A Guide to Baking Sourdough Breads – The Easy Way

Updated: July 1st, 2022

This is how your first sourdough bread might look like!

Note: If you’re advanced and want to skip the bla bla and get right into baking, jump to baking section 🙌🥖 Otherwise you may continue 😉

Do you think baking sourdough bread is a very time consuming task that requires special equipment?

If so, I know how you feel. I’ve been there.

But, as the title already spoils: This is not true at all.

There is a very easy way that only requires basic tools that we all have at home or can borrow from someone.

This means you do not require a Dutch oven, cast iron pan or a pizza stone, nor do you need to stretch-and-fold, kneed and shape the dough.

In a nutshell, it’s as simple as this:

  1. Mix flour, water, sourdough starter and salt in a pot and cover with a lid (takes ~10min).
  2. When the dough has risen and you smell the acidity, prepare the loaf pan and pour the dough in (takes ~10min).
  3. Preheat oven and bake until it looks gorgeous and it smells beautiful (baking time ~50min).

And once you’ve done it a couple of times, it becomes really easy.

Now, in case this has made you curious: Read on.

This post is loaded with essential details and background information to help you succeed.

But before we dive into grams, percentages and directions, I want to share a few words how I got where I am today.

There’s also sections with Q&As. Should your question not be in there, drop me a comment!

Viva la inspiration ✨

In 2020 my sourdough-seed was planted. And so I began experimenting with a gluten free sourdough (rice flour based). But being a nomadic backpacker at that time, having a living and hungry sourdough culture in my pocket was not really a match. So I had to let it go.

When in summer 2021 I had a flat available for a couple of weeks, and I was anyway in planning and preparation mode for the first yoga retreat I cooked for, it was the right time to jump back on the sourdough train.

That’s where I created my first sourdough starter “Reto” – from scratch.

Ever since I bring my starters (yes, I even got a second one by now) where ever I go, bake breads and share my starter.

Sharing your starter also has the advantage that if something should happen to yours, you still have a backup 😉 But in my case, I even dried my two starters, so I have a backup that apparently lasts a lifetime!

When it comes to cooking, I find YouTube an incredibly great source of inspiration. So pretty much all my foundational sourdough knowledge I got from Hendrik and his project The Bread Code.

I highly recommend checking out his content. On there you will find tons of information, experiments and science around sourdough baking. Credits and appreciation definitely go to him 🙏✨

For the sake of simplicity, though, I’ll try to keep it to the essential inputs that you need to succeed with your first sourdough bread.

Are you ready?

Let’s get started!

My home-made sourdough starter “Reto” follows me where ever life takes me

Where to start?

With a starter.

What is a starter?

It is essentially the replacement for fresh or dry yeast.

Thanks to the sourdough starter, our bread will rise. And since we’re dealing with a fermentation process, we get a unique flavour profile that is more or less sour, depending on a few factors.

Where to get a starter?

Either you meet me somewhere, and I give you some of mine.

Or you know someone that has one.

Or you buy one.

Or… you create your own (great Video with a lot of science and background information) in just a few days.

What size should my starter jar be?

My general suggestion is:

Have just as much (and bit extra) starter in the starter jar as you actually need for the amount of breads you bake at a time.

This way you can simply use pretty much all of the starter the next time you bake, and the remaining bits of starter in the jar will be enough to ferment the fresh flour and water you add when feeding it.

A starter jar can also be tiny, but then you will most likely have to make a preferment before preparing the dough (this step essentially creates a big starter from your small starter).

How do I feed my starter?

At the beginning, I used the scale to feed my starter. This will give you a consistent result.

An example would be: 1:5:5.

That means 1 part previous starter and 5 parts flour and 5 parts water.

Or in other words: 10g starter, 50g flour and 50g water.

But, by now I know that Reto is not very picky, as long as it has fresh food. This means I leave a tiny bit of starter in my small jar (maybe worth a teaspoon), and add fresh flour and room temperature water and mix it until I don’t see any dry flour any more. I prefer to have a stiff starter (so that when I turn the jar upside down it stays in place).

Once the starter is fed, I let it at room temperature for about 4 hours (sometimes more, sometimes less), so the cultures can get active before I put it back into the fridge.

Note: The flavour of your sourdough will, among other factors, be influenced by whether your starter is more liquid or more stiff. Play with it and find your preferred flavour!

How often do I feed my starter?

Personally, I feed it every time I bake, but at least once every 7 to 10 days.

I highly recommend to check on your starter after some days in the fridge. This way you make sure nothing goes wrong.

What can I do to prevent my starter from going bad?

Some tips on this topic:

  1. Name your sourdough starter! This will creates bonding, which automatically creates a sense of caring for your baby.
    Disclaimer: No guarantee, and you’re not a bad person if it happens anyway 😉
  2. Clearly label your jar with “Sourdough”, otherwise house mates might throw it away in an unconscious fridge-clearing-mode. This happens, trust me.
  3. Use a new starter jar every time you feed it.
    Personally I don’t do this, but it can prevent having unwanted organisms in your starter jar.
  4. Share you starter with as many people as possible.
    This will provide a network of living backup starters!
  5. Alex shares 3 ways to put your starter on hold. This includes drying an active starter, turning it into powder and storing it in a dry and cool place – for years! This starter powder can in the future be reactivated with fresh flour and water.

The basic tools

As promised, you’ll only need a few things to bake this very easy sourdough bread:

  1. A loaf pan.
    But actually any container that can withstand 230 degrees Celsius works just as good. Be that made out of glass, a round cake pan, you name it.
  2. Oil or parchment paper (or any alternative).
    It works equally good in my experience. So far I have used sunflower and coconut oil.
  3. A scale.
    Ideally a digital scale. This will help you to keep track what works best with your ingredients and environment, and will allow you to replicate that one bread that turned out perfect.
  4. A pot with a lid (or a bowl and a big plastic bag).
    The dough will ferment for quite some hours, and we don’t want the surface to dry out. Having a pot with a lid available is the most convenient way. Any bowl and a big plastic bag does the job, too (make sure the bowl is big enough so that the dough doesn’t touch the plastic when it rises). And choose to re-use the plastic 🤙

Short and crispy sourdough essentials

  • No starter is like another starter.
    What kind of yeast and bacteria tribes end up in your jar depends on various factors: Mainly your environment and type of flour. So they are all unique.
  • The warmer the environment, the quicker the fermentation process.
    Using the exact same recipe, the dough will ferment quicker during summer time, compared to winter time. The same holds true for a warm kitchen compared to a cold room.
  • The more starter you use, the quicker the fermentation process.
    An extreme but simple example: Imagine a recipe with 1000g of flour. When you only add 1g of starter, it is so little, it will take a really long time to multiply and ferment the flour. Whereas if you would add 500g starter (which contains huge quantities of yeast and bacteria tribes), it would ferment a lot faster. This knowledge can be helpful when you can only bake the next day, or you have to bake in 6h.
  • The more whole grain a flour is, the more it absorbs water.
    This means that the same amount of water will result in a stiffer or more liquid dough, depending on whether you use whole grain flour or white flour. So when changing flours it’s generally recommended to add a little less water at first and then add more if the dough is still too dry. Especially when you switch to white flour.

Alora. Having gained some basic sourdough understanding, let’s proceed with making the dough!

Preparing the ingredients

The foundation of our bread:

  • Flour
    I suggest to use whole grain flour. This could be whole spelt (by far my favourite), whole rye, whole wheat, you name it. The more whole grain, the more organisms live in the flour, and our bugs are happy about the extra fiber, too 💩 But experiment with different flours or mix them up to bake the bread of your dreams 😉
  • Water
    Room temperature tap water is perfectly fine, depending on where you live.
  • Sourdough starter
  • Salt
    Any salt will work.

Having set the foundation, you can get creative from here:

Add nuts and seeds, herbs and spices and even fresh or dried fruits or veggies. This can be added into the mix, or used as a topping. The sky’s the limit.

Let’s get the previously declared basic tools and ingredients ready and make the dough!

Baker’s Math – Playing Safe

This simple approach uses percentages to measure how much water, sourdough starter and salt you have to add, based on the amount of flour used.

This is incredibly helpful when you suddenly end up baking for a youth exchange (like I did) and you have 7kg of flour to work with, or if you have an opened bag of flour and now you have 689g of flour and you have to figure out how much salt, water and starter you need.

Using Baker’s Math you’ll never end up with a bread that has too much or too little salt.

Let me show you how it works.

The following recipe is how I would typically bake:

  • 500g flour
  • 75% water (based on amount of flour)
    • 75% of 500g can be calculated 500*0.75 = 375g
  • 20% sourdough starter (based on amount of flour)
    • 20% of 500g can be calculated 500*0.2 = 100g
  • 2% salt (based on amount of flour)
    • 2% of 500g can be calculated 500*0.02 = 10g

Ingredients

So, using the straight forward Baker’s Math, we get the following ingredients:

  • 500g flour
  • 375g water
  • 100g sourdough starter
  • 10g salt

I don’t have enough starter available. What can I do?

Don’t panic. You have two options:

1. Just use less starter.

But keep in mind that the fermentation time will be longer.

And maybe you want to upgrade to a bigger starter jar in case this keeps happening.

2. Make a preferment

Should you want to turn many kilos of flour into breads, then you will have to make a preferment.

A preferment is nothing else then a big starter.

Use case:

Your recipe requires 600g sourdough starter, but you currently only have 100g.

Add the 100g starter into a pot/bowl with 250g flour and 250g water. 100g+250g+250g = 600g.

Let this preferment rest until you see bubbles and it smells acidic (during the day or overnight should be enough, depending on your environment temperature). Then you’re ready to continue your baking mission.

Time management

Okay, at this stage we assume you have enough sourdough starter and you’re good to go.

Now comes the part that will take some experimentation, because your environment temperature will be different to mine. And even mine changes with the seasons, so I have to adjust, too.

So it’s simply impossible to provide an exact number.

But, there’s a simple trick to see if your dough is ready for the oven.

Viva la “sample jar”

The rubber band indicates the initial size of the sourdough. That’s a 100% rise right there!

After we will have mixed the ingredients, take a teaspoon worth of dough, put it in the smallest jar you can find, press it down, and mark the level with a rubber band (or a pen that can be washed off later). Then loosely cover the jar (e.g. lid or towel).

Place the jar next to the main dough, to make sure they have the same environment temperature.

Write down the time.

Now wait until the dough in the sample jar has risen at least 50% (in other words it’s now 1.5 times bigger than before). This means the main dough has risen to the exact same level and we know we’re ready to bake.

How many hours did this take?

Let’s say 10 hours.

Now you know that with the recipe above, you can bake 10 hours after mixing the ingredients. Now you can perfectly plan the baking time.

For example:

Prepare the dough at 8:00 in the morning, and you’re ready to bake at 18:00.

Dude, I have a job, friends and hobbies, I need more fermentation time!

No worries, my friend. Simply use less sourdough starter (e.g. 10% instead of 20%), and do the sample jar test again.

What if I keep letting it ferment (by accident or planned), even though it hit the 50% rise mark?

I sometimes let it ferment up to 24h. The bread still rises very well, but is definitely more sour. Which is sometimes exactly what you want. Play with it!

Do I have to do this sample jar thing every time I want to bake?

No. Once you did it, and the environment temperature and the ingredients don’t change, the fermentation time will also likely be the same.

It’s a tool to get a clear number, but also helps developing a feeling of when it’s time to bake.

Time to bake 🍞

Adding and capturing steam in the first part of the baking results in a better rise!

It might seem like many steps, but there’s a lot of hints and learnings weaved into it.

Enjoy the process!

  1. Using Baker’s Math, we figured out the following ingredients that will result in one bread loaf:
    • 500g flour
    • 375g water (75%)
    • 100g sourdough starter (20%)
    • 10g salt (2%)
    Hint: I personally love to add sunflower seeds at this stage.
  2. Put everything into a pot or bowl and mix using your hands (or any tool of your liking) until you don’t see any dry flour any more.
  3. Create a sample jar as described above.
  4. Cover the pot with a lid, or the bowl with a plastic bag and place it in a warm environment.
  5. When the dough in the sample jar has risen at least 50%, you’re ready to bake.
    Hint: Feel free to let it ferment even longer to get a more sour flavour. Play with it and find your timing.
  6. Prepare the oven:
    • At the top, turn a tray upside down.
      Hint: This will prevent direct heat in the first part of baking. It also captures steam, keeping the bread’s surface moist and allows it to rise more.
    • In the middle, put a tray onto which we will later place our loaf pan(s).
    • At the bottom, place another tray or any other metallic container that can withstand high heat (do not use a glass container).
      Hint: Into this container we will later pour boiling water.
  7. Preheat the oven to 230 degrees Celsius (top-bottom-heat setting).
  8. Set up loaf pan(s) and brush them with oil (or use your hands). Make sure that the bottom, all sides and corners are well oiled, but also don’t overdo it.
  9. Uncover the bubbly dough and distribute it equally into the loaf pans. Don’t forget to integrate the sample jar dough.
    Hint: Only fill a loaf pan half, giving the dough space to rise. And wash or at least soak the pot/bowl right away. No fun dealing with dried out and rock hard dough leftovers.
  10. Sprinkle and spread some water onto the doughs, making them extra moist.
    Hint: Thanks to a moist surface and a steamy environment the dough can rise longer. If the surface hardens too quick the bread can’t rise any more.
  11. Now is the moment to add the topping of your choice.
    Hint: I love sesame seeds!
  12. Bring about 500ml water to a boil.
  13. When the oven is preheated, open the door and place the loaf pan(s) on the middle tray.
  14. Then add the boiling water into the container at the bottom and immediately close the door.
  15. Set the timer to 25 minutes and let the loafs enjoy this steamy environment.
  16. Enjoy Oven TV! My favourite channel. Watching a bread rise never seizes to amaze me.
  17. After 25 minutes, carefully remove the top tray and the bottom container.
  18. Set the timer to at least another 20 minutes.
    Hint: A bread is considered done when its core reaches 95 degrees Celsius. Should you have one of those thermometer tools available, give it a try! To do this once is enough, then you know.
  19. At this stage, your personal preference kicks in. How brown and crunchy do you like your bread to be?
    Hint: I personally love if the tips of the crust almost turn black.
  20. Okay, your bread looks perfect. Time to take it out and get the loafs out of the loaf pan(s).
  21. Let them cool down on a grill, with enough space underneath to prevent steam from softening the crust.
  22. Finally, enjoy your home baked sourdough bread!
Oven TV – Watching a bread on the rise ❤️
A very well fermented bread with the almost black crust tips.

Do you have questions, feedback or success stories to share?

Let me know in the comment section below!

In the meantime: Happy baking! 🙏✨

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