Sourdough Explained the Simple Way (Sourdough 101)

Are you tired of all the complexity surrounding sourdough baking? Me too. That’s why I’m here to simplify things for you with a comprehensive guide on sourdough explained, perfect for beginners. I get it, starting can feel overwhelming. Trust me, I’ve been there. It took me way longer than it should have to dive in. Let’s break down sourdough in the easiest way possible, so you can get started.

bread loaf sliced in half
Source: Plum Branch Home

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Sourdough Explained

Below you’ll find everything you need to know about sourdough. There is always more to learn but these are the basics you need.

Sourdough Tool Kit

  • 9-inch round banneton basket with linen cover –provides a round structure for shaped loaves of bread dough during proofing.
  • 10-inch oval banneton basket with linen cover – provides an oval structure for shaped loaves of bread dough during proofing.
  • Danish dough whisk – a whisk used specifically for mixing dough.
  • Bread lame with 5 replaceable blades – a tool for scoring bread.
  • Metal scraper – used to move dough easily off countertops and workspaces as well as helps clean off crumbs from the surface.
  • Plastic scraper – a tool to help pick up, turn, and portion dough (metal scraper works well for this too)
  • Bamboo brush – makes cleaning banneton baskets easy after use.
  • Glass Jar with non-airtight lid (sometimes with a date-marked feeding band, thermometer, and cloth cover) – easy-to-use sourdough starter container that makes checking temperature and remembering feedings simple. Never use an airtight lid or else the seal could cause it to explode while fermenting.
  • Silicone jar spatula– used to mix the starter and scrape down the sides of your glass jar.
  • Kitchen scales – a kitchen device used to measure the weight of ingredients and other foods (scales are optional, you do not need one)

Sourdough Baking Phases

  1. Preparing the levain – removing sourdough starter from the fridge and feeding it 4-12 hours before use.
  2. Autolysing the flour – mixing the flour and water in a bread recipe followed by a 30-minute rest period.
  3. Folding – a dough-strengthening technique performed at a set interval on bread dough during bulk fermentation. Each set calls for four stretches and four folds, one in each direction (north, south, east, and west)
  4. Fermenting – proofing stage between mixing and shaping dough, where the dough ferments and creates air pockets or gas bubbles in the dough.  
  5. Shaping – transforms dough into its final form, a loaf or round boule.
  6. Proofing -the second rise of sourdough dough is done mainly in cold temperatures like the fridge.
  7. Baking – when the bread dough turns into freshly baked bread in the oven.

Terms to Know for Sourdough Baking

  • Sourdough starter – a living culture of bacteria that is fed regularly and eats flour and water to create gas, which raises bread.
  • Sourdough discard – unfed starter that is removed from the jar before feeding your starter.
  • Feeding – Adding equal amounts of flour and water to the starter jar to feed the live culture of bacteria.
  • Activation – When feeding your starter, you are activating it for baking.
  • Alveoli – the gas bubbles or pockets in the crumb (soft interior) of bread.
  • Baking timeline – schedule followed when making and baking a loaf of bread.
  • Banneton – shaping basket made of natural rattan or cane used during cold fermenting or “proofing”.
  • Belly – the rounded surface of dough that opens during baking.
  • Cold ferment – placing sourdough dough into the fridge to lower the temperature during the first or second rise of bread dough.
  • Bulk ferment – the first rise of sourdough dough where the dough is fermenting in a large single mass and the dough doubles in size.
  • Long ferment – sourdough dough that is bulk fermented for longer than 8 hours, up to 24 hours, usually done in the fridge.
  • Bench rest – allowing the dough to lay on the counter before shaping.
  • Overproofed dough – dough that’s had too much fermentation activity from being left to ferment too long or at too high of a temperature for an extended period.  
  • Dutch oven – a cast iron pot (some are ceramic-covered) used in the oven to bake bread and create a crust (a cheaper option than a bread cloche).
  • Bread cloche – stoneware dome used to bake dough in an oven that mimics a professional oven by creating a golden crust on bread.
  • Elasticity – stretchiness of the dough (sourdough is very elastic).
  • Hooch – liquid formed on top of a hungry sourdough starter (can form in the middle or at bottom).
  • Scoring – also known as slashing, is where cuts are made on the belly of the dough to control where it opens during baking. This allows pretty designs or rustic looks done with a sharp razor or bread lame.
  • Uncovered baking – when the loaf is uncovered for a certain amount of time in the oven. If using a Dutch oven or bread cloche, you’ll take off the top for this portion.
  • Covered baking – when the loaf is covered for a certain amount of time in the oven. If using a Dutch oven or bread cloche, you’ll keep the lid on for this portion of baking.
  • Resting – the time spent letting the dough rest between folds during shaping.
  • Rustic sourdough – sourdough loaf that doesn’t require kneading and is full of whole grains.
  • Artisan sourdough – type of artisan bread that uses sourdough starter instead of commercial baker’s yeast to rise.
  • Tension – creating tension in the dough to make scoring easier and a better belly when baking.
  • Stretch and fold method – method of moving the dough to strengthen it in place of kneading.
  • Poke test – testing the dough with a finger poke to see if it’s ready to bake (perfect poke: after pushing a finger into the dough, the dimple slowly starts to fill back in but not fully).
  • Water drop test – taking a scoop of unstirred sourdough starter and dripping it into a glass of water to see if it floats. If it does float, it’s ready to bake. If it sinks, it needs feeding and 4-12 hours to ferment.

How to Make a Sourdough Starter

My free sourdough starter recipe is beloved by many and super easy to follow. Head over to the recipe for instructions to get started.

Sourdough Starter Feeding & Storage

Storage

Once your starter is established, you’ll feed it either once a day if left on the counter or once a week if stored in the fridge.

Feeding

For each feeding, use a 1:2 ratio of water and flour for a strong starter. For example, if you have approximately 2 cups (200 grams) of starter, feed it 1/2 cup (50 grams) of water + 1 cup (100 grams) of flour.

Do this feeding 4-12 hours before using it to make a recipe. If you store the starter in the fridge, get it out the night before (if possible) to come to room temperature.

Discard

You won’t have to discard after your starter is established. The only time you would have this is if you needed to feed your starter but didn’t take any out beforehand. Then you would take out 1 cup (100 grams) before feeding, and this would be your discard. Use it to make cookies, scones, etc.

Helpful Sourdough Starter Tips

  • Feed your sourdough starter 4-12 hours before using it.
  • Always set your sourdough starter out on the counter the night before you want to use it to come to room temperature.
  • Using unbleached all-purpose flour is the best for feeding a sourdough starter.
  • Bleached all-purpose flour can be used, but it has the possibility of disrupting the sourdough cultures.
  • Use filtered water if you live in the city; the treated water can disrupt the sourdough cultures.
  • You can bake all types of bread (whole wheat, rye, white, etc.) with a sourdough starter.
  • Never place an airtight lid on your sourdough starter; it can burst the jar due to fermentation taking place.
  • To strengthen your sourdough starter (if it has a lack of sourdough taste or is runny), feed only flour for the next feeding.
  • Hooch, the watery gray alcohol-smelling liquid, is completely normal. It just means your starter is hungry, so pour it off or stir it in and continue with the next feeding.
  • If you’d like to share your sourdough starter, place 50 grams of it into a container to give away. Have the person you’re giving it to transfer it to a large container, feed it 100 grams of water and 100 grams of flour, and it’s ready to use!

Helpful Sourdough Tips

  • The best baking vessel for sourdough bread is a bread cloche or Dutch oven. However, you can use a regular bread pan.
  • If baking sourdough bread in a regular bread pan, cook the entire uncovered + covered baking times, but during the covered portion, add a layer of foil to prevent burning.
  • Store sourdough bread in an airtight container for 3-4 days at room temperature or up to a week in the fridge.
  • You can freeze sourdough bread in an airtight bag or container for up to 3 months.
  • Sourdough baking takes a few tries to get the hang of it. Don’t give up; just keep trying!
  • A sourdough starter should have the consistency of a thick pancake batter. If it seems a little runny, feed a 2:1 ration of flour to water. For example, 100 grams of flour and 50 grams of water, this creates 50% starter hydration.
  • 100% sourdough starter hydration means you’re feeding the starter a 1:1 ratio of flour and water (100 grams each).

Sourdough Troubleshooting & FAQ

Can I use bleached flour to feed my starter?

Yes, you can use bleached all-purpose flour; however, it can affect the sourdough cultures. If your starter isn’t forming bubbles from fermentation, switch to unbleached all-purpose flour.

While creating my starter, there weren’t any bubbles forming, and a layer of hooch developed. What do I do?

You just need to strengthen it during the next day of the process. Feed it a 2:1 ratio of flour to water (convert this ratio to the starter recipe you’re using). More flour and less water will continue the process while strengthening the cultures that are forming.

How long does sourdough starter last?

Sourdough starter can last a lifetime! Many people have had theirs for 30-50 years. You keep feeding it on a regular basis, once per week.

How much care will my sourdough starter need?

It depends. If you’re storing the starter on the countertop, you’ll need to feed it every day. If you’re storing it in the fridge, the fermentation process slows down, so you’ll only need to feed it once per week. Fridge storage is the most popular option.

When do you know if your starter has gone bad?

It’s not often a sourdough starter goes bad, but if it does, it’ll turn dark black and/or smell like mildew. If the starter has a gray tint to it and smells good, it’s still safe to use; just give it a feeding.

I want to bake something two days in a row, can I leave my starter on the countertop for both days, and do I have to store it in the fridge in between?

If you’re usually storing the starter in the fridge, you can leave it on the counter for as many days as you’d like to use it. Then put it back in the fridge when you’re ready.

How do you know when your sourdough starter is ready to use?

It’s ready to use when it’s bubbly and has visible bubbles throughout. If it looks like one solid texture, it needs feeding. You can also do the float test. This is where you take a small spoonful of starter and drop it into a glass of water. If it floats, it indicates that the starter is active and ready to use.

How does the temperature of my starter impact sourdough baking?

The fermentation of your sourdough starter happens faster at higher temperatures and slower at lower temperatures. This is why storing a starter on the counter requires daily feeding, while fridge storage only requires feeding once per week. It’s best to bake with a starter that’s 20 to 24 degrees Celsius or 68-76 degrees Fahrenheit.

Does sourdough starter have health benefits?

Yes, sourdough starter has fermented cultures, which adds gut health benefits to the foods you create with it. Cultures can also make digesting these foods easier, so our bodies can process them better.

Try These Easy Sourdough Recipes

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