This Instructable tackles three often opaque skills in breadmaking: starting a sourdough starter, how to feed and maintain a starter and how to leaven bread with a sourdough starter. There is probably only about 4 or 5 hours of actual work in the 4-6 days this project will span, but it is important to learn the value of planning your dough schedule before beginning a fermentation so that you can make the best bread possible. I know this all sounds quite daunting, but it's really quite straightforward (I promise!), and you end up with the best-tasting sourdoughs you've ever had!
If you are completely new to bread making, check out my Bread Class.
This is a long i'ble, a thorough mix of technique and procedure. Sourdough seems like a lot of hard work, but it's honestly just a lot of TIME. The mixing and baking feel effortless compared to the task of being patient while you wait for your active yeast cultures to do their work in your loaves.
I strongly recommend reading this entire lesson before beginning your starter and be sure to reference the sourdough schedule at the end of this lesson before you begin your dough journey.
Step 1: Tools and Ingredients
To follow along with this lesson you will need the following kitchen tools and ingredients:
For the Sourdough Starter
- Kitchen Towel
- Large plastic food container to store the sourdough starter food in
- Small containers or jars to store active sourdough starter in
- Filter discs for jars, or cut up a free Tyvek envelope from the US Post Office and use that as a breathable filter disc
For the Sourdough Bread
- Bench scraper
- Bowl scraper
- Cooling rack
- Dutch oven
- Kitchen towels or plastic wrap
- Lame or very sharp blade or knife
- Mixing bowls
- I recommend using all of these thermometers
These tools are helpful but are not necessary to complete the lesson:
- Banneton basket - to placed your shaped and formed dough for rising, but a bowl lined with a towel dusted with ample rice flour also works
- Oven bags - we use these to create moisture proofed rising environment for our loaves
- Pizza peel - a pizza peel makes it easier to load sourdoughs into and out of a hot oven.
Step 2: Starting Your Starter
But first, what exactly is a sourdough starter?
A sourdough starter is a culture of active yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae, specifically) living in a hydrated flour mixture. Other recipes in this class rely on yeast to leaven dough, but sourdough yeast is special because it is 'captured' from the 'wild.' Fermenting sourdough takes times, and part of the awesomeness of commercial yeast is that it ferments doughs quickly, is shelf stable for months or even years, and is accessible to both the commercial and home baker. But at what cost is this convenience? Flavor. Only by capturing and harnessing wild yeasts do we get a distinctly sourdough taste that can not be attained with off-the-shelf commercial yeast.
So how do we capture these wild yeasts? They are all around us, in the air, in the bags of flour we buy, even on our fingers! Taking advantage of the presence of yeast on our fingers, and in our flour, the best way to start starter is by mixing together flour and water together with your bare hands.
In this i'ble, we will maintain a 1:1 whole wheat flour to white bread flour starter. We start by mixing together food for the starter so that you have plenty to draw from when it comes time to feed your sourdough baby.
To make the food for your starter you will need:
Day 1: Place your container on the scale, and tare the scale back to zero. Using a scoop, weigh out your flours into your container.
Whisk the flours together until completely blended. The starter feed we have created is a 1:1 mix of whole wheat flour to white bread flour.
In a smaller deli container, wide mouth mason jar, or resealable food container measure out 100 grams of starter food and 100 grams of filtered water. Mix using your fingers (yes there is even wild yeast all over your fingers!). Your hands should be clean, recently washed, and free of dirt and debris, but not sanitized with antibacterial soap or gel. We use bottled filtered water because municipal water sources often have purifying additives like chlorine in them, which will kill the yeast in your sourdough culture.
Cover the mixture with a towel or loose plastic wrap. Wait a day. When you check back on it, it should have a gently milky smell, and have a few bubbles forming within the mixture. This is good! Science is happening.
Day 2: Check in with the mixture. How's it smell? Is it beginning to be pungent? Unless your kitchen is super warm, your starter probably needs one more day to develop. It may look as though it is beginning to form a crust along the top, that's ok!
Day 3: The surface of the starter should have some bubbles, and look as though it has gained some height. At this point, if you were to disturb the mixture, it would still be cohesive, but also full of air. The starter will have a more sour smell.
Peel back the skin that has formed on the top of the starter and throw the layer away. Discard about 80% of what remains in the container. Get comfortable with discarding starter, in order to maintain the culture's activity, we will be constantly feeding it new fresh food, and discarding its 'spent' food and water.
After discarding most of the spent starter, you now have a starter that is ready to be fed! When you are first developing your starter, you will need to feed it twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. It is best to schedule feeding around times you will be home to watch its progress for one of those feedings, I suggest feeding at 8am and 8pm and keep the culture in a 72-75 degree space.
Step 3: Feeding Your Starter
For your first feeding, you are going to extract about 15 grams of your fermented starter culture into a clean container and discard the rest. Add 30 grams of water, and 30 grams of starter food. Mix the water and mature starter first before incorporating dry ingredients.
Allow this mixture to rest for 12 hours, observing its growth cycle taking note of what time it peaks and domes. You will hear the term 'peaking' or 'doming' a lot in this class. It is a common classifying trait associated with dough builds and refers to the max rise height of our starter or dough. These are the times when our yeast culture is the most active, and the most capable to leaven bread, and not yet starting to deflate or die off. Feed the starter again after 12 hours, repeating with 15 grams of starter into a new container, and 30 grams each of water and flour mixture feed.
Repeat this for two more days, four more feedings in total, taking note of your starters behavior. Notice if it is taking longer to rise at night than it is during the day. Finding a place with constant temperature is key. I keep mine in a cupboard under the sink, it's always about 72 degrees in there. When you have a predictable starter, knowing how long it takes to fully rise before it starts falling, it is ready for use.
This may be telling of my age, but I've likened the maintenance of a starter to caring for a Tamagotchi (a toy digital pocket pet from the late 1990s). It's mostly inert, needs regular feedings and purgings, and brings me a small slice of pride in ownership :D
Note: When you explore bread recipes beyond this lesson, you may substitute one cup of active sourdough starter (230 grams) for a package of yeast (7 grams). This turns any dough recipe into a sourdough recipe, adding a more tangy flavor, which can be fun to experiment with in your baking practice. Keep in mind that when you make this substitution, you will need to subtract some of the water and flour weight from your recipe. Subtract 1/2 cup of water (120g) and 3/4 cup (90g) of flour.
Step 4: Building Leaven
The terms sourdough starter and leaven can almost be used interchangeably throughout this class. Leaven is a term used to refer to a recently fed sourdough starter that has been grown to the desired weight and allowed to ferment until it is at max rise height. This leaven is the yeast culture that causes sourdoughs to rise!
Leaven is always made ahead of time as a means of proving your sourdough starter's yeast activity. Begin this leaven fermentation 8-12 hours before the bulk mix of your ingredients, before your bulk fermentation. I recommend starting your leaven the night before you want to prepare your dough, refer to the schedule in the next part of this lesson and adjust your timescale accordingly.
These are the ingredients for pre-fermented leaven:
- 20g mature starter
- 100g water - 74-76 degrees Farenheight
- 50g whole wheat flour
- 50g white bread flour
You are going to need the following tools and items:
- Container, jar, or bowl
- Plastic wrap, Filter Discs, Tyvek or Kitchen Towel to cover container
Take your active sourdough starter and measure out 20 grams into a bowl, large jar, or plastic container. I like mixing into a clear vessel because I can keep an eye on the bubble structure and growth rate of the starter. Add 100g of water and mix until your starter is completely broken up. If you like, put a lid on your container and shake it up, that makes for fast work.
Mix in 50g of whole wheat flour, and 50g of white bread flour to your liquid mixture. Stir until all flour is hydrated and the mixture has a mealy texture. Allow to sit overnight covered with a towel or loose plastic wrap, depending on your ambient humidity.
Above, a starter is fed to become leaven, and left overnight to ferment. I use these handy filter discs on mason jars to make a breathable moisture tight seal that keeps my ferment happy in my arid climate, but you can also use Tyvek, available for free in the form of an envelope at your local post office. If you live in a temperate or humid climate you can use a kitchen towel to cover your mixture.
The ingredients for the leaven are the same as what we feed our sourdough starter, just a larger volume because we are growing an amount of active culture required to leaven our sourdough.
Here is the recipe with bakers percentages before we begin our bulk mix.
This sourdough recipe in this lesson calls for 200g of total leaven, but a keen eye would notice that we are preparing 220 grams. It is nice to have a little bit extra just to make sure we can meet the requirements of the recipe AND perpetuate our sourdough starter with the excess leaven after we have drawn from it.
Here is the complete ingredient list for this recipe:
- 200 grams sourdough leaven
- 400 grams of water
- 580 grams of white bread flour
- 20 grams of whole wheat flour
- 18 grams of salt
- rice flour for dusting
For this recipe you will need the following Kitchen Tools:
- Mixing Bowls
- Bowl Scraper
- Bench Scraper
- Bannetons or bowls lined with kitchen towels
Step 5: Sourdough Schedule
Here are three options of possible timelines to follow to make your first loaves of sourdough bread! The two on the right include long refrigerated fermented rises that will allow you more flexibility if you don't have one whole day to dedicate to this lesson. Look them over and choose the one that will work best for you. I would even recommend printing it out so you can use it to follow along with the lesson, take notes on and check things off as you do them.
Balancing a busy schedule is hard enough, let alone trying get some quality breadmaking time in. You as a baker have the option of having either your first or second rise (or both!) in the refrigerator. Remember, when you place dough in the fridge, it doesn't completely stop fermenting, it only slows down. I've taken as long as 10 days to build this dough SUPER slow, just make sure your doughs are properly sealed in a slightly inflated plastic bag so they don't dry out, or stick to the sides of the bag. Slowing down your fermentation yields a much more sour flavor.
Step 6: Bulk Mix and Adding Salt
Measure out 350g of 78-80 degree water into a bowl. The remaining of the water gets added with the salt in a little bit. Gradually add 200 grams of mature leaven to the water.
Your leaven will most likely float at the surface of the water, that's a good thing! This means that your starter's activity is evident and ready for your bulk mix. If your mixture isn't floating, there is a good chance you pushed too much air out of it while transferring it into the new bowl, and is not problematic for your leavening. Incorporate the leaven completely using your fingers or a whisk.
Add your flours to the hydrated leaven and mix with a dough whisk or a bowl scraper. Getting your hands in the dough is the best way to feel where your dough is at in its bulk mix. We want to mix until we arrive at an oatmealy texture mixture - about a 5-8 minute of mixing. Allow the mixture to rest for 45 minutes covered with a towel or plastic wrap. My bowls have these lids that aren't quite airtight so they are perfect.
This rest period is called benching. When the dough rests, we allow the flour to become evenly more hydrated, and form the beginnings of gluten bonds. Benching allows a dry and loose floury mix to become an organized gluten structure that will eventually become an elastic and spongy dough that will ferment evenly.
When the dough has bench rested for 45 minutes, come back to the bowl it is resting in and add the additional 50 grams of water and the salt. We add salt and water after the dough has benched to protect our leaven. Yeast exposed directly to salt are killed, but if we introduce a weakened hydrated salt mixture, the leaven is able to thrive and salt strengthens and fortifies the gluten during our ferment.
Begin mixing the water and salt in, squeezing it between your fingers and pinching the dough between your thumbs and forefingers. Notice now that the flour is sticking together in a much more globular fashion. Squeeze the salt and water through the dough, mix until completely incorporated, and the dough is oatmealy once again. If not all of your salt dissolves during this mix, don't worry, it will be incorporated slowly in the next step.Allow to bench again for 30 minutes.
Step 7: Fold and Turns
This dough is not a kneaded dough. Instead, we work the dough with a series of stretches and folds, then let time and science do the rest. This in-bowl 'kneading' method does wonders for gluten development and strength training in your dough to have that perfect bubbly structure when it comes out of the oven. This method of folding and turning layers an elastic gluten structure around one of the key ingredients to bread, AIR! We are literally folding in the air our dough needs for proper fermentation.
With damp hands, grab the dough mass from the bottom of the bowl, stretch the dough away from your body and then back over itself, tucking together. Rotate the bowl 90 degrees, then complete again. When you have completed four stretch and folds, this is considered one 'turn'. For the first part of your bulk ferment, complete one 'turn' with the dough every 30-45 minutes until you have completed 3 'turns'. The dough will get harder to work with each turn because the gluten network is getting filled with air from the yeast fermenting - go slow and gentle during your last turn so you don't knock too much air out of it or rip it. If it gets too deflated or rips, that's ok too, just slow down next time :)
Think of folding dough as a technique to circulate and redistribute the yeast, moisture, air, and temperature. That's right we are encouraging even fermentation by stretching an even temperature into all parts of the dough mass.
After your final turn, allow your dough to keep fermenting until it has doubled in size completely, about another two and a half to four hours, depending on your ambient temperature.
Step 8: Dividing, Shaping, and Final Proof
After bulk fermentation is complete, our dough is now ready to be formed into its final shape and go through its secondary proofing. First, we'll begin by dividing our large dough ball.
Using a bowl scraper, transfer your dough onto your bench, worksurface, or cutting board from its bowl. For this demonstration, the dough weighed about 1200 grams. A quick way to get the accurate weight of your dough is to weigh your bowl with your dough in it, then tare the scale. Turn out the dough ball onto your bench then weigh the bowl again. The negative weight listed on your scale is the total weight of your dough.
Divide the dough into two equal parts. Using a bench knife and a scale, I tried to get each loaf to a weight of 590-610 grams.
Form each dough half into a loose ball by bringing in all the edges, then turn on its seam to bench for 10 minutes, under the cover of a bowl. Allow to rest for 10 minutes covered, then 10 minutes uncovered. We are trying to give the dough time to relax the tension we built across the dough after all that handling and degassing, or the removing of air due to the handling of a dough, that happened to it when we turned out the dough from the bowl and divided it. We see this process over and over again in breadmaking. The building of tension then allowing time to relax ensures the dough's ability to have great elasticity once it goes into the oven. (Look back at Oven Spring from the Appendix)
When 20 minutes has elapsed, lightly flour the tops of the dough and flip over onto its back, floured side down. This is the final shaping before the bread's final proving.
A lot of recipes liken this style of folding to folding an envelope. When all four folds have been completed, flip the dough onto its seam and gather tension across the top of the dough one last time, allow to bench for another 10 minutes or so.
Carefully use the bench knife to put the loaf into a bowl to complete its final rise. I like to use bannetons because they make the bread look beautiful. But a mixing bowl lined with a towel works well here too. Give the surface of the bowl or towel a heavy dusting of rice flour so that the dough doesn't stick to bowl or towel.
Lastly, flip the dough into the bowl, seam side up. Cover with plastic, and stick it in the fridge for the final proof overnight. The bannetons I use ALMOST fit into a gallon zipper bag, but not quite. These oven bags are the best way to seal moisture in without the risk of your dough sticking to plastic wrap across the top of the bowl.
If you want to bake your dough the same day, wait until your dough is visibly puffed in the bowl your rising in. The benefit of proofing in the fridge is that it slows fermentation, and we have the opportunity to develop more flavor. You also have the flexibility to bake your dough straight from the fridge, whenever it is convenient to you! I've also noticed that doughs proofed in the fridge hold their shape better once they go into the oven.
Step 9: Baking
Preheat an oven to 425 degrees. I recommend that you begin preheating your oven at least 45 minutes before you bake your bread. I have an old oven and it takes a minute to really get hot.
Preheat a dutch oven, or combination cooker with your oven as it climbs to temperature. (What to-do without a dutch oven is below) Placing your thermometer inside the dutch oven ensures that you are getting an accurate reading of how hot your pan is.
Step 10: Scoring and Cooking
When the oven is at temperature, remove one of your doughs from its bag in the refrigerator and tip the loaf onto a piece of parchment paper atop a pizza peel or cutting board. You can place the parchment paper and cutting board or peel on top of the bowl your dough has been rising in, then flip it upside down to knock the dough out of the bowl.
Before going into the oven, the dough needs to be scored. I have tried lots of different scoring techniques while developing this course, and honestly, if you have a good taught dough, that will expand from the middle outward in the oven, you can get pretty creative with scores and designs.
We score the dough to create a gas and steam vent in the loaf while it cooks. Scoring perpindicular to the dough will cause the dough to open more horizontally, while scoring in plane with the loaf, you can direct your loaf to grow more vertically in the oven.
Open the oven and slide your dough, paper and all into the dutch oven. It is easier to slide the loaf into the shallow pan of the combination cooker, and then cover it with the deep pot top.This will help prevent burns that could occur from reaching into the deep side of the cooker.
Cook for 20 minutes before removing the lid. When removing the lid, be careful, there may be a plume of steam that will come out, especially if your dutch oven has a really good seal.
Next, reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees, remove the parchment paper from under your loaf, and cook another 15 minutes, 20 minutes if you like a really crunchy crust.
Remove loaf and allow to cool on a cooling rack for at least 30 minutes before cutting into it.
Now repeat with the second dough in the fridge. Don't forget to bring the oven back up to temperature, this is when it's really handy to have an oven thermometer. This usually takes about 15 minutes.
***If you don't have a dutch oven, a large metal pot with a lid can work in a pinch, or you can finagle an aluminum foil version with a thick bottomed baking pan. In that case, you would preheat the pan during the oven preheat, and then apply 2 layers of aluminum foil over the top of your scored loaf. The perk of cooking in a thick-walled dutch oven is that you are able to mimic the heat of a commercial baking oven, with even heat surrounding your loaf. The dutch oven also benefits the dough's ability to stay moist during the bake, trapping in steam from the loaf as it bakes, but not allowing it to escape out of the vent of the oven. This moisture ensures a beautiful crackling crust that is a staple characteristic of artisanal sourdough.***
Step 11: Tips for Your Starter's Health and Getting on a Feeding Schedule...
That's right, a feeding schedule. Maintaining your sourdough starter so that you can bake delicious bread all the time means that you need to keep it active, and thus fed, on a regular basis.
During the development of this course, I set an alarm on my phone for noon every day to feed the active starter.
I'm usually maintaining around 50-80 grams of starter if I am not using it more regularly, even if I have no set plans to make sourdough again soon. More than 100g of starter becomes unwieldy, and there is less waste associated with keeping a small starter. My typical feeding, regardless if I'm activating a dormant starter, maintaining an active room-temperature starter, or feeding a starter in the fridge is:
- 10% mature starter
- 45% water
- 45% of the sourdough food.
So if I weigh out 10 grams of starter, I'll feed it with 45 grams of water and 45 grams of mixed flour sourdough food. I typically need to feed this starter once a day. Since I hate wasting, I discard the spent starter into a jar in my fridge and make pancakes with that spent sourdough sludge once a week.
Consider how often you want to be baking bread, if it is 2-3 times a week or more you will benefit from having an active culture to draw from. I feed my starter every 24 hours when the temperature in my house is cool, allowing it to rise and fall completely. If I am going to use my sourdough starter, I will feed it 2-3 times a day for 2 days before I use it.
If you want to bake less frequently, sourdough starter stores beautifully in the refrigerator. I have a slough of different starter mixtures in mason jars in my fridge made from different flours and at different levels of hydration. These starters still need regular feedings in the fridge, but less frequently, maybe once a week, or every 10 days. If I am going to use a starter within the next week I will feed the starter, place it in the fridge, allow it to peak (3-4 days), then feed it again, and place it in the refrigerator for another three days. At this point, the starter can be removed from the fridge to start a leaven. Other bakers encourage at least one feeding out of the fridge before using to leaven a dough, but I haven't noticed a significant difference in using fully peaked starter from the fridge to build a leaven.
Also, don't be afraid to use different kinds of flours, Rebelwithoutasauce uses rye for her sourdough starter, but some people even prefer 100% whole wheat starters.
You can also manipulate the hydration levels of your starter, a more liquid starter will ferment more quickly, while a more viscous flour-heavy starter will ferment more slowly but expand larger in volume. If you care to manipulate the ratio of flours or play around with different kinds of flours you may manipulate the way the bread' flavors will develop, and how loaves rise.
Uh-oh, things have gone terribly wrong...
If your starter becomes too acidic, sitting for a long period of time after all of the starter food was consumed by the yeast, it may develop a dark liquid layer that appears very unsettling. Have no worries, this is normal, albeit not the best sign of health for your starter. This dark liquid is referred to as 'hooch' - you can just pour it off, discard most of your starter, and resume normal feedings.
A Starter By Any Other Name...
There are lots of ways bread recipes beyond this class call out working with your starter. Often you will see instructions to work with a 'mature' or 'fed' starter. These terms are problematic because they are vague.You can read "fed" as active and ready to use, at its full rising height, ready to leaven a dough. An "unfed" starter implies a starved or spent culture, completely collapsed after feeding. All of the food available to the yeast has been consumed, and it will need to be fed again before your next sourdough build to prevent it from tasting too acidic. Working with unfed starter only adds flavor to recipes, and is not able to leaven bread the same way a recently fed starter is able to.
Step 12: Share Your Sourdough Story!
Share your sourdough loaves and questions below! I know this is a whole lot of planning, and I'm here to help if any step is giving you grief or if you have questions about your progress.