How to Make Simple Sourdough Bread: A Step-By-Step Guide
This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.
Delicious and simple sourdough bread: Yes. You. Can. Truly, there is nothing tricky about making sourdough bread: if you can make yeasted bread, you can make sourdough bread. There is video guidance for every step of the way. Let’s do this 🍞🍞🍞
When I met Emilie Raffa, author of The Clever Cookbook, several years ago, she told me her next book would be about sourdough baking. About a year prior, she had written a blog entry about sourdough bread that had become very popular, her simple method showing many people how easy sourdough baking can be.
When I told Emilie I had never had luck with sourdough baking, she insisted I could do it. Shortly thereafter she sent me some of her starter, offspring from a 10-year-old Australian starter named Priscilla, a gift from her blogging friend, Celia. The starter came with activation, feeding, storage, and maintenance instructions. Incredibly, I managed to keep it alive, and so began my sourdough journey.
Sourdough Made Simple
This past summer, I had the chance to preview Emilie’s book, Artisan Sourdough Made Simple,
Highlights in the book for me include:
• Recipes for using leftover sourdough starter. The book includes recipes for waffles, cookies, crackers, popovers, flatbreads, etc., all of which call for using what would be discarded starter.
• Baker’s Schedule: The book includes timing tips for when to activate your starter, if you want to bake a loaf of bread three days later.
• Beautiful photos that illustrate how to handle the dough at various phases. Beautiful photos to help with scoring the dough. Beautiful photos throughout — Emilie is an incredible photographer.
How to Make Simple Sourdough Bread
If you are unfamiliar with the sourdough bread baking process, here is an overview:
- Mix together flour, salt, water, and a sourdough starter. For best results, use a digital scale to measure everything.
- After 30 minutes, perform a set of stretches and folds: grab the edge of the dough, stretch it up and fold it into the center. Turn the dough and repeat until you’ve come full circle. Perform 3 more sets of stretches and folds at 30 minute intervals.
- Let the dough rise: this is called the bulk fermentation. During this time, you want your dough to increase in volume roughly by 50%. There should be air bubbles throughout the dough.
- Shape the dough: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a ball. Let it rest for 30 to 40 minutes. This is called the bench rest. Shape it again; then transfer to a flour-dusted tea towel and transfer to the fridge for 12 to 48 hours.
- Prepare the oven: Heat a Dutch oven at your oven’s hottest setting. When it reaches temperature, lower the oven temperature to 450ºF.
- Remove dough from fridge. Turn it out onto a sheet of parchment paper. Score the dough. Transfer dough carefully to the Dutch oven. Bake covered for 30 minutes. Uncover, lower the temperature to 400ºF, and bake for 15 minutes more.
- Let your loaf cool for at least an hour before cutting.
Where Sourdough Goes Wrong? 4 Places
If you have ever had trouble baking sourdough bread, your issues likely stem from one of four places:
- Using a weak starter or not using starter at its peak.
- Using too much water relative to the flour.
- Over fermentation: letting the bulk fermentation (first rise) go too long.
- Using too much whole wheat flour, rye flour, or freshly milled flour.
I address each of these issues in this post: Why is my sourdough so sticky? 4 Common Mistakes, so please give it a read if you’ve had trouble with sourdough bread baking.
#1 Sourdough Bread Baking Tip
The refrigerator is your friend. Use it.
The most common mistake I see people make when making sourdough bread is letting the bulk fermentation go too long. They mix the dough at night; then wake up to dough that has tripled in volume and is a sticky mess.
To prevent over fermenting your dough, use your refrigerator as needed. After you complete the 4 sets of stretches and folds, you can put your dough in the fridge at any time. If you are tired and need to go to bed, transfer the dough to the refrigerator; then pick up where you left off in the morning: remove the dough from the fridge and let it continue to rise until it increases in volume by roughly 50%.
To accurately gauge when your dough has risen to roughly 50% in volume, I highly recommend investing in a straight-sided vessel such as this 4-qt Cambro (or this one, which is BPA-free!). When dough rises in a bowl, judging when it has risen sufficiently is tricky. There’s no question with a straight-sided vessel.
Sourdough Baking Resources
- Sourdough Troubleshooting: This post addresses 4 common mistakes people make when baking sourdough bread and answers many FAQ’s as well.
- If you are just getting started with sourdough, you might want to start here: sourdough focaccia, a simple recipe which requires no tricky shaping or scoring, no preheated Dutch ovens, etc.
- If you’re ready to dive in, you may want to pick up some equipment: Essential Equipment For Sourdough Bread Baking
- Here’s my favorite recipe: Favorite Sourdough Bread (Lots of video guidance and notes in this post)
- If you love pizza, this simple sourdough pizza recipe is a must-try.
- Finally: Simple Sourdough Sandwich (or Toasting) Bread
How to Make Sourdough Bread: A Step-by-Step Guide
Step #1: First things first, to make sourdough bread, you need a starter.
Here are three online sources:
After you “feed” your starter by stirring in equal parts by weight flour and water, place a rubber band around the jar to mark the level of your starter. See this post for tips on How to Maintain A Sourdough Starter. In a few hours, it will start to creep above the band:
In a few more hours, it will creep higher …
and higher …
and at some point, if you drop a spoonful of it in a glass of water, it will float, and you’ll be in business!
You need 50 to 100 g of starter for this recipe.
Step #2: Mix the Dough
Dissolve the starter into water; measure the flour and salt.
Combine everything — flour, salt, water, starter — together…
…and mix until you have a sticky dough ball:
Step #3: Stretches and Folds
After 30 minutes, stretch and fold the dough:
Repeat this 4 times at 30 minute intervals. Cover with a towel or bowl cover (Dot and Army bowl covers are my favorite). Let the dough rest for 6 to 18 hours or until the dough has increased in volume by 50% and there are bubbles throughout. This is the bulk fermentation.
You’re looking for your dough to increase in volume by roughly 50%:
Step #4: Shape the Dough
Turn it out onto a floured surface …
Then perform a series of folds: fold the top down to the center, turn the dough, turn the top down to the center, turn the dough, etc. — repeat until you’ve come full circle.
Then flip the dough over so the seam side is down (bottom right photo above). After a brief rest (30 minutes or so — this is called the bench rest), repeat the shaping process. See video for reference.
Step #5: Proof the Dough
Scoop dough into a proofing banneton (or an 8-inch bowl lined with a flour-dusted tea towel or bowl cover) so the seam side is up:
Refrigerate for 6 to 48 hours.
Step #6: Bake the Dough
Place a Dutch oven in your oven and preheat the oven to 550ºF. Turn out the dough onto a sheet of parchment paper…
then slash the dough with a razor blade.
Use the parchment paper to carefully transfer the dough to your Dutch oven, cover it, then transfer to the oven to bake. Lower the oven temperature to 450ºF.
Bake it covered for 30 minutes; then uncover, lower the temperature to 400ºF, and bake it for 10-15 minutes more.
Ta-da! Freshly baked sourdough bread!
Let it cool for at least one hour before cutting. Be sure to have a sharp bread knife on hand. This one is attractive and reasonably priced. This one is a little more expensive, but also nicely designed and sharp.
Adapted from Artisan Sourdough Made Simple
Step-by-Step: Video Guidance is here!
I have made a number of changes to the original recipe, which I think improve both the flavor and texture of the finished loaf. These include:
- Using 11 g salt as opposed to 9 g
- Performing 4 stretch and folds during the first 2 hours of the bulk fermentation, which build strength in the dough.
- I like doing a cold proof for at least 24 hours before baking, which produces a lighter airier crumb. In the video, you can see the difference between the crumb of a loaf that has proofed for only 6 hours vs a loaf that has proofed for 24 hours.
- Finally, I like preheating my Dutch oven, which makes a crisper crust.
Troubleshooting: If you have issues with your dough being too sticky, please read this post: Why is my sourdough so sticky? The 4 common mistakes.
If you are new to sourdough bread baking, here are two similarly easy recipes, both of which include lots of video guidance:
- You need an active sourdough starter. I have had success activating starters from:
- This post offers guidance on How to Maintain a Sourdough Starter
- As always, I highly recommend investing in a digital scale before beginning any bread baking adventure.
- This is the Dutch oven I use for sourdough breads.
- Flour sack towels are a great investment because they ensure your dough will not stick while it is proofing.
- I love using rice flour for dusting (as opposed to ap or bread flour) because it doesn’t burn.
- Find all of my sourdough essentials here: Essential Equipment For Sourdough Bread Baking
How much Sourdough Starter to Use?
- Because my kitchen is cold for much of the year, I like using 100 g (1/2 cup) of starter as opposed to 50 g (1/4 cup). When determining how much starter to use, consider a few things: If you live in a warm, humid environment, 50 g should suffice. If you plan on doing an overnight rise, 50 g also should suffice. If you want to speed things up or if you live in a cold environment, consider using 100 g starter. Note: If you use 100 g of starter, your dough may rise more quickly, so keep an eye on it. As always, rely on the visual cues (doubling in volume) when determining when the bulk fermentation is done.
- A straight-sided vessel makes monitoring the bulk fermentation especially easy because it allows you to see when your dough has truly doubled.
- 50 – 100 g (1⁄4 – 1/2 cup) bubbly, active starter, see notes above
- 375 g (1 1/2 cups plus 1 tbsp) warm water
- 500 g (4 cups plus 2 tbsp) bread flour
- 9 to 11 g (1.5 – 2 teaspoons) fine sea salt, see notes above
- Make the dough: Whisk the starter and water together in a large bowl with a fork or spatula. Add the flour and salt. Mix to combine, finishing by hand if necessary to form a rough dough. Cover with a damp towel and let rest for 30 minutes.
- Stretch and fold. After 30 minutes, grab a corner of the dough and pull it up and into the center. Repeat until you’ve performed this series of folds 4 to 5 times with the dough. Let dough rest for another 30 minutes and repeat the stretching and folding action. If you have the time: do this twice more for a total of 4 times in 2 hours. [Video guidance here.] Note: Even if you can only perform one series of stretches and folds, your dough will benefit. So don’t worry if you have to run off shortly after you mix the dough.
- Bulk Fermentation (first rise): Cover the bowl with a towel and let rise at room temperature, about 8 to 10 hours at 70°F (21°C) or even less if you live in a warm environment. The dough is ready when it has increased by 50% in volume, has a few bubbles on the surface, and jiggles when you move the bowl from side to side. (UPDATE: In the past I have recommended letting the dough rise until it doubles in volume. If you’ve had success with this, continue to let the dough double. Recently, I have been stopping the bulk fermentation when the dough increases by 50% in volume, and I feel I am actually getting better oven spring in the end.) (Note regarding timing: If you are using 100 g of starter, the bulk fermentation may take less than 8 to 10 hours. If you live in a warm, humid environment, the bulk fermentation may take even less time. In the late spring/early summer, for example, my kitchen is 78ºF and the bulk fermentation takes 6 hours. It is best to rely on visual cues (increase in volume by roughly 50%) as opposed to time to determine when the bulk fermentation is done. A straight-sided vessel makes monitoring the bulk fermentation especially easy because it allows you to see when your dough has truly increased in volume by 50%.)
- Shape: Coax the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Gently shape it into a round: VIDEO GUIDANCE HERE: fold the top down to the center, turn the dough, fold the top down to the center, turn the dough; repeat until you’ve come full circle. If you have a bench scraper, use it to push and pull the dough to create tension (again, see video for guidance.)
- Let the dough rest seam side up rest for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, line an 8-inch (20-cm) bowl or proofing basket with a towel (flour sack towels are ideal) and dust with flour (preferably rice flour, which doesn’t burn the way all-purpose flour does). Using a bench scraper or your hands, shape it again as described in step 4. Place the round into your lined bowl, seam side up.
- Proof (second rise): Cover the dough and refrigerate for 1 hour or for as long as 48 hours. (Note: I prefer to let this dough proof for at least 24 hours prior to baking. See video for the difference in the crumb of a loaf that has proofed for 6 hours vs one that has proofed for 24 hours. The original recipe calls for a 1-hour rise, and if you have had success doing that, by all means, keep doing it.)
- Place a Dutch oven in your oven, and preheat your oven to 550°F (290°C). Cut a piece of parchment to fit the size of your baking pot.
- Score: Place the parchment over the dough and invert the bowl to release. Using the tip of a small knife or a razor blade, score the dough however you wish — a simple “X” is nice. Use the parchment to carefully transfer the dough into the preheated baking pot.
- Bake: Lower the oven to temperature to 450ºF (230ºC). Carefully cover the pot. Bake the dough for 30 minutes, covered. Remove the lid, lower the temperature to 400ºF (200ºC) and continue to bake for 10 – 15 minutes more. If necessary, lift the loaf out of the pot, and bake directly on the oven rack for the last 5 to 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 1 hour before slicing.
- This loaf will stay fresh up to 3 days stored at room temperature in an airtight plastic bag or container. It freezes beautifully, too.
- Category: Bread
- Method: Oven
- Cuisine: American
Keywords: sourdough starter, bread flour, Dutch oven, sourdough, bread