I’m no doubt long overdue writing up my basic sourdough recipe. But I’ve now, finally, managed it and I hope it’s useful.
I’ve been baking sourdough for almost 20 years but I still believe I have much, much more to learn. Always something new to try and test with wild yeast baking.
So, here we are… this is my ‘base’ sourdough recipe.
Follow this to get used to baking sourdough. Learn how the dough at each stage feels, moves, its viscosity, look for the amount of bubbles at each stage, how the dough reacts to your particular oven. Get happy with the rise, the crust, the flavour and crumb inside. Then, use this as a base to change up your sourdough baking – this recipe can then be adapted to incorporate other flavours and flours.
Notes – important!!
Starter/mother/wild yeast. To learn about growing and nurturing a wild yeast starter for sourdough baking read my post on Sourdough for Starters – grow your own pet yeast. You must have a lively, bubbly and strong wild yeast starter to bake a sourdough loaf or you’re doomed from the start and will only be upset with the results – give yourself the best chance of a great loaf by using the starter when it’s lively.
Timing. I’ve worked hard here to provide timings for a beginner across two days where you have left yourself free time, such as a weekend. Later on there is a table for an alternative timing over a single day. Alternatively with experience and the length of time for each stage (I’ve given timings for each stage below) you’ll be able to fit your bread into your own personal routine.
Stages. Certain stages of the process are important to follow the timing fairly rigidly and other parts of the process can be shortened or extended. I’ve marked out where timings can be made more flexible or where they are to be kept to throughout the recipe. You’ll quickly learn the key timings and also where you can relax a bit.
Equipment 1. I’ve developed a method where I use a click-top plastic food box for my early stages. I recommend you buy one (it’s also very useful for other wet doughs such as ciabatta) but you can substitute a bowl and close covering, such as a shower cap or cling film. I also find it so, so useful to write the timings of stages right on the top of the box during each bake with a whiteboard marker! The box I use is a large, five litre click top container (in fact I have several). They’re pretty cheap; often cheaper than a sturdy mixing bowl.
Equipment 2. I’ve used a banneton in this method but if you are starting out and don’t have one (or can’t get one – during the rise in bread making throughout the pandemic there’s been a shortage of bannetons) there are alternatives! Use a mixing bowl or a loaf tin lined with a linen tea towel instead. Then you can make sure you want to keep doing this before you invest in more equipment.
Banneton: eh, huh? Unsure what a banneton is? It’s a bowl-like structure normally made of rattan, cane or wood/paper pulp which holds the dough in a breathable environment while it rises and ferments. They’re typically circular, but can be oval, square, triangular or even ring shaped and come inverting sizes to accommodate different dough volumes. A banneton encourages the shape of the loaf for when it’s turned out for baking. Cane and rattan ones are woven or coiled, which gives the loaf characteristic indentations and patterns. Modern wood or paper pulp brotforms can have punched patterns in too. As mentioned above you can substitute a mixing bowl with a linen cloth – it’s not as breathable, nor does it give those nice indentations, but it’s a good alternative. Typically we’ve all adopted the French word of banneton for these, but also look for proving basket or brotform (German).
Cloche. You can bake your sourdough loaf in a cloche (an ‘upside down’ earthenware pot with a flat shallow base and a domed lid), which does give help to the rise and a crusty crust. I have not included this in the baking process here. There’s enough to be getting on with learning all of this, let alone get used to cloche baking. You can get a great loaf without one and in fact you may never decide you want one. If I’m honest I’m really agnostic about it: I actually don’t like the really thick crust that some sourdoughs have and most times I simply forget to grab the cloche when my loaf is ready to bake; I just turn it out on a baking tray. If you do want to try, move on to it later, and in the meantime I’ll try to write a post about that too.
Water temperature. Don’t stress about this – use “tepid”. Test it on your hand, if it feels close to body heat that’s perfect. I’ve left it necessarily vague as I don’t think it makes that much difference give or take a few degrees. Best not use cold nor hot though and if you want to be exact around 30-32C is ideal.
Flouring. As a learner, I’m advising you to overflour your banneton. They’re be nothing worse than having to peel or scrape your risen loaf out of the proving basket which will deflate it immediately. You can learn with time how much flouring your bannetons and brotforms need. My ideal flour for the banneton is rice flour. Semolina also works well but is more orange (due to carotene) if that colour bothers you. If you can’t get hold of these use your flour you made your loaf with. They’ll all work, it’s just rice flour is less absorbent and finer and just seems to work well.
Stretching – or kneading. You’ve made bread with dried or fresh yeast and you’re used to kneading; so why not knead here? With the incorporation of the autolyse resting process, it’s easier to stretch and fold a sourdough loaf rather than all-out kneading. (Autolysis is explained within Method below). However, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with kneading your sourdough, but it is wet and sticky and easier this alternative way. Sometimes though, depending on flour used etc sourdough bread can really do with a ‘good old knead’. Again this’ll come with confidence and practice but stick to this given stretch and wait method in my recipe for now at least as it is easier 🙂
Additional reading from this website:
- Five litre click top container (or mixing bowl and either a shower cap, cling film or similar)
- Scales, measuring spoons etc
- Clean tea towel or muslin
- Banneton (or alternative + linen tea towel). Ideal banneton size for this recipe is a 9″ / 23 cm diameter banneton
- Sharp knife, single-side razor blade or baker’s blade (lame)
- Large baking tray
- Dough scraper – a really essential piece of kit, metal or plastic
- A flat baking tin
- Oven gloves
- Additional – non permanent marker or note pad and pen
- 30 ml lively wild yeast starter (also called sourdough starter or mother etc)
- 280 ml tepid water
- 8 g salt
- Several turns of a pepper mill to get fresh pepper
- 400 g of strong white bread flour
- Extra flour for dusting (see note above)
FIRST DAY: Start this mid afternoon/early evening.
Today’s activity takes just over 2 hours overall with hands on time at about 10-15 minutes.
Stage 1 – mix and autolysis (action of enzymes in the yeast breaking down the starch in the flour, which releases simple sugars. The yeast then feeds on these sugars and within the warming, wet environment gluten strands form and begin to stretch and relax).
- Place the container on your scales and weigh out 30g of the starter
- Pour in the water and agitate it so that the starter is dispersed
- Add in the flour – all 400g of it – and mix it into the water and starter mix as best as possible
- Put the lid on
- Mark on the top of the box what the time is
- Leave it as a rough, shaggy mess for ONE HOUR
Stage 2 – Gluten development (stretching or kneading process)
- After one hour sprinkle the salt and grind the pepper over the top of the dough mix
- Now, using one hand, SCRUNCH the dough, pinching the salt and pepper into dough as you do it. See images below
- Using your fingertips, incorporate all the little bits of dough and flour that didn’t get mixed in properly. As you scrunch, make sure you squeeze in any bits of dough that feel a bit harder. You’ll notice the smoothness of the dough has almost immediately changed and is much smooth and silkier – this is great!
- Scrunch the dough for about 1 minute
- Now do some rough stretching and folding (see images and video below) – you don’t have to do much at this point, you’re only trying to bring it together a little. Grab the side of the dough and lift it up and back on itself, so you’re almost wrapping it. Rotate the container so that you do this around the dough – repeat this stretch up and lay-over move about eight or so times. Grab a portion of dough at the side, lift upwards and slightly outwards and then stretch over the ball of dough and pat down. You’re aiming to end up with a ball shape
Place the lid back on the box, write down the time on the top and leave for another hour
After the hour is up, you have a choice! Sometimes, (depending on the autolyze efficacy, flour quality, room temperature etc) your dough will be very shiny, smooth and stretchy just after a single stretch-and-lift-over and one hour’s rest routine. If this is the case you can move straight on the Stage 3. (Also, if you are short of time or trying an alternative timing from the list below there may only be room for a single routine).
If the dough still looks a bit shaggy round the edges or you want to be sure the dough has been stretched enough, you’ll need to do another stretch-and-lift-over. Do 8-10 of these lift, stretch and fold-over actions. Again, aim for a ball shape
Place the lid back on – wait for another hour (and mark it on the lid)
After the second hour is up, you need to stretch and lift-over again. You’ll notices the dough is visibly and physically much smoother and stretchier. Again do 8-10 of these lift and fold actions on your dough and leave it in a ball shape
Place the lid back on
Stage 3 – first ferment (some call this bulk rise)
- You now don’t need to do anything until tomorrow morning
- Leave the lidded container somewhere that is anywhere between cold to an ambient, mild temperature
- Do NOT leave it anywhere hot (this speeds up the ferment and is a useful tool to change proving times but we’ll stick to the beginner’s plan here!). if it is hot it’s better to go in the top of a fridge
Today’s activity takes just over 4 hours overall with hands on time at just about 30-40 minutes.
Stage 4 – shaping
- This does not matter very much what time you leave the dough until. An hour or two shorter or longer doesn’t matter, but do it by about 9-10am.
- Your dough should have spread outwards and upwards overnight
- The plastic container will allow you to see that it is full of air pockets – some large, some small. Perfect! It will be about 3-5cm up the side of the container and have spread out to fill it. (If you had to put it in the fridge and it’s not at this stage, leave it out for an hour and re-check on it)
- You now need to get the dough out of the container with as little disturbance of these holes as possible (squashing it somewhat is inevitable)
- Flour your countertop/table lightly
- Have your banneton to hand. Flour the base generously and up the sides as much as you can. If your banneton comes with a linen liner, do use it. If you are using a mixing bowl, line it with the linen tea towel and generously flour the insides
- Wet your fingertips on your dominant hand and flick off the excess
- Tilt the container towards you, so that the dough starts slipping downwards, and, using your fingertips encourage it down and out of the container onto your floured surface. Use your dough scraper as you feel necessary to help. Get all of the little bits of dough out – you want these (better in your loaf than down the sink or in the bin!)
- You don’t need the container anymore
- You now need to repeat that stretch and lift-over method you used yesterday – we need to shape the dough. This tightens the exterior surface of the dough, tensioning so. A shaped loaf becomes even more taught as it expands during the final ferment/rise. This allows for a great crust and a good spring (when scored) and stops it spreading out unevenly in any direction once you’ve tipped it out of the banneton
- If any time during shaping your dough sticks, use the dough scraper to lift it where it’s sticking and dust with extra flour and place back down
- Grab a side of the dough, stretch and lift upwards and outwards and pick the ends in place in the middle of the dough ball. Turn and repeat – you’ll need to do this about 6-8 times. Take a look at the dough from above – you’re trying to get a fairly accurate circle (any ‘corner’ sticking out will spread in the oven). Pinch call the ends together in the middle into a seam so they don’t unravel
- Make sure your surface is floured and turn your dough over, so the seam is underneath. Using your floured fingers or the dough scraper, go round the loaf gently but firmly stretching down the sides to the underneath of the loaf, turning it as you go in a scooping motion, to continue making the rounded, tightened shape:
- A note here – don’t stretch and tighten the dough too much – it will eventually tear (it’s not endlessly elastic). You’ll get used to this level. If it does tear it’s not the end of the world, just that’s where the loaf probably will expand in the oven, and expand unevenly
- Take your loaf and gently place it in the banneton, seam side up this time
- Gently lifting/pushing the dough in at the side (being careful not to damage it), dust down the side of the loaf/banneton with some flour. Do this all all the way round so that the loaf does not stick as it rises
- Cover with a clean tea towel, making sure it’s a little domed/lifted at the top (to leave space for the bread to rise
Stage 5 – second fermentation
- Leave for about three hours (though if it’s hot, check first after 90 minutes)
- Your loaf should have risen and have a sort of ‘thick jelly’ like wobble to it. the way to test if it’s ready is to gently make an indent in the dough (at the top, just in from the side) with a finger
- Does it spring back about 70-90% into place, leaving the tiniest of dents? If so this is perfect!
- If it fills in completely it needs much more time to rise. Give it another hour and try again
- If it doesn’t spring back at all and you’re left with a large indentation, oops – did you leave your loaf longer than three hours? Did you leave it out when it was hot indoors for too long? Did you leave it out in a hot place last night (when it should’ve been in the fridge? Don’t despair: you’ll still get a loaf and you can bake it, it will just be more dense and won’t rise.
- Assuming you’re at that Goldilocks stage with your dough – it’s just right, now stick it in the fridge for half an hour to slow down the ferment and help it ‘set’
- Turn your oven on to 140C fan / 160C conventional
- Put your large baking tray on a rack at the bottom of your oven. Make sure that there is plenty of height between the bottom rack and the top rack – you may want to only leave the bottom oven rack in. If they’re too close your loaf may rise into the top rack!
- Place the flat baking tin at the bottom of the oven, under the rack you’re going to use
- Have your knife/blade.razor/lame ready + a little extra flour + a cup of water
See my YouTube post about making your own lame:
Stage 6 – scoring and baking
- After half an hour retrieve your loaf
- Take out the warmed baking tray from the oven (wear your gloves!) and dust it with a little flour
- Invert the loaf onto the baking tray (where the flour is) and smooth out the flour that’s left on the top of the loaf, after it was tipped out of the banneton
- Take your blade or knife and make a swift and decisive cut across the top of the loaf – as a start for this loaf, do just one single one from one side to the other. Cut depth should be about 1 cm at its deepest (any less and there won’t be much spread, too much and you’ll cut into the air holes and deflate the loaf). See my post on nine top tips for bread scoring
- (If you’re feeling adventurous immediately, do four cuts in a criss-cross pattern as in the main bread image for this recipe)
- Now your bread is ready to go in. But, first tip the cup of water into the flat baking tin at the bottom of the oven – this is to create steam
- Immediately put the baking tray + loaf in the oven and close the door
- Increase the temperature to 240C fan oven or 260C conventional oven (or if not using fan setting)
- Set a timer for 45 minutes
- As soon as your oven gets up to temperature, turn it down by 20 degrees (to 220 C fan / 240 C conventional)
- What to look for: when baked your loaf should be a nice rich warm brown colour. Where the slashes/scores were made these will be darker. The crust should look dry
- To test it’s done tap the bottom of the loaf and it should sound hollow and feel fairly rigid. To test throughly, if you have a digital probe thermometer, the bread should be 80C or more
- Not done? Put it back for another 10 minutes
Here are some alternative times for your sourdough method:
Bake in a day – you need to be an early bird!
Refresh your starter last thing before going to bed the night before (note the timing change here works as your bread is doing the main ferment in the day when it’s warmer – at night it’s colder and the ferment takes longer)
5.30 am stage 1: mix and autolyse – autolyse for 30 mins only
6.00 am stage 2: gluten development. Only perform one lift, stretch and fold routine
6.20 am stage 3: first ferment – leave, covered, all day
6.00 pm stage 4: shaping
6.15 pm stage 5: second ferment
9.30 pm stage 6: score and bake
Changing your sourdough up after practice
Alternative flours, inclusions and flavours – please see the list on my ‘simple yeasted bread‘ recipe. The advice and suggestions there for swapping out flours, adding extra ingredients, making the bread enriched and for adding flavourings and colourings go just as much for wild yeast sourdough as they do for bread leavened with commercial yeast.
A gallery of just a few of my many wild yeast loaves (these are made using this base recipe, some with slight change-ups, such as the addition of Marmite and cheddar, cider apple vinegar or beetroot):