A BEGINNER’S 8 STEP GUIDE TO SOURDOUGH BREAD MAKING

Posted on: February 9, 2020. Updated on: July 12, 2023.

by Carolina Gelen

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Here’s the story of my first-ish sourdough bread!

Why first-ish?

Oh well, there is a very humbling attempt of baking sourdough bread in my past, that happened about a year ago, that simply *traumatized* me! I am, by nature, not a recipe follower, I just won’t follow instructions because, well, I just won’t. Whenever I find a recipe that sounds interesting, I read the title, I read the list of ingredients, and that’s about it, I won’t even dare to go to the instructions section. I treat recipes more like a source of inspiration, rather that a guideline. I will add extra salt, extra flour, extra anything if I feel like it.

Guess what?

That mechanism does not really work with baking sourdough bread – especially if you’re a beginner, I am assuming that at a certain point you can definitely start winging it once you’re more familiar with the concept, but trust me, that is not happening from your first try, I had to learn that the hard way. Sometime ago in December of 2018, I decided to make my own sourdough bread, I watched a couple of videos about it, read a couple of articles about it and declared myself a pro. I did the dew, made my starter, did the thing, added more flour because the dough was too sticky, baked the bread, it looked alright, it had a nice crust, a disappointing level of bubblage, but man, oh, man, was that bread sour! I was so eager to just bake that bread that I had skipped the step telling me to feed the starter before hand, so I ended up adding 250 g of super-duper-super-sour-starter into the dough. It was simply not edible. My ego was so hurt that I refused to eat sourdough bread for the next year, convincing myself that sourdough bread is overrated, and it simply isn’t THAT good.

Fast-forward a year after that,

I told myself I’ll give sourdough another chance. I got to a point where I just wanted a challenge and my sourdough bread friend seemed to be the perfect one, an old memory, a quite traumatic one, if I do say so myself, that I had to come back to and confront once again.

And, oh my goodness, was that worth it?!

If you’re not quite passionate about cooking or baking, I would not recommend digging into this field and getting familiar with it by starting to bake sourdough bread, but if you’ve been doing this for a while and you do feel comfortable in the kitchen and are, in fact, looking on a way to level up – this is the way to go! This is literally one of the most rewarding things that I have ever baked, no, actually, one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Once I read more about the subject, I read the instructions on how to make it this time, I understood why I should fight my desperate urge of adding more flour to the dough, and understood what the baker’s percentages actually meant – I was good to go!

I ended up watching all the sourdough related videos from this channel I linked down below, they were so easy to follow, so informative, Patrick Ryan surely masters this art and simply manages to explain the process really, really well. Here are the top tips I have learned from his videos:

  • the dough is supposed to be sticky, if you’re adding more flour the dough will happily soak it and the final result will end up being too dense
  • the dough will always tell you when it’s ready, you don’t need to follow a certain amount of time to knead it, you can just check its level of elasticity with something called the window pane effect
  • let your dough rest, don’t fight it
  • because the development of sourdough goods is, in fact, a natural process, every step will require more time, so we are looking to at least 3 hours of fermenting when it comes to sourdough bread
  • you can certainly overproof bread, so just knock it back into a ball after 3 hours of proofing
  • you don’t specifically need a proofing basket, you can pretty much use anything with a similar shape
  • you need steam to help the bake rise, simply pour some water into the oven for that effect
  • blast the heat in your home oven for a good crust

Here’s the link for Patrick Ryan’s video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FVfJTGpXnU&t=725s

All you need it time and, well, patience, patience and more patience!

I did my homework this time and read so much about sourdough, I made my own starter in about a couple of weeks, I bought an electric scale solely for baking this thing, bought all the natural, organic, whole type of flours and all that jazz. I calculated all that I had to calculate – percentages, grams, everything that I could physically weigh, I wrote down a couple of sets of instructions that I had to follow, timed every single rise of the dough.

SUCCESS!

The first batch came out so well, so wonderful, so perfect that I was so excited I had to start working on my next batch right away. The bubbles were there, the depth of the flavors was there, everything was simply there. This was one of the best things I have ever baked – if not the best. I was so genuinely excited for this success that I went overboard and baked 4 sourdough breads in that week. Because I am someone that lives by herself and I overdid this, I gave most of them away and got the best feedback afterwards!

In conclusion,

This was one of the most rewarding things that came out of my oven. If you want to try sourdough baking I highly, highly recommend it. It’s so flavorful, so tasty, and so, so, rewarding. Just a little disclaimer, it does take a bit of time to make – at least 2 days – but every second is worth it!

RECIPE (makes 2 loaves)

You’ll need:
  • 1000 grams flour
    • I mixed 800 grams regular white bread flour and 200 grams whole wheat flour – have fun with it!
  • 700-800 grams water
  • 20 grams salt
  • 200 grams starter
  • time
    • I’m not kidding, time is literally one of the crucial “ingredients” in this process – you-need-time-dot-com !!!
  • an electric scale
    • you do need this for a proper result, I literally went and bought one specifically for making sourdough bread, it simplifies e-very-thing

I have broken down the process of making sourdough bread into a few easy steps, like so:

STEP 1 : UNDERSTANDING BAKER’S PERCENTAGES

Have you ever seen those beautiful sourdough crumb shots on Instagram that have a caption that mentions the level of hydration and you’re literally nothing but confused? “20% Spelt 34% Rye 4% Rice flour 40% Whole Wheat 80% Hydration” – excuse me, what?!

I’ve been there! All that a bread with x% amount of hydration means is the percentage of water that was added to that bread proportional with the amount of flour in the dough.

Are you still with me?

If you’re adding 1000 grams of flour and 800 grams of water into that dough, the bread will have a 80% level of hydration, boom, that’s it.

Here are some percentages that should be used less or more like a guideline in sourdough bread baking:

  • usually 1000 grams of flour will be enough for 2 breads
  • you’re looking for somewhere between 70-80% hydration (for a good amount of bubblage), that meaning adding 700-800 grams of water to your dough
  • you are supposed to add 2% salt to the dough, that meaning 20 grams of salt
  • and finally, the starter, you can add anywhere from 20-25% starter, so 200-250 grams starter, less or more than that, depending on how sour you want your bread to turn out
  • have fun, experiment with the level of hydration, starter to actually get to understand them better

STEP 2 : STARTER

There are a lot of tutorials on how to make your own starter, I’ll just briefly explain the process:

  • you combine an equal amount of flour and water and let it ferment at room temperature for at least a week, discarding half of it, or less, every day, and feeding it with fresh flour and water
  • I didn’t measure anything, cause I’m just not into that life, I simply added flour and water everyday to it, eyeballed everything so that the end result resembled a thicker pancake batter
  • wait for it to ferment at least 1 week before you start baking
  • use whole flours, because there are a lot more components in them for the starter to feed off of

In order to prepare your starter for baking, take a couple of tablespoons of the already fermented starter and add them to a mix of 150 grams flour and 150 grams water. Wait for it to double in size and test to see if the starter is active enough with the float test.

STARTER ACTIVITY

In order to see if your starter is active enough, all you need to do is check if it floats – if it does, it’s ready to go, if it doesn’t, give it a bit more time.

FLOAT TEST

STEP 3 : AUTOLYSE

Autolyse is a French term meaning self-destruction of cells, in some contexts even meaning suicide. While I’m not encouraging neither of those things, autolyse is a crucial step in bread making. In baking, autolyse is representative of the process of letting the flour and water get to know each other for about 30 to 45 minutes and become one – Autolyse A.K.A Le Marriage of Flour and Water, ha! During that time, the water fully hydrates the flour and the enzymes in the flour are activated, encouraging the proteins in the flour to start developing gluten.

To sum everything up, the process of autolyse simply improves the gluten development in our bread.

Mixing the flour and water and letting it sit for a while, covered, at room temperature

STEP 4 : DOUGH

Mix 1000 grams of flour total and add 750 grams of water, reserving 50 grams of water for when we’re adding the starter.

After letting the dough hang out for 30-45 minutes, it’s time to add the starter, the salt, and the remaining 50 grams of water. First, add the starter, pinch it into the dough. After that, add the salt and water and start kneading.

Yes, the dough is sticky.

No, the dough doesn’t need more flour.

STEP 5 : WINDOW PANE

Knead, knead, knead! The dough will simply tell you when it’s ready. Whenever the dough becomes elastic enough so that you are able to stretch it so thin you can almost see through it, that’s when it’s ready!

If you’re not able to do that, no worries, just keep kneading, it will get there.

STEP 6 : BULK FERMENTATION

Time to let the dough proof! Because this is all a natural process, this proofing will take about 3 hours. Let the dough rest in a greased bowl, or in your container of choice at room temperature for 3 hours. You can, in addition to that, lift it every 30 minutes, by just inserting your very well greased hands beneath it, lifting the dough and folding it onto itself. This step really encourages even more gluten development and strengthens the structure of our dough, you can skip it, but you’ll surely have less bubble action in your dough.

FIRST 30 MINS

FOLD

3 HOURS LATER

STEP 7 : SHAPE

After the three hours, it’s time to shape your dough. If you’re using 1000 grams of flour, the dough will be enough for a couple of loaves of bread.

Lightly dust your table with flour and flip the dough onto it. Cut the dough into to relatively equal parts and gently form each of them into a ball. Let the dough rest, again for a 15- 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, get yourself two baskets, bowls, anything basket-like, deep enough so that it encourages the dough to rise up, rather than side-ways. Lay a linen cloth on top of each container and generously dust it with flour, preventing the dough from sticking to it.

After the 15-30 minutes, flip the dough on the other side, gently flatten it and fold it onto itself. Imagine it being a rectangle, take each of the four sides fold them onto themselves, stitching it in the middle – I’ve done a miserable job explaining that, it’s easier to watch a tutorial than reading instructions on how to do it.

Lay each of the two loaves into the well floured containers, stitch side up, and dust some more flour on to. Pop them into the fridge overnight.

Before and after hanging out in the fridge overnight.

STEP 8 : BAKE

And we’re almost there! The last step is to, oh, well, bake your bread babes!

Preheat your oven, I mean it, blast that heat! I’m setting my oven to the maximum temperature it can get, that being 250°C (482°F). You will lose up to 20°C just by opening up the oven door, so do not be shy. You want a high level of heat which facilitates the formation of steam, which helps your bread to properly rise and get a nice crust. I like letting the tray in which I will bake the sourdough in the oven, while preheating. You can use a Dutch oven, I didn’t and the bread still baked pretty well. Pour some how water into the oven to encourage the formation of steam.

Pop your bread out of the basket, onto the baking sheet and score it with a sharp knife, or, preferably with a sharp razor blade.

This basically guides the rising process of our bread, leading the steam to the scored area, instead of it making the bread pop somewhere else.

Here are my two beautifully baked loaves.

AND THE C-C-CRUMB SHOT

There’s just something so special about making bread, especially using the oldest method of creating leavened bread.

A BEGINNER’S 8 STEP GUIDE TO SOURDOUGH BREAD MAKING

0 / 5. from 0

Click to vote

Ingredients

  • 1000 grams flour
    • I mixed 800 grams regular white bread flour and 200 grams whole wheat flour – have fun with it!
  • 700-800 grams water
  • 20 grams salt
  • 200 grams starter
  • time
    • I’m not kidding, time is literally one of the crucial “ingredients” in this process – you-need-time-dot-com !!!
  • an electric scale
    • you do need this for a proper result, I literally went and bought one specifically for making sourdough bread, it simplifies e-very-thing

Instructions

STEP 1 : UNDERSTANDING BAKER’S PERCENTAGES

Have you ever seen those beautiful sourdough crumb shots on Instagram that have a caption that mentions the level of hydration and you’re literally nothing but confused? “20% Spelt 34% Rye 4% Rice flour 40% Whole Wheat 80% Hydration” – excuse me, what?!

I’ve been there! All that a bread with x% amount of hydration means is the percentage of water that was added to that bread proportional with the amount of flour in the dough.

Are you still with me?

If you’re adding 1000 grams of flour and 800 grams of water into that dough, the bread will have a 80% level of hydration, boom, that’s it.

Here are some percentages that should be used less or more like a guideline in sourdough bread baking:

  • usually 1000 grams of flour will be enough for 2 breads
  • you’re looking for somewhere between 70-80% hydration (for a good amount of bubblage), that meaning adding 700-800 grams of water to your dough
  • you are supposed to add 2% salt to the dough, that meaning 20 grams of salt
  • and finally, the starter, you can add anywhere from 20-25% starter, so 200-250 grams starter, less or more than that, depending on how sour you want your bread to turn out
  • have fun, experiment with the level of hydration, starter to actually get to understand them better

STEP 2 : STARTER

There are a lot of tutorials on how to make your own starter, I’ll just briefly explain the process:

  • you combine an equal amount of flour and water and let it ferment at room temperature for at least a week, discarding half of it, or less, every day, and feeding it with fresh flour and water
  • I didn’t measure anything, cause I’m just not into that life, I simply added flour and water everyday to it, eyeballed everything so that the end result resembled a thicker pancake batter
  • wait for it to ferment at least 1 week before you start baking
  • use whole flours, because there are a lot more components in them for the starter to feed off of

In order to prepare your starter for baking, take a couple of tablespoons of the already fermented starter and add them to a mix of 150 grams flour and 150 grams water. Wait for it to double in size and test to see if the starter is active enough with the float test.

STARTER ACTIVITY

In order to see if your starter is active enough, all you need to do is check if it floats – if it does, it’s ready to go, if it doesn’t, give it a bit more time.

FLOAT TEST

STEP 3 : AUTOLYSE

Autolyse is a French term meaning self-destruction of cells, in some contexts even meaning suicide. While I’m not encouraging neither of those things, autolyse is a crucial step in bread making. In baking, autolyse is representative of the process of letting the flour and water get to know each other for about 30 to 45 minutes and become one – Autolyse A.K.A Le Marriage of Flour and Water, ha! During that time, the water fully hydrates the flour and the enzymes in the flour are activated, encouraging the proteins in the flour to start developing gluten.

To sum everything up, the process of autolyse simply improves the gluten development in our bread.

Mixing the flour and water and letting it sit for a while, covered, at room temperature

STEP 4 : DOUGH

Mix 1000 grams of flour total and add 750 grams of water, reserving 50 grams of water for when we’re adding the starter.

After letting the dough hang out for 30-45 minutes, it’s time to add the starter, the salt, and the remaining 50 grams of water. First, add the starter, pinch it into the dough. After that, add the salt and water and start kneading.

Yes, the dough is sticky.

No, the dough doesn’t need more flour.

STEP 5 : WINDOW PANE

Knead, knead, knead! The dough will simply tell you when it’s ready. Whenever the dough becomes elastic enough so that you are able to stretch it so thin you can almost see through it, that’s when it’s ready!

If you’re not able to do that, no worries, just keep kneading, it will get there.

STEP 6 : BULK FERMENTATION

Time to let the dough proof! Because this is all a natural process, this proofing will take about 3 hours. Let the dough rest in a greased bowl, or in your container of choice at room temperature for 3 hours. You can, in addition to that, lift it every 30 minutes, by just inserting your very well greased hands beneath it, lifting the dough and folding it onto itself. This step really encourages even more gluten development and strengthens the structure of our dough, you can skip it, but you’ll surely have less bubble action in your dough.

STEP 7 : SHAPE

After the three hours, it’s time to shape your dough. If you’re using 1000 grams of flour, the dough will be enough for a couple of loaves of bread.

Lightly dust your table with flour and flip the dough onto it. Cut the dough into to relatively equal parts and gently form each of them into a ball. Let the dough rest, again for a 15- 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, get yourself two baskets, bowls, anything basket-like, deep enough so that it encourages the dough to rise up, rather than side-ways. Lay a linen cloth on top of each container and generously dust it with flour, preventing the dough from sticking to it.

After the 15-30 minutes, flip the dough on the other side, gently flatten it and fold it onto itself. Imagine it being a rectangle, take each of the four sides fold them onto themselves, stitching it in the middle – I’ve done a miserable job explaining that, it’s easier to watch a tutorial than reading instructions on how to do it.

Lay each of the two loaves into the well floured containers, stitch side up, and dust some more flour on to. Pop them into the fridge overnight.

 

STEP 8 : BAKE

And we’re almost there! The last step is to, oh, well, bake your bread babes!

Preheat your oven, I mean it, blast that heat! I’m setting my oven to the maximum temperature it can get, that being 250°C (482°F). You will lose up to 20°C just by opening up the oven door, so do not be shy. You want a high level of heat which facilitates the formation of steam, which helps your bread to properly rise and get a nice crust. I like letting the tray in which I will bake the sourdough in the oven, while preheating. You can use a Dutch oven, I didn’t and the bread still baked pretty well. Pour some how water into the oven to encourage the formation of steam.

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Carolina Gelen

I speak 5 languages, but my favorite way to communicate is through the universal language of food. I translate food to be more approachable and accessible for the everyday cook. I didn't grow up with a lot, so I’ve always loved thrifting and finding a good sale. That also shapes my approach to cooking: I try to make most of my recipes as affordable as possible, and that is what my SCRAPS newsletter is about. Every two weeks I will send an exclusive recipe to your inbox. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website.

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4 thoughts on "A BEGINNER’S 8 STEP GUIDE TO SOURDOUGH BREAD MAKING"

  1. Lisabeau says:

    Dear Carolina,

    The way you explain this is simply amazing. I’ve been looking for this recipe for-ever. No one explained it as well as you do. I’m so inspired by every dish you make like, PURPLE sourdough bread. You keep doing what you’re doing cus ur making me a better cook!! And I have a lot of fun doing it. Lots of love

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  3. Puja Sapui says:

    This is brief thank you.

  4. Jill O says:

    This – the description interspersed with instructions and readiness checks – has been exceptionally helpful.