How I Make Sourdough Bread
*I originally started baking sourdough bread about 9 years ago and then started branching out into other sourdough deliciousness via Melissa Richardson’s book The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast. Then, about a year ago I saw the video Claire Saffitz and Brad Leone did at Bon Appetit and I changed my process a bit to what you see below. I’m still sort of always adjusting and experimenting, but this is how I currently make my basic sourdough loaves that my family and I eat weekly. At this point, I make two loaves a week pretty much every week!
This recipe makes 2 loaves
750g white, unbleached flour
250g whole wheat flour
750g filtered water
200g fed starter
20g fine salt
Small piece of parchment paper
Step one: Autolyse
The autolyse process is a total game-changer. It creates a more stretchy, less sticky, cohesive dough without any kneading at all. It starts to organize the gluten before you even add your starter and salt and I don’t make bread without this step anymore.
Mix 1000g of flour with 750g of water. Stir until there are no lumps or dry spots. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a plastic bag (I have a dedicated plastic bag I wash and re-use for my autolyse process). Let the mixture sit from 1-4 hours. If you’ve got time for the full 4 hours, I highly recommend, but really even an hour will create a nice dough.
Step two: Add salt and starter
Add 20g of fine salt onto the flour-water mixture. The goal here is to get the salt incorporated without any lumps before mixing in the starter — no one wants to bite into a delicious looking slice of bread and chomp down on a lump of salt. Well, maybe SOMEONE does, but that someone is not me. I digress. Add the salt first and mix it in using a pinching motion between your thumb and other fingers to make sure any lumps are broken up. Once the salt is dispersed, add your starter and use that same pinching motion to incorporate it into the dough. Once it’s more evenly dispersed, use a kneading motion, pulling up from the bottom and pushing back down, until a cohesive dough forms. This usually takes about 5 minutes of pinch-knead-mixing. And yes, that’s a technical term. The dough should look smooth and stretchy. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.
*Lazy person’s note: I usually put the starter and salt into the bowl at the same time and just sort of work the salt in on one side until I’m sure there are no lumps then I start working in the starter, this way I don’t have to wash my hands in between steps.
Step three: Pull the dough every 30 minutes
Wet your hands (using water works better than flour and the less flour you add to your dough the loftier the final loaf will be). Place one hand on either side of the dough blob and gently scoot them under the blob until your fingers touch. Now, slowly and gently pull upwards to lift the center of the dough out of the bowl. The two ends will stick to the bowl, allowing the dough to stretch upwards. Once the ends release, use a ribboning motion to cascade the dough back onto itself. Do this once every 30 minutes for 4 hours (8 times total). You’ll notice that as the time goes on, the dough will stretch higher and higher and higher with each pull. This is because the gluten strands are getting in formation and this means your final loaf will be chewy and wonderful. The dough should be looking puffier than it was when you started the process.
*Lazy person’s note: There are plenty of times I forget to do a pull or two. I’ve also forgotten to do any of the pulls and let the dough sit out overnight. Doing 8 pulls makes for the chewiest, loftiest texture in the final loaf BUT just remember that all hope is not lost (at all!) if you can only get to a few pulls or you forget altogether and leave your dough out overnight and it blobs over the side of the bowl onto the counter. Or so I’ve heard…
Step 4: Refrigerate
Cover the bowl of dough with that same plastic wrap or bag and refrigerate overnight. The longer you let the dough stay in the fridge, the more sour flavor it will develop. I’d recommend at least 15 hours. I prefer around 48 hours, flavor-wise, but that isn’t usually a convenient baking schedule for me so I usually keep it in the fridge around 15-24 hours.
Step 5: Bring to room temperature
Sprinkle a little bit of flour onto a smooth countertop. Divide your dough into two even pieces (you can weigh them to be sure…I’m way too lazy for that and that is why I always wind up with one small loaf and one large loaf). Place both blobs of dough onto the floured countertop, far enough away from one another so they aren’t touching. Cover with a dish cloth and allow to come to room temperature, about 2 hours. If I’m rushed I’ll try to give them at least an hour out of the fridge to take the chill off. Also, you can leave half the dough in the fridge to bake later if you only have time to bake one loaf (I often do this).
*Lazy person’s note: You can bake the dough straight from the fridge. I’ve found that you get a loftier loaf if you let it come to room temperature before baking, but even letting it relax at room temp for 15-20 minutes while the oven heats can help.
Step 6: Preheat your Dutch oven
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees and place your Dutch oven on a middle-ish rack. I have a teeny oven, so I have no choice but to use a lower rack or my Dutch oven won’t fit. You want your Dutch oven to be HOT when you stick that dough in, so I usually put mine in the oven about 30 minutes before I plan to add the dough.
*Lazy person’s note: Trust me on this one, there is no way around letting the Dutch oven get REALLY hot.
Step 7: Shape and score
Your goal here is to create a cute dough ball that you can score and bake and that will yield a fairly round shape. Take the top of your dough and gently bring it to the center of the dough blob. Now do the same with the left and right sides. Now finish by bringing the bottom up and pressing the area together where the sides meet to form a sealed seam. Flip the dough ball over so it’s seam side down. If the dough seems to be keeping its shape, the you can go ahead and score. If it still seems like it’s sort of flattening a bit, then let it sit for another 10 minutes and repeat the shaping one more time. To score, use a serrated knife (I use a tomato knife but a bread knife works well, too). Make a slit across the middle of the loaf (or get fancy with a design) that is around 1/2 inch deep. This slit will allow your bread to expand while it bakes, so you want to make sure it’s deep enough.
Step 8: Bake!
Using your heartiest oven mitts, remove the Dutch oven from the hot oven and place on top of the stove. Wet your hands and move your scored dough ball to the parchment-lined pan. Place the lid back on top and put the Dutch oven back into the hot oven. Bake for 25 minutes with the lid on. Then remove the lid and bake for an additional 30-35 minutes with the lid off. The best ways to tell if your loaf is baked through are to check the color and tap on the bottom to check the sound. The color should be a dark, deep brown. When you lightly tap on the bottom with your fingers, it should sound hollow. If it is golden in color and/or sounds more like a “thud” when you tap the bottom, it likely needs 5-10 more minutes.
Step 9: Cool
Why is this it’s own step? Because it is SO IMPORTANT. I usually bake at night and then let the loaf (or loaves) cool on a baking rack overnight. That way I’m not tempted to dive into them before they’ve fulled cooled. The cooling process is actually part of the baking process — the bread needs that residual heat to finish baking. If you want warm bread (I get it) I’d wait at least an hour before slicing.
Flow of timing
I think that the timing of all of the steps was the most confusing part to me when I was first baking more regularly. So, here’s my weekly timeline, so you can get a visual sense of when to do what.
I usually bake one loaf on Saturday and one on Sunday:
9pm Thursday: Take a spoonful of starter out of your jar and mix it with 150g of flour and 150g of water. Loosely cover and let sit. This makes enough fed starter for you to use 200g for your loaves with a little left over. I prefer to make a little extra just in case I drop some (It’s happened…)
12pm Friday: Mix flour and water for autolyse and let it sit for 4 hours.
4-8:30pm Friday: Mix in 200g of your fed starter (it should be really bubbly) and 20g salt. Pull every 30 minutes for 4 hours.
8:30pm Friday-1pm Saturday: Dough in fridge.
1pm Saturday: Take half the dough out of the fridge and let sit on counter to come to room temperature
2:30pm: Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
3pm: Shape dough (once or twice, depending on texture), score, and bake.
4pm Saturday - Sunday morning: Cool. Cool. Cool, cool, cool.
*I usually bake my second piece of dough Sunday afternoon, so we have two loaves of bread for the week. The one baked on Sunday will have a more sour flavor. If I don’t have time to bake on the weekend, I’ll keep the dough in the fridge to bake on Monday or Tuesday night (even more sour flavor!)
Feeding your starter
Think of your starter as you would a jar of yeast. You’ll take a little bit out of the jar to use when you bake. You don’t want to run out of starter, so you have to replenish what you use. The preferred food for starter is a flour and water paste. I think it’s easiest for feed starter a 50-50 flour-water mixture. Keep it simple. I usually feed my starter when I use any starter. If I take a spoonful of starter, then I mix around 25g of flour and 25g of water, stir that into my jar of starter, and put it back into the fridge.
Caring for your starter
I keep my starter in the fridge. This means I only need to feed it every 1-2 weeks when I bake. In reality, in the fridge, you can probably go longer than 2 weeks without feeding your starter but I like to keep it well fed. The most important rule is that you NEVER add anything to your jar of starter other than a flour and water mixture to feed it. For instance, if you’re making pancakes, you’ll take a half cup of starter out of the jar (don’t forget to feed your starter!) and then add that to the eggs and flours and vanilla and whatever else is going into your pancake batter in a separate bowl. The starter gets added to other ingredients to help it rise…nothing, other than flour and water, ever get added to your jar of starter.
Storing your starter for longer periods
I’ve left my starter for 4 weeks before and it was just fine. I fed it quite a lot before I left and made sure that it was in the coldest spot in my fridge (the back of the bottom shelf). You can also freeze starter if you’re planning on leaving it for longer periods of time or find a friend to take care of it. Fun fact, in Sweden you can actually leave your starter with a professional sourdough babysitter.
I highly recommend sharing starter. It’s one of the special things about sourdough baking — you can get starter from a friend and pass it along to friends and family forever. I recently met someone who had a sourdough starter that had been in his family for over 100 years. And for anyone who watches Brooklyn 99, you’ll know the Boyle family sourdough starter played an important role in quite a few seasons. You can also dry starter out into flakes to mail to friends who don’t live nearby. I’ve done this a few times and it works well. But, if you’re in the NYC area and want some starter, just email me and I’ll give you some fresh!
Storing bread so it doesn’t get soggy or stale
I usually bake two loaves on the same day or one day apart and then store one, in a plastic bag that isn’t fully sealed, in the fridge. If I am going to use a loaf within 4-5 days then I keep in in plastic bag that isn’t fully sealed (this prevents condensation from forming) on the counter. I live in a pretty humid place (NYC) though. I think if you are in a drier climate you could probably seal the bag. The bread also freezes really well. It’s also fun to share the second loaf. I mean, it’s also fun to eat the second loaf. It’s a tough decision that I grapple with weekly. And if you’re reading this and you know me and you’re thinking, “I’ve never received a loaf of sourdough from Willow”… then you know which way my decision usually goes.
A note on measuring and using a scale
I highly recommend borrowing or buying one. I used to use measuring cups when I baked, but now I seek out recipes that use weight measurements for a few reasons. One is that you get a more accurate measure. But the second, and most important, is that you dirty WAY FEWER DISHES. Digital kitchen scales have a feature that allows you to “zero” them out, meaning that even if there is something with weight on the scale you can bring the reading back to zero. So, weigh in one flour and zero the scale. Then add the next flour to the same bowl. Then zero the scale and add your water. All in the same bowl, each measured separately!
What if you don’t own a Dutch oven?
If you have a large oven-safe pot with an oven-safe lid, that will work. Or, you can bake your loaf on a baking sheet. I’d recommend putting a baking dish of water on the rack beneath the baking sheet for the first 30 minutes and then removing the pan for the remainder of the baking time. Baking with the lid on traps some of the steam from the loaf and helps it poof up a bit, so the baking dish of water can make the oven a bit steamier even without a lid.