Sourdough - A step-by-step approach to perfect sourdough with explanations for the inexperienced baker.

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I was out shopping the other day and bumped into a friend who has been following BreadClub20 since the early days. She said,  'I wish I could make a sourdough loaf'...

So, this is for you, Sioned......

There are so, so many recipes for sourdough....some people might say 'you can never have enough' whilst others might say 'which one do I choose?'

In as much as there is a plethora of recipes, there is also an overabundance of techniques. 

Today, we're going to try and put together a step-by-step approach for the novice or inexperienced sourdough baker with explanatory notes as to the reasons why certain steps and techniques are desirable or even necessary. 

You'll find that people will always offer alternatives. 

"I never do that. You should do this....instead. Why is he doing that? No, that's not necessary."

We all find our own paths on our own sourdough journeys. All I can say is that this works for me. And it's a sensible starting point. 

So, let's get going. 

The Starter

You'll need an active starter. This is not created overnight. You'll need to make the decision that you're going to begin your own sourdough journey. Resist the temptation to buy a starter....just find yourself someone who bakes sourdough on a regular basis and ask them for some. They'll have plenty. 

(I have plenty when you're ready, Sioned)

If you want to make your own starter from the beginning, then try this approach of mine:

I have two starters...the one I'm using for this recipe was started a few years ago and is based on rye and spelt flour. The other started its life during the 1898 Gold Rush and has been kept going ever since. It's a different type of starter that's fed with plain or all-purpose flour and sugar. 

There are some basic rules regarding feeding, keeping and refreshing your starter once it's established. 

1. Between bakes, keep your starter in a container in the refrigerator. It'll be happy in there even if you only bake once a week or once a fortnight. Just in case disaster hits, freeze a small portion. It'll keep for months like this. 

2. On the night before baking, take your starter out of the fridge and decant a portion into a clean jar. I usually decant 100 gms for a day's baking. 

3. Feed the decanted starter with equal portions of flour and water, i.e. to 100 gms of starter I feed it with 100 gms of flour and 100 mls of water. Mix, cover and mark the level with a pen or elastic band. That way you'll see how it doubles. Leave it at room temperature overnight. You can feed your starter early in the morning and put it somewhere warmer....this way it'll take about 5 hours to double. 

4. I use rye flour or spelt flour - my starter likes those and they're 'hungry' flours. I also use tepid water that has been filtered (or I buy cheap supermarket bottled still water). However, you can easily use normal strong bread flour. 

5. An active starter is a bubby, smelly thing. It has an elastic quality.

The Day Before Baking.....100gms of starter in the Kilner jar - ready for feeding and activating. The feed? It's 100 gms of spelt flour and 100 mls of filtered water. I use the blue Thermos soup mugs for my starter. I have two in the fridge and split the starter between them. 'Discard' goes into red mugs for baps and sandwich loaves bakes. 

The Flour

Always try and use strong bread flour with a high protein level of at least 11% and preferably slightly higher. Currently, I'm using a Canadian flour with a protein level of 13%. As a rule of thumb, I tend to use 80% strong white bread flour and then add 20% of something else: wholemeal, spelt. rye....whatever is to hand....or even in combination. 

The Water

I always use filtered water. I used to use cheap supermarket bottled still water but then I bought an inexpensive fridge-door filter jug. I always leave the water to come to room temperature by preparing a bottle the night before. Things start a little more quickly if the water is tepid or room temperature. 

The Salt

Never, ever, use iodised salt. I buy sea salt flakes. I have a supply of Welsh sea salt and also some very grey salt from the Guerande in France. Pick it up on your travels or where retail outlets are selling it off. 

And that's all you need for sourdough. 

Now, mixing the'll see this referred to as 'hydration' or 'bakers' percentages'. 

You may need to read a couple of brief articles:

This is one that explains what 'hydration' is all about...

and this explains Bakers' Percentages...

So we add starter to flour and water and salt and then the magic happens....well, more ot less. 

The 'hydration' level is a way of determining how loose or how firm you want your dough. Below 65% and you'll end up with a tight close crumb and a fairly stiff sourdough bread. Above 90% and the dough begins to be loose and difficult to handle but time-served bakers will tell you that this is the key to a very open crumb and lots of 'holes'. Some people will push hydration beyond 100% but they know what they're doing. 

As a guide, I'd work between 70% - 80% hydration. 

But what does this mean? 

Basically, it means that for every 1000 gms of flour, you'll be adding 75% - 80% water...i.e. 750 mls / 800 mls (or gms - they weigh the same). 

However, remember that your starter also contains flour and water in equal portions, so we have to do a bit of maths. Stick with me, it'll become clear. 

We're going to make a mix with 500 gms of flour today. Remember, your starter is 100 gms starter + 100 gms of fresh flour and 100 mls of now weighs 300 gms (when active). 150 gms of that is flour and 150 gms of that is water. 

However, we're only going to use 100 gms of starter per mix. (50 gms water / 50 gms flour)

Total Flour : 500 gms + 50 gms (the flour that's in the starter) = 550 gms

Total Water : 75% of 550 = 412 mls (minus the 50 mls of water from the starter) = 362 mls of water. 

So, to 500 gms of flour, we're going to add 100 gms of starter and 362 mls of water.....oh, and 10 gms of salt (about 2% of the total mix).

If you need a good percentage calculator....try this one...

So, let's make a start...


large mixing bowl

set of scales

some rice or semolina flour


sharp knife

cling film or a disposable shower cap

a banneton

parchment paper

a container (preferably clear(ish) that has straight sides and is reasonably deep)

a dutch oven / Pyrex casserole / Enamel roaster or baking tray (see below)

a timer or a watch / clock that works! 

not a lot really....but I promise you, you'll add to this as you go along....

Here's a guide on how to kit yourself out as cheaply as possible:

INGREDIENTS (for ONE loaf) at 75% hydration

500 gms of strong white bread flour (or 400 gms of white and 100 gms of other strong flours)

100 gms of active starter

362 mls of filtered water at room temperature

10 gms sea salt

Note : The technique is the same if you wanted to increase the hydration. Simply add the correct amount of water. 

Based on the quantities above (i.e. 100 gms starter + 500 gms flour): 

80% = 390 mls water

90% = 445 mls water

100% = 500 mls water 


Into a large mixing bowl add 362 mls of water and then 500 gms of flour. Mix it together with a spatula or your fingers and then cover it and leave it on the worktop for at least 30 minutes but you can leave it for longer....I'd suggest an hour - or even won't do it any harm)

Autolyse Stage 1 : add 362 mls of filtered water at room temperature

Autolyse Stage 2  : add 500 gms flour
(400 gms of strong white flour + 100 gms of wholemeal)

Autolyse Stage 3 : mix thoroughly, cover and leave for
between 30 minutes and 2 hours (it's up to you!) 

Why am I doing this? 

This is called the autolysing stage. It's very much an optional stage, but I've come to appreciate the benefits it gives. Adding water to the flour releases enzymes and helps to make the dough elastic. The starches start to break down and begin the conversion into sugars. This means that when we add the starter, the process of developing gluten starts a little earlier. 


If you're starting out on your sourdough journey...autolysing is complete and you're about to add the salt. Now's the time to set the timer so you have an idea of how long the process will take. Keep a log for next time. 

Add the salt. Wet your fingers and dimple the salt into the mix so that it's incorporated. 

The salt is dimpled into the dough

Now add the starter. Mix the starter into the dough, water and salt mixture using a spatula or your hands. Wetting your hands first helps tremendously. I tend to keep a garden mister handy..that way you add very little extra water but it's enough to stop the dough sticking to your hands and fingers.

Even out on the worktop overnight, the strater
has doubled in volume and is ready for baking

Add the starter to the dimpled dough and start the first
set of stretch and folds...

Take one side of the dough and pull it upwards and then let it flop hack over the rest of the dough. Then turn the dough through 90⁰s and repeat, turn, stretch and flop, turn stretch and this about a dozen or so times. No need to count....just do the repetitions until you feel you've achieved something...Then cover the bowl (cling film, shower cap or tea towel). 

After the first set of stretch and fold

Why am I stretching the dough? 

This process is actually called 'stretch and fold' (although 'flop' seems more appropriate) and the process helps to build in gluten development. You're going to repeat this process every 30 minutes for the next hour and a half. By then, you'll have completed four sets of 'stretch and fold'. You'll notice how much your efforts affects the dough and how smooth it starts to become. That's why you need a timer! 

I've read about coil folding, laminating and other folding techniques....why am I not doing those? 

Good question! 

Stretching and Folding helps build in gluten development. That's what you need to do. Over time, you'll experiment with other techniques or even combine them into your process. Eventually, you'll find techniques that you like performing, that produce results or that you feel are essential in your baking. 

You may come across these

Ribaud Effect - using your hand to 'scoop' the mix - you're imitating the hook in a professional dough mixer and scooping and turing the dough helps to mix things together. I use this technique - it's very satisfying and I find it easier than using a spoon or a Dutch whisk. 

It's demonstrated in this YouTube video:

Coil and Fold - you decant the dough into an oiled container (like the one you make lasagne in) and gently scoop the dough up in the middle, folding it over the rest. Turn the bowl 90⁰ and repeat. It helps build gluten and also encourages air into the dough. There are lots of YouTube videos of this's one:

I tend to use this technique when I'm working with high hydration doughs (above 85%) or when I'm making ciabatta. Again, it takes practise but once you get the hang on it, you begin to appreciate its usefulness. 

Lamination - for this you stretch the dough out onto a board and fold it in thirds as though you were folding a letter. Again this is to encourage air and help gluten development,  It's not a technique I use often - mainly, once again, when I'm working with high hydration doughs. Have a go, and make your own mind up. 

Here's a video on the technique:

Windowpane Test - You'll read recipes where people state the necessity of the windowpane test. It's where you pick up an edge of the dough, stretch it out and see if it stretches to almost clear without tearing. It's one way of determining that the dough has the integrity it needs to produce bread. Do I use it? I'd like to say I do but I invariably forget, if truth is to be told. 


OK, you've performed three sets of 'stretch and fold'. It's probably going to be about two hours since you added the salt at the end of the autolying process. 

After four sets of 'stretch and fold' you can see how
bubbles are already beginning  to develop.

We're now going to move on to Bulk Fermentation. 

I have some food-grade plastic storage containers that I use for bulk fermentation. I've used small buckets in the past or anything else that comes to hand. 

What is bulk fermentation?

Remember 'PacMan'? The little computer creature what ran along eating everything in its wake? That's what happens with bulk fermentation. The fermentation created by the starter gradually 'consumes' the mixture and completes the gluten development. 

There are factors that affect bulk fermentation:

The cooler the environment, the longer bulk fermentation will take

If the environment is warm, bulk fermentation will complete in a shorter time

Longer fermentations create bread with a more 'sharp' or 'sour' flavour. 

The time it takes to convert all the ingredients and complete bulk fermentation is also affected by the volume of starter used.

Over-fermented dough becomes too slack to handle. Under-fermented dough produces 'gummy' bread. 

This is where you come in and where you develop a 'feel' for the dough over time. 

Scrape the dough carefully into the bulk fermentation container and make sure it's reasonably level. Mark the level on the outside of the container using a marker pen or elastic band. Make further marks to show where the dough will be if it was to expand by 50% and then again by 100%.

The bottom elastic band marks 'more or less' the starting level of the dough.
The upper elastic band marks the position when the dough will have risen by 100%

I'm making two identical mixes today.
I could have made it all in one container and split it after fermentation.
Sometimes I do.....sometimes, I don't!
The containers were from IKEA. 
Ignore the black really was indelible!

Cover and leave at room temperature. 

What's an ideal room temperature?

I live in a 500 year old stone house with walls a metre thick. My kitchen rarely gets beyond 20⁰C and usually drops in the mornings to about 17⁰C. I have a small room upstairs in which is the hot water cylinder. That room is usually a constant 26⁰C. 

If I ferment in the kitchen, I know the process it going to take longer than if I ferment upstairs. 

This chart has helped me considerably....

From this you can see that, I've added 20% of levain (or starter) which is 100 gms and my kitchen is 20⁰C. So, I'd expect my bulk fermentation to be more or less complete in six and a quarter hours from the time autolysing finished. (The time for stretching and folding is included in the 6 hours and 15 minutes). 

Now, this isn't a fine science. 

You want the dough to rise beyond the 50% point and be closer to the 100% point.

The top of the dough will be domed ever so slightly - that's another sign that it's ready

There will be lots of tell-tale bubbles 

Over time, you'll develop an eye for when time is right....but the chart of a good standby. my chart tells me that I should have reached almost 100% fermentation in six and a quarter hours...let's see...(waiting...)

After six hours and thirty-nine minutes since I added the salt, I've now reached 100% increase by volume. I could have stopped this a quarter of an hour earlier but....the phone rang!  

You can see by the level of the dough against the elastic band marker that the increase is 100%. The dough is full of bubbles...and therefore, air...and the top is nicely domed. I'm ready to move on to Step 4. 


By now fermentation is complete. 

Lightly flour a work surface. I always use rice flour. It's the Teflon of flours...nothing sticks to it. It makes life so much easier. 

Flour the surface of the dough and then GENTLY tip the dough out onto the floured surface. 

The key word here is GENTLY. You want to protect the air within the dough and you MUST handle the dough as gently as possible. 

Gently, bring the edges of the dough into the middle so that you form a ball. 

This is called Pre-Shaping 

Gently flip it over and, using the edges of your palms draw the dough down the board towards you. You'll notice that this has the effect of strengthening the surface of the dough - almost forming a skin on it. 

Place it to one side and leave for 15 minutes. 

This is called 'bench resting'. 

After 15 minutes, generously flour your banneton using rice flour. be generous with the don't want the dough to stick to the banneton. 

What size banneton do I need? 

For this mix an 8 inch banneton is fine. I never use the linen liners. If you flour the banneton sufficiently and NEVER wash it, you won't have a problem. From time to time, I use a stiff brush to clean out the old flour and then re-flour it before the next bake. 


We move on to shaping.

Gently flip the dough over so the smooth side is at the bottom. Once again, drawn in the edges into the middle and then flip it over and form a ball. 

Draw it down the work bench again to re-strengthen the surface and then place, smooth side down into the banneton. 

Flour around the edges and do your best to bring the raw edges into the middle. 

Cover with a shower cap or cling film. 

The dough is in the banneton, generously-floured with rice flour. It's ready for cold proofing...


We're now going  to final proof the dough. 

For this we're going to place the banneton in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours. Remember your fridge is colder at the bottom than it is at the top. 

My fridge is 4⁰C which is ideal. 

I leave my banneton in the fridge overnight...or even can safely leave it in there for up to 30 hours. But, 12 - 16 hours is fine.

This is called cold-proofing. 

(In 'real time' it's actually 3.25 p.m  at home. The bannetons are now going into the fridge in the outside shed until tomorrow morning....)


By now, it's the following morning. The dough only ever rises a little in the fridge - even after so many hours. The rest of the rise happens when it hits the heat of the oven. 

(In real-time, it's actually 7.40 a.m. ... and the dough has been in the fridge since 3.25 p.m. yesterday - a cold-proofing time of 16.25 hours)

People will tell you that dough has to be a room temperature or taken out of the fridge and left for an hour or so. 

It doesn't. The photograph below is of my 8 inch banneton with the dough in it....straight out of the fridge and onto the work table. 

And now let's think about baking containers.

I tend to use two 'Dutch ovens' - actually, one is a cast iron casserole I bought many years ago from Carrefour in Calais and the other is a le Creuset that was given to me after a lifetime being used to cook moules mariniere. 

(Left to right). My favourite - the cast iron Dutch Oven. (I've also got a Le Crueset which is very well-weathered)  Next is an oval enamel chicken roaster (ideal for oval breads), a Pyrex glass casserole dish (I use this upside down) and finally, an enamel roaster. None of these cost a King's ransom.
And they all work. 

I also have two ceramic cloches. I'm not as fond of these as the dough tends to spread out in the bottom section and I don't get as good a rise out of them as they don't constrain the dough sufficiently during oven spring. However, they're great for yeasted breads. 

Preheat your oven to 240⁰C. You will probably have to preheat your baking container as well. However, you can put your container into a cold oven and begin timing from when your oven comes to the right temperature. 

Try both and compare the results. 

When you're ready, place a piece of parchment paper over the top of the banneton and invert it to release the dough. 

Slash the dough on the top to help with the expansion and oven-spring

What's oven spring? 

The dough expands and rises as it bakes. This is oven spring. A lack of oven spring is a sure sign of either over-fermenting or over-proofing. Steam also helps oven spring - either the steam generated from the dough or through the use of added steam.

Again, I've improvised over time. I made silicone 'slings' for each of my baking pots - I bought cheap silicone baking sheets from Ebay and cut them to shape. I also have a plywood baking paddle which is ideal to hold everything together. 

A cup of cold water into which I put my lame ensures that the dough slashes easily. 
The 'Lazy Susan' is ideal for turning the bread...I found it in a second-hand shop.
The silicone slings are not things of beauty, they're home-made but do the job.
And finally, the plywood's become indispensable.

Remove the baking pot from the oven and carefully place the dough inside.'s going to be very, very hot. 

Do I need to add extra steam?

If you're using a closed 

If you're simply baking on a sheet, you might want to add steam in the form of a small container and boiling water on a lower shelf. My oven advises against this approach so it's not an option for me. 

The dough will generate its own steam but misting before replacing the lid can help oven spring. 

Place the pot in the oven and drop the heat to 230⁰C. 

Set the timer for 20 minutes. 

After 20 minutes, remove the lid. 

Continue to bake for 30 - 35 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. 

If you have a meat or digital oven thermometer, the internal temperature for sourdough should be around 97⁰C - 99⁰C. 


When baked, remove the loaf from the oven and from the pot and allow it to rest on a wire rack. 

It will take a couple of hours for the inside to properly 'set'. Fight temptation and leave it to cool thoroughly before slicing. 

I tend to slice my loaves into quarters and freeze them. A chunk out before bed is ready for toast in the morning. 

What do I do with all this starter that I haven't used? 

Save about 150 gms for the next bake. 

The remainder makes excellent 'discard' bread. Collect it in a jar in the fridge. 

Try baking baps or loaves using this recipe:

Happy baking....


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