Introduction: Natural Yeast Sourdough Bread

Sourdough bread is one that doesn't use store-bought yeast. Instead, the bread is leavened by natural yeasts that you cultivate by making a "starter." There are many different methods to create a starter. This particular process is the one described in the book, "The Bread Builders," by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott. (And it's important for you to know that I've baked many ICKY loaves of bread getting to this point! That's a normal part of learning! Additionally, while this tutorial is about baking bread specifically, it is REALLY about getting out there and doing something new, something a bit daunting...and knowing that you are not alone in this respect!)

To make a sourdough starter you'll need:

  • a clean container with a lid
  • organic rye flour
  • organic whole wheat flour
  • organic all-purpose flour
  • filtered water
  • a digital scale

Photo #1 (Day 1): Mix 60 grams organic rye flour and 60 grams organic whole wheat flour with 120 grams of filtered water. Let this 240 gram mixture sit at 60 to 65 degrees for 48 hours. (Photo #2 shows what the mixture looks like after 48 hours.)

Photo #3 (Day 3): Discard 120 grams of the mixture and add 30 grams rye flour and 30 grams whole wheat flour and 60 grams of filtered water so that you have a total of 240 grams again. Let the mixture sit at 60-65 degrees for 24 hours. I put my covered container in the basement where the temperature was about 70 degrees.

Photo #4 (Day 4): Repeat Day 3 process. (You can see the bubbles forming which is the developing yeast culture!)

Photo #5 (Day 5): Repeat Day 4 process.

At Day 5 I kept repeating the feeding process described above and 10 days after I started the process I had 240 grams of an actively bubbling starter.

You are now ready to start making sourdough bread.

Step 1: Beginning the Bread Dough - First Stage Starter

You'll need the following things*:

  • sourdough starter
  • whole wheat flour**
  • rye flour**
  • bread flour**
  • wheat germ
  • filtered water
  • kosher salt
  • 10 quart plastic container with lid
  • vegetable oil spray
  • digital scale
  • baker's couche or well-floured tea towels
  • sharp paring knife or bread lame
  • baking parchment
  • baking stone
  • steam "kit" - I use Thomas Keller's method which is detailed in his book, "Bouchon Bakery": 10 pounds of landscaping river rocks, 10 feet of heavy metal link chain in a heavy metal pan large enough to accommodate the rocks and chain. Instead of a Super Soaker squirt gun, I use an empty plastic ketchup bottle.

*Building up your bread-baking infrastructure can be a challenge for someone starting out. Please know that all of the things in my kitchen have been acquired over more than a decade. Sourdough bread is an advanced undertaking. You'll need some time to get there...but with effort you WILL get there.

**I'm partial to King Arthur brand flour.

You'll start by building up the amount of starter in three stages. For the first stage, take your 240 grams of starter (in the plastic container in which you built up the starter), double it to 480 grams by adding 60 grams of whole wheat flour, 60 grams of all-purpose flour and 120 grams of filtered water. Mix thoroughly with a fork or spoon. Let your 480 grams of starter sit at room temperature for 1 hour.

After 1 hour, divide the 480 grams of starter in half, 240 grams going into a 10 quart container. The other 240 grams of starter in your ORIGINAL plastic container goes into the refrigerator where it should keep for a week. I bake once a week so this schedule suits that timetable. If you don't bake weekly, then you'll need to feed your starter in a week to keep it viable.

The 240 grams of starter in the 10 quart container...let it sit at room temperature for another two to three hours so that it becomes very bubbly and active.

Step 2: Second Stage Starter

When your first stage starter is visibly bubbly, double the 240 grams starter by adding 60 grams whole wheat flour, 60 grams rye flour and 120 grams of filtered water. Mix thoroughly with a fork or spoon.

You will now have 480 grams of starter. Let this sit at room temperature for two to three hours or until bubbles are visible throughout the starter.

Step 3: Third Stage Starter

When your second stage starter has visible bubbles, add 120 grams of whole wheat flour, 120 grams of unbleached all-purpose flour (or unbleached bread flour) and 240 grams of water. Mix thoroughly with a fork or spoon.

You will now have a total of 960 grams of starter. Let this third stage starter sit at room temperature for two to three hours until you can see bubbles indicating yeast activity - this is dependent on the temperature of the room so this process could take several hours longer if your room is on the cooler side. In the event of your room being quite cool, you can put the covered starter container in your oven (with the oven off) and with the oven LIGHT on. This will provide a gentle amount of warmth for your starter.

Step 4: Make Your Initial Dough

Mix your 960 grams of third stage starter with 531 grams of filtered water and 20 grams of wheat germ. Mix so that these ingredients are distributed somewhat evenly in your container.

To this starter/water/wheat germ mixture add 77 grams of whole wheat flour and 1031 grams of bread flour.

I mix this all up with my hand until the dough is roughly homogeneous and the dry flour has been moistened by the water. I would not use a stand mixer for this because the amount of dough is too much for a typical stand mixer and will potentially break your machine (How do I know this?). It takes a bit of elbow grease but it is manageable. Plus you will develop awesomely muscled arms.

Cover the container and put aside this dough for about 1 hour and let it sit (autolyse - where the flour hydrates and the gluten develops a bit).

Step 5: Finishing the Dough

After the autolyse rest period, mix 25 grams of kosher salt with 100 grams of water. (Using 100 grams of water at this stage will result in a 70% water to flour hydration level, which I have found is optimal for producing a loaf of bread that has enough structure to result in a pleasing shape and enough moisture so as to have decent crumb structure - bread "holes.")

Mix the water/salt and add it to the dough. Mix thoroughly by hand until everything is fairly evenly distributed. Your dough will NOT look perfectly smooth like a baby's bottom.

Cover up the container and allow the dough to double. This step is dependent on several factors: temperature of the room, strength of your starter. There have been times (on cool winter days, for example) when this step has taken upwards of 12 hours - please see next step photos.

Step 6: Proofing the Dough: 1st Rise

The first photo shows the dough at the beginning of the proofing step. The next photo shows a doubled dough and the third photo shows what the dough looks like after it has doubled in volume.

Step 7: Stretch & Fold Plus Refrigeration Rest Period

Stretch and fold your dough three or four times as demonstrated in the video. Each time you stretch and fold your dough will become smoother and the dough will tighten up as the gluten is activated. Place the dough into a lightly oiled container and refrigerate your dough for 24 hours.

Step 8: Stretch & Fold #2 Plus Refrigeration Rest Period

After 24 hours, take your dough and stretch and fold it again. Place it back in your container and refrigerate it for another 24 hours.

Step 9: Dividing and Initial Shaping of Dough

Divide the chilled dough into six (6), 16 ounce (454 gram) portions (your last one might be slightly under 16 ounces). Stretch and fold each portion and roll into six separate balls. Allow the dough to rest for about 15 minutes.

When forming the dough into tight balls, the idea is to cup your hand and push the dough along your counter. The front edge of the dough will catch on the surface of the counter and get dragged under the dough rolling over the top of it. This step takes practice; you don't want too much flour on your surface because the dough will not catch and you don't want to have too little flour on your surface because the dough might stick to your hands or to the surface.

Step 10: Creating the Final Shape of the Dough

The particular shape you are creating here is called a "batard" which is a torpedo-like loaf shape. You can shape them into simple rounds if you like and skip this step. Or you can elongate them into baguette shapes - although if you do this then you'll want to have 10-12 ounce portions of dough (283 grams to 340 grams) instead of 16 ounce portions. The batard is an attractive, rustic shape, I think, and will do much to help you conquer the world.

You should preheat your oven to 460 degrees with your baking stone (or, preferably, a baking steel) inside the oven. Your steam "kit" should also be in your oven. Some folks place their steam "kit" on the lower rack of the oven. My steam "kit" is located on the bottom floor of the oven.

Step 11: Final Rise of Dough

Place your shaped pieces of dough onto a floured couche (seam side UP), which will help to support the dough as it rises. Fold the ends of the couche over your dough so that it is totally covered. If you don't have enough cloth from the couche to cover the dough you can use a floured tea towel to do this. It's important to have the right amount of flour on your couche. Too much flour will cause your dough to be overly crusted with flour resulting in a messy, chalky look (plus, too much flour will inhibit the development of a beautiful, golden brown crust) and too little flour will cause your dough to stick to the couche; it will difficult to remove your dough from the couche and you might tear and damage the dough. Then you will be sad. Or miffed. Or both.

Step 12: Baking Your Dough

This step takes a little practice in terms of timing things correctly. You want to have your oven up to 460 degrees AND once it reaches that temperature you want to continue to heat the oven for 1 and 1/2 hours (1.5 hours) BEFORE you begin baking your bread dough.

You want your bread dough to have doubled (approximately) at the same time that your oven is up to the desired temperature.

If your bread dough has doubled but your oven is not sufficiently heated, your bread dough will not develop a terrifically crusty outside and beautiful brown color.

On a cold day you might want to shape your bread dough and allow it to rise for an hour BEFORE you fire up your oven. My oven takes about 40-45 minutes to reach 460 degrees and then plus the 1.5 hours additional heating...that's a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes before the oven is at the right temperature to accept bread dough.

So again, this part takes some practice.

How do you know if your bread has "doubled"? You can use the "finger poke" test. If you poke your dough gently with your index finger and the indentation remains, then your dough is ready for the oven.

Step 13: Slashing Your Bread Dough

OK folks, we're close. So close.

When your dough is doubled and ready for the oven, gently lift the dough from the couche and place on a piece of baking parchment, seam side DOWN.

Slash the bread along the length of the dough. This batard will accept three slash cuts. Using the corner of your bread lame, come in at a shallower angle and make a series of definitive cuts, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep.

Slashing your bread dough, like many other steps (sigh, I know), requires some practice. When you get the hang of it you will be happy. Trust me.

Step 14: Steam the Baking Bread

Once you've slid your bread dough on to your baking stones (or baking steel...or baking steel(s) since I have two of them in my oven), create a humid environment in your oven by spraying two cups of water onto your steam "kit."

Humidity will cause your bread to have improved oven "spring" - it will have a taller profile - and the crust will have a wonderfully crispy texture.

The steam "kit" in your oven is your way of duplicating the conditions in professional bakeries that have uber-expensive steam ovens.

Bake at 460 degrees for 27-30 minutes, rotating the loaves halfway through baking.

Step 15: Cool and Eat

After 27-30 minutes, remove the bread from your oven and place on a wire cooling rack. The bread must sit for at least an hour before you try and cut it (otherwise it will crush down upon itself because the inside hasn't finished solidifying and setting up).


Best of luck with this recipe. I've tried to be as thorough as possible but as with any process there are probably nuances that have been overlooked. If you have any questions, I'll do my best to answer them. Or, if I don't know the answer then I'll just stay silent and pretend to not have gotten your query.

Once again, practice is a key factor in producing this version of sourdough bread. Be open-minded. Be dedicated. Be willing to take a break once in a while. Be observant.

As Tucker Smith (as "Ice") says: "Keep coolly cool, boy!"

(1111 grams water/1588 grams flour = 70% hydration ratio. Modify this recipe to make sourdough olive bread by adding 150 grams of olives when mixing the dough - half oil-cured, half Kalamata - inspired by Nancy Silverton's Olive Bread from the book Cooking with Master Chefs.)

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