I’ve been putting off writing this post, hoping I’d get good enough at making sourdough bread that I could show off some beautiful, fancy-looking loaves. I’ve made some decent-looking bread (it all tastes delicious), but I’ve not achieved that bakery-standard look I so admire in the pictures on the sourdough group I belong to on Facebook. However, my loaves are certainly serviceable, and I’ve decided to write down my recipe and my method now, because my sister is going to need it.
If you read my recent sourdough posts, you’ll know that my sister, Goldie, gave me a dehydrated heirloom starter she’d had in her kitchen drawer for about 5 years. This was Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail sourdough starter, which you can obtain for yourself by searching online for his name. I activated the starter, fed it up, and started baking with it. I finally got it strong enough again to bake bread with, so at that point, I passed a jar of Carl 1847 back to my sister, so she could begin her own sourdough adventures.
In the two or three years since I started baking sourdough bread, I’ve tried a bunch of different recipes and techniques. I want to discuss some of these before I give you the recipe and my technique, in the interests of passing along more information. More information is always better, so you can pick and choose what you want to try. I have settled on the Breadtopia no-knead sourdough bread recipe as the most consistent for me, although I’ve had to experiment with it using different flours. The recipe that follows is the Breadtopia recipe, with my own personal tweaks. I do weigh my flour, but if you look up the recipe on the Breadtopia website, you’ll see the approximate flour measurement in cups. In a way, I think measuring in cups and adding the flour slowly as you work it to get a dough that feels right is probably better than measuring and adding it all in at one time. The main thing is to get dough of good consistency, but it’s hard to determine that with sourdough. Sourdough tends to be sticky and loose, and you don’t knead it in the traditional way of yeast breads. Instead, you use a stretch and fold technique. There are lots of videos of this on You Tube and also on the Breadtopia website. ( I do recommend this website for tips and recipes.) Because of my arthritic hands, and because I tend to be working my dough late at night after mixing, I devised my own method of stretch-and-fold, using my stand mixer.
Most recipes for no-knead sourdough, including Breadtopia’s, call for putting the dough in a lidded bowl or container for a bulk rise in a warmish place for 10-12 hours (or you can do it for 48 hours or longer in the fridge if you want or need to slow down the bulk rise and get a tangier, more sour flavor). I’ve learned that the first rise needs to double the dough, but for me, it works best to not let the dough rise past the point of doubling the first time. In my house, by the heating stove in the winter (but not so close that the container of dough gets too warm and over-ferments), this takes about 10 hours. It’s about 72-74 degrees in that spot. I think 68 to 74 degrees is ideal, and the cooler end of that range is actually better, although it might take a little longer. Better to take a little longer than to over-ferment the dough, which leads to a stickier dough that becomes nearly impossible to work and won’t rise properly when baked. In the summer, I put the container of dough in the laundry room, where it’s about 70 degrees, and it takes about 12 hours. The colder the temperature in the room, the longer it will take to double the dough in the first rise (or first proof, as some bakers say, or bulk rise or ferment; you’ll see these terms used interchangeably in the videos, blogs, and websites about sourdough and bread-baking in general).
The other thing about the no-knead method is that because the dough is loose, and it will be looser after the first/bulk rise, when the flour has had 10-12 hours to absorb the liquid, it can be hard to shape. Or rather, once it is shaped, it tends to spread rather than rise up in the second proof. Traditional methods for dealing with this are the use of a proofing basket, or banneton, in which the dough would rise after shaping; then, it would be turned into a hot Dutch oven and placed in a hot oven to bake. I bought two Dutch ovens, porcelain over cast iron, one large, one small, hoping to improve somehow the look and rise of my loaves. I got a few decent loaves out of this method, but usually, when I would turn the banneton over to dislodge the risen boule into the Dutch oven, it would deflate, and I’d end up with a flat, heavy loaf. So disappointing! In short, I spent over $100 in equipment for making sourdough which I no longer use because I have worked out other methods which require no special equipment and which produce better results for me.
I have also baked sourdough in bread pans. I don’t like the result as much as I do using my method below. I find the dough doesn’t rise as well for me. I have a hunch I might have been oiling my pans too heavily, so the dough had no way to climb as it tried to rise. So if I try bread pans again, I’ll use a solid fat, like shortening, to grease the pans. Also, I think I was baking in pans at too low a temperature, about 375 F, and I think 425 F might work out better, baking on the next to lowest rack in the oven, but I have not yet tested these theories. Below is a picture of a sourdough loaf baked in a bread pan at 375 F (surrounded by sourdough discard biscuits, which I covered in another post.”
The recipe and technique that follows is what I’ve developed that works most of the time for me. (I haven’t found any method or recipe that isn’t sometimes adversely affected by temperature, humidity, and differences in flour.) I don’t guarantee this method will work for you. But if you’re interested in making sourdough without buying a bunch of stuff, you might want to try this method. By the way, I call this stand mixer sourdough bread because I use my stand mixer for the bulk of the work, but you can do this by hand if you don’t have a stand mixer. Again, watch the videos on Breadtopia for the hand mixing and folding and stretching and shaping.
Stand-Mixer Sourdough Bread
¼ cup bubbly, active sourdough starter (which should have been fed between 3-4 hours previously) *See note
1½ cups unchlorinated water
1 ¼ teaspoons of kosher or sea salt
16 ounces of bread flour *See note
In the bowl of the stand mixer, stir together the starter and water until completely mixed. Using the dough hook, mix in the flour and salt until a thick, sticky dough forms and the flour looks mixed in. This dough will not look like traditional yeasted dough, which cleans the bowl of the stand mixer with the dough ball as it rotates. This dough will stick to the sides of the bowl. Scrape the dough from the hook attachment back into the bowl. (If you are mixing by hand, and as most great bakers will tell you, mixing by hand is a good idea because that’s how you learn the feel of the dough, just work the dough in the bowl until all the flour is mixed in.) Cover the bowl with a plastic shower cap, or a sheet of plastic wrap secured by a big rubber band, and leave it to rest for 20 minutes. (This is called the autolyze period, when the flour is allowed to absorb the liquid.) Then, with the dough hook on the stand mixer, mix for about 8 seconds on the lowest setting. Scrape the dough from the dough hook back into the bowl, and cover again. Set the timer for 20 minutes, and then repeat the 8 second mix on the lowest speed. Do this twice more, so that you have mixed three times in an hour. After the third mix, you will notice that that sticky, almost battery dough has thickened up considerably and become much more dough-like and stretchy. The stretchiness indicates that gluten has built up in the dough. Gluten is a protein that gives the dough enough strength to hold a shape as it rises and bakes. This whole stand mixer process takes the place of the by-hand stretch-and-fold process you can learn about on You Tube and Breadtopia. I have no doubt that doing it by hand is actually a better way, but I had to find a way to minimize stress on my hands, and this stand mixer method works. Here are pictures of two different doughs with different flours, made exactly the same way. You can see how much difference the flour makes. These are ready for their bulk ferment, after I snap lids on.
Now it’s time for the first or bulk rise. Transfer the dough to a container with an airtight lid. I typically don’t like to store any ferment in plastic, but I found that using these square containers that once had frozen mini-cream puffs and eclairs in them is perfect. The lids snap down tight, pushing out the air, and there’s plenty of room for the dough to rise. If you don’t have a container like this, you can use the bowl of the stand mixer covered in plastic wrap with a rubber band to keep it air tight. Or you can use a clean shower cap with a tight elastic band. Or any sort of Tupperware-type container with an airtight lid. Just make sure that the dough has plenty of room to double. Put the lidded container in a warmish, not hot, place to rise for 10-12 hours. (I do my starter feedings during the day, 3 at 3-4 hour intervals, then mix my dough at night and let it bulk rise all night, so I can shape, rise, and bake in the morning.) This is a picture of a seven-grain starter dough and a heritage whole grain wheat dough after their overnight bulk rise.
After the dough has doubled in the first/bulk rise, it’s time to shape. This is where I depart a little from most of the websites. Because I don’t use a banneton any more for the second rise, I work my dough a bit more than most expert bakers advise. I dump and scrape the dough out of the proofing container onto a fairly heavily floured board. I stretch and fold (stretch-knead) the dough until it begins to hold a shape, adding flour until the dough no longer sticks to the board. When it holds a mound shape when I take my hands off it, then I can do the final shaping. I”ve come to prefer a long loaf shape to a round boule shape (I think the loaf shape works better for sandwiches, and it fits in the toaster), so I stretch and flatten my dough into a rectangle, then fold it into thirds, one third to the middle, the second third folded over the first. Pinch the seam to seal the loaf, roll it over onto the seam, and push the ends of the loaf inside or under the folds and pinch to seal. Then let the loaf sit and rest while you prepare the pan. Make sure there’s a little flour under the loaf on the board, or you might have to use a bench scraper to pick it up.
While your loaf is resting, prepare your baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, I brush on a little oil with a high smoke point; that is, it won’t burn or turn sticky in the oven at a high baking temperature. I use a baking oil or avocado oil (I get them both cheap at Grocery Outlet) with smoke points above 450 F. I brush the oil only where the loaf will rest as it rises and doubles, and around that edge, I sprinkle cornmeal, in case the loaf spreads beyond the oiled section. You can go the no-oil route like Paul Hollywood, and just use cornmeal sprinkled on the pan, but I’ve never been brave enough. I used to sprinkle cornmeal over the oil, but it makes a mess on the bread board when you slice the bread, so now I just use the cornmeal around the oil. At this point, I check my loaf. If it has lost shape while I was preparing the pan, I know I should probably work a little more flour into it, stretching and folding and gently kneading, and re-shape it into the loaf. This is why I prepare my pan after shaping, so I can see how the dough is reacting as it rests.
Move the dough onto the pan in the center of the oiled shape, and use the leftover oil on the brush to oil the top and sides of the loaf. I have also begun to slash the dough down the center at this point to allow the dough to move up, not out, and to release any surface air bubbles.
Cover loosely with plastic wrap. I make a little tent on top, so the dough has room to expand upwards. I then use my two wooden rolling pins to block the sides of the loaf, on top of the edges of the plastic, to keep the loaf from spreading and becoming too flat. Large glasses would also work, or anything large and round that will force the dough up and keep it from spreading out. This method circumvents the need for a loaf-shaped banneton for the second rise/proof, and prevents what was, for me, the almost-inevitable collapse of my loaf upon transfer from the banneton.
My bread typically needs at least two hours, often three, to double again. I like to do this second rise/proof in a cooler environment, because I’ve found that if I proof the shaped loaf in a warm environment, I get more spreading than rising, resulting in a flatter loaf. When the bread has doubled, however long it takes, it’s time to bake. One test of whether a loaf is ready to bake is to push your fingertip, or knuckle if you have long nails, lightly into the dough. If it leaves an indentation and doesn’t spring back, the dough is ready to bake. You can see in this picture that the dough has risen to fill the little tent of plastic wrap I made for it in the picture above.
Heat the oven to 450 F. Make sure your baking sheet is rated for that temperature. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, reduce the temperature to 425 F. Most cookie sheets will handle 425 F. I use a stainless steel baking sheet that is good to 450 F, and I like the result of baking the bread at that temperature, but I have baked at 425 F. 425 F will produce a softer, lighter crust. Here’s a picture of a loaf baked at that temperature, followed by one baked at 450 F.
Remove the rolling pins or glasses and plastic wrap. Using a bread lame or razor blade (or extremely sharp knife), score the bread about a quarter-inch deep either lengthwise down the loaf, or in about 5 slashes diagonally across the loaf, whichever you prefer. This allows the steam in the dough to push the dough up as the bread bakes. It’s called oven spring, and you want it, because that is what gives your bread a light crumb. If you don’t score the top of your dough, your loaf will likely explode out the side, which makes for an uneven look, although the bread will still be edible, of course. Don’t score until the loaf is ready to go into the hot oven. When you get good at scoring, which I am not, you can get fancy with the designs you cut into the top of your loaf, and they will show after baking.
Place your loaf into the middle of the hot oven and set the timer for 30 minutes. At 450 F, your loaf will be perfectly baked. At 425 F, you might need to give it another 5 minutes. Immediately remove the loaf from the baking sheet using metal spatula or two, and place on a cooling rack. Cool at least one hour before cutting. If you cut the loaf while the bread is too warm, it can become gummy, and it will dry out much faster. I eat the bread fresh for the first few days until it starts to get a little dry, then I start toasting it. It makes the best toast!
Some people store the cut loaf with the cut end against a wooden cutting board because they don’t like plastic. I don’t, because I find the whole loaf (there is no fat in it to keep it moist) dries out too much exposed to our arid air. I put my completely cooled loaves into plastic Ziploc bags. I buy the two gallon size so the loaf fits entirely inside, and I can leave it on the counter that way for as long as a week with no mold appearing. After a week, I usually put the bread in the fridge if I haven’t used it up already, or I slice the loaf and freeze the slices for toast.
Feeding your starter: It’s generally accepted that to get your starter in the best possible shape for rising a loaf of bread, you need to feed it three times in a 12 hour period before you mix the starter into the bread ingredients. I have cut that down to three times in 10 hours by reducing the time between second and third feedings to 3 hours instead of 4 hours. I always let my starter feed for 4 hours in the first feeding of the day because I have taken it from the fridge and it’s cold. It needs to warm up a bit to start eating the carbohydrates in the flour. I always use warm, not hot, water for that first feeding and put the container in a warm place. After that first feeding, tepid water is fine, and I can shorten the time between second and third feedings if I want to, so that I’m not mixing dough at midnight. Here are two bubbly starters before stirring down to measure for baking.
Types of flour:
Always use some kind of bread/strong flour, not all purpose flour. Bread flour is high-gluten flour, and your bread needs gluten to hold its shape. In the recipe above, I use 8 oz. of organic, strong, unbleached white bread flour, and 8 oz. of an organic whole grain bread flour, sometimes hard white winter wheat, and sometimes a mixture of that and another heritage or ancient grain, like Einkorn or Kamut flour. You can play with percentages of this flour and that, but be prepared for a few failures along the way. I’ve found that types of flours and proofing temperature are the two variables that can really affect success or failure, and it’s taken a lot of experimentation for me to figure out what ratios work for me. Expect to experiment yourself to find what works for you.
And remember, experiments are edible. You can always make bread cubes, bread crumbs, salad croutons, or bread pudding with a loaf that doesn’t live up to your expectations for sliced bread.
I love making my own bread. It’s time-consuming, but the results are worth it, to me. I can eat my own bread without gaining weight. Store bought bread always produced a weight gain, but since I have been making sourdough, my weight has stabilized. I can’t say I’ve lost weight, but when I am sensible and don’t eat more than a couple of pieces of sourdough a day, I don’t gain weight. This is simple bread, just flour, water, and salt. The starter is just flour and water in which natural yeasts have developed. If you use organic flours, as I do, there is no cleaner bread in the world. No sugar, no fats, no dough conditioners. You can make it more complicated if you want to, and you can spend money on bannetons and Dutch ovens, but if you don’t have to, why would you want to?