With your starter at the ready and some time on your hands, read on to find out how to make that infamous tangy-flavoured, crispy-crusted sourdough loaf.
It can be a little intimidating especially as sourdough has exploded over social media with a myriad of pictures boasting golden crusts and open crumbs. But practice, practice, practice the same recipe and soon you’ll be honing your personal process and cracking out some delicious loaves.
Every loaf is a creation of time, patience, skill and dedication, however it turns out. Granted- you will have successes and failures but every loaf will be worthy of being eaten and enjoyed. You’ll soon be walking past the bread aisle in the supermarket with a smug smile on your face knowing that your sourdough bread is far tastier and healthier.
- 100g of starter (20%)
- 500g of Risen Mighty White flour (100%)
- 370ml of lukewarm water (70%)
- 11g of salt
Equipment needed -
- Dough scraper
- Proving basket
- Dutch oven - a thick-walled cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid
When your starter is rising and falling with regularity every time you feed it, it’s time to put it to work. A vigorous, ready-to-use starter will look bubbly and alive, with an uneven surface and a consistency that is like whipped double cream, ideally. It is important to use your starter during its peaking stage. This could be as it is still rising, around 3 – 4 hours after feeding it, or as it reaches its final height, around 5 – 6 hours. What you must avoid, though, is using it once it is dipping as the gluten strands are disintegrating and this will affect the quality of your dough.
Feed your starter
Mix starter, flour and water
1.15pm – 5.30pm
Bulk Fermentation *see chart later on for guidance
Pre-shape and bench rest
Final shape and proof at room temp
Proof in fridge
7/8am - Feed your starter as you have before. Wait until the starter has peaked to use it, which can take up to 5 hours, so do it first thing in the morning, then make yourself a coffee:-)
12pm – Autolyse
This is a simple yet important step in the process of making sourdough. Simply mix 500g of flour with the 370ml of water in a bowl, cover it with a tea towel and leave it for an hour. Your dough will transform from being shaggy and sticky to a smoother, more extensible dough, making it easier to work with.
During this time, the flour fully hydrates, encouraging the enzymes to begin gluten development. This is particularly useful for wholegrain flours, like Risen’s Awesome Wholemeal flour, as they absorb more liquid whilst the bran softens.
Gluten bonds begin to develop with no effort required by you plus sugar is produced from the breaking down of the starch, giving your starter some food when you do add it to your dough.
1pm – Mixing & kneading
Take out 100g of your starter and mix it with your autolysed dough. Mix in the salt afterwards.
There are a few ways you can mix your starter in with your dough but here’s what we find works well. Pop the starter on top of the dough in the centre. Use your fingers to dimple it into the dough and fold the dough up and over at every corner to fully distribute your starter. Mix thoroughly for a few minutes to fully incorporate, then add your salt and repeat the same method of mixing.
Once the dough is mixed, the mechanical action of developing gluten begins. This should take around 8 – 10 minutes if doing this by hand or around 5 minutes if using a Kitchen Aid, using a medium speed. It should take around five minutes to achieve medium gluten development, you can then finish off the kneading by hand.
Head over to our techniques section for more information on the various methods of kneading. We recommend gentle hand kneading here as seen in the video before putting your dough in a covered bowl for the bulk rise.
1.15pm – Bulk Fermentation (1st proof)
Proper bulk fermentation means giving dough enough time, at a given temperature, to ferment and is the longest period of fermentation your sourdough will go through. This stage builds strength, flavour and, most importantly, volume in your dough. You now shift to gentle handling in order to help the dough rise properly through a series of stretch and folds.
It is called bulk fermentation as the dough is left to ferment in one mass, before being divided up. You may only be baking one loaf at a time but if you are not, bulk fermentation is when your dough ferments as one, making it more temperature-stable and easier than handling individual sections of dough.
Essentially you are building the dough structure during this rise to inflate it with gas during the final proof.
Let your dough rest at a comfortable room temperature – around 22/23 degrees. Over the next few hours, your dough will rise as the gluten develops, trapping more air and making your dough less dense. Time is controlled by temperature – if your kitchen is a little chilly, it will take longer and, likewise, for a warm summer’s day, this will speed up the fermentation.
Check out the guidance chart below on how long your bulk rise time will be, dependent on dough temperature. Use a thermometer, sticking it inside the dough at the beginning of the bulk rise, to find out.
5 – 6 hours
4 – 4.5 hours
3 – 3.5 hours
Stretch and fold
Check-in with your dough every 30 minutes. This is when you should perform a series of stretches and folds to increase strength and tension by developing the dough structure. You are manipulating the dough to trap more air bubbles, helping your bread to rise and achieve its shape. Aim for around 2 – 4 folds each time, lifting the dough up and folding it in on itself. This will only take a minute or so, then you leave the dough in the bowl, covered for another 30 minutes.
Each stretch and fold makes a difference to the dough strength but at the beginning, the effect of a fold is smaller as less gas bubbles have formed meaning less tension in the dough. But as the bulk fermentation time goes on, you’ll notice your dough will feel more pillow-like and less extensible. As you do more stretch and folds, your dough fills with gas and the dough becomes tighter more quickly with less input from your hands. As time passes be less forceful to avoid ripping the gluten structure – this is what gives sourdough bread its beautiful, sought-after crumb.
Take a wet hand and scoop under the dough lifting it up, gently stretching until you feel some resistance then fold it over itself. You do this at each corner of the dough. Scoop it up, stretch and fold it in on itself at a fairly quick pace, whilst the bulk of the dough sits in its place.
Knowing when to finish your folding is something you’ll learn from experience but with time you’ll be able to pick up on the following signs.
- You can still see the fold lines and marks from the previous fold
- The dough is holding its shape a bit from the previous fold
- The dough has risen by around 20% - 30%
- The dough feels resistant to any more folding.
Coil folds are a gentle folding technique like stretch and fold; beginners may need some practice with this method. The difference here is that the seam is always on the bottom, making it easy to see the accumulation of surface tension. The folding relies primarily on gravity and generally around 4 -6 coil folds should be enough to develop the gluten during bulk fermentation, performing 2 - 4 folds in each set. As you’ll be working at 90 and 180 degree angles every time, it can be really effective for uniform fermentation and an even crumb structure.
- Gently loosen the edges of the dough by pulling it away from the sides of the bowl. Wet your fingers if necessary
- Place your fingertips under the dough, lifting the dough up in the middle.
- Allow the dough to stretch out using its own weight, whilst still supporting the middle.
- Lower the dough, tucking the loose ends under the middle, coiling it under itself.
- Turn the bowl and repeat on the other side.
You should see the dough holding its shape better at the end of a set.
Knowing when to end bulk fermentation is another judgement call that takes practice. Signs of sufficient fermentation include: good dough strength and elasticity, smoothness, a bubbly appearance and a volume gain by 30%. It can help to make a mark on your bowl at the beginning of bulk fermentation to know for sure. You will also have your timing based on the temperature of the dough to go by.
Cutting bulk fermentation short results in under-proofed dough. The yeast hasn’t produced enough carbon dioxide and the crumb will be dense. Your dough will have less volume and gas bubbles. Rest for another 30 – 60 minutes after the time you originally allowed.
Pushing bulk fermentation too long, on the other hand, gives you over-proofed dough that is hard to handle. The air bubbles have popped and if you poke the dough, it doesn’t spring back. It will have lost its structure and be impossible to shape. The dough will spread out in the oven, as it does not have the strength and you won’t get an ear from a scoring slash. It’s still worth baking though but don’t expect an incredible result, structure-wise.
5.30pm - Pre-shaping and final shaping
Shaping your dough is the last hands-on step before baking it in the oven. It’s essential for your final bread to maintain a proper form. This stage allows the gluten to develop and creates surface tension by forming a skin on the surface of the dough. This skin helps the dough to create a crispy, even exterior during baking to prevent it from collapsing or breaking apart in the oven.
Pre-shaping is quick and lets your dough know what you will be doing with it. The aim of the game here is to create surface tension on the outer layer of your dough, whilst guiding and helping it towards its final loaf shape. This boosts oven spring - how much your loaf will rise in the oven.
This bit of the process gently works the dough roughly into shape.
It's not mandatory you have to preshape: it’s all related to dough strength but it’s certainly a helpful step with sourdough, a high hydration dough. The important thing is to be flexible. If the dough feels very strong coming out of bulk fermentation, because you've given it many sets of stretch and folds for instance you may want to skip preshaping.
Before starting, have a look at your dough and assess whether it’s slack and weak looking or looking smooth and strong. This will give you a guide on how gentle or purposeful you’ll need to be.
To pre-shape, simply tip your dough out on a damp surface and, using a dough scraper, make round movements, tucking the dough under itself, forming a ball. Afterwards, your dough should plump and spring back immediately when dimpled with a finger.
After pre-shaping the dough should be smooth on the top, equally round everywhere and taught enough to prevent ripping at the top. Have a look at the video below to see a couple of ways to preshape a boule.
Bench rest – 30 to 45 mins
Now you need to give your dough one last rest to relax the gluten, making it easier to handle during the final shape. Timings can vary but for a typical sourdough recipe it should be around 30 minutes.
Leave the dough uncovered at room temperature and keep an eye on it. You’ll notice the dough flatten out a little. What you want is for the dough to spread out slightly on the work surface, ensuring no tearing or forcing during the final shape.
Generally, a longer bench rest gives a tight pre-shaped dough more time to relax enough. If your dough spreads out quickly, cut the bench rest short. You want a good mix of elastic and stretchiness here.
6pm - Final shape
Final shaping is the last chance to build tension on the surface of the dough to help it hold its shape when you bake it. It will need this tension for its final proof in the fridge.
There are many ways to shape sourdough bread and it does take practice. A popular shape is a boule as it fits in a Dutch oven nicely. First, start by lightly dusting your worksurface. Be careful not to use too much flour here. Put the dough down, seam side up and gently flatten into a circle to de-gas a little.Then pull the edges up to make a ball and place it seamside down on the worktop.
Cup your hands around the dough and slide them towards yourself, moving the boule about an inch to create good surface tension. Turn it a quarter circle, cup hands, and pull it towards yourself again. You’ll see the top is tightening up. Do this for about a minute then put it, seam side up, in your basket and cover. Putting it seam side up is important as you will flip the dough out onto the seam side so it bakes with it underneath.
7pm/overnight - Final proving
The final proof, the last stage of fermentation, gives your dough time to rise and develop flavour. Bakers often place their dough in a warm environment during the bulk rise, and then in the fridge for the final proof, the second rise. This helps to develop a variety of sourness in the loaf. Depending on which schedule/method you choose, final proofing either happens at room temperature (around 3 hours) or in the fridge for an overnight retard (12 - 15 hours). Mastering the proofing of bread can be the difference between delicious fluffy bread and a flat loaf.
Ideally, your dough should be covered and proofed in a draft free, humid area. Sourdough ferments better in a more humid environment than it does in a drier one. Temperature is important when proofing sourdough as this not only affects the time you need to ferment it for but how well fermentation happens. So try to be as consistent as you can with it. This is where a proofing box makes all the difference.
For those who want to bake on the same day and are after a milder flavour, proof your dough at room temperature (21C - 24C). Make sure that you place the dough in a draft-free area to keep this temperature as stable as possible. You can either place your dough in a cupboard, on top of the fridge, in the microwave or even in the oven with the light on, to ensure a draft-free environment with a more consistent temperature.
A proofing box is ideal as it takes away temperature fluctuations that make a difference to fermentation and the time needed for this final proof. For the beginner, it makes scheduling and planning your bake a lot easier and will give you more consistent results.
Be careful not to over proof at room temperature by sticking to a shorter fermentation time. You would only be able to leave it a few hours, especially if it's warm.
Proofing sourdough overnight in the fridge is a great option if you like to bake first thing in the morning and want a more complex taste. You can leave your dough for up to two days but by all means experiment with what is best for you and your dough. In a colder environment, fermentation slows to a crawl, the yeast becoming almost dormant whilst the bacteria continue to work, giving you that trademark sourness. It stops the rise, saving the energy for the oven spring.
Again, cover your dough either with a tea towel or cling film to avoid reducing the hydration of the dough, which will give you a tough crust and hinder oven spring and leave it to rest overnight . It is not necessary to warm up dough that has risen in the fridge but not doing so can affect the quality of the bread. Expect less oven spring, a tighter crumb and a harder crust if you bake cold dough.
Knowing when to finish your final proof
Your dough should be about 30 - 40% larger than when you started and look more puffed up. Many bakers do a poke test - indenting the dough’s surface with a wet finger to see how the dough springs back. Your dent should partially spring back but not completely. If it springs back readily, it needs more time, if it stays completely sunken, the dough is over proofed.
7pm or 8am - Scoring and Baking
Scoring your dough is the last thing you do before baking. You slash the dough with one or several cuts to allow it to expand during baking and control the direction it expands in during oven spring. It needs to happen swiftly and with confidence. Any hesitation might mean you tear the dough. There are many ways and patterns to try but a simple slash, to give you an ‘ear’, or a cross are good to start with.
Let your knife or lame do the work - don’t press down on the dough - and make sure it is very sharp. Wetting the blade in water or spraying the knife with oil between slashes can help. The knife blade should be held at a shallow angle ( 30 - 45 degrees) to the dough and the cut about a quarter of an inch deep. Scoring takes practice so experiment - at least this is one step that doesn’t affect the overall taste!
For more information on scoring head over to our Techniques section.
Using a Dutch oven
Using a Dutch oven is the easiest and most common method of baking sourdough as it traps in heat and moisture, creating steam so your bread cooks evenly and looks every bit as artisan.It is the closest way to recreating a professional bakers’ oven.
- Pre-heat the oven to 250°C / 230°C Fan / Gas Mark 9, with your Dutch oven inside for an hour.
- Cut a piece of parchment paper big enough to overhang your dough's circumference by a few inches. Put this over the dough and proving basket, hold it in place and flip the dough onto the work surface. The paper is now on the bottom.
- Carefully ease the dough out of the proving basket – it may take a little coaxing – and score it.
- Remove the Dutch oven from the oven and, working quickly, put the dough and the parchment paper in. Shut the lid and bake – yep: you are finally at that bit - in the oven for 30 minutes.
- Take off the lid and bake for an additional 15 – 20 minutes to give it that instagrammable, golden crust.
- Cool completely on a wire rack.
The hardest part of all in our opinion, is leaving it to cool. A rustic bread like this begs to be torn apart. But don’t be tempted as the inside still needs to set, it’ll be a bit gummy. The wait will definitely be worth it.
When you do cut into it, do so with the satisfaction that your creation has been started from two main ingredients and with time, technique and a bit of intuition, it has, quite literally, bloomed.
Risen recommends cutting your loaf down the middle so you have two equal sides. Store them cut side down to prevent drying either in a bread bin or a paper bags. Your bread should last a week, if it hasn’t already been eaten by then!