Step by step beginner’s guide to perfect sourdough bread

I'm not going to lie - my first sourdough bread was a brick. In was in 2011, when I started my sourdough bread baking journey. I got myself Chad Robertson's book Tartine Bread and a dutch oven in a hope to get that perfect crunchy crust and tender soft crumb. First, it took me a while to make sourdough starter (I blame winter for this), and the dough was anything but rising. My transition to sourdough bread was due to health issues, so I thought it would be a great choice to stick to the whole grain flours to make my first sourdough bread.  Let's say this wasn't the smartest idea. Looking back, all I was missing to make good looking and tasty sourdough bread was tools, some essential tips and awareness about the dough.

Today I know I need to first know the flours I'm using and to feel the dough in order to know when to move to the next step.

I hope this (lengthy, khm) step-by-step guide makes you curious and motivated to make your own sourdough bread. Don't be scared about how long this post is - the amount of your presence in making sourdough bread is shorter than the time you needed to read this post.

Let's go!


Before we dive into the detailed instructions, I would like to invite you to the three part background series of tips, tricks and secrets of sourdough baking. If I had these advice when I started, I would be one happy baker.
Part 1: Six biggest challenges when starting sourdough baking and how to overcome them?
Part 2: 7 essential keys to sourdough baking
Part 3: Do you recognize 3 early warning signs of underproofed bread?


Beginners sourdough bread

TOOLS

In basisc, you will need:

- a bowl for mixing the dough
- dough spatula or (and) bench knife for handling and cutting the dough
- digital scale to measure the ingredients
- bread rising basket (banetton) - I used 20 cm (8") wide basket
- dutch oven for baking (or baking stone)
- blade or sharp knife for scoring the dough

If you don't have all the tools at home, there is plenty of space for improvisation. Check also my article at Food52 about 10 essential tools for sourdouhg baking at home.

BAKING SCHEDULE

Starter for this bread was prepared in the evening and left to rise overnight. Just after preparing the starter, I also mixed the flour and water and left it for autolyse until the next morning when I added sourdough starter and left it to rest for another hour. After one hour of rest, I added salt and left the dough to bulk ferment for three hours to build the strength of the dough.  After the bulk fermentation, the bread was preshaped, left to rest on the bench for 15 minutes, shaped and put into rising basket. It was left to rise for three hours at the room temperature (summer) and then baked in a dutch oven - 20 minutes with the steam and 25 minutes without steam.

As you will see below, I didn't write down the exact time of the steps, only the time needed in my case. There is a lot of variables that effect the time of rising (like amount of starter in the dough, types of flours used), temperature of the ingredients and environment being the most important ones.

See the alternative for this baking schedule at the end of the post.

FLOUR SELECTION and HYDRATION LEVEL

For this bread, I chose white wheat flour, type 500. In Slovenia, the flours are not equipped with information on the protein level of the flour, but only with type of flour, depending on the amount of bran contained. The most similar to the one I used would be bread flour in US.

Hydration level is the amount of water in the dough in regards to the total amount of the flour. If you have 1000 g of flour and 700 g of water, that's 70% hydration.

Important note: due to the different flours used, the hydration level stated in the recipe might not apply to your flour. This is why it is very important to know how much water your flour can handle. It might handle less or more - act accordingly. What you aim for when mixing the flour, water, and sourdough starter is the consistency of the dough that feels right - both stretchy and elastic (the ability of the dough to bounce back). Too much water in the dough and you can get from elastic dough to runny dough. On the other hand, a little bit more water in the dough and you can get from tight to open crumb. It's about balancing and the feeling in your hands.

INGREDIENTS

Sourdough starter
75 g white wheat flour
75 g water
1 tablespoon of mother sourdough starter

Dough
400 g of white wheat flour
290 g water at 30°C/86°F (72.5 % hydration of the dough)
8 g salt
150 g sourdough starter from above


STARTER

Sourdough starter

First, you will need an active and healthy mother sourdough starter. If you haven't started one yet, download the tutorial on how to make it here.

In the evening, mix 75 g of white wheat flour (bread flour) with 75 g of water and 1 tablespoon of your mother sourdough starter. You can use a smaller jar or a smaller bowl, whaterever you prefer, however, if you use a glass jar, you will be able to see the starter's activity better. In the morning, the volume of the starter should be doubled and there should be bubbles at the side and at the top.

DOUGH

In the evening, also mix the dough, - but only flour (400 g) and water (280 g - leave 10 g for the morning when you will mix in the salt). Why? Mixing flour with water will make the dough undergo the autolysis.
ALTERNATIVE: I sometimes skip the long overnight autolysis and instead I mix the dough in the morning and leave it in autolyse for an hour or hour and half. The best way is to experiment and to find out what suits your flour best.

Autolysis (from Greek word meaning self-digestion) is a process of the protein protease starting to break down the proteins in the flour when it's mixed with water. Broken proteins then start realigning and forming gluten network.
When adding water to the flour, keep in mind, that the dough will relax during the night, so it's better to start with less water and add it more in the morning if the dough feels dry.

The photo below shows the dough in the morning. We can see it's relaxed and that the gluten strands are developed.

Beginners sourdough bread

In the morning, mix your starter into the dough and knead the dough well for couple of minutes. Next, leave it to rest for one hour before putting in the salt.

Beginners sourdough bread

After one hour has passed, add the salt and the remaining 10 g of water. Also, depending on the consistency of the dough, now it's the time to add more water to the dough.

Next, leave the dough for the bulk fermentation. In this period, the dough should get stronger, puffed, and airy and should also increase in the volume (appr. by 30-40%).

During the bulk fermentation, you can also perform a series of stretch and fold (3-5 times in intevals of 30-45 minutes). This will help the dough to gain strength. To perform stretch and fold, grab the dough at one side, pull it up and fold it over itself. Repeat on four sides of the dough.

Beginners sourdough bread
Beginners sourdough bread

At the end of the bulk fermentation the dough should feel puffed, strong and greasy to the touch and should have nice pleasant sweet smell. Undeveloped dough in the bulk fermentation could be one of the reasons for underproofed bread.

PRESHAPING, SHAPING and FINAL RISE

Once the bulk fermentation is finished, take the dough to unfloured surface. Lightly dust it with flour, then take your bench knife or spatula and flip the dough upside down, so the floured side in on the bench now (or if you prefer - dust the bench and simply turn the dough out of the bowl).
Using the bench knife, flip the dough over itself and use hand moves the shape it into round shape.

If the dough was correctly fermented, then you will see small (or big) bubbles on the surface of the dough. Leave the dough to rest and relax for 10-15 minutes, the shaping will be easier then.

Beginners sourdough bread

In the meantime, prepare the rising basket. Cover it with a kitchen cloth and lightly dust it with flour (left photo below). Observe how the dough relaxes and spreads in ten minutes (right photo below).

Beginners sourdough bread

After ten minutes have passed, take your bench knife or spatula and carefully turn the dough upside down. Start shaping the bread by pulling the bottom part of the dough and folding it onto itself (right photo below).

Beginners sourdough bread

Next, pull the left and right side and fold them over as well. You can also continue folding left and right side to the top of the dough and folding in the next step gets easier.

Beginners sourdough bread

Fold the upper part of the dough towards the bottom, then use your hands or bench knife to roll the dough to create the tension on the surface (right photo below).

Beginners sourdough bread

Flip the dough into the rising basket smooth side down. Dust it with flour and then cover it with the rest of the cloth. Put the rising basket into the plastic bag to prevent the dough from drying out while rising. This step is especially important when your let your dough rise in the fridge.
My dough needed 3 hours at the room temperature and 1 hour in the fridge to rise fully (right photo below). The reason I put the dough in the fridge is the fact that it is much easier to score the dough if it has been left in the fridge for some time.
To check if the dough is ready to be put in the oven, gently press the dough and observe the rection of the indent. If it fills up very quickly, then it's not ready. The dough is ready, when the indent comes back slowly and when the volume is also incresed.

Beginners sourdough bread

BAKING

At least 30 minutes before the dough is ready to be put in the oven, heat the oven along with the dough oven to the highest temperture.

When it's heated, transfer the dough into the dutch oven. The easiest way to do it is to put a piece of parchment paper and the cutting board over the rising basket and then simply flip it.

Beginners sourdough bread

Score the dough using a blade, scissors or sharp knife. Cover the dutch oven with a lid and transfer the dutch oven to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes at 240°C (464°F), then take the lid off (right photo below) and bake for another 20-25 minutes (or until golden brown) at 230°C (464°F).

Beginners sourdough bread

When the bread is baked, take it out of the dutch oven and leave it on the cooling rack to cool down before cutting.

If the dough was properly fermented, the crust should be thick, crunchy, and brown and the bottom of the bread should be properly baked. Holding the bread in the hands should feel light.

Beginners sourdough bread

The crumb should be open and tender.

Beginners sourdough bread

I often make this bread in a way that I leave it to rise overnight. I prepare the dough in the late afternoon and shape it just before going to sleep. In the morning, the dough is well risen and ready to be baked. With this schedule you might reduce the amount of starter in the dough to slow down the fermentation.

Beginners sourdough bread

Ready to bake your beautiful sourdough bread?
I'm looking forward seeing your bread, let me know how it goes in the comment below!

16 thoughts on “Step by step beginner’s guide to perfect sourdough bread

  1. Hi Natasa,

    thanks for this really helpful post! I’m a sourdough newbie and I still struggle with shaping the dough. The first time I tried this recipe, I realized the dough was way to wet after bulk fermentation, so I tried again with 67% Hydration (or at least I hope so? 400g flour (10% whole wheat, 90% German Typ 550), 270g H2O)), because that had worked in no knead recipe I had tried before.
    The float test of my starter was positive, I did the simultanious autolyse over night plus the second autolyse with the starter before adding the salt.
    After 4 1/2 h of bulk fermentation with 4 stretch and folds the dough had risen, there were bubbles at the surface and below in the dough, so I decided to flip it on the workbench for shaping. But the dough wasn’t really homogenous but looked more like melted cheese and was really sticky, so when I tried to flip it over after sprinkling it with flour half the dough stuck to the counter.
    Does that indicate that the dough was still underproofed?

    Thanks for your help!

    Greetings from Hamburg

    Kerstin

    1. Hi Kerstin!

      So sorry to hear about your experience. I wouldn’t say it was underproofed (though it’s hard to say anything without a photo and seeing a dough, I don’t want to make wrong conclusion and lead you to a wrong direction) – was it airy and puffed? Was the dough stretchy with developed gluten? Underproofed dough feels kind of dead, but fermented one should feel alive? How was your dough? Properly fermented dough can also be sticky, but it’s manageable with a touch of flour and fast shaping technique.
      Did the surface of the dough tear when you preshaped it?
      Did it tear when you flipped it or it just spread a lot?
      Sometimes these things happend due to the flour. I experienced similar problems with Slovenian flours (quite weak in gluten or with with gluten) – everything was OK until preshaping when the dough spread like it was overproofed.

      Let me know, apologies for more questions than asnwers :/

      Nataša

      1. Hi Nataša!

        Thanks for your answer and asking so many new questions. ;o)

        when I wrote my question the bread was still in the oven, and when I took it out, it was really flat and I feared it would be not eatable like my first go at Tartine bread, which was solid on the bottom with kind of one large bubble on top, but this one is kind of fluffy, sponge like with evenly distributed small holes. So I guess it was properly fermented.

        As long as it was still in the container after fermentation everything was fine, and it was only a bit sticky when I did the folding and turning, but when I put it onto the workbench I just couldn’t handle it, neither with cold water nor with flour.

        When I tried to flip it after dusting the top with flour I didn’t manage to get all of the dough off the table and part of it stuck there, but the dough didn’t tear into two pieces but formed long (gluten?) strands, so I kind of folded it onto itself. And I never seem to get a neat, closed surface, like you can see in pictures.
        It just feels like the dough loses air the more I try to shape it and can’t keep the air inside to rise properly.

        Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures, but I’ll try to take some next time I’ll bake. And maybe I’ll try a different flour brand to see if that works better?

        Do you use foreign flour now or are there possibility to handle the dough even though it is weak in gluten?

        Looking forward to hearing from you and thanks again for taking time to help me!

        Kerstin

  2. This recipe looks perfect for a newbie like me! I have two quick questions, though.

    1. When making the dough the evening before, do you keep that sitting on the counter or do you refrigerate it?

    2. Does the hydration of my motherdough starter matter for making the starter for this recipe? Is it okay if it’s 75% instead of 100%?

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Danielle!

      1. Yes, let the dough sit at the room temperature. You could also keep it in the fridge, however, you would need to bring it to the room temperature after to get more lively dough after adding sourdough starter.

      2. Not really, you can use which ever you prefer.

      Happy sourdough baking ;)
      Nataša

  3. Wow Your blog is lovely,I am new to sourdough and so much to learn

    I love your tip in how we can refresh a starter and in parallel work a doughto autolyse overnight!
    That saves heaps of time. Last weekend, I tried to make and got all the leavin ready but too wet to handle. ( So in the hand I put in the fridge and backe it next day. My supposed to be sourdough had changed to one seasame bread and foccacia look alike :p
    Looks ok with holes and everything but seems not enough proffing? As abit hard at 220C for 20 mins and pale (I found out in your blog)

    Very useful tip , I will read through your blog as I just stumbled across your blog yesterday:)

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Hi Natasa,

    I’ve been making sourdough for a while but nothing like your loaves (always dense, lower hydration loaves). I was very excited about trying out your method here but I’ve come into some trouble.
    I followed your recipe but when it came to moving the preshaped dough from the couche to the dutch oven, my dough stuck really badly to my couche. I floured it lots and lots with a blend of rice flour and white flour but the dough still stuck and the linen is visibly wet in places. What could this be due to?

    Thank you for the recipe and in advance for your help.

    Rachel

    1. I tried for months to use those beautiful, expensive, coiled bread baskets for rising my sourdough loaves—but no amount of flour, with or without a cloth, prevented the dough from sticking. (I know the sourdough starter is like liquid cement!) I too would love to figure out how to proof sourdough in a couche. Any tips welcome.

  5. Mnogo mi je žao što ne mogu pola da razumem, Pravila sam sa kvascem sličan hleb ali to nije ni sličan ukus. Kupujem ovakav gotov hleb ali bi želela sopstveni.

  6. Two questions:

    1. What flour do you suggest I use here in Texas, I have access to Bread Flour Spring or Winter Hard Wheat, in your actual recipe you write White Whole Wheat flour which is different here in the US from Bread flour. Which do you suggest I use?

    2. What size is the dutch oven?

  7. Hi Natasa! I am studying your guide…maybe you already answered that, you did overnight autolyse at room temperature? Your flour was strong or weak? I’ve never done an auotlyse longer than 1 hour…
    thanks a lot!
    Damiano

  8. Hi Nataša,

    Thank you for this extensive introduction to the artisan sourdough bread making and for the little pdf booklet on making your own mother sourdough – I’m well passed my first month following the steps from it :)
    I’ve made sourdough before (since 2013) but your site just increased confidence and interest in it – as Maurizio says ‘ I’m a self-taught pathological sourdough baker. When I’m not baking, I’m probably thinking about baking.’ – Love it.

    I’ll be making some wet dough bread later and if it works out I’ll share the pics. One question that I have is if you are counting in your dough percentage the leaven as well or that comes as an extra?

    The reason I ask is that sometimes my leaven is bubbly and spongy and other times (when I do it with white strong organic flour) it’s kinda watery and less risen even though it’s left for the whole day or night beforehand.

    I am still exploring your website and apologise if you’ve already done it but would be great if you can make some videos on folding, bulkproofing and shaping techniques that you do.

    Thanks a lot and please keep up sharing!
    Dimitrije Dica

  9. Hi Natasa!!
    Im from Brazil and new to sourdough!! And your blog is lovely,
    thank u so much for this really helpful post!
    I have have one question.

    )When you said that you sometimes prepare the dough in the late afternoon and shape it just before going to sleep, do you do the bulk fermentation and a series of stretch and fold before? And let rise overnight even for more than 10 hours?

    Thank you so MUCH!!

  10. Hi Natasha,

    So I just tried this recipe and technique but because i did not have a proper sourdough starter yet, I actually tried to experiment with my poolish instead in replacement of the sourdough called for. I just want to say it came out amazing!! Hopefully I will get going on making a sour dough starter one of these days to really experience your recipe but so far I couldnt be happier!

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Sierra,

      thank you so much for stopping by and for your feedback, it makes me happy to hear this :)
      Poolish is great choice if we are just starting with fermentation experiments, as we get familiar with the dough structure and it’s more on a safe side which is very important for learning. In this way we get to sourdough with confidence.
      Do let me know if you need any help with sourdough.

      Have a great week, Nataša

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