I really honestly thought homemade bread was the hardest thing to do in a home kitchen until we made our first loaf of bread several years ago. I soon realized many types of bread are fairly simple and involve just a few of the same steps repeated over and over again.
But, it is true that some bread can be harder than others. Pancakes, for example, are about as easy as it gets when it comes to making bread. Croissants on the other hand are probably off the charts.
So where does sourdough fall? People tend to view it as the “holy grail” of artisan bread, which means it should be really hard to make, right?
While it is true that sourdough is harder to make than bread made with commercial yeast (instant, active dry, or fresh), it is not overly complicated. There are a variety of variables and processes to be aware of, but with the right beginner recipe, sourdough is accessible to almost any skill level regardless of the number of baking utensils one has.
In fact, we have a recipe at the end of this post that is about as hands-off as sourdough can be. It’s super simple and can be made with just a few very basic kitchen items.
Sourdough Takes Time But Is Not Time Consuming
The major caveat with sourdough is that it takes a long time to make compared to commercially yeasted bread. It is very common for sourdough to take around 18-24 hours. But, the great thing about sourdough is that since it takes a long time, there is a lot of room to make it fit into your schedule. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. That is if you don’t overcomplicate it. I think there are a lot of videos out there teaching us how to achieve the perfect loaf of bread that suggests we become a sort of helicopter parent with our dough. It can leave us thinking that we have to hover around it all day.
Don’t get us wrong, we totally get chasing after the perfect loaf! We think it is awesome! We love trying techniques no matter how time-consuming. But, we wouldn’t suggest you start there. Nor would we suggest it for your daily bakes. Let’s just get you through your first loaf of sourdough bread first. 🙂
Our recipe really only involves about 10-15 minutes of hands-on time, and one moment of hovering before you bake it (which means you have to touch it twice in a 30-minute window).
Knowing the Basics is Key
For your first loaf of sourdough bread, you just need to be able to navigate through the 5 basic phases of the sourdough process. Those are the preferment, mixing, resting, shaping, and baking phases. They’re simple, promise!
- Preferment: This is just feeding your starter. When it is time to bake, simply follow the recipe’s suggestion for giving it a feeding before using it. If you use our beginner recipe at the end of this post, then you don’t have to pre-feed your starter before using it.
- Mixing: Typically you mix your starter into some water and then add all other ingredients (flour and salt) to that mixture. From there you mix by hand or with a spatula (or stand mixer if you have it) until everything is fully incorporated (no more dry flour).
- Resting: There are two rest periods for sourdough. One comes after mixing, and the other comes after shaping. The first rest can involve a lot of folding and shaping techniques that build gluten structure but is not needed for all recipes. Our recipe in this post doesn’t include the folding. The second rest period after shaping is usually done in a bowl or banneton (if you have it) but can be done in a number of ways. For ours, we’ll have you use a piece of parchment paper and a quick bread pan (basic loaf pan).
- Shaping: Shaping is where we tell the dough what shape we want it to be in when it finishes baking. We’re also building structure and tension to create a good rise in the oven. It can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. In our recipe we do a simple roll. If you can fold a burrito, you have the skill to do it. 🙂
- Baking: This usually involves high heat with a dutch oven. Without a dutch oven, you’d be directed to use a couple of simple tricks for creating steam in your regular oven. With ours, you can do either but in the companion video, you’ll see that we use our dutch oven. Also, just before baking, the dough is often scored (sliced with shallow cuts) to allow the bread to rise more evenly.
If you pay close attention to each of these steps while looking for a recipe you’ll be able to find one that doesn’t require you to change anything. It’s common to pick a recipe and kind of feel a bit married to it, even when you start to realize it calls for items or tools you don’t have. Don’t get attached and take your time in finding the perfect starter recipe that fits what you have.
Our aim in creating the recipe in this post was to reduce sourdough down to its simplest parts in order to make it very accessible for most home bakers.
Starters: The Real Barrier to Entry
All that said, one of the variables that I mentioned above, that makes sourdough harder than bread with commercial yeast has to do with starting and maintaining a starter. To turn out a quality loaf of sourdough, an active starter is needed.
There are a lot of concepts out there about what to do for a starter, and I have to say, we think a lot of information overly complicates what a starter is and how to care for it. A lot of which comes down to preference, not a necessity.
For us, we like to keep things simple. This means we store our starter in the fridge because it slows down yeast’s activity, which allows us to feed it less often. This really works for us because we bake once a week, and that means we only feed it once a week. Starters are perfectly happy that way.
If stored at room temp, they need to be fed daily. The only reason we can see doing that, is if we used it daily. But we just don’t eat that much bread. For many home bakers, we find that is where they fall too. In the once a week to once a month baking routine.
And that is a key concept that makes baking bread flexible, temperature. Bakers can always slow things down or speed them up with environmental temperature changes. The cooler the temp in your room the slower things progress and the warmer the faster.
For once a month baking, I’d suggest keeping a starter in the fridge and feeding it every two weeks or so, making sure to feed it the day before you’re ready to use it for baking. Feeding the day before you want to use your recipe has to do with starters in a fridge getting sluggish if not fed at least once a week.
But, this is where a lot of folks I talk to tend to get discouraged. The starter seems like too much to take care of. It’s often called a pet, and for good reason. But don’t get caught up in making sure you’re precise in your feeding schedule. And don’t overcomplicate it. We’ve gone 5 months without feeding our starter more than once. Each time, our next batch of bread always ended up great! We don’t suggest going that long without feeding regularly, but we simply mean to express how easy it really is to keep a starter going. We’ve written a post about that actually, and you can check it out here.
It really doesn’t have to be a lot of work, nor do you have to quit your day job to make sourdough. I’d compare it to using a water filter, or using ice trays (do people even use those anymore? :-)). Once started, it’s fairly simple to maintain, especially if you keep it in the fridge.
If starting a starter is the real barrier, I’d suggest putting out a request on your social platforms, there is a strong possibility that you just might know someone who keeps a starter. We were floored to find out when we started talking about baking just how many friends already had starters. We had no idea they even baked!
But if you need help with starting a starter, you can follow our guide here. It walks you through the whole seven-day process with pictures of each day. It is a simple process, that takes about seven days for most folks. All you need is whole wheat flour and water. That’s it. You feed it once a day, and forget about it until the next day. No special ingredients needed, and no special care required.
Are you starting to see that hard can be replaced with time? Sourdough just takes time and things progress slowly. Even warm and fast is going to take several hours. But the advantage that comes with sourdough, is big flexibility. We can start it, leave for the day, shape it later that night, and pull it out of the fridge the next day whenever it is convenient for us to bake. And since it doesn’t require advanced techniques or a slew of gadgets we just wouldn’t label it as hard. There is certainly a learning curve, but it isn’t hard or complicated.
Once you’re more confident, you’ll be able to alter countless variables in order to have it fit your schedule. But again, let’s just get that first loaf over with. Ready?
Ultra-Simple Beginner Sourdough Recipe
This recipe makes 1 loaf of sourdough bread, but it can easily be doubled or tripped. Or with even a little baker’s math, just expanded to be a slightly larger loaf of bread.
500 grams Bread Flour (All Purpose works, but this recipe is best with bread flour) (~2 Cups)
350 grams Filtered Water @ Room Temp (~1 1/2 Cups)
60 grams Unfed Starter (~1/4 cup)
10 grams Salt (~2tsp)
Medium to Large Bowl
Food Scale or Measuring Cups
Quick Bread Pan
Blade or Knife (for scoring)
Combine 60 grams unfed starter (has not been fed within 24 hours) to 350 grams water, dissolving starter in the water. Add 500 grams bread flour to your water mixture and mix with large mixing spoon (we prefer the handle side) until flour is mostly combined. Add salt and continue mixing with spoon. When most flour has been absorbed, begin mixing and folding by hand until all of the flour has clumped together. It should be shaggy and fairly dry. If your dough is wet, then skip to step 2. Dump the dough out onto an unfloured surface and do light folds until the dough becomes wet and tacky.
Place dough back in your mixing bowl and cover with plastic. A towel will not keep the dough moist enough as this is going to sit out on your counter all day (or night). Let dough sit in the bowl for 8-10 hours. Don’t sweat the time frame. This dough is very forgiving. You’re not looking for anything special when you return in 8-10 hours other than roughly a doubling in size and bubbles. Just take care that the dough is not left in temperatures above 88 degrees or under 68 degrees or you will need to add or take away time. Taking away time is not good for this recipe. It needs the extra time to create gluten, it’s how we get away with just leaving it alone for hours at this point. Hooray for not babysitting dough!
- PRE-SHAPE (8-10 Hours Later)
Flour a work surface and dump your dough out on it. Stretch the dough out into a rectangle and perform a fold and roll. Add tension by pulling dough toward you placing pressure on the bottom of the dough (watch the video above to see this in action). Cover with your bowl and let sit 30 minutes at room temp.
- SHAPE (30 Minutes Later)
Flour the top of your dough and flip it over. Stretch it out to a rectangle once more and perform another fold and roll. Add tension in the same way as before (also shown in video). Flour the top of the dough and transfer it into a parchment-lined quickbread loaf pan. Pinch the sides down (shown in video), cover with plastic and place in the fridge for 10-24 hours.
We find the sweet spot is about 12 to 18 hours, but again, the dough is pretty forgiving and you should not sweat this much. One note, if you moved on to shaping at the 8-hour mark (we did in the video), we’d suggest letting it proof in the fridge for at least 12 hours (in the video we did 18 hours).
- BAKE (10-24 Hours Later)
Preheat oven to 475°F with a Dutch oven inside. Once the oven has come to temp, remove your dutch oven and transfer your dough with parchment into your Dutch oven. Score the top of your dough (shown in video), and place the lid on your dutch oven. Replace your Dutch oven back into your oven at 475°F and bake for 30 minutes. After 30, minutes remove the lid and bake for another 8-10 minutes.
*No Dutch oven? Then you will need to find a baking dish that is large enough to fit your dough (we use a sheet pan). Put that in your oven to warm up during pre-heating (same temp as above) as well as another pan to place on a bottom rack for water. Once your oven comes to temp, place your dough in your baking pan and pour a cup of water in the pan on the bottom rack. This will create steam to allow your crust to expand. Close your oven quickly to trap that steam in, reduce heat to 450°F, and bake for 35 min.
Let your bread cool uncovered for at least an hour. Cutting in earlier than this can result in an undercooked loaf of bread that is gooey inside. It is still warm enough to melt butter at the hour mark!