Updated 07/30/2020 – Hydration lowered to 75%
The first few times I made sourdough, I followed the Tartine cookbook precisely. It worked wonderfully the first time, so why mess with success? Then, after moving to Colorado at 5,600 feet, I tried the same Bay Area recipe only to be met with failure. In retrospect, I now know that the hydration wasn’t high enough and the overuse of flour turned my once-successful sourdough into dense lumps, but I had no idea what I was doing wrong at the time.
I learned about increasing hydration percentage from a workshop I took at Raleigh Street Bakery with David, the owner of RSB. His recipe uses up to 100g more water more than Tartine calls for, and in lieu of flouring the work surface, he rubs it with water, increasing hydration even more. This is beneficial at 5,600 feet because the air and flour are more dry than at sea level.
In the recipe below, I use measurements that work great at and around sea level. For those living at high altitude, I recommend several adjustments and you can find those here:
The beautiful thing about cooking and baking is that your recipes become adaptations, whether or not you’re aware of it. Even after using a recipe for the first time, your mind – consciously or subconsciously – decides what it liked and didn’t like, and what it would do differently next time.
As such, my recipe changes all the time.
This is how I came to have my current sourdough recipe. Through a lot of trial and error with measurements, techniques, fermentation time and equipment, I’ve found a groove that works for me. I’m quite sure this will continue to evolve, so as it does, I will update the recipe here as well.
To help me adjust my methods, I always take notes with every bake. This way, if I loved my results, I can go back and copy exactly what I did. Conversely, if my bread comes out flat or dense, I can look at what I did differently and make changes based on my notes.
It’s critical to keep notes as you mix and bake! To help you, I’ve created a FREE downloadable PDF for you to take your notes on.
Sourdough Bread: The Science
When people think of bread, they tend to think of that which uses commercial, or quick rise, yeasts. However, this type of bread has only existed for just over 150 years.
Sourdough breads are made with wild yeasts and bacteria. Three basic ingredients – flour, water, salt – come together in a beautiful symbiotic rhythm to raise the bread naturally, as has been done for thousands of years. The yeast and bacteria that exist on the flour grain and on the baker’s hands get kick-started once the water is added. They begin digesting the flour, and a by-product of this digestion is carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 creates bubbles in the dough, which gives the bread its rise and crumb. Some bacteria even digest gluten which creates lactic acid, lowering the pH and bringing the sour to the sourdough. (An interesting side note: many people who are gluten-sensitive are able to eat sourdough with no digestive issues – this is due to that breakdown of the gluten protein, making it gentler on sensitive stomachs.)
Sourdough Bread: The Basic Process
To begin, you need a starter. This is something you can either make yourself from scratch or receive from someone else. If you don’t want to make it from scratch, I suggest reaching out on social media (Nextdoor is a great way to find a starter!) and simply ask: “Does anybody have some healthy, active sourdough starter I could have?”
If you can’t find one, you can make your own. It’s fun! Click here to see How to Make Sourdough Starter in Six Easy Steps.
Once you have a starter and it’s healthy and active, you add warm water and flour to make a leaven. This sits out for 8-12 hours, and then it’s time to make your dough.
To mix the sourdough, simply add your leaven to some water and add the flour. It must rest after mixing, and this is called the autolyse. This allows the flour to fully absorb the water, to activate enzymes, and to begin converting the flour into simple sugars. It’s a hugely important step, one that takes about 30 minutes, but some folks autolyse for up to two hours or more.
After the autolyse, the salt is added. Salt adds flavor to the sourdough, and gives the dough structure, improving its ability to hold on to the carbon dioxide. It also slows fermentation, which is why it’s added after the autolyse. The salt (and a little more water) is incorporated into the dough completely, then the dough rests for 30 minutes.
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Now begins the series of folds. There are countless techniques for this, and it comes down to preference. Personally, I prefer to leave my dough in the bowl as opposed to dumping it onto the counter. This makes far less mess and makes the folding steps simpler. I do a total of three or four folds, each resting for 20-30 minutes in between.
Now the dough sits pretty for 1.5 – 2 hours. This is called the bulk fermentation, and the gluten is allowed to relax, and more complex flavors are developed. After this stage, your dough will be larger and lighter.
The dough comes out onto the counter and is divided and pre-shaped. The loaves rest again for 30 minutes, then they go through their final shaping and are placed into baskets.
Now the dough goes through its final fermentation. This can either happen at room temperature just before baking, or in the fridge overnight. I prefer to do cold-proofing in the fridge overnight because it works better with my schedule, and I recommend it if you have kids. It’s less time in the kitchen per day, which is ideal. You’ll learn more about choosing a two-day versus a three-day process shortly.
When you’re ready to bake, the oven is preheated with the cooking vessel inside. Once it’s good and hot, the dough is flipped out of its basket, scored, and it goes into your pan. Your vessel must have a tight-fitting lid, like a Lodge cast-iron combo cooker, a Dutch oven, or the Challenger Bread Pan. The key to a golden crust that isn’t dry and over-baked is moisture. Commercial ovens have steamers that can maintain humidity within the oven, but home ovens don’t have that capability. In fact, home ovens are designed to remove humidity. The lidded vessels work because the steam that is released from the first few minutes of baking becomes trapped and surrounds the dough as it bakes.
A note about scoring: a nice deep score that is continuous around the dough, like a square or half-circle, allows the dough to rise upwards, creating an impressive looking loaf. Small, tight scores won’t allow the upward rise and will instead create a loaf that is shorter and more compact, and the loaf will likely “self-score” (aka, burst open) somewhere. Deep scoring is recommended and is achieved by holding your blade at a 45° angle and doing deep, swift cuts.
The lid of the vessel is removed after 30 minutes, and the loaf continues baking for another 15 minutes. It comes out of the oven and is tipped onto a cooling rack, where it crackles and snaps as it cools. It must cool for an hour or more before slicing.
Those are the basics of sourdough, in a nutshell!
Remember, the recipe looks long and intense. Don’t let this scare you! The whole process is done over three days, which makes each individual day a piece of cake. See the whole process broken down here:
Day 1: Leaven Day
Day 2: Prep Day
Day 3: Bake Day
All the best and happy baking!
Oh, and by the way, if you’re looking for some more help understanding hydration, click here to check out The Beginner’s Guide to Sourdough Hydration.
And don’t forget I have a whole page of resources available to help you in your sourdough journey – click here to find it!
Simple Sourdough Recipe: The Best Method for Busy Mamas
- 200 grams Leaven see post, Make Heavenly Leaven Like Your Local Baker
- 750 grams Warm Water (80°F) reserve 50g
- 900 grams All-Purpose Flour or Bread Flour
- 100 grams Whole Wheat Flour
- 22 grams Salt fine
Day One – Leaven Day
- Before bedtime, build your leaven. Weigh 100 grams of lukewarm water in a mason jar and add 50 grams of your healthy, active starter, which you fed this morning (8-12 hours ago). Don't use freshly fed starter, it is not mature enough.
- Screw the lid on the jar and shake to incorporate the starter. Open your jar and add 50 grams whole wheat flour and 50 grams white flour (all-purpose or bread flour). Stir with a butter knife or spatula until all flour is incorporated.
- Place the lid lightly on the jar – don't screw it on! – and leave on the counter to ferment overnight.
Day Two – Mix Day
- Place your mixing bowl on the scale and weigh 700g of the water (save 50g) and 200g of your leaven. Using your hand, incorporate the leaven a bit by squeezing it through your fingers. Save the rest of your leaven – this is now your starter! Feed it as usual.
- Add both flours and mix together with your hand. Mix until you don't see any more dry flour in the bowl. The dough will become sticky, so it's useful to keep one hand clean. Dunk your clean hand in water, and remove the sticky dough from your other hand. Then dip your dough spatula in water and scrape the edges of the bowl, making it as clean as possible.
- Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel or plastic and let the dough rest for 30 minutes. This is called the autolyse, which allows the flours to absorb the water, activating the enzymes which begins the gluten development. This step is critical and cannot be rushed.
- After the autolyse, sprinkle the salt over the dough and then add the remaining 50g of water. Poke your fingers into the dough to press some salt deep inside, then fold over itself about a dozen times or so to incorporate the salt. Cover the bowl again; the bulk fermentation has begun. Set your timer for 30 minutes.
- The bulk fermentation takes four hours. During the first two hours of the bulk fermentation, the dough must be folded four times, or every 30 minutes. This is similar to kneading but is much more gentle to preserve the natural gases that become captured in the dough, and is much easier on the baker.
- To fold the dough, first imagine your bowl as a compass: the edge furthest from you is north, the right edge is east, the closest edge to you is south, and the left edge is west. Dip your hand in water and reach under the dough at the east point. Grabbing it gently but firmly, pull the dough out to the east and then fold it over itself toward the west. Rotate the bowl a quarter-turn, and repeat. Do this for each "corner" of your compass, then cover with a kitchen towel.
- Set your timer for 30 minutes, and repeat the process three more times.
- Your dough now gets to rest, covered and untouched, for 1 1/2 – 2 hours. During this time, flavor and strength is developed, so don't rush this step.
- After the bulk fermentation, pull all the dough onto a floured work surface using a dough spatula. With your bench knife, cut the dough into two or three even pieces (depending how many loaves you want, and how big you want them). Scrape the bench knife under one piece, and move it away from the other(s).
- The pieces now need to be pre-shaped. Working with one piece at a time, pull the west side of the dough out and fold it toward the east. Then pull the east side out and fold it over and toward the west. Rotate your dough 90°, and repeat. Do the same for the remaining piece(s), then lightly dust with flour and cover with a kitchen towel. This prevents a skin from forming on the outside of the dough. Let rest for 30 minutes. This is called the bench rest.
- For the final shaping, care must be taken not to deflate the dough. Gently rub off any excess flour – the top of the dough will become the inside of the loaf, so you don't want any extra flour inside. Just as in the pre-shaping, pull the west side of the dough out and fold it toward the east. Then pull the east side out and fold it over and toward the west. Rotate your dough 90°, and repeat. Flip the loaf so it is seam side down on your work surface, and using both hands, twist the dough as you tuck it under itself. There are great YouTube videos with different techniques for this, but the goal is the same: to increase the surface tension without tearing the dough. You'll feel the dough tighten as you do this. Repeat for the remaining piece(s).
- Line your proofing baskets or medium-size bowls with basket liners or clean linen kitchen towels. Lightly dust them with rice flour (all-purpose works if you don't have rice flour, just not as well), covering the sides and bottom. This prevents the dough from sticking when you flip it out. Lift each piece of dough with the bench knife and flip it gently into the basket, so the seams are facing up.
- Now begins the final rise. You can cover the loaves and leave them on the counter for 3-4 hours if you'd like to bake today. However, what I recommend is using your refrigerator to slow the final rise so you can bake in the morning. This is called cold-proofing. To do this, slide each basket into their own plastic grocery or produce bag, and place in the fridge overnight. The plastic is used to prevent fridge odors from absorbing into the dough. The dough will slowly rise over 8-12 hours.
Day Three – Bake Day
- In the morning, put your baking vessel and lid in the oven and preheat to 500°F. It's ideal to let your oven sit at 500°F for 10-15 minutes beyond the preheating phase, so your baking vessel is screaming hot. When it's ready, remove a basket from the fridge.
- Take a minute to get your things ready: Prepare a square of parchment paper on a thin cutting board, bring the flour close by, and have your bread lame (or razor blade) ready to go.
- Place the parchment square on the basket, place your hand on top, and gently flip the dough out into your hand. Place the dough on the cutting board. Dust the dough with flour and lightly rub it around the sides and top.
- Holding the lame at a 45° angle, score your loaf. This takes practice. Hold the cutting board with one hand as you slice the furthest corner of the blade into the dough. The easiest and most effective scores are a deep line about an inch or two from the bottom, running half the circumference of the dough, or a simple square.
- Wearing heavy duty oven mitts, pull out your oven rack and remove the lid from your baking vessel. Working quickly but carefully, transfer the dough into the pan by holding the cutting board over it and pulling on the parchment. Replace the lid, reduce the oven temperature to 475°F, and set the timer for 30 minutes.
- When the time is up, carefully remove the lid from the pan and continue baking uncovered for 15 minutes.
- When the loaf is done, transfer it to a wire cooling rack. If you don't have one, tip it on its side so air can circulate around the bottom. To test doneness, knock on the bottom of the loaf: it should sound hollow. Allow it to cool for at least an hour before slicing so it can cool completely. Hot bread does not slice well.
- Set the oven temperature back to 500°F, and put both pieces of your baking vessel back in the oven. Let these heat for 10-15 minutes, then repeat above steps for your other basket(s) of dough. Congratulations, you just made sourdough!