What You Need to Know About Sourdough

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Sourdough bread is so incredibly tasty, and sourdough baking is actually pretty easy to do. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

sourdough boule on cutting board

One of my best friends is named Marilla. She was born on a small island in Canada. She’s pretty steadfast. And so far, she hasn’t failed me.

And no, she isn’t a fictional character.

Marilla is key to my family’s Friday pizza nights. Our weekend bagels. Our daily bread.

Marilla is my sourdough starter. She’s been a close friend for over a year now, since my friend Kate sent her to me from Salt Spring Island. And you know what, learning to work with sourdough was one of my biggest and best accomplishments of last year.

It took some trial and error, but homemade sourdough bread has become a regular staple in our kitchen. My kids don’t really like store-bought bread anymore because homemade is just so good.

Sourdough Bread for the win!

And lest you think I’m sitting over here in my flour-dusted apron all day all week long, let me assure you that this process takes me no more than an hour of active time each week.

In the immortal words of my kid sister, “Amazeballs!”

Truly, learning to master sourdough bread baking has been a game changer.

If anyone in your home eats sandwiches, you know that bread from the store is not cheap. Not even the cheap kind is cheap. Since we’ve got eight people here, that’s a lot of bread. Over the last year, I’ve successfully replaced mediocre $3 loaves with exceptional, artisan-style sourdough bread for about a buck a boule.

Want to get in on the action?

fresh baked bagels and boules

The good thing about sourdough bread baking is that it’s not as complicated as it might seem. Our grandmothers and their grandmothers before them used a sourdough starter instead of yeast for years. We, with all our newfangled technology, can do it all the more easily.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the last year to make sourdough bread baking a weekly thing, including what resources to access, equipment to buy, and ingredients to use. This post will provide all the basics you need to know in order to start baking sourdough bread at home.

What You Need to Know to Bake Sourdough Bread 

First a disclaimer: I am not a baking instructor by trade. What I’m dishing out today is simply my experience as a home baker. While I’m not the most experienced in artisan, wild yeast baking, I am a learner. I’ve made all the mistakes so you don’t have to.

As I said before, I’ve done a lot of baking over the last year — six kids, remember? — so I may have more “trial and error” than most people. I’m currently doing one big bake of 4-6 sourdough boules once a week with a pizza grilling stint on Fridays. Every once in a while, I also bake sourdough crumpets or bagels.

Since fresh, home baked, sourdough bread doesn’t last as long as commercial loaves, I slice them and freeze them to keep them fresh.

When I first started, my family had to be patient with me. They didn’t love every loaf I made, but overtime, I’ve gotten better at my technique and it’s now something that everyone looks forward to.

sourdough boule cut in half

What is sourdough bread?

Sourdough bread is bread that has baked with a sourdough starter. Not only does the starter add a sour flavor, but it also acts as a leavening agent in the place of commercial yeast.

For years I used a sourdough starter for flavor only. I had no idea that you could use it as the leavening agent. The only leavening agent.

All the recipes I’d seen all called for starter as well as yeast, but it turns out that you don’t need to add the extra commercial yeast at all!

Baking with starter only to lift the bread takes more rising time, but the resulting bread is said to be more easily digested. Some folks with gluten intolerance have reported being able to eat wheat bread leavened with sourdough starter without issues. 

This process of baking sourdough bread without commercial yeast is also called natural yeast or wild yeast.

How do you make a sourdough starter?

A sourdough starter can be prepared by combining water and flour and fermenting it at room temperature, capturing the wild yeast present in the air. 

Last year I tried this process to make my starter, following the King Arthur tutorial, but it was a miserable failure. Whether there’s a lack of wild yeast in the San Diego air or I was simply doing it wrong, I do not know.

It gave me such a failure complex, though, that it actually impeded my mastering sourdough bread baking. So, don’t feel bad if it doesn’t work. Chances are you may actually know someone with an active starter who is happy to share.

No friend who can gift you some starter? No problem. You can buy some sourdough starter on Amazon. You’ll also need a starter crock or other clean container with a lid. 

The magic of the starter is really fascinating. You need just a tiny amount that you “feed” with flour and water, and it grows! And grows!

If you’re not careful in how often you bake, you may end up with the Starter that Ate New York, as I did many times last year when my starter basically overflowed from the largest storage vessel we owned!

sourdough cookbook and a cup of coffee

How do you keep the starter from taking over the world?

The reason my starter got so big is that I didn’t discard any of it. You see, the feeding process will double the quantity of your starter. If you don’t use it up in an adequate way, you’ll end up with bigger and bigger amounts of starter.

So, you can either discard half before you feed it or find some great recipes that use sourdough discard.

The cookbook Artisan Sourdough Made Simple does a great job of providing you basic, hand-holding advice for starting this process and includes some fantastic recipes. In my first few months, I consulted this book daily to make sure I wasn’t doing it wrong.

Pro tip: My kids looooove the Chocolate Chip Bread recipe in that book!

How do you feed the starter?

A starter has living yeast organisms inside it that need to be fed on a regular basis. Currently, I use my starter about once a week, feed it, and refrigerate it until I use it again.

Depending on the weather and the temps in your home, you’ll need to play with the frequency of feeding your starter as well as whether or not it will work for you to use cold starter in bread. I wouldn’t have done it a year ago, but currently it’s working for me.

To feed your starter: I use a scale to weigh how much starter I have, then I add that same weight in water and all-purpose, unbleached flour. Stir well, cover loosely, and set it on the counter to do its work.

Small Batch English Pickle for American Kitchens | Good Cheap Eats

What’s the process for baking sourdough bread?

My process for my weekly bake is this:

  1. Mix up the dough using active, bubbly starter. I use an adaptation of the basic boule recipe in the cookbook mentioned earlier. However, I mix a double batch in my stand mixer. Twice or three times.
  2. As each double batch comes together — this takes about five to ten minutes — I transfer the dough to an oiled bowl and cover it with a lid from one of my pots. Using a lid saves me from doing more washing of tea towels or using up plastic wrap.
  3. I let the dough rise for up to 12 hours, depending on the weather. Less time for warmer days. I will either mix dough right before bed or first thing in the morning, so that I can bake first thing in the morning or right after dinner.
  4. I feed my starter.
  5. When the dough is ready, I turn it out onto a floured board and divide it into two portions. I form two boules and allow them to rise 30 to 60 minutes in floured or lined banettons. 
  6. When the time is up, I transfer the boule to a round of parchment and cut some slashes in the top. This allows the bread to expand without tearing.
  7. I bake the boules in a cast iron stock pot in the oven, covered for 25 minutes and uncovered for another 20 minutes. Then I cool them on racks. My oven will hold two dutch ovens. Covering the pot for the first part allows you to get some steam action going which contributes to a crisper crust.
  8. If I have more than two loaves to bake, I get the next two rising while the first two bake. 

Sounds like time, but it’s waiting time.

Obviously, the process takes time, but most of the time is waiting time. Waiting for the first rise, waiting for the second rise, waiting for the baking to be done.

My hands-on time is pretty minimal, but attention is required at intervals. It is not recommended that you binge-watch old spy shows like Covert Affairs and forget that you have dough rising. 

It’s okay to binge-watch, just be sure to set a timer!

crumpet rings and baked crumpets

What equipment do you need?

Do you need fancy equipment to bake sourdough bread? Not exactly. If you’ve ever baked bread before, you likely have whatever you need on hand. 

I didn’t go out and buy a lot when I first started sourdough baking, but once I knew it was going to be a habit that stuck, I did invest in some special tools. 

Specifically these tools for sourdough baking:

  • banettons for shaping the boules
  • a lame for slashing the dough
  • a dutch oven for baking, okay, I bought two to speed things up.
  • crumpet rings to make crumpets (recipe coming soon!)

Is sourdough bread baking worth it?

Yes! It will take a little time and attention to master the craft, but it’s totally worth it. I feel odd buying bread at the store these days, and I’m always disappointed when I do.

Learning to bake sourdough bread felt like such an accomplishment for me. What was once an incredibly frustrating and perplexing task has become almost second-nature. 

It’s like winning in the kitchen!

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I’d love to have you join us. Register here today: https://fishmama.com/kitchen-winners/

How to Get Started with Sourdough Bread Baking

How to Get Started with Sourdough Bread Baking

Yield: unlimited amounts of delicious baked goods
Prep Time: 2 days
Active Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 2 days 1 hour
Difficulty: beginner
Estimated Cost: $15 to $30

Learn the basics to starting a sourdough bread baking habit.

Materials

Instructions

  1. Purchase a sourdough starter and follow the directions to activate it.
  2. Alternatively, you can see if you have a friend who can gift you some starter. You only need about 1/2 cup to get started.
  3. Once your starter is active and bubbly, you can use it in recipes.
  4. After you use your starter, you can discard half or use it in recipes that call for "discard".
  5. Weigh what remains. Add an equal amount of flour and water to that measurement. Stir, cover loosely, and allow to sit at room temperature until bubbly. The starter will have a distinct yeasty aroma.
  6. Use the starter continually in recipes, repeating the process of feeding it, at least once a week.

Notes

If your starter starts to smell like nail polish remover or develops orange or pink coloration or mold, it has gone bad and must be thrown out.

What You Need to Know to Bake Sourdough Bread

About Jessica Fisher

I believe great meals don't have to be complicated or expensive. There's a better way, and it won't take all afternoon.

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Comments

  1. Linda Steinbaugh says

    Hi Jessica,
    How do you handle your sour dough starter if you are on vacation? Do you toss it and start over, or do you stop the process in some way?
    Thanks.

    • I’ve not gone longer than a week/10 days between feeding it. If I were to go on an extended vacation, I would probably research how to freeze it and/or dehydrate it so I knew I had a back-up when I got home.

  2. Nicole says

    Thank you for this great tutorial! Do you know how long you can keep a sourdough (without feeding) in the fridge? I had started one and was great about feeding it weekly and then ran into a challenge and didn’t feed it for over 2 weeks. Will it still work when I feed it again or should I just start over? I am still a newbie and had only made one loaf of bread successfully prior to not feeding my starter weekly. Thanks again! I love your cookbooks and your website!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Nicole. So far, I’ve only let it go 1 week (maybe 10 days) between feedings. I’ve read that it should be okay if it’s been refrigerated for longer. I’d definitely try it.

  3. John andrus says

    Do you know that some or all of the people who are gluten sensitive might be able to eat sourdough. I am extremely sensitive and have been diagnosed with celliac disease and eat plenty of sourdough with no complications. Try a half slice and see if it bothers.

    • Isn’t that exciting? Yes, I mentioned that early in the post. I know some people it doesn’t work for, but always so glad to hear when it does work.

  4. Sounds great! But there are so many recipes to use up starter, I’ve never thrown any away. From pancakes to coffee cakes, to muffins & all kinds of baked goods that sour dough make totally yummy. I find it makes great tasting WW products. English Muffins are basically a sour dough product. The classic taste & the nooks & crannies, Thank you sour dough. They are griddle cooked & very easy. You are correct that wild yeast is more prevalent in some areas than others. Climate & prevailing winds. The trickiest part is getting a starter started. Time & patience required. That is why when our forebears had a starter, they would do whatever it took to protect it & keep it healthy. Plus a starter develops it’s flavor as it ages. The classic flavor builds over time. Keep looking for recipes to use your extra starter. It is a terrible thing to waste, the more things you use it in, the more your family will get spoiled for any baked goods that don’t have. Try making a loaf of cinnamon Raisin swirl bread ( soak raisins in hot water first), it’s as good as any cinnamon rolls with butter or cream cheese spread on it. Yum!

    • I don’t throw it away. It took some trial and error, but we found some great recipes for “discard”. Will be sharing those later this summer/fall.

  5. Jeannie says

    Going to add that rice flour is key to having no dough stick stick to the towels. 🙂

    • I have heard that! Just haven’t busted out the cash to get some. Need to remember to do that. Thanks for the reminder. So far, sticking hasn’t been bad.

      • Jeannie says

        I know I really didn’t want to shell out the dough- haha- but I mixed it with flour 50/50 and only use it for that purpose because well $$$. My cousin, who gave my starter and the book Tartine, explained that it would be much easier if I did the rice flour combo.

        Thanks for sharing this timely post. I feel as if there’s such a learning curve with sourdough. I’ve never felt so inept as I have with trying understand and start sourdough. Artisan in 5 Minutes was just such a breeze for me that this is taking time for me to time and learn.

        • That 50/50 idea is great! I need to bite the bullet. yesterday, I baked six loaves. Two stuck and four didn’t. I have no idea why.

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