it.
Other components are usually expressed in baker’s percentages too, like 2% salt is standard.
Okay, so we have our ratio of flour and water, but what kind of flour?
Most beginner sourdough recipes recommend using Bread Flour. It has more protein than All Purpose Flour which gives the starter yeast more nutrition to work with.
There are many other kinds of flours out there, like Whole Wheat Flour and Rye Flour, which have even more protein. If all you have is All Purpose Flour and Whole Wheat or Rye, then considering mixing them to give your starter yeast more to work with. Too much Whole Wheat or Rye can be difficult to work with, so start with majority of your base flour (Bread Flour ideally, All Purpose otherwise). Maybe something like 5:1 base flour to other flour, and tweak from there.
Avoid flours designed to be low on protein, like pastry flour.
Once we’re ready to experiment more, we can toss in some herbs, cheese, seeds, the possibilities are endless!
Time, Temperature, and Yeast
Any sourdough bread recipe will have a bunch of steps with specific timelines they recommend. Half hour to rest, a few hours to bulk ferment, another period to proof. The problem with most recipes is that they’re written for the author’s specific kitchen and starter.
We’ll stumble on professional baker in one end of the world heatedly debating another baker on the other side, both with thousands of loafs under their belt but they just can’t agree on The Correct Way To Make Sourdough! “I’ve always proofed mine for no more than 3 hours and it comes out perfect every time,” one will insist. “No way, you need to proof for minimum 5 hours, until a flock of pigeons fly by the window,” the other will protest.
While I’m just someone who read too many recipes and discussion boards on the topic, here are some of my notes on what I discovered truly matters:
A cold kitchen will take a lot longer for a dough to rise than a warm kitchen. It can be the difference between a 3 hour bulk fermentation and an 8 hour. Or 10% sourdough starter and 30% sourdough starter. If we have a really warm kitchen, we can scale down the amount of starter we use to slow down the fermentation. A longer fermentation can yield a richer sour flavour, so we want that.
It will also take a lot longer for a new sourdough starter to mature in a cold kitchen, one week can become two weeks. It can help to create a warm space for the dough to rise more efficiently: An oven with the oven light on, or a warming mat typically used for seedlings. Be careful to not go too warm, the yeast starts to die at around 100F. 80–85F is the recommended range for a good efficient rise. Periodically checking the dough’s core temperature is a good way to control this variable better.
Starter and Yeast Activity
A less mature starter is less active, possibly not even ready to make bread with. If we used a low-protein flour for our starter, it can take longer to ramp up. When a starter is matured, it regularly doubles or triples in volume after a feeding. With consistent feedings, it gets a kind of metabolism where you can rely on it reaching peak activity at a specific time during the day. It can help to use the starter as it approaches its peak activity, especially if we’re working with a cold kitchen.
Watch out for the infamous starter false start: Around day 3 or 4, the starter will spike with massive growth and beginners will rejoice about how ready their starter is but it is for for nought: This happens because an adjacent bacteria took hold of the starter and consumed all of the nutrients until it burned itself out. With consistent feedings, the desired yeast sourced from our flour grains will ultimately prevail and develop a healthy cadence.
Aside from changing the temperature, and the quantity and activity of our starter, we’ll need to adjust the timing of our steps. If the kitchen is cold, ferment and proof longer. If the yeast is not too active, extend our timeline even further. It can help a lot to learn what the quality of the dough should be at each step, to know whether to proceed to the next step or wait longer. There are various tests we can do, such as the floating test to see if the starter is ready to be used; the windowpane test to see if we have sufficient gluten development; the poke test to see if the dough is sufficiently proofed for baking. We’ll go more into it in the Steps section.Our dough can be underproofed or overproofed, and we might not even realize it until we pull it out of the oven, wait the prerequisite hour, cut into it, share our joy on instagram and then receive a DM from a professional baker that just says “it’s underproofed.”
An underproofed bread won’t have enough structure to fully rise during the bake, all of the gasses from the yeast will accumulate into few large bubbles, parts of it will be very dense and maybe even raw tasting. It’s much easier to underproof as a beginner, especially with an immature starter and a cold kitchen.
An overproofed bread won’t have an ideal crumb, such as very small holes, or it could collapse under its own rise because the gluten relaxed too much. If we discover the dough is overproofed before baking, we can fold it a few more times to reactivate the gluten and give it another short proof before baking. I’ve found it hard to find consensus on what qualities an overproofed loaf has, so it’s safer to err on the side of overproofing than underproofing if we must.
For other kinds of baking, when we just mix some ingredients and toss them into a temperature-controlled oven, it’s appropriate to follow the recipe to the letter. For sourdough bread baking, we need to be ready to adjust the recipe to fit our environment and our needs.
Many recipes have a lot of steps in common. Some of them are necessary, others can be substituted or adjusted, others are purely ritual. It’s useful to know which is which, and what we can do with them.
Maybe we started our bread too late in the day and can’t stay up until 2AM to do 6 additional folds, or maybe we don’t have time to bake in the morning and would prefer to avoid refrigerating overnight.
Levain: This is a process for taking some of your existing starter and making a separate sister starter that we can use for making our loaf while keeping our original starter.
🤔 If we have a large enough discard from our original starter, we can use that instead.
Autolyse: Typically done while the levain is prepared, it’s for mixing the bulk of the recipe’s flour and water separate from the starter and letting it rest until the levain is ready to be mixed.
🤔 If we’re skipping the levain step, skipping the autolyse step is not catastrophic for beginners. We can mix our discard all together, or I prefer to mix most of the water with the discard first and then add the bulk of the flour.
Mixing Techniques: As a beginner, do whatever it takes to get everything combined into a shaggy doughy mess. Minimize how much flour spills over the counter and makes a mess, and try to scrape what we can from our hands, but it’s not a big deal. We can slap, we can fold, we can slam, we can even yell profanities at it while we pinch it a bunch.
Rest and Add Salt: Many recipes are very serious about leaving the salt and a bit of water until after mixing the bulk of the dough and water. The theory is that salt leeches moisture from the flour so it won’t be absorbed as evenly if we do it all at once. Once we mix in the salt, the feel of the dough instantly changes into something much less shaggy and less sticky, it’s delightful.
🤔 Foodgeek did an A/B test on this, and it doesn’t seem to matter if we mix in the salt with the Autolyse step. Seems it’s more ritual than anything, so no need to panic if we mixed in salt prematurely. It is convenient to save a bit of our water reserve for mixing the salt, though.
Stretch and Fold: During the “bulk fermentation” step, we’re usually instructed to perform a number of folds to help develop the gluten in the dough so that the webby network of the bread will have enough structure to support itself around all of the lovely bubbles produced by the yeast as it rises and bakes. Different recipes have different techniques here, with different timing. Some recipes suggest using oiled hands for working with dough at this point, but water-wet hands are even better and less messy and doesn’t introduce oil to the dough which can affect the recipe composition.
🤔 Another Foodgeek contribution on the topic, it certainly seems worth doing at least a couple of good dough perturbations over a few hours. With a sufficiently mature yeast, even doing nothing produces decent sourdough but not quite as good and we’re taking a gamble on the activity of our yeast to compensate. If we’re busy, do at least two nice gentle lift and coil sets spaced out by 30–60 min, and let it rest until it rises 50–100%.
🤔 Do the window pane test if we’re unsure if it needs to rest more. Colder environments or less mature yeast could require more time than prescribed here.
Fold, Roll, and Stitch: By shaping our dough at this point, we create a tense form that will present the rough shape of the final loaf. With a good tight roll and stitch, the loaf will have a better chance to rise vertically rather than sprawl into a blob.
🤔 I’ve unintentionally totally for science skipped this step once and ended up with a very flat loaf that sprawled the circumference of the dutch oven. As far as technique goes, this is one of the harder steps but it pays off to get better at it.
Banneton, Seam Side Up: The shape of the banneton helps reinforce the final form of the loaf as we give it additional time to rise. If we don’t have a banneton, we can use any form that is not too much bigger than the desired loaf size. I use a colander lined with a linen towel.
🤔 This is the companion step to the Fold, Roll, and Stitch. It’s similarly important, but the seam side up is not a huge deal if we messed up. The loaf won’t have that perfect smooth top to work with on the surface, but it will be just as good inside. Remember to dust the lining with flour so it won’t stick, or some corn meal if we’re feeling fancy.
Overnight in the Fridge: Proofing in the fridge is a recurring step from all bakers who love to bake first thing in the morning. What about the hungry night owls? What about all the sourdough bakers who have been making this lovely bread for far long than refrigerators have existed in our society?
🤔 We can replace the fridge proofing with a 3–5 hour proof at room temperature, on the longer end if the temperature is low or the starter is less active. Do the poke test if we’re unsure if it’s ready: The recess in the dough from the poke shouldn’t spring back immediately when it’s ready. Cover in plastic or wrap in a bag to prevent the dough from drying out while it’s proofing, especially if we’re refrigerating overnight.
Pre-heat and Bake From Cold: Pre-heat the oven to maximum heat, typically 500F, then quickly take out the dough from the fridge, flip onto parchment (since we did seam-side up), dust with some flour, spread the flour, score with a lame (a fancy razor holder), and commit it to the flames.
🤔 If we don’t have a dutch oven, or a covered cast iron pot, we can use a baking steel or even a baking sheet. We’ll need another pan placed at a lower rack full of boiling water, to add the moisture to the oven necessary for a nice crispy crust. The lidded dutch oven captures and retains the moisture from the dough, so it’s a bit simpler.
🤔 What if the dough is looking a little sad after an overnight in the fridge? This can happen if the yeast isn’t as active as it could be. Take it out from the fridge and give it one more room-temperature proof for 2–4 hours, bonus points if we can proof it somewhere a bit warmer (80–85F), like a seedling warming mat.
🤔 No lame? No problem. If we use a safety razor, carefully use a clean razor by hand. Worst case, just grab a nice sharp knife and use that to score. End to end, leaning 45 degrees, half-inch deep cut. Not a huge deal if the scoring step is botched or skipped, the bread will still form just fine but it won’t expand along a specific gorgeous seam of your making.
Wait For The Hardest Hour Of Your Life: When we pull the loaf out of the oven, it’s not quite done baking. A rookie mistake is to huddle around the glorious steaming orb-treasure and tear into it like a pack of post-apocalyptic savages. A true intellectual will place an ear near the crust as it cools and hear the crackling transformation within.
🤔 If we don’t wait, it will still be edible but: The inside will be extra stretchy or gummy, it might have an “undercooked” vibe to it, some of the final notes of flavour won’t quite develop. Seriously, just wait at least an hour, or until it fully reaches room temperature. If it’s steamy when we cut into it, we didn’t wait long enough.
You Can Sourdo-ugh It
Let’s be real, we’re all in this for the sourdough puns.
Here’s a list of ideas we can try if it’s just not working out:
- Suspect the starter is just not ready? Use extra starter, like 30%. If you desperately want vaguely sourdough-y bread and can’t wait, sprinkle a bit of instant yeast when you mix in the starter (half teaspoon should do).
- Other kinds of breads to make while the starter is maturing? No-Knead recipes are great, or Almost No Knead. I like ones with a lager beer. I’m a fan of sourdough-hybrid chimera breads. To improvise a recipe, substitute some of the hydration with sourdough starter (remember it’s 100% hydration dough, or 1:1), and substitute some of the water with beer.
- Keep making that discard when you feed, sometimes I’ll keep the feeding ratio but skip a discard to have an extra-big discard the next day. Lots of things we can use that discard for, or even just toss some globs on a frying pan and make crumpets.
- Starter not starting? Try a different flour. The bulk of the yeast in the starter comes from the grains that the flour is made of, and sometimes cheaper flours aren’t the best source of a good healthy yeast — especially avoid bleached flour. Buy the fanciest bread flour available, just to be sure. Try mixing in 5–20% whole wheat or rye in there for extra protein. Some restaurants or bakeries will give away (or sell for super cheap) their starter, if we’re desperate to bootstrap from a known quantity.
Even if mistakes are made along the way, there’s a good chance we’ll end up with a decent tasting bread product in the end. We must eat our shame as we will our inevitable victory.
- The Perfect Loaf: Simple Weekday Sourdough Bread: Good comprehensive recipe with a handy timeline visualization, good for beginners.
- Video: The Ultimate Homemade Sourdough Bread: Charismatic long-haired fella with a large Youtube audience making sourdough, good instruction for beginners.
- Video: Tartine Country Loaf by knormie: Nice simple quick video showing the process and techniques.
- Video: Brad and Claire Make Sourdough: Hilarious but some advanced techniques without much context for beginners. Honestly this is what got me started, which did not yield the best first result. Feel free to skip until later.
- Foodgeek Blog and Foodgeek Videos: Big fan of this, much of what I learned for this post was based on Sune’s work of methodically testing out variations of every variable in a sourdough recipe.
- /r/Sourdough: Obligatory topical subreddit. Can’t go wrong. More resources in the sidebar.
- Bread Hydration and Conversion Calculator: Anytime I start a loaf, I plug in my intended components here, make some tweaks to reach the desired hydration, and dive in.