How to Make a Perfect Loaf of Sourdough Recipe

How to Make a Perfect Loaf of Sourdough Recipe


[Photographs and video: Tim Chin]

There are probably a thousand ways to make sourdough bread. Consider the catalogue of shapes alone: boule, bâtard, baguette, miche, pain de mie (or pullman), baton—that’s just a sample of a much longer list of the conventional French shapes. Sourdough breads also include products like Ethiopian injera, Indian naan and bhatura, and Filipino pandesal. For those new to sourdough baking, learning the terminology, acquiring the equipment, and mastering the specific techniques required can seem incredibly daunting.

But baking sourdough doesn’t have to be an exercise in futility. You don’t have to suffer the indignation of producing a dense hockey puck of cooked dough. Sure, I could hype up another recipe for a “foolproof” no-knead sourdough bread and call it a day, but you probably want a little more than that. In the spirit of offering concrete skills and concepts, this recipe provides a roadmap for a basic pain au levain, an all-purpose sourdough loaf. It provides some foundational techniques for other breads, too, and it even uses all-purpose flour, just to keep things accessible.

If you just want to get straight to baking, you can jump to the recipe. But if you want to know the “whys” and “hows” of this recipe, here’s a primer on the mechanics involved.

The Big Picture Process

A loaf of sourdough bread cut into slices and topped with butter on a cutting board

Pain au levain is the classic sourdough loaf found in any European-style artisan bakery and plastered all over your IG feed. With the help of Kristen Dennis, a sourdough expert and popular Instagram baker, I’ve outlined the process for a simple, medium-hydration dough based on some of her methods.

  • Build the Levain: A levain will be used to leaven your bread. Building one involves mixing your starter with a relatively small portion of flour, and adding water. If you don’t have a starter, you can make a starter from scratch or phone a baker friend and ask for some of theirs. These days, some bakeries and restaurants with bread programs are making small amounts of their starters available for purchase as well, so you can also try procuring a starter that way.
  • Mix the Dough: This step includes mixing the majority of flour and water for your dough. Crucially, this process involves not only incorporating ingredients, but also developing gluten. Mixing includes steps such as an autolyse (see below) and mechanical kneading, as well as the incorporation of levain and salt.
  • Bulk Ferment (or Bulk Proof) the Dough: Bulk fermentation refers to the fermentation and rising of a mixed dough. At this stage, microbes metabolize starch and produce gas that gets trapped in the gluten matrix, which continues to develop and strengthen as the dough sits. This gentle, slow fermentation is crucial to producing a tall, airy bread with sufficiently sour flavor.
  • Shape the Dough: Once the dough has adequately fermented, it’s common practice to shape it. Shaping (and pre-shaping) builds structure into the dough and increases surface tension. Without shaping, doughs have a tendency to spread too much when baking, resulting in a flatter loaf. Shaping improves the odds of producing a tall, proud loaf.
  • Final Proof and Retarding of the Dough: After shaping, the dough is typically fermented a final time before baking. In some cases, this fermentation occurs at a much colder temperature (41°F and lower) in a process known as retarding. Retarding improves the flavor of your bread, providing tangier, sweeter notes.
  • Score the Dough: As a bread bakes, it expands with enough force to crack and break in an irregular way. Scoring the dough beforehand provides an outlet for steam to escape and allows the dough to expand in a more controlled, predictable manner, which produces a uniform and attractive shape.
  • Bake Your Bread: Without enough heat, sourdough bread will not rise properly when baked. You won’t get that coveted oven spring—the initial vigorous expansion of gas that contributes to a tall loaf. It’s common to employ steam to delay the hardening of the crust, which in turn allows the loaf to expand more fully. Bakers use all kinds of setups to provide steam—lava rocks, ice cubes, steam ovens, or just heavy lidded baking vessels.

Special Equipment

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Making this recipe requires some special equipment, though in some cases substitutions are possible (changing the equipment may require some changes to the recipe process, as noted below). Most of that equipment is covered in our guide to bread-baking gear, though this recipe has a couple of specific needs worth explaining.

Square baking dish

An 8-inch square baking dish or similar container isn’t essential. But symmetry is important for proper, uniform dough handling and consistency. Working at 90- and 180-degree angles when coil folding (which is the method used in this recipe) helps establish this symmetry; using a square container helps ensure proper, 90-degree turns better than a round bowl. Using a square dish also preserves a square dough shape throughout proofing, providing straightforward edges and axes when it comes time to shape.

That said, you can use a round bowl, but you’ll have to be more careful about making the proper, symmetrical turns, and shaping may be less intuitive later.

Oval Banneton

A banneton is a wicker basket used to proof portioned bread dough after it has been fully shaped. For higher hydration doughs (60 percent and higher), a banneton helps to preserve a bread’s shape and provides a little more tension while it rises, producing a tall, uniform baked loaf. This recipe is designed for an oval, 10-inch lined banneton, which results in an oval bâtard shape. You can use a round banneton or even a round bowl lined with a lint-free towel, but note that the shape of your baked bread will be rounder and less rectangular (and it will also require a different forming method than the one described in the recipe steps). If your banneton does not include a liner, then be sure to liberally dust it with rice flour to prevent sticking.

Ingredients and Process Notes

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Bread-making is complex process with seemingly infinite variables. Many of those variables depend on each other—change one, and you may need to make other adjustments to the recipe. Here’s a bit more information on this particular loaf.

Flour

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Flour in a mixing bowl, to be made into a sourdough loaf

This recipe is designed for all-purpose flour, with a smaller percentage of whole wheat flour for flavor and to help fermentation.

All-Purpose Flour

Why all-purpose flour? Mainly because it’s widely available. In Trevor Wilson’s words, “The baker makes the crumb, not the flour.” If you can make a tall, open-crumbed loaf with all-purpose flour, then you can definitely make a loaf with higher-protein bread flour. I tested this recipe with high-protein King Arthur unbleached flour, Gold Medal unbleached flour, and Central Milling unbleached flour. They all produced good quality bread with relatively open crumb structure.

If you want to or have access to bread flour, then you are welcome to use it, though it will require some changes to the recipe. Bread flour has higher gluten potential, and tends to produce doughs that can trap gases very effectively, resulting in bigger holes and taller loaves. But keep in mind bread flour also absorbs more water, so it may be necessary to increase the dough’s hydration by adding more water. Similarly, higher-extraction locally milled flours contain more bran and germ, and will hold more water than lower-extraction flours, and will also require more water.

Whole Wheat Flour

It’s common practice to include some proportion of whole wheat or whole grain flour in a bread formula to facilitate fermentation—most basic white sourdough recipes call for up to 20 percent whole wheat or whole grain flour in their total flour formula. Whole wheat flour is rich in nutrients and potential microbes, speeding up fermentation and ultimately imparting more flavor to breads.

On the other hand, the inclusion of bran can inhibit gluten development. The tiny bits of bran are sharp and act like razor blades, mechanically disrupting the bonds formed in a gluten matrix. To maximize the benefit of whole wheat without compromising gluten structure, it’s common to sift whole wheat flour (as this recipe calls for), or use flour that has been bolted (commercially sifted). It’s also common to pre-soak whole wheat flour to soften the bran, via a process called an autolyse (more on that below).

Hydration

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High hydration dough is overrated. Don’t get me wrong: Raising hydration generally improves dough extensibility, and can help produce those big, open holes that many bakers aspire to produce. But without proper fermentation and dough handling, getting an open crumb becomes significantly more difficult. The effects of slow or weak fermentation will be more noticeable in a higher hydration dough: The dough may be slack, sticky, and hard to handle. At the same time, improper handling of a high hydration dough can severely degas the dough or result in a weak dough that doesn’t hold its shape.

The relatively lower hydration in this recipe is particularly important because it uses mostly all-purpose flour. In general, all-purpose flour absorbs less water than higher-protein bread flour. For example, breads made using bread flour commonly feature hydrations in excess of 80 percent. If you made the same bread using all-purpose flour at the same hydration, you would likely notice that the dough is much slacker and harder to manage—in a word, ‘wetter’ than the original dough. To account for lower water absorption, it’s helpful to lower hydration. For this recipe, I lowered the hydration to 76 percent. That 4 percent difference makes the dough a little easier to handle, and developing structure becomes more straightforward. And yet, the crumb is still open.

If you wish to raise hydration in this recipe, you will likely have to make a couple changes to your process. You may have to incorporate more sets of folds into the dough to build structure; or you can switch to bread flour to raise water absorption.

Temperature

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Establishing and maintaining a consistent fermenting temperature has a significant impact on a sourdough loaf. Of course, dough will proof faster at warmer temperatures than at cooler temperatures. But how do you know how long to bulk ferment at a given temperature? At a target ambient temperature between 73-75°F, complete bulk fermentation (from the time levain is added to the dough) takes between 6 and 7 hours. At a lower temperature range (64-68°F), bulk fermentation might take between 8 and 10 hours; at higher ranges (78-82°F), bulk might be complete in 4 hours instead. Knowing and judging bulk fermentation for a given temperature requires a bit of trial and error over successive bulk fermentations at that temperature.

One way to establish more consistency in your baking is to aim for a target dough temperature. Bakers refer to desired dough temperature (DDT) as a direct measure taken after mixing all ingredients in a dough. Bakers can calculate what water temperature to use in mixing by factoring room temperature, flour temperature, and a predetermined friction factor based on the method of mixing. For simplicity’s sake, I aim for a DDT of 74°F after mixing. I periodically check this temperature after each set of coil folds to ensure that my dough is fermenting at the expected temperature.

As a matter of good practice, it’s helpful to measure dough temperature after mixing even if you don’t want to do some tricky math. If the temperature is considerably warmer than 74°F, then you may need to adjust the ambient fermenting temperature to bring the dough temperature down.

Finally, how do you maintain a target ambient temperature? You might need to play around a little. In temperate regions, 75°F might be room temperature. In cooler areas, you might need to find an area of your home that is slightly warmer (in the oven with the light turned on, or in a cupboard above your fridge). For maximum precision, investing in a temperature-controlled proofing box is the best option (but you can bake great bread without one).

Autolyse

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An autolyse involves stirring flour and water together and waiting. During this time, starches hydrate and gluten develops passively. Amylase enzymes convert starches to simple sugars, resulting in better fermentation once the levain is added. An autolyse gives dough a head start on both gluten development and fermentation in the long run. That means less kneading, and less time waiting for the dough to rise. Overall, an autolyse improves the consistency and quality of bread. It’s not a mandatory step in bread-making, but in the right circumstances it makes life a lot easier. It’s a common process for high-hydration doughs.

It’s important to note that lower-protein flours benefit from shorter autolyse times than do higher-protein flours. For example, bread flour can be left hydrated for upwards of two hours before adding the levain and salt with no ill effects. But a dough of all-purpose flour can become soupy or lack structure given the same treatment. That’s because amylases have broken down too many starches and compromised the gluten structure.

Judging Gluten Development

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How do you know if you’ve developed sufficient gluten structure in your dough? You can certainly rely on subjective indicators, like accumulating surface tension. But in the early stages of mixing and incorporating ingredients, those indicators aren’t so useful. One way to judge gluten development involves a “window pane” test. After the initial autolyse, pick up the dough between your fingers and try to stretch it to a thin sheet. If the dough stretches without tearing and you can see your fingers through it, then that is a good indicator of gluten development. The window pane test demonstrates the degree of both elasticity and extensibility—two crucial traits of a well-developed dough. It’s helpful to perform this test after each step in mixing up to the first set of coil folds, to know if the dough requires more kneading or more folds.

Shaping

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Shaping in this recipe is relatively straightforward. For a bâtard like this, a simple letter fold and roll up is enough. Because we’ve been careful to develop dough strength through coil folding during bulk fermentation, the dough should have ample strength and tension even before shaping. This gentle shaping method is ideal for beginners, since it minimizes accidental deformation or degassing of the dough.

Retarding

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In this recipe, most of the rising occurs during bulk fermentation. But after shaping, it’s helpful to throw the loaf into the fridge. Proofing at low temperatures is known as retarding. And depending on the temperature, the final rise slows considerably. While yeast activity slows, the production of carbon dioxide is throttled. At the same time, enzymatic activity continues at a reasonable rate, improving flavor without compromising dough structure: Amylase enzymes break down starches into sugars, increasing caramelization when baking and providing a whole cascade of new flavors. Lactic acid bacteria are also still slightly active at low temperatures, so sour flavors can still develop. Finally, retarding the dough makes scoring easier. A cold dough is firmer, less sticky, and a blade won’t drag as much on the dough surface. Retarding improves the chances of producing an ear.

Scoring

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Scoring merely guides the dough in its expansion. For best results, it’s helpful to slash your dough at a shallow angle; between 10 and 20°F tends to result in a more pronounced ear. If you’ve handled and fermented your dough properly, even improper, imperfect scoring will result in good bread. When scoring, it’s also helpful to follow the curvature of the dough from top to bottom. But ultimately, the key to good scoring is practice and confidence. The more you score, the better you’ll get at it.

Baking

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The airy interior of a sourdough loaf, cut in half and showing the large air pockets in the crumb

Baking sourdough bread requires heat—real, serious heat. Your run-of-the-mill 350°F setup isn’t going to cut it. In general, the hotter you run your oven, the more energy you can supply to heat your combo cooker, which later transfers that heat to the dough inside. More heat transferred means greater potential for vigorous expansion of dough and oven spring. Most ovens reach temperatures at or in excess of 500°F. In other words, don’t be afraid to really crank it. I recommend heating your oven to at least 485°F, or up to 500°F.**

**According to Kristen Dennis, there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to high temperatures. If you generate too much heat, then the dough can crust over too early before reaching maximum expansion; second, excessively high temperatures risk burning the bottom of the loaf. For this reason, Kristen recommends 485°F.

After that initial burst of heat and expansion of dough, it’s vital to remove the cooking cover and continue baking. To bake bread fully without burning the crust, it’s helpful to lower the baking temperature. In the European tradition, good sourdough bread is bien cuit (‘well done’ in French)—dark, crusty, and just short of burnt. But as long as the internal temperature of dough reaches roughly 210°F, the color of crust is generally a matter of personal preference.

The Power of Practice

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Hopefully, these explanatory notes offer a general roadmap for a simple loaf of sourdough bread. There’s no hard and fast, “ultimate” way to good bread. But if you understand the underlying concepts—if you nail fermentation and are mindful of proper dough handling—then you’re well on your way to success. How do you get good at baking sourdough bread? A recipe is not enough. Several thousand words aren’t going to suddenly transform you into the second coming of Chad Robertson.

It’s like my old chef said: Young cooks are in a hurry to be hotshot chefs. If you want to master something, keep your head down. Respect repetition. Kristen’s message is no different. “You need to practice,” she says. “You need to bake 20 loaves and know your dough. You compare results. You become your own little scientist.”





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