With most of our favorite dining establishments closed for the COVID-19 pandemic, home cooking and baking have really taken off over the past few months. Making bread — especially sourdough — is slowly emerging as quarantine’s must-try hobby par excellence. While baking helps people feel productive and accomplished, it is also known to reduce stress and anxiety. The comforting feel of a spongy, malleable pile of dough in your hands, the meditative act of kneading and rolling, the primal scent of yeast and flour, the satisfaction of creating something with your own hands, the unbeatable scent of fresh-baked bread filling your home … these are just some of the reasons baking bread encourages mindfulness and has worked its way into the hearts of millions of new bakers around the country and the world.
But even though baking bread is overall a simple process — with most basic recipes requiring just a handful of ingredients that most people would have on hand or can easily get — it can still be a daunting task for some people due to all the variables of dealing with a living thing (yes, yeast is alive!) that reacts, responds, and grows right before your eyes. The world of bread is vast: There are so many different ways to experiment. For those who love trying new things and seeing what happens, it’s a glorious, fermented adventure, especially for sourdough fanatics who are constantly tweaking ratios, ingredients, temperatures, and techniques. For others, it can be a bit intimidating. But since sourdough seems to be most people’s bread of choice for baking right now, we thought we’d give it a go and wanted to find a beginner-friendly rendition to start off with.
To guide us along, we turned to Maurizio Leo. Leo runs the award-winning baking blog The Perfect Loaf, where he shares his favorite recipes for how to make naturally-leavened bread and pastries, as well as tons of helpful info and tips for both beginners and experienced bakers. His blog has twice been named a top food blog by Saveur, and his popular Instagram account — which can only be described as “bread porn” due to how aesthetically-pleasing his creations are — has over 150,000 followers.
Today, he’s sharing his Beginner’s Sourdough recipe, as well as how to make your own sourdough starter.
“For new bakers, sourdough can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be,” Leo says on his blog. “With a few essential basics, you’ll be baking crusty and healthy loaves of bread in short order.”
There are a few essential tools you should get your hands on first, though: A digital food scale and a Dutch oven or combo cooker. Many bread recipes prefer to use grams, so a food scale is indispensable if you want to take up baking. The Dutch oven or cooker helps give sourdough that perfect rise, shape, and crust we love so much. A kitchen thermometer will also be helpful. To see Leo’s recommended list of tools, check here.
(By Maurizio Leo from the award-winning baking blog The Perfect Loaf)
- Whole-grain rye flour
- Glass jars
- Digital kitchen scale
Before making sourdough, you need to make a sourdough starter. Although it may sound complicated, a starter is essentially a mixture of flour and water that is kept in an environment that allows it to naturally ferment. Leo offers an incredibly thorough guide on how to make a sourdough starter here, but the basics are listed below. This is a multi-day process, but Leo assures us that the love you put into your starter is well-worth it come baking time.
- Day 1: Using a scale to weigh (and adjusting for the weight of the jar itself), mix 100 grams whole-grain rye flour and 125 grams warm water (ideally around 80 degrees F) in a glass jar. Stir together until everything is fully combined and all the “dry bits are incorporated.” Lightly cover with the top (but do not close all the way), and keep jar in a warm place (80 to 85 degrees F) that’s out of direct sunlight for 24 hours.
- Day 2: In a separate jar, add 75 grams of the fermented starter, along with 50 grams rye flour, 50 grams all-purpose flour, and 115 grams water (try to ensure that the water is the same temperature you used in the first round). Mix all together, lightly cover with top, and leave to rest in the same spot for 24 hours. Discard the original mixture and clean out the jar.
- Day 3: In a new jar, add 75 grams of starter mixture, 50 grams rye flour, 50 grams all-purpose flour, and 115 grams (warm) water. Combine, add cover, and place in warm spot for another 24 hours. Throw out the remainder of day 2’s mixture.
- Day 4: Repeat the same process as day 3, but only let rest for 12 hours. At the 12-hour mark, repeat the same process (75 grams of fermented mixture and the same measurements of flour and water), combine, cover, and let sit overnight.
- Days 5 and 6: Continue the same process as day 4, with 12-hour rotations of re-combining the same portion of the mixture with the same ingredients. Fermentation will definitely be happening now.
- Day 7: Discard all but 50 grams of the mixture and add 50 grams rye flour, 50 grams all-purpose flour, and 100 grams water. Mix, cover, and let rest for 12 hours. After 12 hours, repeat morning instructions and let rest overnight.
- Onward: If all has gone well, the height of your starter will naturally and predictably rise and fall on its own. This means it’s ready to use for bread!
To maintain your starter, continue to feed it with Leo’s recommended maintenance routine.
Ingredients for Dough
- 748 grams bread flour*
- 110 grams whole wheat flour*
- 49 grams dark rye flour*
- 691 grams water
- 18 grams fine sea salt
- 184 grams mature, 100% hydration levain (this is made from the starter, instructions below)
*Leo recommends Bob’s Red Mill Flour or King Arthur Flour
- Either the night before or the morning of baking, use the starter to make a levain (or leaven) build, which adds flavor and allows the dough to rise. Combine 37 grams each of mature sourdough starter, whole wheat flour, and bread flour, and 74 grams room-temperature water. Leave for five to six hours in a warm space (around 75 degrees F). (Note: These flour measurements are separate from the flour measurements mentioned above in the “Dough” section).
- Using your hands, thoroughly combine all the flour amounts listed in the above “Dough” measurements and all but 50 grams of the water in a bowl. Cover and store somewhere warm for one hour.
- Add the levain, salt, and leftover water to the dough mix, and combine thoroughly by hand. Transfer to a sturdy bowl or tub for bulk fermentation, which will take about four hours.
- During bulk fermentation, stretch and fold the dough three times at half-hour intervals. Here’s how Leo describes how the folds should go: “Each set consists of four folds, one at the north, south, east, and west sides. Wet your hands with a little water to prevent sticking, and then lift up one side (north) of the dough with two hands. Stretch the dough up high enough just so that you can fold it completely over to the other side of the dough in the bowl. Rotate the bowl 180 degrees and do the other side (south). Finish the other two sides (east and west) to complete the set. Let the dough rest 30 minutes, covered, between sets.” After the final stretch, let the dough rest for the remainder of the four-hour fermentation period.
- On a lightly-floured work surface, dump out the dough and divide into two halves. Using your hands (and a bench knife if you have one), turn each dough in a circle while pulling it toward you. This will mold the dough into a rounded circle. Repeat for the second half of the dough and then let rest for 25 minutes.
- Shape each dough round like so: “Flip the round so the floured top is now down on the floured work surface. Lightly flour your hands and grab the bottom of the round and stretch it lightly downward towards your body, and then up and over about 2/3 the way to the top. Then, grab the left and right sides of the dough and stretch them away from each other, fold one side over toward the other and repeat with the other side. Then, grab the top of the circle and stretch away from your body and fold down to the bottom of the resting dough. You’ll now have a tight package that resembles a letter. Finally, flip or roll down the dough so the seams are all on the bottom, and using two hands, cup the top part of the round and drag the dough gently toward your body. The angle of your hands will gently press the bottom of the dough on the counter, creating tension, forming a skin on the top of the dough as you drag.”
- Place dough seam-side up in a towel-lined bowl dusted with white rice flour. Seal inside a plastic bag and leave it on the counter for 20 minutes. Then place in the fridge overnight or for 16 hours.
- In the morning, preheat your Dutch oven or combo cooker inside the oven at 450 degrees F for 1 hour.
- Take one of the loaves out of the fridge and remove it from the bag. Cut a sheet of parchment paper that fits over the bowl; place over the top of your dough, and then put a flat kitchen utensil like a pizza peel or slender cutting board on top of the paper. Carefully flip it all over so the dough falls cleanly out of the bowl onto the parchment paper.
- Using a scoring knife (or another sharp utensil if you don’t have one), cut “scores” (lines) into the top of the dough. Leo does his in a box-like formation.
- Pull out your Dutch oven or combo cooker from the oven and carefully transfer the dough into it, along with the parchment paper. The dough should be nestled in the paper, with the paper beneath and along the sides of the dough. Put the top back on the cooker/Dutch oven, place back in the oven, and bake for 20 minutes. At 20 minutes, remove the top part/cover of the Dutch oven/cooker and bake uncovered for another 30 minutes. When it’s done, your bread should read an internal temperature of 208 degrees F.
- Carefully remove the loaf, place it on a cooling rack, and repeat the process for the second loaf. Wait about an hour or so to cut the bread to allow it to fully set.
You can check out The Perfect Loaf blog for more recipes and tutorials, and for baking inspiration, follow Leo on Instagram.
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