Over the past few months I’ve done a load of research to understand the science of sourdough – noting tips and tricks from a long list of recipes, YouTube videos and instagram tutorials to try to fine-tune my technique. It’s been a whole load of trial and error but I’m now at the stage where I’m baking a fab loaf every few days!!! It’s crazy!! After so many failed attempts at growing a starter, maintaining it and baking with it in the past, with no one recipe that has wholly worked for me, I’m buzzing that I now have a set of foolproof sourdough rules that work every time.
So, I thought I’d compile everything I have learnt so far to simplify the whole process, from growing a starter through to baking the most amazing loaf. I have included 20 useful tips & tricks for things like feeding starter, building dough strength, scoring and adjusting flavour profiles and have tried to explain the process where I can with a bit of science. I’ve done the research so that you don’t have to! I don’t see this as in any way complete and I’ll continue to add as I learn more ☺️
I have gone into a bit of depth, mainly so I can remember how to do it myself, but also because I’m hoping this will save other sourdough beginners some time and a few kg of bread flour – which seems to be quite the commodity at the moment!
I’d love to know how you get on!! 😍
My tips and tricks for sourdough bread
When baking sourdough the first thing you need is a starter. The starter is essentially a pot of living yeasts and bacteria that you cultivate yourself, with nothing but flour and water. It’s the coolest. There’s loads of natural bacteria and yeasts everywhere – on our skin, on the food we eat and even in the air. For the starter, our colony of microorganisms will mainly come from the flour we use for the starter on day one. Don’t be put off! These are friendly yeasts and bacteria and actually have a load of health benefits when used in bread making.
To make a starter you need to create the perfect environment for the natural yeasts and bacteria to thrive. You will need to feed them each day with the sugars (in the form of flour) that they need to ferment. Fermentation is a reaction that converts sugar into ethanol or acids, and carbon dioxide, but also energy – which allows the yeasts and bacteria to multiply and form a thriving ecosystem in your jar.
I have had my fair share of failed starter attempts, I’ve even managed to spoil majorly active starter that I had sourced from very kind local bakeries (this is an option if you don’t want to make it yourself, although it’s so much more rewarding if you do). But, all it takes is a bit of patience and about 5 minutes of your time each day – that and some good quality flour.
Making a sourdough starter
Making a starter from scratch takes about 7 days, but it can differ depending on the flour used and the temperature you’re storing it at. After around 7 days of feeding, your starter should be ready to bake with, but your bread will taste so much better as your starter matures.
Find a wide jar for your starter, like a kilner jar, or an empty jar of mayo. Yum. You want one with at least enough room for the starter to quadruple in size (here’s hoping!!). You also don’t want starter to spill up and out of your jar – it can be a nightmare to clean up if it dries.
Tip 1: I use wholemeal flour for my starter but you can use any good bread flour, strong white, wholemeal or rye flour. Just don’t use plain/all purpose flour, especially for the first seven days – it just doesn’t excite the yeast & bacteria as much. Rye is meant to be the best for seeing nice bubbly fermentation activity, but is generally more expensive so I stick to wholemeal. You can also do a mix of flours if you’re feeling fancy!!
The trick to cultivating a starter is following strict starter-to-flour-to-water measurements to keep your yeast and bacteria happy. In each of my previous attempts at growing starter, I could never get consistent growth or bubbling because I just eyeballed the flour and water mix each day. Although established starters are known to be quite resilient, and can bounce back to life even after days without feeding, the early stages of starter growth are critical – you don’t want to overfeed or underfeed the starter!
Each day you will discard some of the starter from the previous day, leaving a smaller amount of starter as you progress through the first seven days of feeding. This will ensure you are feeding the bacteria and yeast a consistent amount as their colony grows (i.e. there will be less bacteria and yeast in the first few days, as they are only beginning to find their feet in their new home, so we don’t want to discard too much until around day 6 / day 7 when we’ll have a more robust colony).
The discard can go straight into the bin, but if you don’t like waste (like me!) then you can find loads of recipes online for things like sourdough discard pancakes! Or, move the discard to a separate jar, feed it, and pass it onto a friend!
These quantities seem to strike the perfect balance and make for a happy, active, bubbly starter in just seven days:
Day 1: 100g flour + 125g tap water @ 30°C. Mix, cover and leave for 24 hours.
Day 2: 70g of starter from day 1 (discard the rest) + 100g flour + 115g tap water @ 30°C. Mix, cover and leave for 24 hours.
Day 3: 70g of starter from day 1 (discard the rest) + 100g flour + 115g tap water @ 30°C. Mix, cover and leave for 24 hours.
Day 4: 70g starter + 100g flour + 100g tap water @ 30°C. Mix, cover and leave for 24 hours.
Day 5: 70g starter + 100g flour + 100g tap water @ 30°C. Mix, cover and leave for 24 hours.
Day 6: 50g starter + 100g flour + 100g tap water @ 30°C. Mix, cover and leave for 24 hours.
Day 7: 25g starter + 100g flour + 100g tap water @ 30°C. Mix, cover and leave for 24 hours.
Your starter should now be bubbling and active – ready to bake with!
Tip 2: Measure the weight of your empty jar and note this down somewhere before you start – it’ll make calculating the remaining weight of the starter in your jar so much easier every time you come to feed it. Zeroing your kitchen scales only works when your jar is empty!! My jar is 510g, so if I want to feed 25g of my starter on any day, I will discard excess starter until the combined weight of jar + starter is 535g (510g + 25g). Quick maths x
Tip 3: Kitchen thermometers are useful! The temperature of the water you use makes a load of difference. You want warm enough water to wake up the yeast and bacteria so they start fermenting (around 30°C), but not so warm that it kills them. I usually use tap water with a splash of boiling water from the kettle – mix and then adjust until it is 30°C. If you don’t have a thermometer, test with your finger – it should be warm to the touch, but nowhere near boiling!
Maintaining your starter
To keep your starter happy, every day after the first seven days, feed 25g of your starter with 50g flour + 50g water at 30°C. If you leave your starter out on the kitchen top like I have been, you’ll need to feed it about once a day. Some people feed it more than this, but I think this is a waste of flour – one feed a day does just fine. Otherwise, you can pop your starter in the fridge to slow the fermentation and feed it about once a week, keeping the same quantities of starter, flour and water. When you take it out of the fridge to bake you’ll just need to feed it a couple of times beforehand, around every 12 hours for about two days to wake it up again. You’ll know it’s good to go when you see some nice bubbling and it rises nicely between feeds.
Baking a sourdough loaf
You will need:
500g strong white bread flour (or combination of any flour totalling 500g)
375g water + 1 tbsp
Tip 4: Sourdough baking takes patience. This is something I don’t usually have. Lol. It’s a long, drawn out process. To do it right it takes over 24 hours – and this is in addition to the week you have just spent cultivating the starter. BUT there’s actually very little hands-on time required – most of the process is just waiting for fermentation.
On baking day I will start my loaf prep at around 9am and the loaf will be ready to eat at around 10am the next day.
The first step, when you come to baking day, is to make a levain. This is essentially another fancy word for starter, but people seem to use it more often to refer to the separate starter you make on the day of baking. At this stage, I will take 25g of my active bubbly starter and mix it with 50g of wholemeal flour (or whatever flour you have used for your starter) and 50g of water at 30°C. Mix, and leave this in a warm place to rise for about 6 hours. Then I’ll feed my starter as normal and set this aside.
Tip 5: The ‘warm place’ actually makes a huge difference, for both the levain and further on in the process during the bulk ferment. If you want your sourdough bread to rise, it’ll need a bit of a helping hand. I’ve tried a few ways to keep my levain and dough warm through the rise: insulating it with tin foil, putting it in the airing cupboard, keeping it next to the radiator (lol this didn’t work). Some people have ‘fermentation stations’ for this purpose, but these are super expensive and would take up far too much space in my kitchen. I’ve found putting this in the oven with just the light turned on seems to do the job – keeping the levain and dough at a constant warm temperature so it can get its ferment on.
Everyone wants a nice holey loaf of sourdough. Some people call this the “openness” of the bread or the “crumb” #sourdoughslang and you can find everyone and their aunt showing this off on instagram. Me included.
The openness of your bread depends on a number of things, but mainly the hydration level of the dough. The hydration describes the amount of water to flour you add at the autolyse step.
More experienced bakers will be able to work with much higher hydration doughs, but this is definitely a super human skill (and one I wouldn’t recommend trying too soon). High hydration doughs will stick to almost everything, so you’ll need a really good technique to manoeuvre it. I wasted a loaf getting too ahead of myself with an 85% hydration and it was emotional to say the least.
Tip 6: I would recommend starting with a 75% hydration dough. This means that you add 75% of the weight of the flour, in water, to make the dough. So, if you were using 100g flour, you would add 75g of water to the flour to make the dough 75% hydrated.
For one loaf I use 500g strong white bread flour and 375g water. 375/500 = 0.75 = 75%.
Another factor that plays into the openness of the crumb is the length of the autolyse.
The autolyse refers to gluten formation in the dough. When you mix together flour and water, proteins in the flour (specifically glutenin and gliadin) react with the water to form a strong rubbery structure called gluten. #science
Air pockets form between the gluten bonds and as the bread rises, these expand to nice open holes. Who’d have thought that the absence of bread would be the most satisfying bit of bread making!?
The gluten strengthens the dough and makes it so much easier to work with.
Tip 7: One thing that I have noticed, is that most sourdough recipes online use ~1kg of flour to make two loaves of bread in one go. This is too stressful!!! Stick to one. Although, I do always wish I had baked a second when I’ve scoffed the first loaf as soon as it comes out of the oven.
About an hour and a half before the levain is set to double in size (for me this is about 6 hours in my oven, but will be different for all starters and environments) mix 500g flour and 375g water in a large bowl. Use your hand to combine both to form a shaggy dough. You really don’t need to handle it too much here, just make sure all of the flour is hydrated. Then cover the bowl with cling film or a tea towel and leave for around 1.5 hours in the same warm place as the levain.
Tip 8: Keep an eye on your levain. It’s useful to put a little pen mark or sticker on the side of the jar it’s rising in, just so you can easily see once it’s doubled and is ready to use for baking.
Once the levain has doubled in size and you can see bubbles, it should be ready to bake with. You can test this by taking a small spoonful and dropping it into a glass of water. The rule is, if it floats, it’s ready, but I have never done this and have just gone off the doubling and the bubbles and all has been OK!
Tip 9: Some recipes will tell you to autolyse your dough for just half an hour and some don’t have an autolyse step at all. I have found that by autolysing for around an hour and a half really strengthens the dough and makes it so much easier to handle in the following steps.
Take both the autolysed dough and the levain out of the oven. Pour 100g of the levain over the top of the dough and, using a wet hand, dimple the levain into the dough to distribute it through until it looks like the photo below. Then it’s time to start stretching and folding the dough.
How do I stretch and fold my dough?
When you stretch and fold your sourdough, it’s best to work with a wet hand. This will help you scoop the dough from the bowl and prevents it from sticking. If you imagine your dough as a compass, starting at the north, grab the dough and stretch it up before folding it down to the south. Then stretch the east side up and over to the west. Then the south to the north and finally the west to the east. Be careful not to stretch it too high, but not too little either – just enough so that you feel a bit of resistance before folding down. The hydration level of the dough should allow it to stick down easily and the seams will merge together as you leave it to rest. Cover the bowl with cling film or a tea towel (making sure it is air tight) and leave the dough to rest for 15 mins.
In the meantime, mix 10g fine sea salt with 2 tbsp water to dissolve it. This will help to distribute the salt through the dough when you add it in the next step.
After 15 minutes of resting, add the salt water to the dough and repeat the dimpling process with a wet hand, followed by more stretching and folding until the salt is distributed nicely through the dough. The dough will be a little wet with the extra water so just continue stretching and folding until this all comes together again. Cover, and put the bowl back in your warm place for half an hour.
Tip 10: Some people will tell you to avoid adding salt to the dough along with the levain because it kills the yeast and bacteria. This is not 100% true – although salt does slow fermentation, it will not kill the levain in the quantities used in the dough (we have used 2% salt to flour). Also, the long length of fermentation in sourdough recipes means you’ll be fine either way. In fact, the salt actually helps to regulate fermentation so that it doesn’t go crazy. Separating the addition of salt also gives us an excuse for another round of dimpling, stretching and folding, which will add extra strength to the dough before the bulk ferment. Yes, the extra tablespoon of water does increase the hydration level to about 78%, but because we add this after an initial stretching and folding, I have found the slightly higher hydration is a lot easier to handle now because the dough will already be stronger. I use a fine sea salt but table salt is also fine. Just don’t forget to add the salt!! The bread won’t taste so great without it.
What is the bulk ferment?
At this stage we do a few more rounds of stretching and folding to strengthen the dough over a longer period of time. It’s during this stage that the the bacteria and yeast are at their peak. They will begin to ferment faster – feeding on the sugars in the bulk dough from the autolyse step. The yeast will produce ethanol and the bacteria mainly produce lactic acid, which flavours the dough. They will also produce CO2 which inflates the dough, creating air pockets throughout the gluten network that help the loaf to rise.
For this reason, we don’t want to rush the bulk ferment. We also want to be careful when handling the dough from now on so as not to burst any CO2 bubbles, this is why you should never knead your sourdough! The bulk ferment takes a total of 4 hours, but only about 4 minutes of handling time!
During the bulk ferment we will stretch and fold the dough four times over, every half an hour for the first 2 hours. Then we leave the dough to rise untouched for the final 2 hours.
After the dough has rested for the final half hour of the autolyse step, we begin with the first stretch and fold of the bulk ferment. In the same way as before, starting at the north, we stretch and fold the dough to the opposite end, working our way around the dough. Again, cover your dough and leave to rest for half an hour (back in your warm place).
Tip 11: Be gentle when stretching and folding your dough, you don’t want to press down too hard when doing the folding as this might de-gas some of the CO2 bubbles. You’ll want to keep these for a nice risen dough and an open ‘crumb’!
Repeat the stretch and folds in half hour intervals for a total of 2 hours (4 total folds), covering and popping the dough back in its warm place each time. You should notice as you get to the fourth round that your dough will have become much less sticky, and will start to keep its shape a lot more between folds – this is the magic of gluten!
After you have finished the stretching and folding, cover and leave the dough to rest until it shows clear signs of fermentation. This usually takes around 2 hours. You’re looking for bubbles on the surface, a wobble when you shake it, and a slight dent when you press a wet finger into the dough (doesn’t immediately bounce back). If it shows these signs – it’s good to go! If not, leave it for a little bit longer.
This part is defo the hardest and is where I have made the most mistakes. The trick to shaping your dough is to work with quick & confident movements – and this really just comes with practice! Gently empty your dough out onto a lightly floured surface using a wet hand and/or a dough scraper.
Tip 12: Some recipes will tell you not to flour your surface for the shaping as you don’t want to risk reducing the hydration level of the dough – but I have had no success with this – it just ends up a sticky mess. You’ll want to just lightly flour your surface. This will make your dough easy enough to handle without detracting too much from the hydration.
Once on the work surface, fold the edges of the dough into the middle to form a rough ball – this is called the ‘preshape’. Fold east and west into the middle and then north and south over the top. Then, using a dough scraper or a lightly floured hands, flip the dough so that it is fold-size down. Leave it to rest for 15-20 minutes. The rest will help the dough to adjust to, and maintain, its new shape.
After resting, tighten the ball by scraping it round in a circular motion, using either lightly floured hands or with a dough scraper.
Once you have a tighter shape that you are happy with, the dough is ready for the cold ferment.
Tip 13: Get a dough scraper! It can get right under the dough without sticking so that you can shape and flip it easily. They’re super cheap online, and it makes a huge difference during the shaping. It’s also really useful to scrape the flour from your work surface when cleaning up. If you were to buy one tool for sourdough – I’d recommend getting this one!
Overnight cold ferment
If you have a proving basket, dust generously with flour, making sure to get it between all of the creases. If using a bowl with a kitchen towel, again, cover generously with flour.
Tip 14: Get a proving basket! A bowl with a kitchen towel will do just fine, but proving baskets help to prevent stick and can give you amazing zebra lines on the final loaf. They’re pretty cheap too.
Tip 15: Apparently, it’s best to use rice flour or semolina flour for dusting as these do not soak into the bread dough, so can be easily brushed off before baking. I have tried both, but to be honest, it seems any flour is fine. Just be generous with it – too much flour is better than too little. You can always brush off the excess flour after the overnight ferment, but if the dough sticks to the bowl or basket, you’ll struggle to get it out in the morning, and risk ripping it apart before you come to bake which will be GUTTING ! ! !
In one swift motion, using a dough scraper or a floured hand, scoop the dough up into the other hand and then into the dusted proving basket or bowl.
Cover the dough with a tea towel and optionally with another plastic bag (I like to do this to prevent it from drying out at all, which did happen once when I covered with a tea towel only) and pop in the fridge overnight for a cold ferment.
Tip 16: The length of the cold ferment is up to you, but it should range from around 12 hours (or overnight) to around 72 hours – any longer and the dough will become overproofed which can ruin the bread. I’ve been experimenting with cold ferments and have found that a longer cold fermentation adds so much to the flavour of the final loaf. Some people skip the cold ferment altogether and do this step at room temperature for just a few hours before baking. Although this will still produce a nice loaf of sourdough, by doing this you will not be taking advantage of the full range of flavour compounds that the yeast and bacteria in your levain can produce. Adding a cold fermentation step slows the fermentation of the yeast (slows the production of ethanol) and shifts the bacteria from producing mostly lactic-acid to producing mostly acetic-acid. It is acetic acid that gives sourdough its characteristic tang. As we’ve already made lots of lactic acid and ethanol during the warmer bulk ferment, switching this up now adds a complexity to the flavour that you just won’t get if you skip out on the cold ferment. A fridge ferment of around 24-36 hours seems to give the dough enough ‘cold-time’ for these ‘tang’ flavours to develop. But 12 hours (or overnight) will do the job and also means you’ll have a fresh loaf of sourdough in time for brunch the next day!
The next morning
To bake the sourdough I’d really recommend using a deep casserole dish or dutch oven with a lid, preferably cast iron.
Place your casserole dish inside the oven and preheat to 250°C or gas mark 9. Your oven will tell you when the oven itself is up to temperature, but be sure to leave the dish in there to preheat for at least an hour – you’ll want this to be hot through.
Tip 17: Baking sourdough works best in a cast iron casserole dish because it creates a hot enough but also a moist enough environment inside for the bread to get its rise on. If you don’t have one of these, any other deep oven dish with a lid will do the job just fine, just don’t expect as much of a rise.
When the oven is up to temperature and the cast iron pan has been heated through for about an hour, take the dough out of the fridge. Empty the dough onto a piece of greaseproof paper and then cut the paper to the size of the dough – this prevents the greaseproof paper crinkling the dough as you drop it into the hot pan. Brush off any excess flour.
Tip 18: Leave the sourdough in the fridge until the very last minute before baking. The fast transition from fridge-cold to the the heat of the oven helps with the final rise or ‘oven-spring’. It gives the levain a final burst of activity – producing a spike of CO2 that will expand in the oven to open out the dough. I have only just got myself a cast iron dutch oven for sourdough baking and have already noticed more spring than when using a standard casserole dish. Cast iron holds onto heat better, so the initial drop in temperature when you add the dough to the oven will be less – meaning more spring!
Scoring the dough
Scoring your dough is useful because it prevents the dough from rupturing during baking if the dough expands too much, and also because it looks pretty! You can do this with a knife, but if it isn’t sharp enough it won’t quite cut deep enough, and you run the risk of breaking the dough at the final hurdle. Thankfully, my partner shaves with a safety razor so I have unlimited access to a stock of razor blades. They’re so sharp that you can glide them across the dough without putting hardly any pressure on it for a nice clean score.
Tip 19: Razor blades are great for scoring – they work way better than any sharp knife. I’ve slightly bent mine around the end of a chop stick to get a nice curve that suits the round shape of my dough. Be careful if you do this!! Although flexible, they can snap quite violently if you bend them too far.
It’s best to do this quickly and confidently, in one smooth motion, through the dough. You’ll want to cut about 1cm deep to get a nice expansion – this is called the ‘ear’ of the bread. You can also do some lighter scores for a bit of extra decoration about the dough.
Remove your casserole dish from the oven, take off the lid and CAREFULLY, with oven gloves, drop the sourdough with greaseproof paper into the bottom of the hot(!) pan.
Bake the sourdough at 250°C, or gas mark 9, with the lid on for the first 25 minutes.
After 25 minutes, take the lid off and continue to bake for a further 5 minutes at 250°C. After 5 minutes, turn the temperature down to 230°C, or gas mark 8, and bake for a final 15 minutes.
Tip 20: If you’re patient enough, after the bread has finished baking, turn the oven off and crack the door open so that the bread cools down slowly inside the oven. The water in the dough will continue to evaporate, but slower than it would outside of the oven because of the sharper temperature gradient This helps to distribute the moisture evenly throughout the bread to keep it pillowy & moist and will also give your crust that amazing sourdough crunch 😍
Remove from the oven, wait for it to cool, cut it in half to check the crumb, take a picture, send it to your friends, post it to instagram, send it to your nan and try not to eat the whole loaf in one go 🙂
x x x