Stop Overcomplicating It: A Step By Step Guide To Making Sourdough Bread

Is sourdough just another trend that Covid lockdowns made popular due to boredom, or does it truly have benefits? Even if it does, is it actually worth all the prep?

By Anna Hugoboom5 min read
Pexels/senanur ulusoy

No need to overthink this process – it’s age-old for a reason! Sourdough dates all the way back to about 2,500 BC, when Egyptians discovered the art of fermenting bread dough to make soft and light bread, even using beer foam in the mixture. The Jewish people and later the Greeks learned to make bread from the Egyptians. Sourdough bread was a staple for early civilizations all over the world throughout history. Even American pioneers like Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie baked sourdough bread and biscuits! Starters have been passed down through family generations, becoming a part of the family tradition with nostalgic memories attached to every batch. There is even a sourdough starter library in Belgium that has collected over 100 different starters of varying ages from around the world. In short, sourdough has been a centerpiece of culture for thousands of years! 

You might be thinking, “Yeah, but I can just buy sourdough from the local farmers market or at Whole Foods.” Yes, you can, but I will tell you three things: one, it’s much more expensive than it would be to make your own, and dollars add up (especially in this economy of crazy inflation, thanks to Bidenomics). Secondly, it’s still not as fresh as it would be if you made it yourself. And thirdly, you don’t get that satisfaction of pulling a golden and beautifully risen loaf out of the oven that you yourself made with your own two hands. Just imagine cutting into a warm loaf and spreading butter and drizzling raw honey over a fresh slice…drooling! And if a man is in the picture, I guarantee he’ll be just as impressed and delighted (after all, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach).

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Sourdough in the Works

First, let's tackle what sourdough is and how exactly it works. Sourdough bread is not made with the typical baking yeast – it’s made with the sourdough starter. Basically, this starter is a combination of wild yeast (absorbed from the air) and bacteria in a mixture of flour and water set to ferment over a period of time.

This fermentation process is a product of naturally occurring wild yeast from the grain and the air. The wild yeast eats the carbohydrates in the flour, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. The carbon dioxide is what causes the bubbles in both the starter and the bread. Then bacteria comes into the picture, usually a species of Lactobacillus. The bacteria convert the sugars from the flour into lactic acid and the alcohol made by the yeast into acetic acid. These acids are what make sourdough “sour.” They also enhance the natural preservative qualities, which helps the sourdough bread stay fresh longer than regular, quick-yeasted bread. 

Because your starter is actually alive, you have to keep it fed to keep it happy. If you keep your starter on the counter at room temperature, you will need to feed it (flour and filtered water) every day. If you keep it in the fridge, you will only need to feed it once a week. Usually, you discard part of the starter and feed the remainder; otherwise, it will just grow and grow and grow. There are many “discard” recipes though, so nothing needs to go to waste!

The Benefits of Sourdough

Now you know the science, but still, you might ask: Why is it worth it to go through all this hassle, and are the perks really beneficial? To this I say: Yes! There are multiple reasons why sourdough is good for you and why you should adopt this art into your lifestyle. 

Fermented foods bring numerous health benefits, including lowering high blood pressure, aiding digestion, and supporting immunity by balancing the intestinal microbiome and increasing gut bacteria. In turn, this boosts gut health and all the bodily systems the gut supports, including energy and nutrient metabolism. They also contain valuable properties that are anticarcinogenic, antiallergenic, antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antifungal, and even antiatherosclerotic. In this way, fermented foods can help reduce bloating and inflammation. 

Sourdough bread in itself is easier to digest than regular, non-fermented bread because the fermentation helps unlock the digestive enzymes within the nutrients and initiates the breakdown process of the food molecules. It also contains much less gluten than regular bread due to the fermentation process. Plus, the taste is amazing – so flavorful! There is so much more flavor in sourdough than regular bread, which often needs lots of salt and sweetening to boost the flavor. 

How To Make Your Own Starter

Starting your own sourdough starter can be a special experience if you really want to get into artisan baking. However, if you just want to get baking or don’t want to hassle with making a starter, you can purchase one to begin the process (and it’ll merge into the starter you continue, so it’ll still be yours). You can order a sourdough starter from Oh Loverly Day Soap Co. or Ballerina Farm, and there are also shops on Etsy selling sourdough starters. Even King Arthur sells sourdough starter. Or if you have a friend who has a starter, simply ask her for some!

Here’s how to make a sourdough starter:

  • Combine 1 cup of wheat flour and 1 cup of water in a glass mason jar. Stir until the mixture is smooth.

  • Cover with a clean, cotton cloth (napkin or cheesecloth works fine), and secure the cloth over the jar mouth with a rubber band. Remember, exposure to the air is what allows the natural yeast and bacteria in the environment to enter the mixture and start the fermentation process. 

  • Using a wooden or plastic spoon, add two tablespoons each of flour and water every day, mixing them into the starter until smooth.

  • Feed your starter every day around the same time of day – this is very important.

  • After about a week, the mixture will start to have a sour, beer-like smell and maybe small bubbles. At two weeks, if you see plenty of bubbles, your starter has doubled in size, it has stretch and air bubbles when you stir it, then it’s ready to start baking! 

Important step: Make sure you don't use all your starter at any single time, or else you will have to make it all over again! Measure out how much starter you will need for your loaf, and if you don't have any left, then feed your starter again (to make more) and wait to bake.

Making Sourdough Bread, Step-by-Step 

Now you have a bubbly and happy starter, and it’s time to bake bread! First, you have to strategize your timing because sourdough takes much longer to rise than commercially yeasted bread. It’s ideal to mix your dough about 12-14 hours before you intend to bake it, so you can plan to let it rise overnight (unless you want to wake early in the morning to start it if you want it fresh for dinner). For example, mix the dough at 7 p.m., then shape the dough at 7 a.m., and then bake at 9 a.m.  

For one loaf, I’ll include measurements below, but feel free to adjust for size or a different recipe:

  • In a large bowl, gently combine ½ cup active sourdough starter and 1 1/4 cup lukewarm water.

  • Add three cups of wheat flour and 1 ½ tsp. fine salt.

  • Using your hands or a big spoon, gently mix ingredients into a dough (do not knead!).

  • Cover the bowl and leave it out to rise for about 20 minutes. 

  • Gently fold your dough a few times, shaping it into a round ball.

  • Replace in a bowl. Cover and let the dough rise for 12 hours in a warm environment.

  • 12 hours later (or overnight), carefully detach the dough from the bowl using a spoon or scraper along the edge.

  • Gently fold the dough a few times into a shaped ball.

  • Leave to rise on the counter for 10-15 minutes. You can sprinkle some flour on the surface first to prevent sticking. 

  • Sprinkle a bit of flour in a fresh bowl lined with a tea towel or a banneton proofing basket, place the dough ball in the bowl, cover, and leave to rise for two hours or until double in size.

  • Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. 

  • Sprinkle cornmeal or flour on the bottom of your Dutch oven to prevent the bottom crust from sticking and burning.

  • Slowly flip the dough ball from the bowl onto a square of parchment paper.

  • Gently but quickly slice three slashes (straight lines) over the top of the dough ball (called scoring).

  • Holding the edges of the parchment, gently place the dough (still on the parchment) into a Dutch oven to bake.

  • Place a pan of water on the bottom rack of the oven for steam to crust the top and prevent the loaf from baking too dry.

  • Place lid on Dutch oven and bake at 450 degrees F for 20 minutes. 

  • When time is up, remove the lid and bake for an additional 30 minutes. 

  • When the top is golden-brown, remove from oven and pan and let cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing.

  • Options: add ¼ cup brown sugar, ½ cup raisins, and 2 tbsp. cinnamon for cinnamon raisin bread, or 2 tbsp. Italian seasoning and 1 tsp. granulated garlic for a savory loaf.

Since sourdough has been around for thousands of years, there are many different techniques and even more recipes. So look around for a recipe and a method that works for you! This tutorial and this tutorial have great tips for how to make sourdough bread. Or, check out this recipe from the Cultured Guru Blog. There are plenty of additional recipes to peruse on Pinterest, including sourdough English Muffins and sourdough biscuits

If you have a bread maker that can adapt to sourdough bread, great! If you want to try to find a recipe to bake the sourdough in a regular, stainless-steel pan, then feel free to storm Pinterest or TikTok for recipes. Dutch ovens are the traditional method of baking sourdough loaves because they allow the bread to slow-bake so that the inside is fully cooked and not doughy. Plus, you get the crusty-then-soft texture baked to perfection! You can find Lodge cast-iron and enameled Dutch ovens online and in stores like Williams-Sonoma, Target, and even Walmart. 

Gluten-Free Sourdough

Although sourdough means a lower amount of gluten in the bread and is easier to digest, sourdough is still considered unsafe for those with celiac disease and a gluten allergy due to the remaining percentage of gluten present. Especially if you have a serious allergy, you don’t want to risk it.

So, what to do if you're gluten-free? To make the sourdough starter, you have to use a whole grain gluten-free flour like brown rice or sorghum flour with filtered water. Check out this recipe here for detailed instructions to make your own gluten-free sourdough starter, and see this recipe to make gluten-free sourdough bread. The principles of keeping your starter happy and the process taking a long time still apply. 

Closing Thoughts 

You don’t have to be a professional artisan baker to whip up a loaf of beautiful bread! Let yourself explore this new, fun (and productive) hobby. These loaves make great housewarming gifts or a centerpiece with butter and honey for guests!

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