Thursday 29 August 2013

Sourdough Basics 103: Baking a loaf of bread

Following on from my two posts about my sourdough experience - making a starter and maintaining a starter, I will now share with you some of my experiences at making sourdough bread.  Again, this is written from a beginner's perspective.  I am still not exactly sure what I am doing.  Perhaps at a later date, I can be more sure of sourdough.  For now I am delighted and amazed at the miracle of sourdough bread.  Here are my notes on what I did and what I have learnt.

First off you must have your starter in order.  Easier said than done.  Well easier to read what the experts say that to do it.  Above is my starter on Day 7 when I had swithered about what to do and left it for what I thought was too long (18 hours at room temperature).  In hindsight, this is the bubbliest starter I have had and most like those I see others like Susan and Celia producing.

It might also be a good moment to confess that my starter has been poorly.  Perhaps it was my foolishness in naming her Drusilla in the first week.  I have since read this is bad luck (the timing, not the name!)  I returned my starter to the fridge after feeding and resting it for breadmaking.  I should have fed it more.  It produced a nail polish smell after a few days in the fridge.  I have been feeding it and after about 5 days have made a loaf that seems to have worked.  I will update my Maintenance post about the neglect.

When I had that bubbly starter, I decided I might as well bake some bread.  I had read enough about dodgy how first sourdough loaves can be.  I was pleased mine was quite edible.  It was quite sour and a bit damp.  It was still good.  I was impressed.

Since then I have made another 5 loaves.  They are good but I think they could be better.  I have used a mixture of recipes and intuition.  My experience in baking with commercial yeast has been useful.  Yet I have much to learn.  It still seems a miracle I have created a starter that will make bread rise.

Here are a few basics I have picked up from reading and discussing baking sourdough bread:
  • Baking a sourdough loaf take a lot longer than one with commercial yeast.  For me that has been between 24 and 36 hours.  The longer it takes to make the bread, the more sour it will be.
  • A couple of feeds for the starter will get it really ready for baking.
  • I have been using white bread while I get my confidence up.  My friend Kathleen uses wholemeal flour (and other grains) which she says works really well.
  • A good knead for the initial dough helps develop the gluten and the bubbles of air.  The Bourke Street Bakery recommends up to 20 minutes kneading by hand.  Kathleen does 10 minutes.  Dan Lepard likes to knead briefly and rest at regular intervals - but it seems too much clock watching for me.
  • After the kneading, let it rise for the first time.
  • After the first rise, the dough should be handled gently.  Don't punch it down.  Just stretch it into a square, fold horizontally three times and then vertically three times.  Now is the second rise.
  • After the second rise it is ready for baking.  It doesn't have to quite reach double the amount before going into the oven.
  • If you want to slash the dough (something I am not great at) a sharp scalpel is very useful or a very sharp knife. You should slash about 2 cm deep.
  • Bake it in a hot oven with a tin of water at the bottom to make lots of steam for a nice crust.
  • A good dark crust is my aim.  It should be hollow when tapped if it is cooked through.
  • Bread should not be cut for at least an hour after taking out of the oven because it continues to cook.

Below I will give a brief outline of how I have made my loaves.  The best loaf to date was Loaf 4.  I loved the crusty chewy crust.  This is the method I have used a few times.

The above photo is of a loaf that I shaped.  This was Loaf 5 which I knew was a bit dry.  I was adding flour late at night while chatting to E and just didn't concentrate.  I was pleased with myself for having a go at shaping but disappointed in the loaf.  The crumb was too tight because I added too much flour.  This is the risk of not following any recipe exactly.

I have faced quite a few of the problems with sourdough baking.  Kathleen feeds all her starter to start her loaf, then removes some before going to the next step.  I tried this once in Loaf 2 and almost forgot to save some of my starter.   This happened in the morning before going to a kids birthday party when I suddenly realised I had gone one step too far without removing some starter and had to mollycoddle it.  We were late to the party but the bread was still delicious.  And Drusilla lives on.

There are many ways to make sourdough bread.  I still find the myriad of options to be overwhelming.  A tyranny of choice.  I love my loaves but still hope for better.  (Lorraine says it took her 8 loaves until she had one to be proud of.)  I would love a beautiful heavy rustic loaf with a thick chewy crust.  Sourdough is about patience.  Nothing happens quickly. 

Sourdough Loaves I have Baked:
All use white flour and are baked in my slow oven.  I try to avoid putting it in the fridge because I have so little room there.  I have been surprised at how fluffy the bread has been on the day of baking. It firms up and keeps for a few days quite nicely.  And one day I will learn the art of slashing bread to produce lovely openings on top of the bread.

Sourdough Loaf 1
Adapted from City Hippy Farm Girl
  • 10.45pm - 200g of bubbly starter (a bit sharp - this is a 7 day old starter),  375g flour, 250ml lukewarm water.  Mix together and rest 40 minutes.
  • 11.25pm - Stir in 1 tsp salt.  I used my hands a little to squelch it in - very messy.  Leave overnight in fridge with a plastic bag over it.
  • 8am - warm up the dough for 3 hours - it is winter after all!
  • 10.45am - quick 1 minute knead on floured surface - quite sticky but with a bit of flour it became smooth.  Cover with plastic bag and leave to double in size.
  • 2pm - knead and shape on a tray - dust with a little flour because the last rise stuck to the plastic bag
  • 7pm - slash unsuccessfully, baked in preheated and steamy oven at 230 - 240 C for 40 minutes.  It didn't rise as much as I had hoped - the dough was a bit soft and didn't hold its shape when it rose.  Very sour and a bit damp.  It was very crusty and tasted amazing.  A good start.

Sourdough Loaf 2 
Based on advice from my friend Kathleeen
  • 10pm - Take starter from fridge.  Add 2 cups flour, 2 cups water and let rise overnight or for about 12 hours.
  • 9am - Measure out 4 cups of starter into a bowl, return remaining starter to fridge and then add 2 cups flour.  (I forgot to measure starter and return some to the fridge so I had to take some out once the extra flour was added and then add extra water - not recommended!)  Add add 1 tbsp salt, 2 tbsp sweetner, 4 tbsp oil.  Add as much extra flour as needed to make a firm smooth dough - some in bowl and then knead in some more - I think I added between 2 and 3 cups.  Cover and prove until doubled in size.
  • 3pm - Stretch and fold.  Place in lightly oiled bread tin.  Cover and prove again.
  • 7pm - Mine had risen a lot - maybe too much.  Baked at 220 - 230 C for 30 minutes.  I really liked this loaf, though it was a bit softer and I wondered if this was the added oil and sugar.  It had a good crust.  I think I preferred the simple flour, water and salt combination.

Sourdough Loaf 3
Adapted from City Hippy Farm Girl
  • 1.30pm - firstly add 200g four and 200g water to the starter and leave until it is quite bubbly.
  • 10pm - my starter was nice and bubbly.  I removed 400g starter, fed the remainder and returned it to the fridge.  Added 750g flour and 500ml water.  Mixed til shaggy.  
  • 11.30pm - Add 2 tsp salt.  Knead for 10 minutes til smooth, adding flour as needed.  Covered and left to rise overnight at room temperature.
  • 8am - shaped dough into one loaf in a tin and one loaf on a tray.  Cover and rise.
  • 11.30am - Baked at 230 C with steam (didn't note how long but probably 30-40 minutes) until golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped.  This was one of the loaves that was amazingly fluffy when eaten fresh - see above photo.

Sourdough Loaf 4
No specific recipe used.  My notes on this bread are pretty rough - I have tried to make some sense of them because I loved this loaf.

  • 10pm (Wednesday) - fed starter a little
  • 9am - fed starter more
  • 8.30am - added flour and salt - left for a couple of hours
  • 10.30am - knead for 20 minutes and leave to rise
  • 1.45pm - the dough is very risen - I stretched and shaped and put into bread tin
  • 5pm (Friday) - slash and baked 35 min at 210-220 C.  When it came out of the oven I could hear the bread crackling as it continued baking.  What a joyful noise.  This was fluffy when opened, and then firmer the next day with a wonderful chewy crust.

Sourdough Loaf 5
This loaf was made without a recipe and I got a little over-confident methinks!  I fed my starter twice, and then added 3 cups of flour.  As soon as I did that I knew it was wrong and went through the difficult process of trying to knead in more water.  The lesson I learned was to go easy on adding flour to the starter.  The crumb was too close but it was edible.  I followed a similar method to loaf 4 but was too disheartened to take notes.

Sourdough Loaf 6
Again I used the same method as Loaves 4 and 5.  (This was my first loaf after the starter was rescued from smelling like nail polish.)
  • 9am (Tuesday) - remove starter from fridge and feed starter 100g flour and 100g water and leave until doubled in size in my starter jug.
  • 3.30pm - transferred all but about 100g starter from jug into a large mixing bowl.  Feed starter 200g and 200g water and leave covered with clingwrap until really bubbly.
  • 1pm - starter looked quite bubbly (but maybe could have have a bit more time -  I knew if I didn't start the dough soon it wouldn't be baked by evening).  I added 1 1/2 cups of flour - 1/2 a cup at a time until the dough was still slightly sticky but firm enough to knead) and 2 tsp salt
  • 3.45pm - dough was doubled in size (I think - this is one judgement I always find difficult) so I stretched and folded it into a loaf size and placed in greased bread tin.  Covered and left to double in size.
  • 7.30pm (Wednesday) - baked bread at 210-230 C for 35 minutes Sour with nice open crumb but not the large bubbly holes that I love in sourdough bread.  Crust good but not quite as thick and chewy as I like.  A good loaf of bread but much room for improvement.
Update November 2013 - for my more recent regular recipe check out my basic sourdough loaf.

Update March 2015 - my new favourite loaf is Celia's overnight sourdough loaf
And I have actually give this recipe to a few sourdough novices who found it really easy.

More sourdough information and recipes:


  1. Great work with the sourdough! Maintenance of the starter is the killer for me.

    1. Thanks Cakelaw - you just reminded me I still am needing to toss off my starter daily with the nail polish smell - yes maintenance is tough!

  2. I love this post! I have just finished reading Michael Pollan's book, Cooked, and he writes at some length about sourdough. I had a starter years ago and am slowly coming around to the idea of having another one (it's a bit like deciding to have another child, isn't it!)

    1. Thanks Lucy - I must look up the book. I think timing is important with maintaining a starter - goodness knows how mine will cope when we are on holiday this month

  3. This highlights that bread making is definitely an art. I am very impressed! You seem to have learnt a lot in a short period of time and to have made 5 edible loaves is fantastic.

    1. Thanks Kari - I have found sourdough to be even more of an art than commercial yeast baking - I still have trouble working out what sort of starter is called for in many recipes - esp as it seems starters can be so different in life and sourness!

  4. That is such a beautiful loaf of bread! So tall.

  5. Can you ship me your starter? This series of yours makes my brain hurt. Can I please just have some of yours and then I'll bake real bread? ;)

    1. Thanks Hannah - I thought my starter better but it still needs a little exra TLC - sourdough is hard to get your head around - I read quite a bit before starting and still a lot of stuff didn't make sense until I starter (and some still doesn't) but I think if you do some yeast cooking first you will find sourdough much easier

  6. Well done Johanna and yes it takes patience. I think professional bakers with those fabulous ovens still take a while to get them right too :D

    1. Thanks Lorraine - yes patience and good systems for remembering to feed the starter - oh to have a professional oven to bake sourdough in - rather than my slow old thing

  7. Growing my own sourdough starter and baking with it has been on my to-do list for longer than I care to admit! I think you've inspired me to finally dust off that pineapple juice starter recipe that's in the "someday" file!

  8. This is an excellent tutorial. Cheers for sharing. "Audrey" died a sad lonely death in the back of the fridge because I couldn't find a good regular sourdough recipe to work with and ended up thinking it was all too much hassle. Considering I am a slave to kefir and Kombucha that is saying something but this recipe gives me hope that I could make something that Steve might actually eat. Cheers for the share. I hope you don't mind me pinning your recipe? Recipes like this need to be shared :)

  9. I'm doing your loaf 1 tonight with a starter that I've been given - 15 yr old....I did kill the last one but this time I'm going to see if I can't keep her going. I have actually been reading lots and am changing it to a 100% hydration starter (thanks for your maintenance page ;)) as it is quite dry and not bubbly but more like a dry sponge - wish me luck!!

    1. Thanks Jan - good luck with your loaf - my starter is still going and now I love making celia's overnight sourdough bread - have included a link in this post in an update!


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