Sourdough is often described as a journey. The more I make it, the more this sentiment becomes a truth. For the past few years, I’ve been tinkering with various sourdough recipes, and though I can’t say I won’t stop tinkering, this is the current snapshot of my sourdough journey.
These are the characteristics I like in a sourdough boule:
- high hydration (at least 75%)
- whole wheat-ish
- crusty but not super crusty
- nicely salted
- tangy though not super sour
I’ve outlined the process below to create this type of loaf, which as far as sourdough recipes go, is on the simple side — there’s no kneading, no autolyse-ing, no pre-fermenting, no levain-ing, no fancy scoring.
It’s a little bit smaller than most sourdough boules, too, reasons for which I explain below. And as with all sourdough baking (and bread baking in general), it does take time, though the time is mostly hands off.
But before we get to the recipe, I want to address a few sourdough FAQs, all of which have informed the recipe and process included/outlined at the end of the post.
2 Sourdough Fermentation FAQs
Two of the most frequently asked questions I receive about sourdough bread baking are:
- How do I know when the dough has risen sufficiently and is therefore ready to be shaped?
- How do I know if it has proofed sufficiently and is therefore ready to be baked?
If you are unfamiliar with sourdough baking, these two questions relate to two distinct phases of fermentation:
- The first question relates to the bulk fermentation (the first rise), which takes place after the dough is mixed.
- The second question relates to proofing (the second rise), after the dough is shaped.
One thing I have learned through troubleshooting with various people is that it’s very hard to put a timeline on these two phases. Sourdough is much more sensitive than yeast-leavened breads to the environment in which it is being baked.
The bulk fermentation for me in my cold Upstate New York kitchen often takes 12 hours regardless of the time of year. For someone baking in humid Hawaii, it may take 6 hours (or less! or more!). Similarly, the proofing phase may vary by many hours depending on the environment. Additionally, there are countless variables that affect fermentation: type of flour, water, salt quantity, strength of the starter, to name a few.
Yes, there are textural/visual cues to help discern when each phase of fermentation is complete, but it still can be hard to judge.
If you struggle with these assessments, I have two tips for you:
2 Tips for Assessing Sourdough Fermentation
1. Buy a clear, straight-sided vessel.
- Because it’s clear, it allows me to see when the dough is filled with bubbles and activity throughout — top, bottom, sides, etc.
- Because it’s straight sided, I know exactly when the dough has doubled or nearly doubled in bulk. When dough rises in a bowl, it’s hard to know the exact double point.
If I could single out the biggest lesson I’ve learned in my sourdough baking journey, it’s this: Do not allow sourdough to rise beyond double during the bulk fermentation.
Why? When sourdoughs rise too far beyond double in volume, the dough can weaken. A weak, fragile dough is hard to handle and difficult to shape into a tight round, which in turn makes for a dense loaf. I always shoot to shape the loaf before it doubles in volume or just as it hits double in volume.
2. Use Your Refrigerator & Be Flexible
Because judging bulk fermentation and proofing can be tricky, you can use your refrigerator during both phases.
Using your fridge for the bulk fermentation:
If, for instance, you see your dough rising nicely but all of a sudden it’s 10 pm and you’re ready for bed, and you know if you let the dough continue to rise, it will be way beyond double in the morning, stick the vessel in the fridge. The following morning, take it out and let the dough rise at room temperature until it has nearly doubled (from its original size).
With sourdough baking, you have to be patient, and you have to be flexible with the timing.
Using your fridge for proofing:
Using my fridge for the proofing phase has been the biggest change in my sourdough process of late. Previously, after shaping the boule and placing it in a towel-lined bowl, I would transfer the dough to the fridge for 1 hour, then bake it. These days, I like to stick the shaped boule in the fridge for at least 12 hours, but ideally 18-24 hours. Why?
- The extended cold proof creates a lighter, airier crumb.
- A cold round of dough is so much easier to handle from scoring it to transferring it to the Dutch oven.
Whole Wheat Flour FAQ
In my email course, Foolproof Bread Baking, I receive a lot of questions about how to incorporate more whole grain flours into bread.
This is a tricky one to answer for me for two reasons:
- I like white bread. A good loaf of bread for me has so much to do with texture. I love a pillowy, oily focaccia; a soft, squishy brioche bun; a ballooned, crisp-tender Neapolitan pizza. As soon as whole grain flour is entered into the mix, the texture changes, becoming heavier, denser.
- Commercial whole wheat flour isn’t necessarily healthier than commercial white flour. Wait, what? Read on.
Roller-milled Flour vs. Stone-milled Flour
Without getting too far into the weeds, most of the commercial flour on the market is made from wheat that has been roller milled, meaning a roller mill has separated the wheat kernel into three parts: the endosperm, germ, and bran. White flour is made from the endosperm.
Whole wheat flour, similarly, is made from rolled-milled wheat: again, first the kernel is separated into three parts: the endosperm, germ, and bran; BUT then the germ and the bran are added back in various proportions. Much research shows that as soon as the wheat kernel is separated into the various parts, much of the nutritional value is lost — even when the bran and germ are added in after the fact.
So what’s the solution?
Stone-milled flour, contrary to roller-milled flour, is flour made from wheat that passes through a stone mill, the process of which keeps the endosperm, bran, and germ together. Much research shows that keeping the components together preserves the nutritional value.
The rub with stone-milled flour? Stone-milled flour is more perishable due to the presence of both the bran and the germ, but the germ in particular, which is packed with vitamins, minerals, and fats, which can go rancid quickly.
The boon? Because the bran and germ are present in the flour, it’s also more flavorful.
Anything else to consider? Baking with stone-milled flours requires a little more finesse. Even a small amount of bran and germ in the mix makes for a denser loaf. Many millers offer high-extraction stone-milled flours — meaning stone-milled flours that have been sifted to remove some of the bran and endosperm. But even when you bake with high-extraction, stone-milled flour, the finished loaf, when made from 100% of this type of flour, will be very dense.
For this reason, I use at the most 25% stone-milled flour (100 g for this recipe), but preferably in terms of texture, 12.5% stone-milled flour (50 g for this recipe). 12.5% may seem like a tiny amount, but I am constantly surprised by how much flavor, texture, and color this small proportion of stone-milled flour offers to a loaf of bread.
In fact, I now prefer a partially whole wheat loaf to an all white loaf. The freshly milled, stone-milled flours offer so much flavor.
Where to Buy Stone-Milled Flour?
In the past few years, it has become easier to find stone-milled flour, and if you are up for it, you should seek out locally, stone-milled flour. Why? Because if you’re buying locally milled flour, you likely can find out how recently it was milled. Because stone-milled flour perishes more quickly than roller-milled flour, it’s best if you can find a local source, which will ensure it will be fresh. Note: Store stone-milled flour in the freezer if you don’t bake regularly.
Final note: I no longer buy commercial whole wheat flours. I buy commercial white flours: King Arthur Flour’s all-purpose flour and bread flour are staples. I find locally milled stone-milled flours at a local co-op, Honest Weight Food Co-op, and I also order from Anson Mills. If you are looking for a good mail-order resource, I can recommend a few:
Standard sourdough recipes often call for 500g of flour per loaf. As noted above, the recipe below makes a loaf that’s a little bit smaller for two reasons:
- I’m often asked if the bread recipes here on the blog as well as in my book can be halved. The answer is yes, but in an effort to make a loaf that may not feel quite so overwhelming for people, I’ve reduced the flour to 400g.
- I wanted to include quantities that make hydration easier to understand. Hydration is something I don’t discuss too often because I find it can turn people off (me included). In short, hydration is: the ratio of water relative to flour in a bread dough. The proportions in this recipe — 300g water and 400g flour — make it a little easier to see it’s a 75% hydration dough: 300/400=0.75.* With this baseline, you can increase the amount of water to make it higher hydration or decrease the amount of water to make it lower hydration depending on your preference.
*Note: This is a crude calculation. If you want to be super accurate when calculating hydration, you include the weight of the starter in the equation, too, which will throw off the percentage slightly.
I love salt. The standard percentage of salt in a bread recipe is 2% by weight of the flour. For 400g flour, this means 8g salt. I use 10g. The amount of salt, fortunately, is a variable that can easily be tailored to your liking. If 10g of salt is too much for you or if you know from the start you are sensitive to salt, start with 8g, then adjust accordingly. Also, higher amounts of salt will slow down the rise a bit as well.
5 Phases: Simple Sourdough Bread
This video shows how to make from start to finish the high-hydration, whole wheat(-ish) sourdough bread recipe included at the end of the post. For each of the 5 phases below, there is a shorter video specific to the particular phase.
Phase 1: Mix the Dough
Step 1: Gather your ingredients — flour, salt, water, a sourdough starter — and equipment, namely a digital scale. I recommend buying a starter (reasons for which I explain here). View this post for more Essential Sourdough Bread Baking Equipment.
Most important, you need a fed, active starter.
To ensure it is ready, drop a spoonful of it in a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready:
- Start by weighing 300g water, 100g starter, and 10g salt.
- You’ll need 400g flour. You can use all bread flour of a mix of bread flour and whole wheat flour. My preferences is 350g bread flour (King Arthur Flour) and 50g stone-milled, freshly milled flour (I use a mix of Anson Mills rye and graham).
- Mix to form a sticky dough ball.
Then transfer to a straight-sided vessel for the bulk fermentation (the first rise).
Phase 2: Bulk Fermentation
- After 30 minutes, stretch and fold the dough:
- Repeat this 4 times at 30 minute intervals, then let the dough rest for 6 to 18 hours or until the dough has nearly doubled and there are bubbles throughout:
Phase 3: Shape + Bench Rest
- Transfer dough to a clean work surface. I prefer to use no flour and minimal handling to shape it into a ball.
- Transfer dough to flour sack-lined, rice flour-sprinkled bowl:
Phase 4: Proof
- Transfer bowl to fridge to proof (second rise) for 18 to 24 hours.
Phase 5: Score + Bake
- After 18 to 24 hours, transfer dough to a sheet of parchment paper. This video shows how:
Score as you wish; simple is fine.
- Transfer to a Dutch oven and bake at 450ºF covered for 30 minutes, then uncovered for 10 minutes at 400ºF.
- Let cool for at least 30 minutes before …
…slicing and savoring.
Storing Bread FAQ
How do I store bread? is one of the most frequently asked questions I receive.
If you want to store the bread at room temperature for 3 to 4 days, I think the best method is in a ziplock bag. I’ve tried other reusable/environmentally friendly options, but nothing seems to keep bread freshest — the crumb the softest — better than a ziplock bag.
If you intend to keep the bread for longer, I would stick the ziplock bag in the freezer, and pull out slices or hunks as you wish. I often slice bread as soon as it cools completely, transfer the slices to a ziplock bag, then freeze. This way, I know the bread was frozen at its freshest.
A ziplock bag will not prevent the crust of bread from turning soft, which is why I suggest always reheating day-old bread. I use a toaster at breakfast for slices of bread, and I reheat half or quarter loaves in the oven at 350ºF for 15 to 20 minutes when serving for dinner.
Bread revives so beautifully in the oven or toaster.
Here’s my list of essentials for sourdough bread baking.
Digital Scale: Do not attempt this recipe without a scale. This one costs $9. Troubleshooting what goes wrong with sourdough bread is impossible if you’ve measured with cups. They’re simply not accurate.
- I prefer making this bread with 350g bread flour and 50g of freshly milled, stone-milled flour, which provides both flavor and color. (Read the post above for more details and why I suggest stone-milled flour as opposed to commercial whole wheat flour.) I’ve been using a mix of Anson Mills graham flour and rye flour, but there are many great stone-milled flours out there, and you may have a local source, which is even better.
- 50g may seem like a tiny amount of stone-milled flour for this recipe, but I am constantly amazed by how much flavor this small amount of freshly milled flour adds. If you are new to sourdough baking, I recommend starting with 100% bread flour (King Arthur Flour is my preference) because it’s so forgiving and easy to work with. Once you get the hang of it, start incorporating stone-milled flour a little bit at a time. I don’t like using more than 100g (25%) of stone-milled flour in this recipe.
I like breads to be a little bit saltier than standard. If you are sensitive to salt, start with 8g. Next time, adjust salt as you wish.
*Please read notes above before proceeding. Watching the video is helpful, too.*
- 400 g bread flour, see notes above
- 8g to 10g kosher salt or sea salt, see notes above
- 300 g water
- 100 g active sourdough starter
- rice flour, for dusting
- Mix the dough. In a large bowl, combine the water, starter, and salt. Stir with a rubber spatula to loosely combine. Add the flour, and stir with a spatula to combine — it will be a wet, sticky dough ball. Transfer to a straight-sided vessel and cover with a tea towel or bowl cover 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: Cover the vessel with a tea towel or bowl cover and let rise at room temperature for 6 to 18 hours. The bulk fermentation will end when the dough has nearly doubled in volume and you can see bubbles throughout the dough and on the surface.
- Shape: Gently transfer the dough to clean work surface. I prefer to use no flour and a bench scraper at this step, but if you find an un-floured work surface to be difficult, feel free to lightly flour it. [Video guidance is especially helpful for this step.] Fold the dough, envelope style: top third over to the center; bottom third up and over to the center. Then repeat from right to left. Turn the dough over and use your bench scraper to push the dough up, then back towards you to create a tight ball. Repeat this pushing and pulling till you feel you have some tension in your ball. Place the dough ball top side down and let rest 30 to 40 minutes. (FYI: This is called the bench rest.)
- Proof. Line a shallow 2-qt bowl (or something similar) with a tea towel or flour sack towel. Flour sack towels are amazing because the dough doesn’t stick to them, and therefore you need very little rice flour, but if you only have a tea towel, you will be fine. If you are using a tea towel, sprinkle it generously with rice flour. If you are using a flour sack towel, you can use a lighter hand with the rice flour. After the 30-to 40-minute bench rest, repeat the envelope-style folding and the bench scraper pushing and pulling till you have a tight ball. [Video guidance here.] Place the ball top side down in your prepared towel-lined bowl. Cover bowl with overhanging towel. Transfer bowl to the fridge for 12 to 24 hours.
- Bake. Heat oven to 500ºF. You do not have to preheat your Dutch oven. Because my Dutch oven essentially lives in my oven, I always preheat it these days, but know that you do not have to. Remove your sourdough from the fridge. Open the towel. Place a sheet of parchment over the bowl. Place a plate over the parchment. With a hand firmly on the plate and one on the bowl, turn the dough out onto the parchment-paper lined plate. [Video guidance here.] Carefully remove the bowl and towel. Carefully remove the plate. Brush off any excess rice flour. Use a razor blade to score the dough as you wish. I always do a simple X. Grab the ends of the parchment paper and transfer to the Dutch oven. [Video guidance here.] Cover it. Lower oven temperature to 450ºF, bake covered for 30 minutes. Uncover. Lower temperature to 400ºF. Bake for 10 minutes more or until the loaf has darkened to your liking. Transfer loaf to a cooling rack.
- Cool. Let loaf cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting.
- Category: Bread
- Method: Sourdough
- Cuisine: Global
Keywords: sourdough, bread, naturally, leavened, boule, high, hydration, whole, wheat