Homemade Sourdough Bread Secrets

Baking sourdough bread at home has surged in popularity recently. I started experimenting with sourdough baking four or five years ago. A vegan sourdough waffle recipe on my other website attracted many visitors. Then, after baking sourdough bread and serving it at several social events, I started receiving inquires about how I make it. I’m excited to share some of that information here.

Authentic sourdough requires letting the dough sit overnight to ferment and rise. This creates a different flavor and texture than many store-bought breads, which use a quicker process. Some research suggests that the traditional sourdough process makes certain nutrients more easily available to the body, and that the bread may be easier for some people to digest. In addition to enjoying the bread, I also find the process of creating it to be emotionally therapeutic. It helps me to slow down and appreciate a common food item that we often take for granted.

Because sourdough bread making involves natural processes, each loaf is going to be different. While I outline some tips and best practices I’ve discovered, it is not an exact science. Only through practice will you discover which guidelines you should follow more carefully to yield the kind of loaf you enjoy, and which guidelines you can follow more loosely or even disregard.

homemade sourdough boule with a groovy ear pattern

Several items follow:

  • a short instructional video, from Breadtopia, illustrating the process I use
  • three modifications of a no-knead sourdough recipe from that site
  • information on equipment and special techniques
  • information on sourdough starter

The video below, originally posted on Eric Rusch’s Breadtopia no-knead sourdough recipe page, illustrates the process I use. His page now has an updated video and recipe with a slightly different method. Regardless of which method you choose, I recommend reading the text of the Breadtopia page alongside this one, as it has much useful information.

Sourdough No Knead Bread
homemade sourdough bread side view
cutaway view of a homemade sourdough boule

Fifty-Fifty No-Knead Sourdough Bread (50% whole wheat, my current favorite)

Ingredients

1 3/4 cups white bread flour
1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup starter
1 3/4 cups water, roughly room temperature

Directions (see video above for more detail)

Add the flour and salt to a large bowl and stir or whisk until well mixed.

Add the starter and water to a small bowl and whisk until the starter is dissolved.

Pour the dissolved starter and water mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until well blended.

Cover the bowl with plastic and allow the dough to ferment overnight at room temperature, for 9 to 11 hours.

Remove the dough from the large bowl. Stretch and fold the dough and then allow it to proof in a covered bowl for 1 to 2 hours.

Bake 35 minutes covered at 500 F, and then another 8 minutes uncovered at 450 F.

sourdough bread with dahlias
homemade sourdough bread and dahlias

Forty-Sixty No-Knead Sourdough Bread (41.4% whole wheat)

Ingredients

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons white bread flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup starter
1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons water, roughly room temperature

Directions (see video above for more detail)

Add the flour and salt to a large bowl and stir or whisk until well mixed.

Add the starter and water to a small bowl and whisk until the starter is dissolved.

Pour the dissolved starter and water mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until well blended.

Cover the bowl with plastic and allow the dough to ferment overnight at room temperature, for 10 to 12 hours.

Remove the dough from the large bowl. Stretch and fold the dough and then allow it to proof in a covered bowl for 1 to 2 hours.

Bake 35 minutes covered at 500 F, and then another 8 minutes uncovered at 450 F.

Teff-Wheat No-Knead Sourdough Bread

Replacing a small amount of the whole wheat flour with teff flour adds a pleasant flavor that I enjoy. Follow the directions for Forty-Sixty No-Knead Sourdough above, with the following changes:

  • Replace 1/4 cup of the whole wheat flour with teff flour (not to be confused with whole teff grain).
  • Reduce water to 1 1/2 cups.

Equipment and Techniques

Temperature and Fermentation Times

Fermentation times can vary significantly depending upon exact temperature. Also, recipes with higher whole wheat content have shorter fermentation times. In the U.S. Pacific Northwest winter, we set our thermostat at 63 F at night and 68 F during the day.

I usually place the dough bowls upstairs where it’s a few degrees warmer to ferment overnight, and let it sit 9 1/2 to 10 hours (Fifty-Fifty recipe above) or 10-11 hours (Forty-Sixty recipe above) before stretching and folding. The Teff-Wheat recipe has yielded good results with around 11 hours of fermentation in the winter and 10 in the summer.

Water

I use filtered water to ensure that any microorganism-prohibiting chlorine is removed, but I’ve seen claims that tap water works fine. My understanding is that chlorine also naturally dissipates over time. If the water from the Brita pitcher feels quite a bit below room temperature, I heat it in the microwave for 20-30 seconds to warm it slightly before mixing it with the starter to dissolve it. (Don’t microwave or heat the starter in any way!)

Stretching and Folding Phase

The two recipes above create dough with a fairly high level of hydration. This creates a crumb or interior that tends to have some larger holes. It also means you’ll want to keep your hands and the surface you’re working on well-floured with all-purpose flour, to minimize sticking.

Not every loaf has holes like those below, but several of them have. If this excites you as it does me, you’re in the right place.

sourdough bread with big holes in crumb
sourdough bread with big holes in crumb

Proofing Bowls with Homemade Handles

Many people use proofing baskets. I modified two 8-cup (64-ounce) plastic bowls by putting simple handles on the bottom. The handles are repurposed paper clips, shaped with needle nose pliers. I created holes in the bottom lips of the bowls by heating the end of a paperclip and poking it through the plastic. You could also use a sharp pin, holding it with the pliers if needed.

bread proofing bowl with homemade handle
sourdough bread proofing bowl with homemade handle
bread proofing bowl with homemade handle
another bread proofing bowl with homemade handle

The handle allows me to turn the dough into the hot dutch oven more easily, and with more control. I can get the bowl closer to the bottom surface when tipping it, which lessens the height and thus the impact velocity of the dough, so it doesn’t lose as much of its retained air upon landing. Also, it makes it easier to keep the top lip of the plastic bowl from touching the very hot surface of the Dutch oven.

Even though the dough still drops several inches into the Dutch oven with a bit of velocity and flattens out some, it usually still gets plenty of rise once it starts baking.

hand holding dough proofing bowl with homemade handle
bread proofing bowl handle in action

Before putting the dough into the proofing bowl, I spray or rub the entire inside of the bowl with oil, and then coat it with a thin layer of cornmeal, per Breadtopia suggestions. This helps keep the dough from sticking to the bowl, and some of the cornmeal sticks to the outside of the dough. I enjoy the texture it adds to the crust. Rice flour provides a similar effect, but I prefer cornmeal.

While I’ve had good luck with refined coconut oil, I might soon experiment with an oil that doesn’t solidify at room temperature and that has a higher smoke point. Because refined coconut oil starts to break down around 450 F, something like avocado oil might be healthier. Also, it might reduce the small amount of smoke that the baking process creates. The cornmeal might stick even better to a non-solidifying oil. Because I’m using such a small amount of oil for each loaf, oil experimentation hasn’t been a priority.

Dutch Oven

cast iron Dutch oven for sourdough bread baking
Dutch oven for sourdough bread baking

I bake the loaves in a lightly oiled (I use a paper towel to wipe off any excess so it’s a very thin coating) 5-quart cast iron dutch oven with a glass lid, and a bit of cornmeal sprinkled on the bottom.

I usually bake two boules the same day. I mix, ferment, and start both batches proofing at the same time. I bake them one right after the other, allowing the first batch to proof for 1 to 1 1/4 hours. This allows the second to proof for 1 3/4 to 2 hours. Both boules usually turn out fine. Again, you may need to experiment with different fermentation and proofing times, given such factors as the temperature of your dwelling.

sourdough in Dutch oven
proofed sourdough in Dutch oven, ready to bake

Prior to baking the first loaf, I preheat the oven to 500 F with the covered Dutch oven in it. For the second loaf, I just turn the temperature from 450 back up to 500 after the first loaf is done, and put the second one right in. It usually takes only a few minutes to get back up to full temperature. I don’t add any more oil to the Dutch oven for the second loaf; I just sprinkle in a little more cornmeal.

I set my phone timer in addition to the oven timer, so I can get things done elsewhere outside the kitchen.

Cooling and Cutting

I’m big on repurposing items when possible, so I use the rack out of the toaster oven and a metal vegetable steamer for cooling racks. While I sometimes have difficulty waiting for the bread to cool, I usually follow others’ suggestions to let it sit for around two hours before cutting.

Storage

After cutting the boule, I put the slices into plastic bags and store them in the freezer. Each morning, I heat up a few slices in the toaster oven for breakfast--just enough to thaw them and toast them very lightly. I enjoy topping them with melted chocolate chips, nut butter, and cinnamon. I sometimes also put a few pieces in a sealable container and leave them on the counter, so there are a few fresh pieces to nibble on.

Sourdough Starter: Your Bubbly Friend

sourdough starter in container
sourdough starter, recently fed, in container

What is sourdough starter?

Starter is a blend of flour and water that’s initially left out for several days, and “fed” with additional flour and water until the natural yeast in the environment begins to populate it and make it bubbly. It can then be maintained in the fridge and used to create bread with nothing more than the starter, flour, water, and salt. Or, it can be used for other baked goods, like waffles, cookies, etc.

Creating or obtaining a starter

Start by asking friends and neighbors if anyone has sourdough starter. You can also order starter from sites like eBay, where you’ll find varieties such as “The Beast,” which has some humorous photos. Or, you can make your own, if you’re willing to wait at least a week before you’re able to bake bread.

To create my sourdough starter, I used the directions from King Arthur Flour’s site. I used 1/2 cup all-purpose plus 1/2 cup whole wheat flour in the very first step to get it started, and then just all-purpose after that. I often use what our neighborhood store (WinCo) sells in its bulk section as “unbleached flour.” If you don’t want to waste as much flour in the beginning, you can experiment with halving all the amounts. Note that no refrigeration should be done while you’re getting the starter established.

Maintaining the sourdough starter

Once your starter is established, you can store it in the fridge. This slows down the fermentation process so that it doesn’t need to be fed every day. This makes sense for those of us who bake only once per week or so.

Since my starter has been established, I now remove all but roughly 1/4 cup of starter from the storage container (what’s removed is used for baking) and then add about 1/3 cup filtered water (room temperature or cooler) and a generous 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour roughly once a week. This is while keeping it in the fridge, covered in a container that holds in the moisture but has a tiny hole in the lid for air to escape. Adjust the water and flour amounts slightly if needed so it’s thin enough to be stirrable but thick enough to be difficult to pour. Also, the storage container should be at least twice the volume of the unfed starter, to allow it room to expand.

Prepping the starter for making dough

As noted above, storing starter in the fridge makes it easier to maintain for those who don’t bake every day. However, this means that the starter culture may need a few hours to become fully active again after you remove it from the fridge.

I’ve found that if I take starter back out of the fridge around a week (give or take a few days) after its last feeding, it’s not always necessary to feed and let it sit out at room temperature to “bring it back to life” before using, as some suggest. I sometimes just measure out what I need for the dough and put it right to use.

However, I get more consistent results when I feed the starter and let it sit out several hours just before use. Here’s how I do that.

If I have roughly 3/4 cup (after being stirred down) of unfed starter that’s been sitting in the fridge for close to a week, I’ll take it out of the fridge anywhere from 4 to 7 hours before I plan to make the dough. I feed it by stirring in about 1/3 cup filtered water at room temperature and then roughly half a cup of unbleached all-purpose flour. (No need to discard any starter at this time.) I let the starter sit at room temperature so it becomes very bubbly and active. It may double in size. You can test it for readiness by dropping a small amount in water to see if it floats. It doesn’t need to be exactly at its “peak,” and factors such as home temperature and thickness of the starter can create a lot of variation. Experiment and see what works best for you.

When it’s time to make dough, I stir down the starter and measure out what I need. I then discard (or find another use for) any remaining starter beyond roughly 1/4 cup. I feed that remaining 1/4 cup of starter by stirring in about 1/3 cup filtered water at room temperature and then roughly half a cup of unbleached all-purpose flour.

Just after feeding, I usually let the starter sit on the counter for around half an hour--while I’m making dough and doing any cleanup--before putting it back in the refrigerator. Some suggest that this helps the fermentation to get going again. However, I’m not always able to do this, and I haven’t noticed a significant difference when I haven’t.

Additional sourdough starter resources

Note that the rough timelines above may vary for you, depending on factors such as the temperature of your refrigerator. Breadtopia also has instructions on managing sourdough starter, including the video below.

Sourdough Starter Management

Happy sourdough bread baking!


Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

2 thoughts on “Homemade Sourdough Bread Secrets”

  1. I love this blog, and my bread turned out perfectly! I just ordered a bread cloche! Very excited to try it with my next batches. Thanks for your great work!

  2. You’re very welcome, and thanks for the kind words. I’m glad to hear it turned out. I hope your future sourdough bread adventures are fun and delicious!

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