How to make sourdough at home
Sourdough is a simple, magical thing – a loaf that grows out of flour, water, salt and seemingly nothing else. It can take practice to get right, but the results will fill you with a deep glow of satisfaction, even if you end up with something a bit wonky. Wonky tastes good, too.
Discover our tips on how to make sourdough from scratch, including a traditional recipe for a starter, pre-ferment and a step-by-step recipe for sourdough itself.
The sourdough recipe in this guide uses a pre-ferment (also called sponge, poolish or biga). The idea is that you mix a little yeast, either commercial or in this case from your starter, with a little flour and water and allow it to develop and grow before using it in your bread dough. Using a pre-ferment gives the natural yeasts a bit of a boost, and also improves the flavour of the loaf.
How do you make sourdough?
Sourdough is usually made of three components: the starter, the pre-ferment and the making of the bread itself. Our sourdough recipe is made with a two-stage process using a pre-ferment and will take 2 days. If you’re making a starter from scratch too, you’ll need to allow an extra 8 days before you start baking, but once your starter looks lively and strong (bubbling steadily) you’re good to go.
The food team’s top sourdough tips
- Discarding some of the starter during the development process makes sure what remains has plenty of fresh flour and water to keep feeding and growing healthily and will help to keep the quantity at the right level for a home baker.
- Before using or feeding your starter; pour off (or mix in) any liquid that has risen to the top, known as hooch.
- If you’re not baking with your starter regularly, you may need discard some to keep it at a manageable level – or use it in quick bakes such as soda bread and pancakes. Or give some to a friend so they can have their own starter. Once you start baking regularly you can just remove what you need and make bread with it, then replace with the same weight of flour and water (combined) – no need to discard anything.
- If you want to increase your starter size to make more loaves, just give it bigger feeds using equal quantities of flour and water to build it up (see instructions in how to make a starter).
How to make a sourdough starter (stage one)
A sourdough starter is made by mixing flour and water, which harnesses the action of naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria in the flour and in the air.
Hands on time: Allow 8 days to make a new starter from scratch
Using a starter ensures a loaf with a chewy crumb and complex flavour – and it makes for a longer-lasting bread.
Know-how: A sourdough starter is a fermented culture in which naturally occurring yeasts from the air are left to multiply in a mix of flour and water. It’s used instead of fresh or dried cultivated yeasts to make bread rise.
8-day time plan for a sourdough starter:
Day 1: In a clean jam jar or Kilner jar, mix 1 tsp rye flour (preferably organic) with 1 tsp tepid water (around 30C – and preferably filtered or mineral water). Stir together to make a batter. Cover with a lid and leave somewhere warm for 24 hours.
Day 2 & 3: Stir in 1 tsp rye flour, plus 1 tsp tepid water. Replace the lid and leave somewhere warm.
Day 4, 5 & 6: Stir in 1 tsp rye flour, 1 tsp strong white flour and 2 tsp tepid water. Replace the lid and leave somewhere warm. By day 6, the batter should be starting to bubble vigorously – your starter is born
Day 7 & 8: Discard half the starter, keeping the rest in the jar. Stir in 20g rye flour, 20g strong white flour and 40g tepid water. Replace the lid and leave somewhere warm.
By the time it bubbles on day 8, the starter should be vigorous enough to bake with, though it will get stronger the more you feed it. If you are making bread that day, take out as much of the lively starter as you need and replace with flour and water. So, if you use 50g starter, replace with 25g flour (rye, wholemeal, strong white or a mix) and 25g water, then cover and place in the fridge.
Otherwise, just put it in the fridge, covered, and give it a feed every few days. If you don’t bake, you’ll have to discard some of the starter. If you need a larger starter, you can increase it by mixing equal weights of starter, flour and water and letting it get bubbly before use.
The master recipe: how to make sourdough bread
Makes a 525g loaf.
Takes 2 days to make, 30-40 minutes to bake
Know-how: Remove as much starter as you need for your bread – 25g for this recipe to make the pre-ferment then feed your starter with 25g combined weight of strong white bread flour and water.
delicious. tip: If doubling the recipe to make 2 loaves, remove the second loaf from the fridge about an hour after the first and reheat the casserole and lid for 30 minutes at 250C/Fan 230C/Gas 9.5 before baking the second.
For the pre-ferment
- 60g strong white bread flour
- 5g rye flour
- 30g lukewarm water
- 25g lively starter (see above)
For the loaf
- 120g pre-ferment (see tips)
- 220g tepid water, plus 5g extra
- 275g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
- 25g rye flour, plus extra to dust
- 8g fine salt (about 1½ tsp)
- Sunflower oil to grease the bowl
- Mix the pre-ferment ingredients to a stiff dough in a small bowl. Cover and leave at room temperature (about 18C) for 12 hours to puff up.
- Break up the pre-ferment into small bits, then put in a large mixing bowl. Add the 220g water and mix until the pre-ferment has dissolved. (You can use a stick blender to make sure it is totally smooth.) Stir in the flours until no dry bits remain in the bowl. (The dough will still be a bit shaggy.) Cover and leave for 30 minutes.
- Sprinkle in the salt and the extra 5ml water and squidge both into the dough with your hands until well combined. Leave to rest for 5 minutes.
- Give the dough a set of 10-second kneads inside the bowl, folding the dough over on itself firmly 10 times until it resists, rotating the bowl a quarter-turn between folds. Cover and leave for 10 minutes.Repeat this step three times, including the 10 minute rest.
- Turn the dough out, smooth-side down, onto a lightly floured surface and press out gently into a long rectangle. Fold a third of the length into the middle, then fold the other third over the top (as if you were folding paper to fit in an envelope), then give it a quarter turn and repeat, brushing excess flour off as you go. Put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave somewhere warm (about 25C) for 45 minutes.Repeat this step twice more, including the 45 minute rest
- Line a mixing bowl (about 20cm across) with a clean tea towel. Dust liberally with rye flour (or you can use a proving basket).
- Place the dough smooth side-down on a lightly floured surface and press out into a square. Grab a corner, fold into the centre and press down. Then make 7 more folds from around the edge to the centre, pressing down each time, so the dough is roughly round. Turn smooth side up and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Turn smooth side down again and repeat the shaping, as above, then flip smooth side up again and circle between your hands on the worktop to form a tight round ball.
- Place the ball of dough smooth side down in the lined bowl. Put the bowl inside a large plastic bag with enough space that bag doesn’t touch the dough, then chill in the fridge for 8 hours or overnight.
- Next day, bring the dough to room temperature and leave to prove somewhere warm – it can be up to 30C. When ready to bake, the dough should feel pillowy and soft when prodded with a finger – this can take 1-3 hours.
- Put a heavy cast-iron casserole and its lid in the oven (choose one at least 10cm deep and with a diameter just larger than your lined bowl). Switch the temperature to 250C/230C fan /gas 9.5. Leave to heat for at least 30 minutes.
- Remove the casserole from the oven. Take off the lid and carefully invert the dough into the dish. Use a very sharp knife to slash the top of the dough quickly in a square pattern (see picture). If the blade is vertical, the cuts will open up horizontally while a shallow angle will create crusty ridges (ears).
- Replace the lid and put back in the oven. Reduce the heat to 230C/210C fan/gas 8 and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for 20 minutes more. Carefully remove the loaf from the dish and tap the bottom. It should sound taut and drum-like. Leave to cool on a rack.