Beginner’s Sourdough Bread

My very first sourdough loaf surprisingly turned out to be pretty decent, but oh boy was it sour. Sour like those candies you really only eat at the movie theater because they destroy your tongue, sour. Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration but I remember my wife choking down a slice commenting that it was “pretty good, yeah, pretty good bread” and only later did she fess up that it was “actually not really that good to be honest.” But all-in-all the bread baked fully, rose nicely and had a pretty decent crust. And you know what, we ate the entire thing because despite its sourness it still was tasty, and one has to start somewhere, right? And starting out can be daunting, especially with sourdough, but that’s what this post is about: a beginner’s sourdough bread. A how-to guide on getting started with baking my style of sourdough at home with a touch more explanation for some of the steps and terms.

I vividly remember the weeks leading up to that first loaf: weeks of voraciously reading Tartine Bread finally thinking that my newborn sourdough starter and I were finally ready to take on the sourdough world like a boss. Dog-eared pages, post-it notes, bookmarks, torn pages and highlighted passages peppered the book that first kindled that baking spark. My notebook had a schedule scribbled down, surprisingly mostly the same schedule & outline I follow today, with what to do when, and how to do it. Flour was purchased. Water was filtered. Kitchen towels were cleaned. And just like any good engineer I dove in head-first and got my hands dirty.beginners sourdough bread crumbFast forward a few bakes, a few “a ha” moments (like don’t use the entire levain made from the Tartine recipe, they make extra), and many breakfasts and dinners with fresh sourdough — I found myself descending into a full baking obsession. There was something ancient about performing the whole process, something exciting about mixing together such simple and humble ingredients that would eventually produce beautiful life-giving sustenance: modern day alchemy. It’s such a simple thing, really, and yet brings so much joy when family & friends tear into a fresh baked loaf. I wanted to bake every day of every week.

My original motivation for starting this site was to not only journal my baking progress but to pass on those things I learned along the way. When I first started baking there were only a handful of resources with step-by-step help for baking sourdough. Recently I’ve come to realize that here at my very own site I don’t have a beginner’s sourdough recipe, a recipe for those just starting out to get in and get their hands dirty. And so here we go: if you’re just starting out in the world of baking sourdough bread, this is a jumping-off point: a beginner’s sourdough bread.

Baker’s Terminology

I’ll start off by briefly introducing some common baker’s terms and their definitions, this will help us all have a common vocabulary and you’ll certainly run into these terms elsewhere.

Starter

A starter is essentially a mix of flour and water that naturally ferments. The starter is fed indefinitely, and when bread is to be made a small amount of this starter is taken to create an off-shoot, or leaven, that will eventually be used in making bread and cease to exist when baked in the oven.

Levain (or leaven)

Made with the starter, but only a small off-shoot, the levain is what is “built”, or made, to provide the dough with a starting population of yeast and bacteria. It’s an off-shoot because the levain is eventually mixed into the dough when making bread, and has the same fate as the bread itself: to be baked in the oven. The levain is always made with a portion of a starter when the starter is mature, or at its peak (more on this later).

Autolyse

Autolyse (“auto-lease”) is a step in the baking process where only flour and water are mixed together, always at the beginning of the whole process. Not only does it initiate enzymatic activity in the dough which helps draw out sugars from the flour, but it also increases its extensibility (the ability for the dough to stretch out without tearing). Increased extensibility (up to a point) is a good thing: it allows the dough to expand and fill with gasses, resulting in a light & airy loaf.

Bulk Fermentation

This is the first rise of the dough, as a single cohesive mass, which takes place after mixing the flour, salt and levain. The fermentation process during this step is critical and provides flavor to the dough in the form of alcohols & acids (the starter and leaven also play a role here) and also leavens the dough through gaseous (carbon dioxide) byproducts.

Proof

The final rise, typically done at cooler temperatures for recipes here at my site, is where the divided and shaped dough continues to ferment, further strengthening the dough and leavening it.

Final Dough Temperature (FDT)

The final dough temperature (FDT)1 is the temperature of the dough right after mixing all ingredients together. Naturally, each ingredient (levain, the flour, the water and the ambient environment) has a temperature and while most of these are out of our control, we can adjust the water temperature. Adjusting it enables us to change the FDT of the entire dough mass to meet whatever the recipe calls for. In the following example we will determine what our water temperature needs to be to achieve a FDT of 78ºF:

Ingredient Measured Temperature
Levain 75ºF
Flour 70ºF
Room Temperature 75ºF
WaterTemp = (FDT x 4) - (LevainTemp + FlourTemp + AmbientTemp) 2
WaterTemp = (78 x 4) - (75 + 70 + 75)
WaterTemp = 92ºF

We need to warm our water to 92ºF so at the end of our mix our final dough temperature will be 78ºF.

For more information on dough temperatures, and even a live desired dough temperature calculator, head to my post on The Importance of Dough Temperature in Baking.

Baker’s Math

Baker’s math, or baker’s percentages, help bakers adjust the actual quantity of the ingredients up or down, depending on how much bread they have to make, while keeping all the ingredients at the same percentage with respect to each other. All of the formulae here on my site are expressed in baker’s percentages where all ingredient weights are expressed as a percentage of the total flour weight, which always adds up to 100%. The best way to understand this is with an example. The table below shows the levain build we’ll make later when we bake this bread, but let’s go through it now.

Weight Ingredient
40g Mature sourdough starter (100% hydration)
40g Whole Wheat Flour
40g Bread Flour
80g H2O @ room temperature

The flour is always expressed as 100% and all other ingredients are expressed as a percentage of the flour weight. In this example to calculate the percentage of mature starter required:

40g starter ÷ 80g total flour (40g whole wheat + 40g bread flour) × 100 = 50% starter

This means we need half as much starter as flour in the levain build. You’ll also notice the water is also at 100% (80g water ÷ 80g flour = 100% hydration), which tells you this will be a liquid levain. 

The full computed table as you’ll see it throughout my site:

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
40g Mature sourdough starter (100% hydration) 50%
40g Whole Wheat Flour 50%
40g Bread Flour 50%
80g H2O @ room temperature 100%

beginners sourdough in bowl

Creating a Sourdough Starter

It all starts with, naturally, your starter. The first thing we need to do is get a strong sourdough starter rising and falling predictably. If you’ve already done this we can proceed, if not I have an entire post dedicated to creating a sourdough starter.

If you’re wondering how I maintain my starter on a day-to-day basis have a look at my sourdough starter maintenance routine. This guide will show you what visual cues to look for to determine when your starter is ready for a refreshment (feeding), when it’s gone a bit too far before refreshment, and lastly, when it’s at its peak and ready to be used for making a levain.

Baking Tools

There are a few necessary tools to baking your first loaf of bread. This might look like a long list but many of these things you probably already have in your kitchen — only buy what you don’t have.sourdough starter and baking toolsOne item is so necessary I have to draw attention to it upfront: a kitchen scale. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, please (please) consider buying one. You can use it not only for bread but for just about every other thing in your kitchen — it pays for itself time and time again. Measuring flour with cups and scoops is wildly inaccurate.

  • combo cooker like a Lodge 3qt. cast iron combo cooker or a Le Creuset Dutch oven that can withstand 500ºF in the oven, has a lid and will create a good seal when covered3
  • two medium-sized kitchen bowls to proof your dough
  • two kitchen towels or tea towels to line the bowls
  • bench knife to cut and shape the dough
  • kitchen scale that measures in grams
  • mixing bowl
  • instant read thermometer
  • white rice flour for dusting proofing bowl
  • pack of razor blades & a coffee stirrer, or a pair of kitchen shears, for making a “lame” to score the dough before baking
  • sea salt
  • parchment paper
  • pizza peel (don’t buy this if you don’t have it, but comes in handy for sliding your dough into the combo cooker)
  • heavy duty oven mitt

You can find a full list of all the tools I use when baking at my baking tools page.

Temperature

One thing I didn’t quite grasp at the beginning of baking was how crucial it is to monitor your dough and ambient temperature. This is where an instant read thermometer comes in handy, but any kitchen ambient thermometer will help.dough temperature with thermapen

Treat temperature as an ingredient, just as flour, water and salt are ingredients.

You must treat temperature as an ingredient. This means if you mix with water that is 70ºF and then a week later mix with water that is 80ºF you will get drastically different outcomes. I clearly list a small temperature range for each of the steps below. If you’re not able to control things to get them into that temperature range know that lower temperatures generally mean things will take longer and higher temperatures generally mean things will take shorter time. You can also use your (turned off) oven with a light on inside to create a temperature-stable environment for your dough.

For more information on dough temperatures see my post on The Importance of Dough Temperature in Baking.

Flour

For this recipe I used supermarket flour: Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour, Bob’s Red Mill Whole Wheat Flour and Bob’s Red Mill Dark Rye Flour. These are great flour choices but equally suitable are any of King Arthur’s offerings or anything you find at your local market. I chose “bread flour” for the white component as it has a higher protein percentage compared to “all purpose” flour. This will help give your bread strength and generally makes things a bit easier when first starting out. That said, I find the flavor to be a little more gummy compared to lower protein flour. As you become more and more proficient you can play with blending bread and all purpose flour to suit your taste (or refer to any of my other recipes).

If you have a local source for flour I highly recommend seeking that out first. Not only does it support local farmers and millers, it will most likely be much more fresh. We don’t all have this option, unfortunately, so I’m using market flour as the least common denominator.

With all the boilerplate out of the way, let’s get on to the actual recipe and baking.

Beginner’s Sourdough Bread Formula

Vitals

Total dough weight: 1800g
Pre-fermented flour: 7.50%
Hydration: 78% (this hydration includes the levain hydration below)
Yield: 2 x 900g loaves

If you want to halve this recipe just take all ingredients in the Dough Formula and divide by 2. I still recommend using the same quantities for the Levain Build below, however.

Levain Build

As defined above, a levain is composed of a ratio of bacteria and yeast, and is essentially flour that has been prefermented. Not only does it add flavor complexity to the dough, it also is the primary agent responsible for making it rise. The levain is made ahead of time and is separate from the Dough Formula below, typically the night before you plan to mix your dough, but it can also be done really early in the morning — whatever works for your schedule.

Note that while the recipe below only calls for 184g of levain, we make a little extra (200g) to have a “buffer”, or some excess, so we are sure we have enough to meet the recipe’s requirements. The extra 16g can be composted or used to make other delicious items.

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
40g Mature sourdough starter (100% hydration) 50%
40g Bob’s Red Mill Stoneground Whole Wheat 50%
40g Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour 50%
80g H2O @ room temperature 100%

Dough Formula

Note that the baker’s percentages listed below are with respect to the final dough ingredients and do not take into account the levain.

Target FDT for this formula is 78ºF.

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
748g Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour 82.43%
110 Bob’s Red Mill Stoneground Whole Wheat Flour 12.16%
49 Bob’s Red Mill Dark Rye Flour 5.41%
691g H2O @ 90ºF 76.22%
18g Fine sea salt 1.95%
184g Mature, 100% hydration levain (from above) 20.27%

Method

1. Levain – 8:00 a.m.

Mix together everything called for in the “Levain Build” section above in a clean jar in the morning and store somewhere around 74-76ºF ambient for 5-6 hours. sourdough levainKeep an eye on how your levain is progressing during this time. When its ready to be used it will be expanded, bubbly on top & at the sides, and smell almost a little sour. The photo above is the state of my levain just before going into my dough mix at 1:00 p.m. below.

2. Autolyse – 12:00 p.m.

Using your hands mix all the flour and most of the water (reserve 50g water for mix, later) called for in the “Dough Mix” section above in a bowl until all dry bits are hydrated. Cover the bowl and store somewhere warm (near your levain is convenient, around 75ºF) for 1 hour.

Note that this autolyse stage does not incorporate or use salt or the levain build in any way, they are two separate entities at this point that will be mixed together later in the process.hand mixing flour and water

3. Mix – 1:00 p.m.

At this point your autolyse is complete and your levain is ready. Add salt, reserved water, and levain to your already mixed flour & water (the autolysed dough). Mix thoroughly with your hands. I like to spread everything on top of dough resting in the bowl and use my hand to pinch all the ingredients together by bringing my thumb and index finger together repeatedly as I move from one side of the bowl to the other. Transfer dough to a tub or thick-walled bowl for bulk fermentation.hand mixing levain, salt, flour and waterAt this point use your instant read thermometer to take the temperature of your dough to get your final dough temperature. If your FDT is below 78ºF next time use warmer water, and conversely, if it’s above 78ºF use cooler water.

4. Bulk Fermentation – 1:10 p.m. to 5:10 p.m.

At 76-82ºF ambient temperature bulk fermentation should go for about 4 hours. Perform 3 sets of stretch and folds during bulk, spaced out by 30 minutes.bulk fermentationBeginner's Sourdough Bread via @theperfectloafEach set consists of 4 folds, one at the North, South, East and West sides. Wet your hands with a little water to prevent sticking and then lift up one side (North) of the dough with two hands. Stretch the dough up high enough just so that you can fold it completely over to the other side of the dough in the bowl. Rotate the bowl 180º and do the other side (South). Finish the other two sides (East and West) to complete the set. Let the dough rest 30 minutes, covered, between sets.

After that third set of stretch and folds, let the dough rest the remainder of bulk fermentation. During this time we let the flour ferment further, aerating it (making it rise), strengthening it and developing flavor.

At the end of bulk fermentation your dough should have risen anywhere between 20% and 50%, should show some bubbles on top, sides and the edge of the dough where it meets the bowl should be slightly domed showing strength. In the photo below you can see all these signs.end of bulk fermentation

5. Divide & Preshape – 5:15 p.m.

Lightly flour your work surface and dump out the dough. With your bench knife in one hand divide the dough into two halves. Lightly flour your other hand and using both the knife and your hand turn each half of dough on the counter while lightly pulling the dough towards you. This gentle turning and pulling motion will develop tension on the top of the dough forming a round circle.preshapeCover with an inverted bowl or moist towel, and let rest for 10 minutes. After, remove the towel or bowl and let the dough rest 10 more minutes exposed to air.

6. Shape – 5:35 p.m.

Lightly flour the top of your dough rounds and the work surface. Working with one at a time, flip the round so the floured top is now down on the floured work surface.shaping boules

Using two floured hands, grab the bottom of the round and stretch it lightly downward towards your body and then up and over about 2/3 the way to the top.

Then, grab the left and right sides of the dough and stretch them away from each other, fold one side over toward the other and repeat with the other side.

Then, grab the top of the circle and stretch away from your body and fold down and over all the way to the bottom of the resting dough. You’ll now have a tight package that resembles a letter.

Then, flip, or roll down, the dough so the seams are all on the bottom and using two hands cup the top part of the round and drag the dough gently towards your body. The angle of your hands will gently press the bottom of the dough on the counter creating tension, forming a skin on the top of the dough as you drag.shaping sourdough boulesIf you’d like to shape this dough as a batard instead of a boule, you can see a video of how I shape a batard over at my Instagram feed.

After shaping, let the dough rest on the bench for a few minutes and then place seam-side-up into a towel-lined kitchen bowl that was lightly dusted with white rice flour.

7. Rest & Proof – 5:40 p.m. to 9:30 a.m. (next day)

To prevent your dough from drying out overnight, place your bowls containing your shaped dough in plastic bags (you can use any bag lying around that is large enough to fit your basket inside without touching the dough) tied shut with a rubber band. I will usually puff up the plastic bag around the bowl by opening it wide and then quickly closing the opening. It’ll look like a silly balloon with a bowl inside.Beginner's Sourdough Bread via @theperfectloafOnce covered, let the dough rest on the counter for 20 minutes. Then, retard4 in the refrigerator at 38ºF for 16 hours.

During this time overall fermentation will slow down, but (good) bacteria will continue to be active which contributes to a more complex flavor over time than if you were to proof your dough on the counter.

8. Bake – Next Morning: Preheat oven at 8:30 a.m., Bake at 9:30 a.m.

Preheat your combo cooker or Dutch oven inside your oven for 1 hour at 500ºF. If you’re using a combo cooker, place the shallow side face up on one side and the heavier, deep side, facedown on the other.sourdough fully proofedWhen you’re done preheating, take one of your plastic bag-wrapped loaves out of the fridge and unwrap it. Cut a piece of parchment paper so it fits over the top of your basket and place on a pizza peel. Invert the peel and parchment paper so they are resting on top of your basket containing your dough. Then flip the whole thing over. Remove the basket and your dough should be resting on the parchment (and on the peel).Beginner's Sourdough Bread via @theperfectloafScore these loaves at a 90º angle between the razor blade and dough. If you want a more pronounced “ear” at each score line, lower the angle between the blade and the dough (so the blade is close to horizontal with the dough). I chose to do a “box” pattern that always works quite well, but feel free to be creative. If using scissors, snip the dough a few times at a very shallow angle between the scissors and the dough, forming a set of ridges down the center of the dough.

While wearing your oven mitt, and being extremely careful, pull out your shallow side of the combo cooker and using your pizza peel drag a corner of the parchment paper to slide your dough (and paper below) into the combo cooker. Place it back into the oven and cover the shallow side with the deep side to create a seal. This sealed environment helps trap the escaping steam from your dough to steam the exterior of the loaf as it cooks, allowing it to fully rise as it heats up.sourdough scoring and bakingTurn the oven down to 475ºF and bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, use your oven mitt to very carefully remove the top, large part of the combo cooker. Leave the large side of the combo cooker in the oven to the side of the shallow part of the cooker holding your dough. Close the door and turn the oven down to 450ºF, bake for 30 more minutes until the loaf looks well cooked. If you are unsure if your bread is done, use your thermometer to test the internal temperature, it should register between 210ºF and 212ºF.

When done, carefully use your oven mitt to remove the bread from the combo cooker (I will grab a corner of the parchment paper and drag the cooked bread out of the cooker) and cool on a wire rack. Place the combo cooker back in the oven and bring the temperature back up to 500ºF — repeat for the second loaf.

Conclusion

For those new to sourdough baking this is a great place to start. The hydration of the dough is not wildly high making successful shaping much more approachable, but as you can see below, this makes some really great (and healthy) bread. A crunchy crust, open interior and a taste that will put a smile on your face. This recipe is also a jumping off point for you to make this bread your own: higher or lower hydration, the addition of seeds and nuts, fruit and/or different shaping.

Crust

Beginner's Sourdough Bread via @theperfectloafThis crust shows some nice caramelization and a serious crackle. Baked in a combo cooker, this bread had ample steam to rise high with excellent coloring and a thin, brittle crust. A rustic bread like this just begs to be torn apart and eaten with a thick, hearty stew. Perfect.

Crumb

Beginner's Sourdough Bread via @theperfectloafA nice and light bread with an open crumb — very happy with the outcome of these. I cut while they were still a bit hot from the oven, and you can partly see that in the photos, but the crumb is soft and tender. The added whole wheat and rye flour really boosted fermentation but also contributed to a nice crumb structure and imparted a particular yellowish hue to the crumb that I enjoy. With the addition of even more whole grains the crumb could take on even further taste complexity.

Taste

Beginner's Sourdough Bread via @theperfectloafThanks to a lengthy and cold overnight proof, you first get a touch of sourness at first taste. The soft crumb and crackly crust present a really nice contrast to each other and fall into perfect balance. I’m not a fan of bread that has a pale and uninteresting crust with a spongy crumb, and this is not that kind of bread. As I mentioned earlier I do find the taste of these higher protein flours to be a tiny bit more “gummy” than lower protein flour but don’t let that discourage you from making this bread — it’s fantastic.


With this basic sourdough process & formula you can endlessly modify with add-ins like walnuts, cranberries, seeds and a host of other ingredients bound only by your imagination. Some of my favorite recipes have walnuts, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend trying one of those first. As your baking experience increases you can tweak the taste of this sourdough by blending flour types (with more or less whole grain), increasing or decreasing hydration, changing the amount of levain in your mix, and begin to work on a flavor profile that suits your individual taste. But the most important thing is to bake and have fun, remember that sometimes bread doesn’t come out like you intended but stick to it and you’ll be rewarded time and time again.

My goal for this post was to give you a jumping-off point and a push to dive in and get your hands dirty. I really hope you’ll find yourself baking this beginner’s sourdough bread this weekend!

And of course, buon appetito!


I’d love to see your bake with this recipe! Tag me (@maurizio on Instagram) or hashtag your photo #theperfectloaf so I can take a look!




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  1. Note that this is a simplified description that does not take into account the friction of a mechanical mixer since we are mixing everything by hand. If a baker was mechanically mixing dough at a bakery they would have to factor in the frictional heat generated by the rotations of the mixer arm.

  2. We multiply the FDT by 4 because there are 4 temperature inputs into this formula: 1) Levain, 2) flour, 3) room, and 4) friction factor.

  3. If you don’t have a combo cooker or Dutch oven, and don’t want one, you can use an inverted stainless steel oven-ready bowl placed on top of your dough on baking stones (but you’ll need those).

  4. A baker’s term meaning place into a cold area during proof