Steps to Sourdough: How to Make Bread Using Your Starter

August 13, 2020

Fellow carb-lovers, let’s talk about the steps for using your sourdough starter to actually make sourdough bread.

I will preface this post by saying: starters and sourdough can be as unique as people. I’ll share my fool-proof method, but I’ll also link to a few other recipes with which I’ve had success.

But listen to me.

It may not even remotely resemble bread the first twenty two or three times. But don’t give up! And don’t throw out bad loaves. They make great breadcrumbs, croutons, and weapons of mass destruction.

Photo by Iris on Unsplash

I’ve been cooking since I was a little girl, and my mom is one of the best and most intuitive home cooks I’ve ever known. So listen carefully when I tell you that bread isn’t always about following a recipe.

That’s right. Actually, a lot of cooking isn’t, though, is it?

Yes – baking can be quite scientific, but practice helps build your intuition (aka: that gut feeling). And intuition is the key to great bakes.

The more you practice, the more you’ll find that you recognize the smell, the texture, the look, and the behaviors of your starter and dough(s). Once you can tell what it needs–and you give it just that–you’re golden. Kind of like a baby, right?

So join me in misremembering the lyrics to Jewel’s 2003 breakaway pop hit, “Intuition,” as we talk about how to make sourdough bread using your starter.

Preparing Your Starter for Bread-Making

If you started the process of making and fermenting your sourdough starter, you likely have a strong and bubbly starter ready for love-making bread-making. 

Before you cancel all of your plans (as if we had any to start with) and clear your calendar for your Sourdough Intensive, it is incredibly important to understand that your starter will need to be fed 5-6 hours before you even begin the process

Check your starter for any mold or hooch if she’s been sitting out on the counter unfed for a while. If that’s the case, you’ll need to feed her regularly for a few days until she consistently grows and sinks and shows healthy bubbles with no liquid. 

Work backwards from your allotted bake time. You will need the 5-6 hours for your starter to feed and nearly double in volume.  You’ll then need 30-60 minutes for the autolyse period (we’ll go over this shortly) and another hour before you start folding the dough. 

Then your dough has the proof and ferment for a while (between 12-16 hours) before you actually bake for about an hour. 

Don’t worry. I’ve got a schedule made up for you. 

Sample Sourdough Feeding, Fermentation, and Baking Schedule

Friday or Saturday morning, before work or shortly after your first cup of coffee: Feed your starter.

Note: You can feed the whole thing, or you can take out a portion of the starter and feed it. This is referred to as the levain, which is almost the same thing

Either way, go about your day for the next 5-6 hours. It’s great if you’re able to watch it grow and are flexible with your time because the starter is ideal for use when it’s just reached her growth peak and is beginning her “decline.” 

This image from True Sourdough is a great visual for this growth peak stuff: 

Friday or Saturday, mid- to late-afternoon: Your starter should be just getting ready to sink back down. I like to think she’s taking a big SIGH after a hefty meal… not unlike myself. 

If you’re worried about whether she’s ready or not, you can do a simple float test

This video by The Bread Guide is a great indicator of a healthy and successful float test.

Note: Do not stir up your starter ever unless you are feeding. We want to keep the integrity of those fluffy fermentation bubbles because we want those gases to escape during fermentation and baking – not beforehand. 

It’s as simple as it sounds: gently take a small spoonful of your starter and plop it into a glass or small bowl of cool or room-temperature water. If it floats – hooray! You’ve got a bread-making starter! 

If it sinks… this is an excellent troubleshooting guide

TL;DR – your starter may not be active enough, overfed, or underfed. Fortunately, all of those are easy to troubleshoot. 

If your starter floats, go ahead and take out your ingredients and your food scale

You’ll need: 

  • 500 grams of rich bread flour (about 4 and ¼ cups) 
  • 12 grams of salt (about 2 teaspoons)–I use kosher, but fine or table salt work just as well, in my experience
  • 100 grams (or half a cup) of healthy starter/levain 
  • 370 grams of warm water (about a cup and a half) 

And that is IT. 

I’ll admit, I was pretty blown away when I started making sourdough at how few ingredients were required. That’s the magic of wild yeast

Making Magic Happen: AKA Making Your Sourdough Dough (Dough? Dough.) 

I’m one of those people that likes to make as little of a mess as possible when cooking, and I will gladly take longer if it means I can re-use bowls, cups, spoons, etc. for the same recipe. 

That said: I start with one big glass bowl. I prefer glass because I can see what’s happening during the proofing process, and I can see the numbers on my food scale. 

Tare your bowl on your food scale and pour in your 370 grams of warm water. 

It’s totally OK if it’s kind of hot.  Not boiling, but I’ll bet your biscuits that the glass bowl is a little cool. And if we know anything about science and thermal or kinetic energy, we know that when energy moves from a warmer object to a cooler object, the thermal energy of both objects changes

Anyway. No, I was never a science teacher. Yes, you’re welcome for that lesson on heat and thermal energy. 

Anyway, Taylor Swift and I agree that it’s OK if it’s not a perfect whatever-temperature-sourdough-experts-say.

Don’t listen to the experts; listen to me. 

Keep your bowl on your food scale, tare it out once again, and then measure out 100 grams of starter/levain. Once you get to experimenting, you might try 80 grams or even 150 grams, but I’ve had success with an even 100. 

Confession: I sometimes don’t do the float test and just kill two birds with one stone here. I let this be my float test. 🤷🏻‍♀️

Tare your scale once more and add your 12 grams of salt and 500 grams of bread flour

Now for the fun part. 

Take a silicone spoon OR your hands (I use my hands) and gently begin to incorporate everything.This is especially enjoyable if the water is still a teensy bit warm. 

I know. I’m a freak. 

It does not need to be smooth or perfect. In fact, you want to squish and incorporate the ingredients until you have a rough-looking blob of dough. Once you have no dry flour remaining, you can stop (for now). 

Amy in the Kitchen’s photo of her dough that is ready to begin the autolyse phase: 

What Does Autolyse Mean and How Do You Pronounce It?

Autolyse, in case you’re curious, is an easy way to get your ingredients all cozy. Science (again) does its thing and without a need to knead (hah!), the gluten development begins. 

Re: pronunciation – I’m still trying to figure that one out.

I leave my dough to autolyse for about 30-45 minutes, covered well with cling wrap, on my kitchen counter. If your house stays super cold, consider bumping that to an hour. 

You’ll read varied times for this step, which is another reminder that this is all about the look, smell, and texture of the dough. Consider its feelings, too. 

After 30-60 minutes, you’ll notice that the dough looks squishier and smoother. It will still look rough, but it will look like it’s been kneaded or like the magic bread fairy came and added moisture and gluten (which she did). 

I love it when the bread fairy comes to visit. 

Once your dough has autolysed, the proofing or fermentation process begins. 

At the 30 or 60-minute mark, you’ll need to fold your dough onto itself about 8 times. 

Gently pull the dough (it can stay in the bowl) away from itself, then fold it over onto itself. Turn your bowl clockwise 25% and repeat this about 7 more times. 

This lovely gentleman’s video shows you exactly what I’m talking about.

He also has a fun accent. Thanks, Cup of Flour

Notice he mentions that these folds help to develop the gluten. 

You will repeat this step four times, every 30 minutes, for the first two hours of your dough’s proofing/fermentation. 

If you wanted to let your dough hang out while you went about your life, that’s OK. You can repeat this step once and then leave it to ferment, but if you’re at home supervising your dough and watching trash television (like I do on Saturdays), I highly recommend the four repetitions. 

You’ll start to notice your dough going from wobbly to firm, then back to a little wobbly – which is great. The folding builds up the gluten (firm), and the fermentation releases gas (wobbly). 

So yes. Your dough is essentially farting into itself for several hours. 

Why does farting always come up here?

And now we wait. 

Bulk Fermentation Time for Your Sourdough

This is the part of the process where you pour a little vino, turn on 90-Day-Fiance and tell your husband to go mow the lawn. 

Or do something productive… like a good grown-up. 

Your dough will take anywhere from 8-12 hours to bulk ferment, depending on the temperature in your home and the level of activity in your starter. 

By now, it’s probably Friday or Saturday evening (wow, we’ve been on a long journey together), so I recommend covering your dough with a tight piece of cling wrap and putting it somewhere safe and warm-ish. 

My house is usually freezing, so I’ve had success by placing my dough on the counter of our spare bathroom with the space heater on low. This creates a makeshift proving box/room that stays at about 75-78 degrees Fahrenheit. You don’t want it too hot or your dough is likely to dry out and be overproofed. 

I leave my dough there overnight and check on it in the morning. 

By morning, it should have doubled in size. It will look smooth and poofy, like a really big marshmallow, and if you poke it just slightly with your finger, it will bounce back slowly. It will also have just a few bubbles: 

(If you know who this picture belongs to, please let me know so that I can give them credit.) 

True Sourdough has a great post called “4 Signs Your Sourdough Has Finished Proofing,” to help you assess your dough. 

In short: 

If it doesn’t bounce back: you may have over-proofed dough. 

If it bounces back too fast, like a supple baby’s butt, it needs more time. 

Time Work It, Work It

The following morning, Saturday or Sunday: lightly flour a work surface and gently coerce your dough out of its bowl onto said surface. 

I will go ahead and tell you that this is the most difficult part for me. 

Review this post and all of its glorious pictures and videos if you’re nervous, or just take your hand (or dough scraper) and have at it like the badass you are. 

But really, you’ll want to head over there and take some notes: 

You’ll do a few folds to shape your sourdough, and then place it either into a bowl lined with a floured kitchen tea towel OR a cute little proofing basket

I highly recommend dusting the tea towel or proofing basket with a bit of rice flour instead of bread or all-purpose flour. When it comes time for your dough to go into the oven, the proteins in the bread and/or all-purpose flour burn more easily than rice flour, so you end up with a little bit of burnt flour on the bottom of your loaf or an undercooked loaf. 

I used bread and all-purpose flour for months, and although it turned out fine, the rice flour did make a huge difference. Feel free to experiment. 

Cover your shaped loaf with a loose towel or the fun little shower cap that comes with the proofing basket, and place it in the refrigerator. 

Let’s Talk About the Cold Proof 

There are mixed feelings and reviews on cold proofing your sourdough. 

Magic bread fairies Sourdough experts say that cold proofing slows down the final rise, which allows it to continue fermenting while adding more flavor. You know, that delicious sourdough flavor, which is the WHOLE REASON WE STARTED ALL OF THIS. 

That, and because I couldn’t find yeast anywhere thanks to COVID. 

I have also found that cold proofing my dough creates a much better oven spring. I’m referring to that lovely poof that makes your bread round and fluffy.

My sourdough recipe and process has given me a beautiful oven spring without cold proofing, but the success rate is much higher with it. 

Some recipes tell you to cold proof for another 5-8 hours, but honestly: I cold-proof mine for about an hour while I preheat my oven and dutch oven. And that’s it. 

Once your sourdough is in the fridge, preheat your oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.  If you’re fancy, and your oven goes to 515 or 525 – go for it. However, if your oven does go above 500, you don’t need to bother with preheating the dutch oven with it. 

Making Bread Magic in the Oven

If you’re preheating your dutch oven, let it hang out in the 500-degree oven for about 30 minutes.

Right before it’s ready, take your sourdough out of the oven. Plop it out onto a piece of parchment paper, and lightly cover it with all-purpose or rice flour.

Gently smooth out the flour, and use a super sharp knife or bread lame to score your loaf.

Guys: if you are just learning, your scoring does not need to be fancy.

It is OK if you’re not a level 10 bread wizard:

Scoring bread • Cook Til Delicious

Cook Til Delicious, you are too fancy.

Personally, I think the proofing basket and rice flour make lovely rings, so I score a small square simply to let the gases out (which keeps your loaf from bursting):

Take your knife or bread lame and score a curved line from top to bottom (like this parenthesis half ->). Break the skin, but avoid going too deep.

Most of us amateurs, we’re happy with the cute little ear that bakes into shape from this cut:

Happy ear! : Sourdough

Breaddit is full of happy ears!

Ready… BAKE

Carefully place your parchment-paper-sourdough baby into the 🔥 <very hot> dutch oven, replace the cover, and put it into the 500-degree oven.

Note: I recommend placing an empty cookie sheet on the rack directly below the one on which your dutch oven is sitting. I was having trouble with a burnt bottom (ouch), and this resolved the problem perfectly.

Bake your sourdough covered and at 500 degrees for five minutes.

After five minutes, reduce your oven’s temperature to 450 degrees, but leave it covered.

Bake covered and at 450 degrees for 25 minutes.

Then, remove the lid, lower your oven’s temperature to 400 degrees, and continue baking uncovered for 15-20 minutes.

Once you start to get more comfortable with the weight, sound, and texture of your boule (cause it’s not dough anymore, baby!), you may decide to take it out of the dutch oven and bake directly on the rack for another 5-7 minutes, but I rarely do that. Mostly because I’m impatient.

When that glorious kitchen timer goes off, take that bad boy out of the oven and let it cool on a wire rack for at least an hour before slicing.

Here’s the thing:

I have very little patience when it comes to food. This is why I’m not what you would call a “thin person.”

So yes, I confess. I often slice into that hot bread, dip it directly into a vat of butter, and destroy half of my taste buds by shoving that piece of delicious inferno into my mouth.

Admittedly, this dries out the bread and makes it very difficult to slice.

If you’re a kind and patient person, you’ll let your sourdough boule cool 1-2 hours, and when you slice it open, you’ll find a stunning (as Paul and Mary Berry say) crumb:

I also recommend a decent bread knife (this is the one I have) since sourdough is crusty and sturdy. My regular ole’ serrated knife made it a bitch to slice.

Have Your Way with That Homemade Sourdough Bread

Congratulations! It has been a long, difficult, but rewarding journey.

But guess what? You made your own friggin’ sourdough bread.

You probably see now why it can be so expensive at the stores, especially the ~artisan~ variety.

Your fresh AF loaf will be good for about a week, especially if you keep it in the fridge, unsliced.

I cut out a few slices each hour morning, toast it, schmear a ripe avocado all over it, and sprinkle it with some everything-bagel seasoning.

It’s delicious. It’s heavenly. It’s bread fairy magic.

I’ve never given birth before, but I imagine it to be a similar experience. Arduous and painful, but so so rewarding.

Tell all your friends, and sign up for my newsletter to receive the next post (How to use all the sourdough discard to make homemade crackers! WHAT) before anyone else!

I’ll even throw in my weekly meal plan & grocery list. Deal? Deal.

LOVE YOU GUYS.

That’s all she wrote. Until next time, send all the questions, expletives, and pictures of your sourdough-making adventures to my DMs (@goodgollymrsholley). ✌🏼


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