My very first sourdough loaf surprisingly turned out to be pretty decent, but oh boy, was it sour. Sour like those candies you only eat at the movie theater because they destroy your tongue, sour. Ok, maybe an exaggeration, but I remember my wife choking down a slice, commenting that it was “pretty good, yeah, pretty good bread,” and only later did she fess up that it was “actually not really that good to be honest.” But all-in-all the bread had a nice rise and a great crust, and it did taste great. And you know what, we ate the entire loaf. One does have to start somewhere, right? And starting can be daunting, especially with sourdough, but that’s what this post is about: a beginner’s sourdough bread. This post is a how-to guide on getting started with baking my sourdough style at home, with extra description at each step.
I vividly remember the weeks leading up to that first loaf: weeks of voraciously reading Tartine Bread, finally thinking that my newborn sourdough starter and I were ready to take on the sourdough world. Dog-eared pages, post-it notes, bookmarks, torn pages, and highlighted passages peppered the book that first kindled my baking spark. My notebook had a schedule scribbled down with what to do when, and how to do it. Flour was purchased. Water was filtered. The kitchen towels were cleaned. And just like any sound engineer, I dove in head-first and got my hands dirty.
With many breakfasts and dinners with fresh sourdough, I found myself descending into a full baking obsession. There was something ancient about performing the whole process. It is exciting to mix such humble and straightforward ingredients that would eventually produce beautiful, life-giving sustenance: modern-day alchemy. It’s such a simple thing yet brings so much joy when family & friends tear into a freshly baked loaf. I wanted to bake every day of every week.
Let’s get started with a short introduction before we dig into the beginner’s sourdough bread recipe. The following standard baking terms and definitions will help us have a common vocabulary, especially when baking any artisan sourdough bread recipe.
A starter is a mix of flour and water that naturally ferments. You’ll refresh the starter indefinitely. When you want to make bread, you take a small amount of this starter to create an off-shoot or levain. This levain will eventually be used in making bread and cease to exist when baked in the oven.
Levain (or leaven)
A levain is made with a small off-shoot of your starter. It’s “built” to provide the dough with a starting population of yeast and bacteria. It’s an off-shoot because the levain is eventually mixed into the dough when making bread. The levain has the same fate as the bread itself: to be baked in the oven. It is always made with a portion of your starter when the starter is ripe.
Autolyse (“auto-lease”) is a step in the baking process where only flour and water are mixed together , always at the beginning of the whole process. Not only does it initiate enzymatic activity in the dough which helps draw out sugars from the flour, but it also increases its extensibility (the ability for the dough to stretch out without tearing). Increased extensibility is a good thing: it allows the dough to expand and fill with gasses, resulting in a light and airy loaf.
See my guide to the autolyse technique for more information on its benefits and uses.
Bulk fermentation is the dough’s first rise. The dough is kept in a single mass and takes place after mixing the flour, salt, and levain. The fermentation process during this step is critical. During this time, fermentation continues in the main dough as bacteria and yeast (from your sourdough starter) begin to generate organic acids, alcohols, and leaven. Additionally, this is the time when you might give the dough additional strength through stretching and folding.
The proof is the dough’s final, or second, rise. I typically proof my dough at a cold temperature in the refrigerator (also called “retarding”). During this time, the divided and shaped dough continues to ferment, further strengthening the dough and leavening it.
Final Dough Temperature (FDT)
The final dough temperature (FDT)6 is the temperature of the dough right after mixing all ingredients. Naturally, each component (levain, the flour, the water, and the ambient environment) has a temperature. While most of these are out of our control, we can adjust the water temperature. Adjusting it enables us to change the FDT of the entire dough mass to meet whatever the recipe calls for.
In the following example, we will determine what our water temperature needs to meet an FDT of 78°F (25°C):
|Room Temperature||75°F (24°C)|
WaterTemp = (FDT x 4) – (LevainTemp + FlourTemp + AmbientTemp) 7 WaterTemp = (78 x 4) – (75 + 70 + 75) WaterTemp = 92°F
We need to warm our water to 92°F (33°C) so at the end of our mix, our final dough temperature will be 78°F (25°C).
For more information on dough temperatures, and even a desired dough temperature calculator, head to my post on The Importance of Dough Temperature in Baking.
Baker’s Percentages (Baker’s Math)
Baker’s math, or baker’s percentages, help bakers adjust the ingredients’ actual quantity up or down, depending on how much bread they have to make. I write all the formulas here using baker’s percentages where all ingredient weights are a percentage of the total flour weight, which always adds up to 100%.
For a deeper look at this, have a read through my introduction to baker’s percentages.
If you’re finding this beginner’s sourdough bread recipe too involved, look at my Simple Weekday Sourdough Bread for a different approach.
Creating a Sourdough Starter
It all begins with a sourdough starter. The first thing we need is a healthy sourdough starter showing consistent signs of fermentation each day. If you’ve already done this, we can proceed; if not, I have an entire post dedicated to creating a sourdough starter.
For information on how I maintain my starter on a day-to-day basis, please take a look at my sourdough starter maintenance routine. In it, you will see the visual and aromatic cues when your starter is ready for refreshment (feeding).
There are a few necessary tools for baking your first loaf of this beginner’s sourdough bread. The following might look like a long list, but many of these things you probably already have in your kitchen—only buy what you don’t have. However, one item is necessary to draw attention to it upfront: a kitchen scale. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, please consider buying one. Measuring flour with cups and scoops is entirely inaccurate!
You can find a full list of all the tools I use when baking at my baking tools page.
I didn’t quite grasp when I started baking how crucial it is to monitor your dough and ambient temperature. This is where an instant-read thermometer plays a role.
Treat temperature as an ingredient , just as flour, water, and salt are ingredients.
You must treat temperature as an ingredient. This means if you mix with water that is 70°F (21°C) and then a week later mix with water that is 80°F (26°C), you will get drastically different outcomes. Keep in mind that lower temperatures generally mean things will take longer. Higher temperatures generally mean things will take a shorter time.
For more information on temperatures in baking, see my post on The Importance of Dough Temperature in Baking.
For this recipe, I used commonly available supermarket flour: Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour, Bob’s Red Mill Whole Wheat Flour, and Bob’s Red Mill or Arrowhead Dark Rye Flour. These are great flour choices, but equally suitable are any of King Arthur’s offerings. I chose “bread flour” for the white component as it has a higher protein percentage compared to all-purpose flour. This helps bring significant strength to the dough, so less mixing is required and makes things a bit easier for your first loaf of bread9.
This beginner’s sourdough bread is a two day formula where the bread is cold proofed (retarded) in the fridge overnight.
See the baking schedule at right for a high-level view of what step takes place when. Let’s get to the beginner’s sourdough bread formula, which shows all our ingredients and baker’s percentages.
Beginner’s Sourdough Bread Formula
|Total Dough Weight||1,800 grams|
|Levain in final dough||20.27%|
|Yield||2 x 900-gram loaves|
This is a roll-up of the entire formula for this dough—all of the ingredients you’ll need to make two loaves of bread. In the steps below, I’ll break out what you need for each step, so when mixing, use the table in that step.
|811g||Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour||80.00%|
|152g||Bob’s Red Mill Stoneground Whole Wheat Flour||15.00%|
|51g||Bob’s Red Mill Dark Rye Flour||5.00%|
|18g||Fine sea salt||1.80%|
|38g||Ripe, liquid sourdough starter||3.75%|
Beginner’s Sourdough Bread Method
1. Levain – 8:00 a.m.
A levain is composed of a ratio of bacteria and yeast and is essentially flour that has been pre-fermented. Not only does it add flavor complexity to the dough, but it also is the primary agent responsible for making it rise. The levain is made ahead of time and given time to ferment before mixing the main dough.
|38g||Mature sourdough starter (100% hydration)||50%|
|38g||Bob’s Red Mill Stoneground Whole Wheat||50%|
|38g||Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour||50%|
Levain build ingredients
Mix everything called for in the table above in a clean jar in the morning and store somewhere around 74-76°F (23-24°C) ambient for 5-6 hours. Keep an eye on how your levain is progressing during this time. When it’s ready to be used, it will be expanded, bubbly on top and at the sides, and smell almost a little sour. The photo above is the state of my levain just before going into my dough mix at 1:00 p.m. below.
2. Autolyse – 12:00 p.m.
The target final dough temperature (FDT) for this dough is 78°F (25°C). As described in the temperature section above, this means try to get the dough to come in at this temperature right at the end of mixing (which is also right at the beginning of bulk fermentation). If necessary, warm or cool the mixing water called for below.
|773g||Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour|
|114g||Bob’s Red Mill Stoneground Whole Wheat Flour|
|51g||Bob’s Red Mill Dark Rye Flour|
|603g||Water (this has 50g less than the overall formula, reserved for Mix step below)|
Autolyse dough mix
Using your hands, mix all the flour and the water called for in the “Dough Mix” section above in a bowl until all dry bits are hydrated. Cover the bowl and store somewhere warm (near your levain is convenient) for a one-hour autolyse.
If this is your first time using an autolyse, or you’re curious about what it does, check out my guide to the autolyse technique for an in-depth explanation.
Note that this autolyse stage does not incorporate or use salt or the levain build in any way, they are two separate entities at this point that will be mixed together later in the process.
3. Mix – 1:00 p.m.
|50g||Reserved water (this water was held back in the Autolyse step)|
|18g||Fine sea salt|
|190g||Mature, 100% hydration levain (from Levain, above)|
Final dough mix ingredients
At this point, your autolyse is complete, and your levain is ready. If your dough feels very wet and shaggy, do not use all of the reserved 50g of water; use a splash to help incorporate the salt and levain. If the dough feels good to you, use all the reserved water.
Add the ingredients in the table above (salt, reserved water, and levain) to your flour and water mixed in the Autolyse step. I like to spread everything on top of the dough, resting in the bowl, and use my hand to pinch all the ingredients together—transfer the dough to a tub or thick-walled bowl for bulk fermentation.
At this point, use your instant-read thermometer to take the temperature of your dough to get your final dough temperature. If your FDT is below 78°F (25°C) next time, use warmer water, and conversely, if it’s above 78°F (25°C) use cooler water.
4. Bulk Fermentation – 1:10 p.m. to 5:10 p.m.
At 76-80°F (24-26°C) ambient temperature, bulk fermentation should go for about 4 hours. Perform 3 sets of stretch and folds during bulk fermentation, spaced out by 30 minutes.
Each set of stretch and folds consists of 4 folds, one at the North, South, East, and West sides. Wet your hands with a little water to prevent sticking, and then lift one side (North) of the dough with two hands. Stretch the dough up high enough just so that you can fold it completely over to the other side of the dough in the bowl. Rotate the bowl 180° and do the other side (South). Finish the other two sides (East and West) to complete the set. Let the dough rest 30 minutes, covered, between sets.
After that third set of stretch and folds, let the dough rest the remainder of bulk fermentation. During this time, we let the flour ferment further, aerating it (making it rise), strengthening it, and developing flavor.
At the end of bulk fermentation, your dough should have risen anywhere between 20% and 50%, should show some bubbles on top, sides, and the edge of the dough where it meets the bowl should be slightly domed, showing strength. In the photo above, you can see all these signs.
5. Divide & Preshape – 5:15 p.m.
Lightly flour your work surface and dump out the dough. With your bench knife in one hand, divide the dough into two halves. Lightly flour your other hand, and using both the knife and your hand, turn each half of the dough on the counter while lightly pulling the dough towards you. This gentle turning and pulling motion will develop tension on the dough’s top, forming a circle.
Preshaping bread dough is an often overlooked step in the process, but it sets the stage for successful shaping later. See my guide to preshaping bread dough for more information.
Let the dough rest for 25 minutes, uncovered.
6. Shape – 5:35 p.m.
If you’re new to shaping bread dough, have a look at my Guide to Shaping a Boule (a round) in addition to the steps below. Or, if you’d like to shape this dough as a batard (an oval) instead of a boule, check out my batard shaping guide.
Lightly flour the top of your dough rounds and the work surface. Working with one at a time, flip the round so the floured top is now down on the floured work surface.
As seen in the image below, lightly flour your hands and grab the bottom of the round and stretch it lightly downward towards your body and then up and over about 2/3 the way to the top.
Then, grab the left and right sides of the dough and stretch them away from each other, fold one side over toward the other and repeat with the other side.
Then, grab the top of the circle and stretch away from your body and fold down to the bottom of the resting dough. You’ll now have a tight package that resembles a letter.
Finally, flip or roll down the dough so the seams are all on the bottom. Next, using both hands, cup the top part of the round and drag the dough gently towards your body. The angle of your hands will gently press the dough’s bottom on the counter. This creates tension, forming a skin on the top of the dough as you drag.
After shaping, let the dough rest on the bench for a few minutes and then place seam-side-up into a towel-lined kitchen bowl that was lightly dusted with white rice flour.
7. Rest & Proof – 5:40 p.m. to 9:30 a.m. (next day)
To prevent your dough from drying out overnight, place your bowls containing your shaped dough in sealed reusable plastic bags. I will usually puff up the plastic bag around the bowl by opening it wide and then quickly closing the opening.
Once covered, let the dough rest on the counter for 20 minutes. Then, retard10 in the refrigerator at 38°F (3°C) for 16 hours.
During this time, overall fermentation will slow, but bacterial activity will continue. This contributes to a more complex flavor and deeper crust coloring.
8. Bake – Next Morning: Preheat oven at 8:30 a.m., Bake at 9:30 a.m.
Preheat your combo cooker or Dutch oven inside your oven at 450°F (232°C). If you’re using a combo cooker, place the shallow side face up on one side and the heavier, deep side, face down on the other.
When your oven is preheated, take one of your plastic bag-wrapped loaves out of the fridge and unwrap it. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit over the top of your basket and place it on a pizza peel. Invert the peel and parchment paper so they are resting on top of your basket. Then, flip the whole thing over. Remove the basket, and your dough should be resting on the parchment.
Score these loaves at a 90° angle between the razor blade and dough. I chose to make a “box” pattern. If using scissors, snip the dough a few times at a very shallow angle between the scissors and the dough, forming a set of ridges down the dough’s center.
While wearing your heavy-duty oven mitt, and with caution, pull out your shallow side of the combo cooker. Using your pizza peel, drag a corner of the parchment paper to slide your dough into the combo cooker. Place it back into the oven and cover the shallow side with the deep side. This sealed environment helps trap the escaping steam from your dough to steam the loaf exterior as it bakes, encouraging maximal rise.
Bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, use your oven mitt to very carefully remove the top of the combo cooker. Leave the large side of the combo cooker in the oven to the side. Close the oven door and bake for 30 more minutes. If you are unsure if your bread is done, use your thermometer to test the internal temperature, it should register around 208°F (97°C).
When done, carefully use your oven mitt to remove the bread from the combo cooker and cool on a wire rack. Place the combo cooker back in the oven and let it heat back up for 10-15 minutes. Repeat for the second loaf.
For more information on baking bread in a home oven, check out my guide on how to bake bread in a dutch oven for some fixes.
Wait 1-2 hours before slicing the bread (I know, it’s hard to do this) to ensure the interior is set and follow my guide to storing bread to maintain freshness.
Beginner’s Sourdough Bread Conclusion
For those new to sourdough baking, this is a great place to start. This recipe makes fantastically delicious and healthy bread. Thanks to a lengthy and cold overnight proof, you get a touch of sourness at each bite. The soft crumb and crackly crust are wonderfully in balance. I’m not a fan of bread that has a pale and uninteresting crust with a spongy crumb, and this is not that kind of bread.
Baked in a combo cooker, this bread had ample steam to rise high with excellent coloring and a thin, brittle crust. A rustic bread like this begs to be torn apart and eaten with a thick, hearty stew. Perfect.
A nice and light bread with an open crumb—I’m thrilled with the outcome of this beginner’s sourdough bread. The added whole wheat and rye flour boosted fermentation activity and contributed to a nice crumb structure, and imparted a desirable creamy hue to the interior. With the addition of even more whole grains, the crumb could take on even further taste complexity.
With this beginner’s sourdough bread process and formula, you can endlessly modify with add-ins like walnuts, cranberries, seeds, and a host of other ingredients bound only by your imagination. But the most important thing is to bake and have fun. Remember that sometimes bread doesn’t come out as you intended but stick to it, and you’ll be rewarded time and time again.
And of course, buon appetito!
After baking this beginner’s sourdough bread, check out my Baking Guides page for more in-depth discussions on all parts of the sourdough bread baking process. If you’re looking at adding mix-ins to your bread, have a look at one of my favorites: walnut cranberry sourdough bread—it’s incredibly delicious.
Finally, now that you have your sourdough starter bubbling away on your counter, check out my sourdough starter discard recipes for ideas on how to use leftovers!
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The perfect bread to get started baking sourdough bread at home. This crusty, crunchy, and absolutely delicious loaf of bread is perfect for any lunch or dinner table.
- 811 grams bread flour
- 152 grams whole wheat flour
- 51 grams whole rye flour
- 730 grams water
- 18 grams salt
- 38 grams sourdough starter
- Levain (8:00 a.m.)
In a small container, mix the following and keep at 77°F (25°C) for 5-6 hours.
38 grams stoneground whole wheat flour
38 grams bread flour
76 grams water
38 grams ripe sourdough starter
- Autolyse (12:00 p.m)
In a medium mixing bowl, add the following and mix until no dry bits remain. Cover the bowl and let rest for 1 hour.
773 grams bread flour
114 grams stoneground whole wheat flour
51 grams whole grain rye flour
603 grams water
Mix (1:00 p.m.)
To the mixing bowl holding your dough, add:
50 grams reserved water
18 grams fine sea salt
190 grams ripe levain (from step 1)
Transfer your dough to a bulk fermentation container and cover.
Bulk Fermentation (1:10 p.m. to 5:10 p.m.)
Give the dough 3 sets of stretch and folds at 30-minute intervals, where the first set starts 30 minutes after the start of bulk fermentation.
- Divide and Preshape (5:10 p.m.)
Lightly flour your work surface and scrape out your dough. Using your bench knife, divide the dough in half. Lightly shape each half into a round shape. Let the dough rest for 25 minutes, uncovered.
- Shape (5:35 p.m.)
Shape the dough into a round (boule) or oval (batard)—place in proofing baskets.
- Rest and Proof (5:40 p.m. to 9:30 a.m. the next day)
Cover proofing baskets with reusable plastic and seal shut. Let sit out on the counter for 20 minutes. Then, place both baskets into the refrigerator and proof overnight.
- Bake (Preheat oven at 8:30 a.m., bake at 9:30 a.m.)
Preheat your oven with a combo cooker or Dutch oven inside to 450°F (230°C).
When the oven is preheated, remove your dough from the fridge, score it, and transfer to the preheated combo cooker. Place the cooker in the oven, cover with the lid, and bake for 20 minutes. After this time, remove the lid (you can keep it in the oven or remove it) and continue to bake for 30 minutes longer. When done, the internal temperature should be around 208°F (97°C).
Let the loaves cool for 2 hours on a wire rack before slicing.
While the recipe calls for 16 hours of total proof time, you could extend this time and bake the loaves in the morning, afternoon, or even the evening on day two. Leave the proofing dough in the fridge until ready to bake.
Keywords: Sourdough, Bread, Baking, Beginner Sourdough Bread
If you use this recipe, tag @maurizio on Instagram and use the hashtag #theperfectloaf so I can take a look!