I’ve baked this loaf, or some variant of it, so many times I’ve lost count. This bread was born when I first got my hands dirty with flour and water. Its parent—if you could call it that—was originally Chad Robertson’s Tartine loaf with his liquid levain, brought to life, not with intensive kneading, but rather a series of folds during bulk fermentation.
My best sourdough recipe has grown since then. It has developed a personality of its own as I’ve expanded my baking repertoire and investigated the many facets of baking naturally leavened sourdough. It’s taken on and lost traits from many great bakers out there, borrowing from their inspiration and giving me a direction to raise this bread into something of my own. This bread is one that doesn’t entirely taste like anything else I’ve had, and yet, still employs many of the same processes and ingredients.
That’s one of the greatest things about bread: it can taste and look dramatically different just by changing the two hands that create it. Calling this post “my best sourdough recipe” is a lofty claim, but honestly, I do believe this is the best bread I've made thus far.
I sometimes revisit a discussion I had with a few readers of this site and their comments: “bread is just bread, it’s something to be eaten and is something life-giving, isn’t that enough?” I agree, but when something becomes a passion for you it’s important to set lofty goals and get excited when breakthroughs are made. Isn’t that the definition of a craft and the relentless honing required?
I’ve taken my best sourdough recipe from its most nascent form to its current stage and can trace through the years each change to its formula or process — and I’m sure I’ll be changing things well into the future as it continues to evolve — a work-in-progress.
Maybe the actual recipe for this bread isn’t the most important part, but rather, the lessons and insights learned along the way as I continually hone my baking proficiency. I’m not claiming this recipe will yield the perfect loaf every single time, but I dare say it comes the closest for me—and that’s exciting.
This bread is the bread that I want to make the most often, the one my family asks for the most often, and the one I share most often. I have a special place for whole wheat bread, and taste-wise, it might make me want to call that my favorite one day, but the versatility of this bread is pretty hard to beat. In fact, I bake this so often that my freezer has an entire shelf lined with pre-sliced loaves wrapped and in bags labeled pane perfetto2.
While the actual formula for my best sourdough recipe is simply a mix of flour, water, salt, and levain, there are many nuances here to pay close attention to; here are a few key things to successfully making this bread:
- An active starter
- An autolyse
- A high hydration
- Sufficient dough strength
- Warm bulk fermentation
- A long, cold proof
Before writing this post, I pulled out my trusty notebook and paged through the handwritten (and flour-ridden) pages to find any scribbled “ah-ha” moments or little notes jotted down in the margin, along with a few curse words peppered throughout, and have bundled them up into this entry (sans curse words to keep it clean). A compendium of sorts containing my insights, breakthroughs, and ah-ha moments.
My best sourdough recipe doesn’t require an exotic blend of hard-to-find flour, a complicated multi-step levain build, or the use of a mechanical mixer. It's built around making this bread in your home kitchen.
My best sourdough recipe is very highly hydrated and can be challenging. Feel free to adjust the hydration to suit your environment and flour; as we know, each bag of flour can be different. If you’re not used to working with high hydration dough, please start with hydration somewhere in the middle and slowly work up.
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I’ve tried a lot of flour out there (and am an avid user of freshly milled flour), indeed not everything there is, but I’ve ordered enough now that the UPS guy thinks I might have a bakery in my backyard. I have baked some great bread with Hayden Flour Mills (including this wonderful white Sonora Sourdough bread), Central Milling, and Giusto’s. I’ve also had great success with King Arthur Baking flour.
I have consistently made incredible loaves with Giusto's flour; I only wish it was organic. Nevertheless, I find myself ordering a box of it here and there and enjoying the results every time. Of course, as I mentioned before, try whatever is local first (sadly, my source for local, organic flour is no longer) and what you like.
When trying new flour, remember to hold back more water than you might otherwise, and then slowly add it in at the end of mixing or throughout bulk fermentation. Now, on to my best sourdough recipe.
My Best Sourdough Recipe
|Total Dough Weight||1,800 grams|
|Levain percentage in final dough||17.1%|
|Yield||Two 900g loaves|
The target final dough temperature (FDT) is 78°F (25°C). This dough loves a warm ambient environment. Try to keep the dough at the listed temperatures if possible; use your oven with its light on inside, your microwave with a bowl of steaming water, or a proofer. I use my instant-read thermometer to check the dough temperature periodically throughout bulk.
For more information on how to calculate DDT, monitor temperature, and maintain temperature have a look at my post on The Importance of Dough Temperature in Baking.
|852g||Medium-protein bread flour (~11.5% protein, Giusto's Artisan Bread Flour)||90.00%|
|94g||Whole wheat flour (Giusto's Organic Stoneground Whole Wheat)||10.00%|
|30g||Ripe sourdough starter (100% hydration)||3.20%|
As I mentioned above, my best sourdough recipe is an extremely high hydration. If this is your first time working with this recipe, reduce the total water or hold water back during mixing to ensure your dough can handle the addition. The amount of water your dough will handle will vary based on your particular flour and environment—play it safe the first few bakes and work the water up gradually once you get a feel for the dough.
My Best Sourdough Recipe Method
1. Levain – 9:00 a.m.
Build the liquid levain in the morning and store somewhere warm around 77-80°F (25-26°C) ambient for 5 hours.
|30g||Ripe sourdough starter (100% hydration)||50%|
|30g||Medium-protein bread flour (~11.5% protein, Giusto's Artisan Bread Flour)||50%|
|30g||Whole wheat flour (Giusto's Organic Stoneground Whole Wheat)||50%|
If you haven't yet read through my post on my sourdough starter maintenance routine, check it out for some helpful hints on what to look for when your sourdough starter and levain are ripe and ready to use.
2. Autolyse – 12:00 p.m.
Mix the flour and water in a bowl until all the dry bits are incorporated, then cover. Ensure all dry flour is hydrated—store near levain (we want the dough's temperature to remain warm).
|822g||Medium-protein bread flour|
|64g||Whole wheat flour|
3. Mix – 2:00 p.m.
Add the following ingredients to your dough in the mixing bowl that underwent an autolyse. Add the water slowly, in stages, while you're mixing, and stop adding water if the dough feels excessively wet or soupy at any point.
|17g||Fine sea salt|
|151g||Ripe liquid levain (see above)|
Perform folds for about 2-3 minutes in the bowl. Grab under one side, pull up and over to the other side, then rotate the bowl a bit and repeat. I do this probably 30 times or so (it goes fast and easy). In the end, the dough should still be shaggy, but it will be more smooth and will start to hold itself together more in the bowl.
If you're a fan of the slap & fold mixing technique I've described in the past, you can do this but be aware that it is difficult at this hydration. It's best to first slap and fold the dough without adding all the reserved water to get the dough smooth and strong. Then, return the dough to the mixing bowl and slowly add the remaining water while folding the dough.
I find that the correct level of dough strength at this point is important. You want the dough to be smooth, elastic, and strong, but it doesn't have to be fully developed, and it will still be shaggy. We will continue to strengthen the dough through stretch and folds in bulk fermentation.
Transfer dough to a tub or thick-walled bowl for bulk fermentation.
5. Bulk Fermentation – 2:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m.
At 78°F (25°C) ambient temperature, bulk fermentation should go for about 4 hours. Perform six sets of stretch and folds during the bulk. The first three are at 15-minute intervals, and the last three are at 30-minute intervals. After these folds (2 hours and 15 minutes have gone by), let the dough rest for the remainder of bulk fermentation.
I stretch and fold more vigorously at the beginning of bulk than usual since it is extraordinarily slack and extensible (due to this recipe's high hydration and autolyse). Pick up one side of the dough with both hands and pull it up, just before tearing, and fold it over to the other side. Rotate your container and repeat 4 or 5 times. That is one set.
Above, you can see my best sourdough recipe dough halfway through bulk, after about 2 hours. There is no significant rise as of yet, but the edges are beginning to dome downward, and the dough's texture is smoothing out slightly. We still have several more folds to do and more strength to build.
It is essential that the dough is kept near 78°F (25°C) as much as possible (minor fluctuations up and down are ok). If temperatures dip down too far, you might have to extend the bulk fermentation duration to compensate, and vice versa. Use your judgment, the signs described below, and be flexible.
At the end of bulk, your dough should look very gassy, with some bubbles here and there, and the edges where the dough meets the bowl should be slightly domed. You can see all these signs in the image above.
When you gently shake the bowl, the entire mass jiggles from side to side—very alive. You'll also notice that compared with the photo at the beginning of bulk, the dough is smoother and holds its edges, folds, and creases more readily (most of the bumps and ridges you see are due to trapped gasses from fermentation).
6. Divide & Preshape – 6:15 p.m.
Divide the dough into two halves and gently preshape each piece of dough into a round. Then, let the dough rest for 30 minutes, uncovered. Act quickly when handling this dough and rely heavily on your bench knife. I try to use my hands as little as possible when dealing with the dough at this point.
7. Shape – 6:45 p.m.
Lightly flour the top of your dough rounds and flour the work surface. With this recipe use a little more flour on the surface than normal, the dough will be extremely sticky and wet. Flip each round and shape into a batard (see notes below) or boule, whatever your preference.
I prefer to shape these as batards, and my shaping method is as follows:
- Flip pre-shaped round
- Fold the bottom up to about halfway
- Fold the left side over to about 3/4 to the right
- Fold the right side over to cover left
- Stretch top up & away from the center and fold down to about half (you’ll now have a “letter”)
- Grab a little of the dough at the sides near the top and stretch it over the center, so the dough crosses. Imagine lacing up a shoe where you first grab your laces and cross them over
- Repeat three times from top to bottom (the result will look like a laced up shoe)
- Take the bottom and gently roll the dough up to the top and try to seal it slightly when done rolling
Alternatively, if the dough feels pretty strong, you could shape it by “cinching” up the dough. For more instruction on how to shape this dough as an oblong loaf, see my post on how to shape a batard (with video!).
After shaping, let the dough rest on the bench for a few minutes and then place it into a banneton that is lightly dusted with white flour. You'll see above my bannetons give the dough plenty of room to relax and expand in the fridge overnight. If your proofing container is on the smaller side, and you find your dough almost spilling over the edges, it might be time for a larger basket.
8. Proof – 7:25 p.m. to 9:00 a.m., the next day
Cover your banneton with plastic and place it in the refrigerator at 38°F (3°C) overnight.
9. Bake – Next Morning: Preheat oven at 8:00 a.m., Bake at 9:00 a.m.
Preheat your oven to 450°F (230°C). Remove the dough from the fridge (there's no need to let the dough come to room temperature) and uncover. Bake for 20 minutes with steam, then remove your steaming pans or Dutch oven/combo cooker lid. Then, bake for an additional 30 minutes until done to your liking. I like to bake rather dark, so I sometimes extend this second half of baking until I get the crust I'm looking for.
I scored the dough with a single, long slash to get that dramatic opening when baked. I keep the blade at a reasonably shallow angle so the taut skin created during shaping will “peel” back as the loaf rises. I steamed my oven in my usual way, described here in my post on how to steam your home oven for baking.
Once your loaf is done, remove and let cool on a wire rack for 1-2 hours. See my post on the best way to store the bread after it's baked for a few tips on keeping it on the counter and freezing if you think you won't get through both loaves in a week.
It’s hard to put into words just how much I enjoy this “my best sourdough recipe.” I bake it almost every week (sometimes multiple times if baking for friends and family), and yet every time I pull it from the oven, I smile. The crust color, the open and light interior, only the smallest perception of sour notes, and the way it crunches when toasted. I could go on and on.
The photos to follow are the results of scattered recent bakes that all followed this process exactly and have a slightly different outcome. You'll notice some are a bit darker, some have more or less flour on them, some expand differently in the oven, and some are taller and some are shorter—that's the nature of baking.
With baking, every single bake is different no matter how consistent you try to be. It's the same with my Dad and his Italian restaurant, and the reason I'll sometimes get a call in the middle of the afternoon: “hey, the pizza dough is incredible today, you should head over and grab some.”
As a kid, I was known to take slices of bread, cut out the center, and eat the crust. It used to anger my family because they'd reach into the breadbasket only to find slices of only the soft parts. That's how much I love the crust! Can you blame me, though?
I enjoy bread with a chunky, chewy crust, but this bread with its delicate and cracker-like crust takes the top spot for me. Even though I bake these rather dark, the crust remains thin and brittle, crackling under the slightest pressure. I love using the “heel” (the very end) of this bread to eat soup or combined with hefty slices of cheese. It's delicious.
I think there’s a balance to be had with bread like this. It’s possible to let the crumb open up too much, but for me, this is just right. Scattered open areas with that translucent webbing spanning from wall-to-wall, a dynamic movement to these areas, almost show you how shaping was carried out.
This bread has an almost imperceptible hint of sour, and because of this, the wheat flavors from the flour come forward. It has an incredibly tender, soft crumb that almost dissolves in your mouth. It’s one of those rare foods whereupon taking that first bite your mouth begins to water.
In the end, bread is just bread. But it's also the staff of life and has been for thousands of years. It's is also more than the sum of the ingredients you add to the mixing bowl. It’s how it makes you feel when you give some to a friend, and they grin ear-to-ear as they take a big bite. It’s the knowledge that you created this thing over a few days that once was a lump on your counter and is now an incredibly delicious food meant to be shared. To me, this is real bread and my best sourdough recipe to date.
This sourdough bread is one of my favorite recipes. It's a highly hydrated dough that results in a loaf with an open and lacey interior contrasted by a thin, crispy crust.
- 30g medium-protein bread flour
- 30g whole wheat flour
- 60g water
- 30g ripe sourdough starter
- 822g medium-protein bread flour
- 64g whole wheat flour
- 745g water
- 17g salt
- 151g ripe levain
- Levain (9:00 a.m.)
In a small container, mix the levain ingredients and keep at 78°F (25°C) for 5 hours.
- Autolyse (12:00 p.m)
In a medium mixing bowl, add 822g medium-protein bread flour, 64g whole wheat flour, 650g water, and mix until no dry bits remain. Cover the bowl and let rest for 2 hours.
- Mix (2:00 p.m.)
To the mixing bowl holding your dough, add 95g water (holding back any as necessary if the dough is too wet), 17g sea salt, and the ripe levain (from step 1). Transfer your dough to a bulk fermentation container and cover.
- Bulk Fermentation (2:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m.)
Give the dough 6 sets of stretch and folds. The first three sets are at 15-minute intervals, and the last three sets are at 30-minute intervals.
- Divide and Preshape (6:15 p.m.)
Lightly flour your work surface and scrape out your dough. Using your bench knife, divide the dough in half. Lightly shape each half into a round shape. Let the dough rest for 30 minutes, uncovered.
- Shape (6:45 p.m.)
Shape the dough into a round (boule) or oval (batard) and place it in proofing baskets. Cover the baskets with a reusable plastic bag.
- Proof (7:25 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. the next day)
Cover proofing baskets with reusable plastic and seal them shut. Then, place both baskets into the refrigerator and proof overnight.
- Bake (Preheat oven at 8:00 a.m., bake at 9:00 a.m.)
Preheat your oven with a combo cooker or Dutch oven inside to 450°F (230°C). Remove your dough from the fridge, score it, and transfer it to the preheated combo cooker. Place the cooker in the oven, cover with the lid, and bake for 20 minutes. After this time, remove the lid (you can keep it in the oven or remove it) and continue to bake for 30 minutes longer. When done, the internal temperature should be around 208°F (97°C). Let the loaves cool for 2 hours on a wire rack before slicing.
This is a very highly hydrated dough. Don't add in all the reserved water during mixing if it feels like the dough is becoming overly weak, slack, or soupy.
Keywords: Bread, Sourdough, Naturally Leavened
If you use this recipe, tag @maurizio on Instagram and use the hashtag #theperfectloaf so I can take a look!