Home-Baked Sourdough Bread – At Last!

Never would have thought I could obtain these results in my regular oven and without special equipment. But after 11 months of weekly baking, fresh sourdough loaves have become a reliable tradition in our family.

I’ve been thinking of posting my method for a while, but only now feel confident that it’s sufficiently streamlined and repeatable–hence this blog post today!

It all began when my co-worker, Jules, kindly gave me part of her sourdough starter, which came from a restaurateur she knew along with their recipe. Baking bread, though, is very much something that one has to tune to their own equipment, method, and of course liking. Over time, I’ve been refining my technique to a point where I’ve been getting consistent results. But by no means is this the only way to bake bread at home and it can certainly be improved.

First, though, you may be wondering – okay, where do I get my own starter? Well, unfortunately, I can’t really help you with that. It is possible to grow it from scratch, but it’s not easy because it is made of a stable symbiotic mixture of yeast and lactobacilli. My friend Mark Preston describes the process in detail, but as you can read it’s a very difficult route which will take a lot of time (and money!) Instead, I recommend asking a baker if they can sell you a piece of their levain starter – or a piece of their uncooked, unsalted sourdough. Speaking of which, there are different kinds of sourdough, each with a different flavor and level of sourness. I like a very mildly sour sourdough, but more sourness (possibly an acquired taste), is appreciated by many (famous is San Francisco’s sourdough, which also names its bacterial culture).

So, say you were able to get a hold of some good sourdough starter, what should it look like? The starter is made of living microorganisms that need feeding and produce by-products. The metabolic process is slower at low temperatures and accelerates with heat. If kept in the fridge, after 5-7 days your sourdough starter will be hungry–it will look bubbly, may have liquid on the top (left image below), and it will smell a bit like beer.

Ripe sourdough starter ready to be fed (left). Feed consisting of 100 g of strong flour and 100 g of water (right).

If you forget to feed your starter, after a couple of weeks it will start to go bad. It’s possible to rescue a starved starter by repeated splitting and feeding, but sometimes it may be too late. If one knows they’re not going to be able to feed for ten or more days, it’s possible to slow down the starter’s metabolism almost completely by freezing it. However, freezing, just like starvation, causes some damage and the thawed starter will need some repeated splitting and feeding to fully come back to life. If at all possible, I recommend treating your starter like a pet and either take it on vacation with you or arrange for someone to care for it during your absence.

FEEDING

Equipment

  • Plastic mixing jar.
  • High precision kitchen scale.
  • Air-tight tub for storing.

Ingredients

  • 100 g starter to be fed.
  • 100 g high-gluten ‘strong’ flour.
  • 100 g regular tap water, or non-carbonated bottled mineral water if your tap water is especially soft, or very chlorinated. The recipe below assumes water at room temperature.

Instructions

  • Use or dispose of all but 100 g of starter.
  • Mix 100 g flour and 100 g water and stir energetically.
  • Incorporate the 100 g of starter into the mix, stirring from bottom to top.
  • Put the mix in an air-tight container and keep in the fridge for 5-8 days undisturbed.

Now that your starter has been fed, you are left with some excess starter which is ripe and ready to be used! The instructions below assume you have about 150 g of ripe starter. If you don’t have enough, keep feeding your starter weekly until you have enough feed leftover to bake with.

BAKING BREAD

Equipment

  • Proving basket. Using a wooden (rattan) banneton is essential to allow the dough to undergo its final slow rise without drying out while forming a “skin” – the beginning of your bread’s crust. I use a 20 cm round basket, similar to this one. If the basket comes with linen lining, the latter can be used to smooth out the basket’s walls. Since I like seeing the basket rings in the final product, I use the lining as a lid during proving.
  • Cast iron casserole, a.k.a. Dutch oven. A 4.7 liters one will work perfectly for the recipe I’m about to describe. A casserole is essential when baking in a standard oven because it creates an enclosed space that fills with steam during baking, allowing the bread to do its final rise and cook through without burning. A double-dutch oven (with the shallow half placed at the bottom) or a spun-iron baking cloche can also be used and are preferable to the casserole because they allow easier access.
From left to right: cast-iron casserole, double-Dutch oven, spun-iron baking cloche.
  • Scoring blade (optional), similar to this one. A very sharp paring knife can also be used.
  • Cooling rack (optional). Two wooden spoons placed flat on a cutting board can also be used to support the loaf while it cools down.

Ingredients

NOTE: These quantities make a ~800 g loaf (about 20 cm in diameter, 12 cm tall) which fits in a 4.7 l casserole.

  • 150 g ripe sourdough starter.
  • 150 g strong flour and 150 g water for the first rise.
  • 330 g strong flour and 150 g water for the second rise.
  • 1 tablespoon rice or semolina flour as a coating for the proving basket.

Instructions

NOTE: I’m presenting the slow-rise version of this recipe. It can be shortened by reducing or removing the resting time in the fridge, replacing it with a shorter resting time outside of the fridge (8 hours in the fridge equal to about 1 hour outside of it). However, I should warn you that, for reasons beyond my understanding, slow-risen bread will look and taste better!

Day 1

  • Mix 150 g flour + 150 g water then incorporate 150 g starter and leave out of fridge 4-6 hrs (4 hrs on a hot summer day, 6 hrs in winter). After this time, the mix should look quite bubbly and have roughly doubled in size. Put it in the fridge overnight in an airtight container.
The first rise, before and after.

Day 2

  • In a large mixing bowl, combine 330 g strong flour and 10 g table salt. Then add 150 g water and the risen mix from Day 1. Mix as best as you can in the mixing bowl by using a big spoon (can use a food processor as well for this step.) Let it rest at room temperature for half an hour.
Strong flour and salt are weighed and combined. Then, the risen dough from day 1 is added, along with more water.
  • Place the dough on a floured wooden surface and knead every half hour for 2 additional hours. I tried using a food processor for this step, but I’ve achieved better results by folding by hand until the dough becomes stiff and hard to work further. I don’t have a good explanation for this difference, but I suspect that manual folding is gentler on the gluten strands which can break if overstretched. Also, manual-folding may incorporate some air between the folds.
  • During the last fold, keep track of where the seam is as you will want it to become your bottom crust.

Note: instead of working on a floured wood surface, it would be preferable to use an un-floured stainless steel or stone worktop.

  • Brush proving basket generously and thoroughly with semolina or rice flour. These are preferable to regular wheat flour as the latter tends to become moist and stick to the basket during proving (a quite unfortunate event!)
  • Put the dough in the basket upside down (seam up), leave in the fridge for 8 hrs or overnight to prove covered with a towel or linen lid. After this time, the dough should have increased in volume by about 50%.
Sourdough, second rise
The folded dough is placed in a proving basket. Then, after a slow rise at low temperature, the dough is ready to be baked.

Day 3

  • With the proofing basket still in the fridge, preheat the oven with the cast-iron casserole inside for about 30 mins at 250℃ (480℉).
  • Take the proving basket out of the fridge, flip it on a sheet of grease-free parchment paper.
  • Score the top with a sharp knife or razor blade. These cuts will expand during cooking allowing excess CO2 to escape and the crust to expand for the final in-oven rise. I like to make one big cut, at least 5 mm (1/4”) deep, and shallower cuts as a decoration. Bread scoring is a difficult and fascinating art, I only lately have started to obtain decent results – don’t be upset if your bread breaks in all the wrong places!
Sourdough scoring
Before baking, the risen sourdough is scored with a sharp blade.
  • Lifting by the parchment paper, place the dough into the super-hot casserole. This operation is easier if using a baking cloche or a double Dutch oven because they have a shallower bottom.
  • Immediately, put the lid on, put the casserole back in the oven, and bake 40 minutes at 250℃ (480℉).
  • Remove the lid and bake 10 more minutes lowering the temperature to 230℃ (450℉) if you have a fan oven, or maintaining 250℃ (480℉) otherwise.
Sourdough baking
The sourdough ball is placed in the hot casserole. After baking, the sourdough loaf is ready!
  • After baking, lifting by the parchment paper, place the loaf on the wire rack to let it cool for at least half an hour before cutting into it. If the rise was sufficiently uniform, the scoring cuts will have uniformly expanded.
Sourdough cooling
The baked loaf cools down on a wire rack.
  • Allow the proving basket to dry in warm air (I leave mine near the oven as the bread bakes), then brush off the excess flour using a dedicated hard brush. If some of the dough stuck to it, the basket can be washed in cold water without any detergents and then allowed to air-dry.
Sourdough slice
The resulting sourdough should have a spongy texture.

If things went well, your loaf should be fragrant, slightly chewy, and should have air bubbles of varying size trapped into it.

Using a flour which is not very strong or mixing in whole-wheat flours will produce smaller, more uniform bubbles and a mealier texture. Small bubbles and a tougher, denser loaf may also be the result of an under proved or over proved fermentation, or the effect of machine kneading.

Home-Baked Sourdough Bread – At Last!

Total Time: 2 hours

Prep Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Home-Baked Sourdough Bread – At Last!

Ingredients

  • 150 g ripe sourdough starter
  • 480 g strong flour
  • 300 g water
  • A generous tablespoon of rice or semolina flour (recommended).

Preparation

  1. Follow the steps above.
https://www.disgracesonthemenu.com/2020/02/home-baked-sourdough-bread.html

Preserving baked bread

If the loaf is left whole, the crust will provide a natural barrier that will keep the bread fresh for a day. A slightly stale loaf will regain its fragrance if warmed up in the oven, or in a toaster if sliced. If the bread is not going to be consumed within the day, I recommend freezing it in halves or quarters as soon as it has cooled down. Allow the frozen loaf to thaw at room temperature for one hour, or for 5 minutes in the microwave set to the lowest power setting before consuming it.

Other Sourdough Recipes

The recipe I described is very much like a blank canvas! Different kinds of flours can be mixed in (e.g. whole wheat, spelt, sprouted grains), as well as other ingredients added (olives, nuts, dried figs, shredded cheese.) A tablespoon of olive oil will result in a softer loaf that will stay fresh for longer.

Cheese sourdough bread
One of my favorite variations is to add half a cup of shredded sharp cheddar into the last fold!

What about sourdough pizza, pretzels, waffles, donuts? Yes, please! All of those and more are possible and delicious. I’ve been using my coworker Zoe’s pizza recipe with great results, please see below for the instructions. I’ve also experimented with other sourdough preparations, but my results are still inconsistent. I’ll report back when I’ll know more–please continue to send me your recipes!

 

Zoe’s Sourdough Pizza

  • Ingredients:
    – 30 g starter
    – 380 g strong flour
    – 250 ml water
    – 10 g olive oil
    – 10 g salt
  • Mix the starter, the water, and the olive oil together separately first. Whisk together.
  • Add to the flour and the salt.
  • Mix and leave uncovered for an hour or two.
  • Fold it a bit.
  • Cover and leave out of the fridge for ~24hrs.
  • Shape the dough into 2 balls and leave to rise for 2 hrs before cooking.
  • Stretching – it literally falls right out into a pizza shape.
  • Cooking:
    • If using a pizza stone, leave it in the oven for it to heat up slowly to 250℃ (480℉). Slide the stretched dough with toppings onto the stone. Bake for 2-3 minutes, turn it around, bake for another 2 mins.
    • If using a perforated pizza tray, bake for 7-8 minutes at 240℃ (460℉) or until the cheese is bubbly.

Paolo Rigiroli

Author: Paolo Rigiroli

Now based in the UK, Paolo is an Italian who lived in Canada for nearly 18 years and blogs about Italian food and its many aberrations.

10 thoughts on “Home-Baked Sourdough Bread – At Last!”

  1. Complimenti Paolo! you have come a long way since I gave you some of my useless starter a few years ago. The King Arthur flour website has a few ideas for using up the discarded starter-pretzels and cinnamon buns. With all this work, do you ever make 2 loaves and freeze one? That cheesy one looks especially yummy. Ciao, Cristina

    1. Grazie, Cristina! Even one loaf is too much for us, so we cut it into quarters and freeze it to consume during the week. I’m grateful for the starter you gave me, it made me want to research this further and – really – a lot was wrong about my technique and equipment. Ma “chi la dura la vince!”

  2. Your work on sourdough bread has been amazing, Paolo! I have loved seeing your weekly photos on IG, and our mutual friend, Joanne, has been asking if I thought you would ever post the recipe. And here it is! Bravo – just beautiful and such a labor of love.

  3. To me, food prep, whether baking, roasting or any other work is always best when simplicity guides the work. In this post, you have achieved that. As for the better flavor, the slower the rise, there are about 400 microorganisms in any loaf of bread. As the dominant organisms develop first, the others enter at a more relaxed rate. By the bye: this site expects British English spelling: flavour. LOL!

  4. Wow, this bread is a true work of art, Paolo! So pretty that it’s almost a shame to eat it. Well, actually not, since I can tell by just looking at it that it must have incredible flavor and texture. I do a rather dumbed down no-knead, overnight version of this bread that I love. I can just imagine this take that to quite another level. Will definitely give it a try on a long weekend—or even sooner than that, since we are all working from home these days.

    And by the way, I’ve been thinking about a baking cloche. Seems like it would make life a bit simpler, although I’m quite happy with the results a Dutch oven gives.

    1. Thanks, Frank! Too kind as always. Let me know how it goes when you’ll get a chance to try it. And if you decide to give the baking cloche a try as well! Best of luck, hope we’ll soon be having retrospectives.

  5. I’ve been following all your bread baking on instagram and you have definitely inspired me. Thank you for sharing your recipe! I started out with sourdough starter a month ago and I have finally started baking my own bread now. Needless to say, I have used your recipe and instructions, so thank you for that! My first one was okay, I made some mistakes but it turned out fine and tasted good. So I made some adjustments, and the second one came out fantastic! This is obviusly not the end, as this is so addictive that I can definitely see bread baking becoming a weekly routine at my house, too. In any case, fridge proofing really didn’t work for me. Might give it another try, but the dough didn’t rise at all while in the fridge overnight. I have no explanation to that, but I eded up slightly tweaking your instructions to make them work for me. Might it be just an environment temperature issue here? I have no idea. Anyway, thank you for inspiring me to get on the sourdough bread bandwagon, it was all worth it 😀

    1. Eva! I’m so happy this post inspired you. Yes, everyone’s equipment is different, and your starter is also certainly different than mine – so any instructions with breadmaking I think need to be adjusted. If overnight fridge proving didn’t work, it’s probably because your fridge is colder than mine. Once you get a sense of the pre-bake rise that you want, you can keep it rising at room temperature until you reach it. I’ve done that obtaining very similar results than my fridge proving. Keep up the good work!

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