Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

Last month, my good friend + business partner + the baker, Trent Shaskan from Icon Bread walked me through the entire process of making sourdough bread. Sourdough bread is a hearty, rustic bread made with the help of wild bacteria + yeast that are naturally around us. Unlike rapidly risen, commercial yeast dependent breads, sourdough relies on natural fermentation for 12-18 hours, which gives sourdough a complex flavor, golden brown crust with a soft interior crumb. 

When done correctly, the bread doesn’t taste “sour” but has a slight tang that is quite desirable and versatile for sandwiches, croutons, and with soups.

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

During the long fermentation (lactic-acid fermentation), the bacteria and yeast predigest the starches and gluten in the grains making them more easily digestible to us. Lactic acid formed during fermentation also breaks down phytate - a naturally occurring compound in grains, nuts, legumes.  Additionally, due to fiber and benefits from fermentation, sourdough bread has a better blood glucose response in people with diabetes.

Sourdough bread culture is making a major comeback and I am thrilled to share my 2 day experience, a beautiful chemistry of science, intuition, patience, and labor of love with you. I hope this post will give you a basic overview, knowledge, and confidence to try sourdough bread in your own kitchen.  It’s not easy and expect things to not work out exactly as you hoped. Like all good things in life, making sourdough takes practice. You’ll learn to evaluate your end loaf, and make adjustments that you see ultimately make a difference.  

I will break down the step-by-step guide of sourdough bread baking process, tools needed, and a classic sourdough recipe to yield two-2 lb or 960 gram sourdough loaves.

Ingredients + Tools we used :

  • Bread flour

  • Whole wheat flour

  • rice flour (for coating the baskets)

  • salt

  • room temperature water

  • digital scale

  • dough scraper

  • kitchen towels

  • mixing containers/bowls

  • cast iron combo cooker

  • proofing baskets (with or without the liner)

  • long oven mitts

  • thermometer

  • scoring blade

One to two weeks prior to baking :

Sourdough bread making begins with a sourdough starter which you first have to make yourself a week or so before you begin your bread, or better get from Trent!  

Starter is a mix of flour and water, and that’s it.  Sourdough starter can be passed down from your bread-making families, friends, or you can make your own. Making a batch of starter begins by stirring together 1: 1 ratio of flour and water and letting it sit.  We are surrounded by the microorganisms — wild yeasts and bacteria that make up your starter, including in your flour.  We recommend Tartine Bread for a great guide to making a starter or look up online at the kitchn.  

For our sourdough, Trent brought a batch of his sourdough starter, which he feeds and nurtures daily.

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

Once you make the starter, in a day or two, it will form bubbles which means yeasts/bacteria are thriving and multiplying. They need to be fed to keep them alive and happy with fresh flour and water over the next several days, until the starter is bubbly and has a nice yeasty/almost bread like smell. Once it reaches that frothy, billowy, almost pancake batter like stage, the starter is ready to be used, which can take 5-7 days.

Day 1

Sourdough bread baking is a 2 day process (once you have the starter) and day 1 involves weighing all the ingredients, mixing, proofing, and shaping the dough. Before we get into the step by step, let’s quickly talk about different factors involved in sourdough bread :

Weight :  Rather than a cup and tablespoon, everything is measured in weight (grams) including salt so please invest in a small kitchen scale if you already don’t have one to get more consistent results.  Trent says it’s very important. 

Temperature : The temperature of water when mixed in with the flour and the temperature where sourdough bread is proofed and fermented is crucially important. You don’t want too high or too low temperature as it impacts the final result. We used room temperature water ~75F and during proofing ideally 78F-82F. 

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

Steps for making sourdough bread :

Weigh your ingredients: Sourdough bread calls for just 4 ingredients: starter, flour, water, and salt. We started by weighing each of the ingredients: 

Our two loaf recipe calls for: 

1000 grams of flour total, which in this case is made up of 70 percent of bread flour and 30 percent whole wheat flour.  This means: 700 grams bread flour, and 300 grams whole wheat flour. 

800 grams of room temperature water (80% hydration), 200 grams starter (20%), and 20 grams sea salt (2%).

Float test : It’s a simple step to see if your sourdough starter is ready for use. Drop a piece of sourdough starter in water and if it floats, it’s good to go…otherwise, you need to let sourdough starter do its work for a bit longer. Do not advance to the next step until your starter is ready!

Get a large container or a bowl, add 75% of room temperature water (750 grams), 1000 grams flour (bread flour and whole wheat flour), 200 grams starter and gently mix everything in the bowl itself until all flour is absorbed.  We’re going to add the remaining 50 grams of water when we add the salt after the autolyse (see below). Dough will be sticky.   

Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let it rest for 30 minutes. The mixture is going to be very sticky and that’s perfectly normal. Your goal is to make sure all the flour is incorporated with water and hydrated.  Then, for 30 minutes minimum, autolyse.

Autolyse : Autolyse means a simple pause that allows fuller hydration of your flour which is particularly important if using whole wheat flours.  Don’t skip this step.

Bulk fermentation : Once autolyse is complete, add the remaining water (50 grams) and salt (20 grams) to the mix to begin bulk fermentation. Use your hand to mix in the salt and water into the dough.  Dough will be stretchy, not sticky after autolyse, totally transformed. Mix back to a sticky stage and then bulk ferment begins. The reason behind adding salt after the autolyse is to prevent it from drawing moisture away from flour so it doesn’t interfere with fermentation.

Bulk fermentation takes about 3-3.5 hours and during which you stretch and fold the dough 6 times at 30-45 minutes intervals.

Bakers Note: Wet your hand with little water as it makes working with the dough easier and less sticky.

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

Stretching and Folding : Use a lightly wet hand and scoop the dough from under then stretch and fold the dough. Rotate the bowl as you are folding and bring everything to the center.  Repeat the process every 30-45 minutes and keep the bowl covered with a kitchen towel. You know the dough is ready for the next step when pillowy, pulls away from sides easily, is smooth, and stands up when hooked with your thumb.  3.5 hours is usually perfect if your temperature is correct. It’s easy to under or over proof your dough, and it takes practice to begin shaping the dough at the appropriate time. 

Shaping the dough: 

1st shape: After the bulk fermentation, it’s time to shape the dough into loaves. To remove the dough from the bowl, be very gentle with it because you don’t want to deflate all the air bubbles trapped inside the dough.  Flip the bowl and use a bench scraper to transfer dough onto a flat surface. Sprinkle lightly (!) the surface of the dough with your 50/50 bread and whole wheat flour. Cut your dough into two equal portions then shape the dough by gently forming it into a circular and taut ball shape and cover it for 30 minutes of rest.

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

2nd shape: Final shaping of the dough can be confusing at first because there are some specific steps involved.  

Dust the top of the dough with your 50/50 mix.  Stretch the dough upward away from yourself, and also downward.  Go easy--don’t pull to hard or rip the dough, you’re just lengthening your dough. Then at the bottom create two wings by pulling the two sides away from each other.  Then fold the right side back to the middle and the left back to the middle. 

Use both hands to pull the top down over what you’ve just created, then grab the bottom and pull up and over.  The dough will now be back to a round shape and from here you tuck the dough back under itself by gently spinning the dough against the table (use the table for traction) until it forms a smooth, taut, and uniform shape.  From here dust your dough with rice flour and flip smooth side down into your also dusted proofing basket. Place covered basket in fridge overnight, 12 hours.

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

Retardation : This is a second proofing stage where the covered basket with shaped dough sits in the refrigerator for 12 hours. It slows down the fermentation and the longer you proof the dough, the more acidic it will become, and the more the gluten will be broken down. This process is a bit of trial and error because you want to push the timing as much as possible to develop more flavor without hurting final bread shape and color. 

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

Day 2 :

On day 2, you score the bread, bake, and enjoy a slice (or three). Sourdough bread requires a moist humid environment during the first 15-20 minutes of baking to get a good rise and develop the crust. In home oven, this can be tricky to achieve so we recommend a dutch oven with lid (“combo cooker”), or any heavy pot with a lid.  

Preheat the combo cooker or dutch to 460F.  It’s important to get you cooker nice and hot.  

Remove the heated combo cooker from the oven, dust your loaf with rice flour and gently tip the basket so the dough lays out in the combo oven with seam-side down.  With the dough now in the cooker, score your bread with a sharp knife or preferably bread scorer. Simple cuts are best. One long cut down the length of the dough results in classic sourdough look.    

Bakers note:  The combo cooker or dutch oven is heavy and hot so make sure to wear a long sleeve shirt or long oven mitts to prevent burning.

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread
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Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

Scoring: Use a sharp blade to score the top of the bread. It is best to score at about 30-45 degree angle to achieve the famous sourdough bread “ears.”  The goal is to smoothly score the dough without hesitation.

Final Bake: Once the scoring is done, close the lid and put the combo cooker back in the oven to bake for about 25-30 minutes. The steam in the combo cooker allows the bread to fully expand and you will smell a nice bread aroma in the kitchen. After the initial 25-30 minute bake, remove the lid, bake another 15 minutes or so or until you are happy with the color and texture of the crust.

Remove bread from the cooker: careful, extremely hot! 

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

It is best to let the freshly baked sourdough bread cool completely before slicing.  This lets the crust and inside both set for cutting and taste.  

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

Basic Sourdough Bread

Makes two-2 lb or 960 gram sourdough loaves

Ingredients
1000 grams flour (700 grams bread flour & 300 grams whole wheat flour)
800 grams of room temperature water (80% hydration)
200 grams starter (20%
20 grams sea salt (2%)
more bread flour, whole wheat flour, and rice flour for dusting, shaping etc (more on it below)

Directions

  1. Begin with a float test. If a piece of your starter floats on water, you are good to begin the sourdough baking.

  2. In a large container or a bowl, add 750 grams of room temperature water and 1000 grams flour (bread flour and whole wheat flour), 200 grams of starter. Gently mix everything until all flour is absorbed.  Keep the remaining water and salt aside until later. The dough will feel sticky.

  3. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let it rest for 30 minutes, a process called autolyse.

  4. Once autolyse is complete, add the remaining 50 grams of room temperature water and 20 grams of salt to the mix to begin bulk fermentation.

  5. Use your hand to mix in the salt and water into the dough.  Dough will be stretchy, not sticky after autolyse. Mix the dough back to a sticky stage to begin the bulk fermentation.

  6. Use a lightly wet hand and scoop the dough from under then stretch and fold the dough. Rotate the bowl as you are folding and bring everything to the center.  Repeat the process every 30-45 minutes and keep the bowl covered with a kitchen towel for 6 times. Bulk fermentation takes 3-3.5 hours total.

  7. Once the bulk fermentation is complete, next step is shaping the dough into loaves. Gently remove the dough by flipping the bowl and use a bench scraper to transfer dough onto a flat surface. Lightly sprinkle the surface of the dough with flours (mix of bread and whole wheat).

  8. Cut your dough into two equal portions then place dough flour side up to prevent dough from sliding around on the table. Shape the dough by gently forming it into a circular, and taut ball shape and cover it for 30 minutes of rest.

  9. Once the dough is rested, dust the top of the dough with your flour mix again.  Stretch the dough upward away from yourself, and also downward.  You are simply lengthening the dough. At the bottom, create two wings by pulling the two sides away from each other then fold the right side back to the middle and the left back to the middle. 

  10. Use both hands to pull the top down over what you’ve just created, then grab the bottom and pull up and over.  The dough will now be back to a round shape and from here you tuck the dough back under itself by gently spinning the dough against the table (use the table for traction) until it forms a smooth, taut, and uniform shape. 

  11. Dust your dough with rice flour and flip smooth side down into your dusted proofing basket. Place covered basket in fridge overnight, 12 hours for retardation.

  12. Preheat the combo cooker or dutch oven inside the oven at 460F for at least 30 minutes prior to baking.  

  13. Remove the heated combo cooker from the oven and gently tip the bread basket so the dough lays out in the combo oven with seam-side down.  With the dough now in the cooker, score the dough with a sharp knife or preferably bread scorer at about 30-45 degree angle.

  14. Close the lid and put the combo cooker back in the oven to bake for about 25-30 minutes. After the initial 25-30 minute bake, remove the lid, bake another 15 minutes or so or until you are happy with the color of the crust.

  15. Remove the bread from the cooker and let it cool completely before slicing. 

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

Sourdough Storage tips:

  • Sourdough bread is best consumed within 3-5 days. Make sure to keep your loaf inside a paper bag or cover it with cotton bread bag or large tea towel, so that the bread can ‘breathe’. I wouldn’t suggest storing sourdough bread in the fridge as it dries out the bread thus making it very hard.

  • If you have several loaves, wrap them individually in clingfilm followed by foil and store them in the freezer. You can also slice the loaf into individual slices and wrap them and store in the freezer.


A big thank you to Trent for sharing his time, craft, and knowledge on sourdough bread with so much patience. Now that I have experienced first-hand how laborious and intuitive bread baking can be, I have new level of respect and appreciation for sourdough bread and the bakers who make 100s of loaves every week. I highly encourage you to play around in your kitchen and use resources available to you (online, this post, videos, books etc) to make your own version of sourdough bread. In the near future, we will have video serious focusing on few key steps and techniques that will be helpful in making sourdough bread at home.

If bread baking is not your thing, you can simply enjoy freshly baked sourdough every Saturday at Clearfork and Cowtown Farmer’s Market made by Trent. Trent will also be offering sourdough baking class at The Table very soon.

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread