Understanding the Sourdough Bread Process
Understanding the sourdough process is extremely important to becoming a confident bread baker. This article will review baker’s percentages, sourdough formulas, and the whole sourdough process.
Learning to make sourdough is almost like learning a whole new language. When people ask me if sourdough bread is hard to make, my answer is that it is actually extremely easy, once you really understand the process. But getting over that hump can be a bit intimidating.
This article will hopefully help you get there! Sourdough recipes are less a recipe than they are a combination of a formula and a timeline. And understanding how to read the formulas (and how to create your own) as well as how all the steps work so you can make your own timelines, is so helpful in this process.
At the end of this article I will share my base recipe and timeline that I typically work from for my sourdough bread. You can use this as a starting point to find the timelines and ratios that work best for you. You will also see below that there is a table of contents to help you navigate the information here, as well as a video where I give an overview of all of this information, if that is easier to digest.
A sourdough starter is a natural culture of wild yeasts and bacteria. Creating a sourdough starter is actually very easy and involves combining flour and water together and letting it sit until it ferments. This mixture is fed fresh flour and water over a period of time to create a strong culture of yeast and bacteria that can make your bread rise. This means commercial yeast is not needed in sourdough bread.
If you are brand new to the sourdough bread process, and don’t even have a starter yet, you will want to start there. I have a whole article explaining what sourdough is and another article walking you through the process of making your own active sourdough starter to bake with.
This article will assume that you do have an active starter and you are ready to start baking!
Baker’s Percentages (Baker’s Math)
Before we dive into the steps of actually putting together a dough, it is extremely important that you have a general understanding of how baker’s percentages (also known as baker’s math) works. Baker’s percentages are something that bakers (especially bread bakers) use to formulate their recipe. It is a calculation in percentages of every ingredient in the recipe compared to the amount of flour in the recipe.
How to Calculate Baker’s Percentages
To calculate baker’s percentages, you start with the total amount of flour by weight in your recipe. No matter how much flour that is, it is always set at 100%. Now, every other ingredient in the recipe is calculated compared to the weight of the flour. The formula is: (weight of ingredient/weight of flour) x 100 = Baker’s Percentage
Sourdough bread, in its most basic form, is only made up of 4 ingredients: flour, water, sourdough starter, and salt.
- 1000 GR FLOUR (100%)
- 750 GR WATER (75%)
- 200 GR STARTER (20 %)
- 20 GR SALT (2%)
So using the example above let’s talk through a basic sourdough recipe. For the purposes of keeping the math simple, we will start with 1000 gr of flour. A formula with this amount of flour would be enough to make two good size loaves of bread. So remember, no matter how much flour is in the recipe that quantity of flour is going to be set at 100%. Now every other ingredient in your recipe is going to be calculated as a percentage in relation to the flour.
Now, the next ingredient in the recipe is your water. The water can vary widely in the amounts, or the percentage, you would use in your recipe. You might go as low as 60% and you can go up very high into the 90%s or even up to 100% if you are using a lot of whole grains. For the purposes of talking through the example, we are going to set the water at 75% which is 750 gr. This is a fairly standard percentage for a basic sourdough bread.
Next up in the recipe is the starter. Now again, the amount of starter that goes into your bread dough can vary widely baker’s percentage wise. You could go as low as 5% and you can go up much higher than that. A smaller percentage of starter will require longer fermentation times but will also increase the flavor and acidity in your bread. I usually like to keep mine around 20% which would put the starter in this recipe at 200 gr.
The salt in a recipe typically stays around 2%. You can reduce that slightly to meet your own preferences, but 2% salt is very standard. So for this recipe that would put the salt at 20 gr.
You will often hear bakers refer to their loaves of bread or their recipe formulas in terms of the hydration percentage. They are referring to the water in their dough in regards to baker’s percentages. Sticking with our example above, you might hear a baker refer to this as a “75% hydration dough.” The reason this is often discussed, is the hydration of a dough is one of the major factors that contributes to the texture of your bread. Higher hydration doughs can lead to a more open crumb structure and a more moist final bread, but they are more difficult to handle. Lower hydration doughs tend to create a more closed structure bread, but are much easier to work with.
Note: It is also important to note here that if you want to calculate a true hydration level in your sourdough bread you need to account for the amount of water and flour in your sourdough starter. It is most common for sourdough starters to be 100% hydration starters. This means that they are equal parts flour and water by weight. So in our recipe example we added 200 gr of starter to our dough. Of that 200 gr starter, 100 gr is water and 100 gr is flour.
So to calculate a true final hydration you would need to base your baker’s percentage off of 1100 grams of flour and 850 gr of water. This would give our formula a true final hydration of 77%. But for the purposes of just getting started with sourdough baking, I wouldn’t stress about this part too much.
The Sourdough Process
There are endless ways to approach sourdough bread baking. Watch 100 bread baker’s make a loaf of bread and you will see 100 different methods. However, there is a general flow that pretty much all sourdough bread recipes go through. And in order to become confident in your own baking it is important to understand each of the steps. This will not only help you follow recipes, but will also help you develop your own preferred methods.
Feed Starter or Create Leaven
Before a dough is started, you need to feed your starter fresh flour and water to get it ready to go into the bread. After your starter is fed it goes through several stages. It will start rising in it’s container as it feeds on the fresh food and begins to get very bubbly. It will start to dome on top and then eventually the dome will flatten out and the starter will start to fall. When the starter falls it means that it is out of food and it is no longer active enough to go into a dough.
Different baker’s have varying preferences on when to use their starter in a dough. I like to use mine when it is just starting to flatten out on top but before it starts to fall. For me, it usually takes my starter around 6-8 hours after my normal feeding to get to this point so I will plan my dough schedule around this.
Autolyse (*optional, but recommended)
Autolyse refers to the process of mixing the flour and water together in your bread recipe before adding your salt and usually before adding your leaven (starter) as well. Though it should be noted that some people do add their leaven in during this step. The benefit of mixing only the flour and water together before adding the salt is that it allows the flour to completely hyrdate and it allows the gluten structure to begin building on its own.
Autolyse is particularly helpful in high hydration dough as well as doughs that contain a lot of whole grain. Immediately after the flour and water is mixed notice how shaggy the dough is and how easily it breaks if you try to pull up on it. However, after the dough rests for a bit the texture completely changes. It will be smooth and silky and if you pull up on it it will have some elasticity.
The flour and water should be allowed to autolyse for at least 30 minutes to get the benefits of it. However, you can go for much longer, up to two hours. You do need to be careful not to allow your mixture to autolyse for too long, however, as the enzymatic activity can start breaking down the dough. I typically watch my starter to see when it is about an hour away from being ready, and then I go ahead and mix my flour and water together.
Mix Final Dough
Once the starter is vigorous and full of bubbles it is ready to go into your dough. If you did utilize the optional autolyse step, you would mix your starter and salt into that mixture. If you didn’t utilize the autolyse step, all of your ingredients will get mixed together here.
There are a lot of different methods that people utilize to mix there dough like the pincer method, the rubaud method, or using a mixer. This is something you can play around with to find what you like best. I like to use the pincer method which involves pinching and squeezing the dough all over and then folding it over itself until everthing is well mixed. You can see my demonstrating the pincer method in my here.
Build Strength and Structure
After your dough is mixed it needs to build some gluten structure and strength. There are three main methods for approaching this: the no-knead method, the kneaded method, and the stretch and fold method. With no-knead sourdough bread you are letting time do all the work for you. Gluten structure will form all on its own given enough time. However, if you want a taller and more structured loaf you will want to knead your dough or utilize the stretch and fold method.
Kneading dough by hand or in a stand mixer can be used for sourdough bread, though it is not the most common method. Kneading to build strength and structure works best for lower hydration dough- usually something around 68% hydration or lower. Dough that has a higher hydration is very difficult to handle in the same way and therefore a different method of building strength is typically utilized.
Stretch & Fold Method
The stretch and fold method is typically used for higher hydration doughs and those that contain a lot of whole grain. This method is a more gentle way of building the gluten structure. It involves pulling up on sections of the dough, stretching it as far as it can go without tearing, and folding it down over itself. This process is performed all the way around the dough until it holds its shape into a tight ball.
Typically stretch and folds are performed in 15-30 minute intervals during the first few hours of the fermentation process. The process of stretching the dough and folding it over itself serves to align the gluten strands and even out the dough temperature, allowing strength and structure to build. You can see me utilizing the stretch and fold method here.
The bulk fermentation phase is also sometimes referred to as the first rise. This phase starts as soon as the final dough has been mixed, so if you are utilizing the stretch and fold method it is happening simultaneously as you build structure in your dough.
The purpose of the bulk fermentation is to allow the yeast and bacteria to work in the dough to develop flavor and to build up gasses. The length of bulk can vary widely depending on the percentage of starter you put in your dough, how warm your environment is, and how sour you want your bread. Bulk can sometimes be as quick as 2 hours or as long as 24 hours. I typically allow my dough to bulk ferment for about 6-8 hours.
There really isn’t one clear answer on when the bulk fermentation stage is done. Essentially you want to allow your dough to build up a good amount of gasses in it before you shape. I usually look for my dough to be almost double in size and to see visible bubbles forming on top. It is also important to note that some recipes call for a short bulk ferment and a longer proof, and others approach it the other way around. I typically do the later.
Once bulk ferment is complete, the dough needs to be shaped. Typically when shaping a sourdough loaf, you want to be careful not to deflate all of the air out of the dough. This is a bit different from other recipes where you might “punch” the dough or degass it.
A pre-shape is an optional step before the final shape. This is the process of gently working the dough roughly into the shape that it will be after the final shape. Less tension is given to the dough and this is usually done pretty quickly and then the dough is allowed to rest before the final shape.
The purpose of pre-shaping your dough is to work the gluten structure into the direction you want it to go during the final shape. This can develop a stronger structure for your loaf.
There are about as many different ways to approach the final shape of a dough as there is to approach a sourdough recipe. However, the main thing baker’s are trying to accomplish during a final shape is to build tension on the surface of the dough to help it hold its shape when it bakes. This is also done in a gentle enough manor that as much air as possible is preserved inside the loaf.
Once the dough is shaped, it needs to proof (or go through the second rise) before baking. Depending on how long your recipe called for bulk ferment and how well you preserved the air in the dough when shaping, the length of time for proofing can vary greatly. For some dough it might only be about 20 minutes, while others might need a few hours.
To check if your dough is done proofing, you can do what is called “the dent test.” Flour a finger and gently press in on the dough about 1/2″ in. If the hole fills in immediately, you need to let it proof a bit longer before baking. If the hole fills in very slowly then you can go ahead and bake your loaf.
It is possible to let your dough proof for too long, and if this happens your bread will end up deflating in the oven and will be very flat and dense. When you perform the dent test, as described above, and your dough feels very weak and like it might collapse that is a good sign that you have over-proofed your dough. You can still go ahead and bake it, but your loaf will not be as airy as if you baked it before it was over-proofed.
Retard (*optional, but recommended)
The last optional step in the sourdough process is retarding your dough. The retard stage of bread baking is when you put your dough in the refrigerator. Cold temperatures will slow down the yeast activity while still allowing the bacteria to work in your dough. This creates a more flavorful and sour loaf.
Technically you can retard your dough at any point in the sourdough process and the refrigerator can be seen almost like a pause button on your timeline. You could even do a very long bulk ferment in the refrigerator for up to 3 or 4 days. However, I like to retard my dough after it has been shaped. I find that baking from a cold loaf helps it hold its shape much better and helps with a nicer oven spring.
If you do retard your dough after it is shaped, be aware that it can over-proof in the refrigerator. While the yeast activity does slow down a lot, it doesn’t stop completely. I typically retard my shaped loaves around 14-16 hours for a really nice sour flavor without over-proofing.
There are quite a few different ways to approach baking a loaf of sourdough. The most common method is to bake the loaf in a pre-heated dutch oven or oven safe pot. This is the method I use the most. Other options are to bake on a pre-heated pizza stone or pizza steel with a roasting pan underneath filled with water to create steam.
Whatever method is used, the important part here is the utilization of steam. Commercial ovens have steam injectors in them that allow the baker to utilize steam during the first part of the baking process. This keeps the outside of the loaf moist and allows it to fully rise and open up before the crust sets. This is also known as oven-spring. A dutch oven tool for a home bread baker because the lid traps the moisture from the loaf inside the pot, creating a steamy environment.
While some people may think cooling their loaf before slicing is optional, I’m going to tell you it is absolutely crucial for the most flavorful sourdough bread. Cutting into a loaf of bread before it is cool will release all of the moisture and cause the bread to stale very quickly. The texture of the bread will also be very gummy if you cut it while hot. Allowing the bread to cool completely also helps develop the flavor of the bread more fully.
My favorite way to store a loaf of uncut sourdough bread is at room temperature without anything covering it. I just let it sit on my cutting board until I’m ready to slice into it. Once it is sliced, I turn the loaf sliced side down on my cutting board and continue to keep it in the open air for the next 48 ish hours. After that, I will typically go ahead and slice all of it up and store it in the freezer. It refreshes from frozen in the toaster beautifully. You can more in depth about the best ways to store, freeze, and refresh bread here.
I know this is a lot of information to take in and it can feel overwhelming. The most important part of the sourdough process is to continually ask yourself why? Learn about the processes and techniques and practice them over and over again. When you have a failure that is the perfect opportunity to learn something new. No “failed” loaf is ever a complete bust. It is all part of the process of becoming a confident bread baker.
In my journey to become a confident sourdough baker, I have used many different resources. These are the ones I have used the most:
*Note: some of these links are affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission off any purchase at no extra cost to you.
- The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum
- The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart
- Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish
- The Perfect Loaf Blog
- Elaine Boddy on Instagram
- 100 grams ripe active starter
- 375 gr filtered water (90 F, 32 C)
- 500 grams unbleached all purpose flour or bread flour
- 10 grams fine sea salt or kosher salt
- rice flour for dusting
Note: I'm including my target timeline that I use for this recipe. This can be used as a guideline to help you plan your schedule based on your own situation.
- 8:00 am Feed Starter: About 30 hours before you want to bake your bread, feed your starter. For this recipe I use these ratios: Keep 20 gr of starter and feed 20 gr of whole wheat flour, 40 gr of unbleached ap flour or bread flour, and 60 gr of filtered water at 85 F (30 C). This gives me about 140 gr total starter which is enough to go into the dough and enough to feed for the next day.
- 1:30 pm Autolyse: In a large mixing bowl, combine your water and flour together. Use your hands to thoroughly combine the ingredients until the flour is completely saturated. The dough will look very shaggy and not very cohesive at this point. Cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
- 2:00 pm Float Test: About 6 hours after feeding your starter, gently drop a spoonful of starter in a glass of water. If it floats then it is ready to leaven your dough. If it doesn't float, give it a bit more time to get active. You will have a few hour window of when your starter will be active enough to go into your dough.
- 2:10 pm Mix Final Dough: Spread 100 gr of ripe starter of the dough and dimple it in and then fold the dough over to encase it inside. Next, sprinkle the 10 grams of salt over the top of the dough. Begin mixing the salt into the dough by squeezing and massaging it, then folding it over itself to evenly distribute. Continue squeezing the dough and folding until it is well combined- about 2 minutes.
- 2:15 pm - 8:15 ish pm Bulk Ferment: Cover the dough with plastic wrap, a shower cap, or a damp kitchen towel in the mixing bowl and let sit at room temperature (68-74 F, 20-23 C) for 6 hours. Do 4 rounds of stretch and folds about every 20-30 minutes during the first few hours of bulk fermentation.
- 8:15 pm Shape: Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured work surface, being careful not to deflate. Pick up a piece of dough and pull it into the center. Continue working around the dough, pulling the edges in overlapping the previous piece until it is rounded into a tight ball. Flip the dough over and pull the dough towards you to build some tension and round it into a ball. Let the dough sit for about 2-3 minutes to seal the seam underneath.
- 8:30 pm Proof: Dust a 9" round banneton basket or a bowl lined with a lint free towel with rice flour. If you do not have a banneton basket, you can line a bowl with a tea towel and dust that with rice flour. Turn the shaped loaf into the prepared banneton (or bowl) with the seam side up. Let sit at room temperature (68-74 F, 20-23 C) for about 1 hour.
- 9:00 pm - 1:00 pm next day Retard: Place the proofed dough into the refrigerator to retard for 12-18 hours. This will improve the flavor of the final bread and also can help the loaf hold its shape a bit better.
- 12:00 pm next day, Prep Oven: At least an 45 minutes before baking your bread, preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C) with your dutch oven inside.
- 1:00 pm Score: Turn the loaf out onto a piece of parchment paper and use a bread lame or a sharp knife to score it however you like. I typically just make one big slash down the middle.
- 1:00 pm Bake: Transfer the dough on the parchment paper carefully into your hot dutch oven or oven safe pot that is at least 4 qts in size. Place the lid on top and place it on the center rack of the oven. Turn the temperature down to 425 F (220 C). And bake with the lid on for 35 minutes. Take the lid off and bake the loaf for 15-20 more minutes until you reach your desired color.
- Cool: Allow the bread to cool on a cooling rack for at the very least 1 hour before slicing it. Preferably let it cool for 4-12 hours for the best flavor, texture, and to prevent it from staling too quickly.
- Store: Keep the bread at room temperature completely uncovered for the first 24 hours. If you have sliced into the bread, place the bread cut side down on your cutting board. For day 2 & 3 I generally transfer it into a ziplock bag and refresh it by toasting it because the crust will get soft. After that, I slice it and store it in the freezer. Toast to refresh from frozen.