Sourdough has been around for a long time…
No, seriously. Sourdough has been around since around 1,500BC. It’s been passed from ancient Egyptian people to France to Alaska, where miners slept with their sourdough starters to keep them from freezing. Sourdough travelled to all corners of the globe, survived earthquakes, freezing weather and snow, and more.
However, sourdough remains a staple in most people’s diets and on cafe menus worldwide today. The reason is simple: it’s delicious.
If you’re looking to get started on your own sourdough baking journey, then you’ve come to the right place. Our Ultimate Sourdough Beginner’s Guide has everything you need to begin baking sourdough – from ingredients to methods to equipment. Think of us as your spirit guides on your quest for sourdough perfection.
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What is sourdough?
Besides being the oldest leavened bread in the world, sourdough bread is simply slow-fermented bread.
Sourdough is naturally leavened bread, meaning it requires no commercial yeast for it to rise. What makes sourdough unique from its bread cousins and supermarket counterparts is that it uses a ‘sourdough starter’ – a mixture of fermented flour and water that contains wild yeast and good bacteria – to rise.
It’s the wild, or naturally occurring, yeast that produces the signature sour flavour and the slightly chewy texture people have come to know and love. Wild yeast has more flavour than commercial yeast and causes the bread to rise in a slightly different, slower way than normal baker’s yeast, which is what gives the sourdough loaves that delicious crackled, rustic look and good keeping qualities.
Sourdough is the most natural form of bread, as it doesn’t contain any additives such as milk, oils or sweeteners. It’s because of the lack of additives, paired with the naturally occurring acids and fermentation, that makes sourdough a healthier alternative to supermarket bread. It’s also widely known that sourdough is more digestible, lower GI, and easier for the body to absorb.
What is sourdough made from?
Although there is a bit of a science to baking sourdough, there are only three main ingredients needed to make traditional sourdough recipes.
These sourdough ingredients include:
- Flour: sourdough can be made using many types of flour, but for our basic recipe, we use high protein bread flour.
- Water: good old tap water is totally fine to use. No need to waste your money on mineral water.
- Salt: any type of cooking salt is fine, but we always recommend fine, pure sea salt if you can get your hands on it.
What is a sourdough starter?
A sourdough starter, or a sourdough culture, is fermented dough filled with natural wild yeast and bacteria called lactobacilli. The starter is what helps the bread to rise without the need for commercial yeast, like normal supermarket bread.
A sourdough starter is how bakers cultivate the wild yeast in a form that we can use for baking bread. Since wild yeast is in all flour, the easiest way to make a starter is to simply combine flour and water and let it sit for several days. There’s no special technique needed to capture the yeast, because it’s already in the flour – meaning literally anyone can make their own starter.
Think of your sourdough starter as a living thing, because it is literally full of life and requires nurturing just like any other living being. There are over 50 million yeasts and five billion lactobacilli bacteria in every teaspoon of starter dough, which is what gives sourdough bread its signature sour flavour.
Where to buy a sourdough starter?
Although you can make your sourdough starter from scratch using flour, water and time, I much prefer to buy my own dried starter and activate it myself. By activating your starter, I just mean adding flour and water to the dried starter flakes, stirring, and waiting 24 hours.
If you’re like me and want to start baking your sourdough ASAP, then you can purchase a dried starter for as little as $15 and jump straight in today. You can also follow my step-by-step instructions on how to activate your starter using these dried flakes, so you can ensure you’ll be devouring your own fresh sourdough loaf in no time.
So, how do you feed your starter?
The basic principle of feeding your Little Yeastie, or your starter, is the same as when you’re activating it for the first time. Once you’ve successfully created your own sourdough starter you need to feed it once or twice more before using it in your sourdough recipe. A typical sourdough starter feed is a 1:1 flour:water ratio (i.e. 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of filtered water) every time you feed.
To store this starter at room temperature, you’ll need to stir the starter mixture thoroughly until smooth and then return it to its jar and cover. You’ll need to feed the starter twice a day; every 12 hours. You can get away with feeding it once every 24 hours if it’s stored in a cold room (although it will stay strong if you feed every 12 hours).
How to use your starter in your recipe?
When you’re ready to bake your sourdough, remove the sourdough starter to bake with once it's doubled in volume and bubbly, then feed the remaining starter. At this point you can revert to your usual 12-hour feeding schedule.
How do I store my starter?
You can store your sourdough starter in the fridge or in the kitchen at room temperature. Regardless of where you choose to store your starter, it’s best to first transfer it to a jar with a loose lid to allow the gases created during fermentation to escape.
I always advise that bakers use a medium-sized glass jar, or a mason jar to store your starter. If your plan is to bake sourdough bread daily, then it’s best to store your starter on the kitchen counter.
You can also store your sourdough starter long-term by drying it out and following these steps:
- Feed your starter, as if you were going to bake it and let it rest
- Spread it out to dry on parchment
- Dry it out completely until it is brittle
- Break it into small pieces by hand
- Store it in an airtight container
- Store in a cool, dry place until you want to revive it
What you’ll need: sourdough tools and equipment
A baker is only as good as their tools, which is why it’s crucial to arm yourself with adequate tools and equipment if you’re looking to bake the perfect sourdough loaf.
Before you even reach for that sourdough recipe, we always advise that you arm yourself with the following tools of the trade:
- Sourdough starter: You literally can’t make sourdough without a starter. I always suggest buying a dried sourdough starter rather than making your own from scratch. Alternatively, if you know an experienced sourdough baker, then you can ask them to lend you some of their established starter to get you started.
- Deep glass or ceramic bowl: A deep 1-litre glass or ceramic bowl is perfect for mixing or folding your dough. I usually use a glass bowl, but whichever you choose, ensure that it is food grade and try to get a bowl with a lid.
Bread lame: You don’t necessarily need a professional wooden bread lame to score your bread while baking it in the oven, but a bread lame will give it that traditional slash marks to lend the perfect finishing touch.
- Digital food scale: Digital scales are the easiest way to measure your ingredients when it comes to doing so at a glance. Sourdough baking is all about getting the ratios perfect, so this is a must-have tool for bakers.
- Banneton basket: Banneton baskets, or proofing baskets, are rattan or cane baskets that are used to hold and proof your final shaped dough. If you want to achieve crunchy results, then add a banneton proofing basket to your shopping list.
Danish dough whisk: Danish dough whisks are ideal for mixing high hydration breads and incorporate flour and water into your sourdough starter seamlessly.
- Bench dough scraper: Dough scrapers are versatile, because you can not only use them to lift your dough and shape your dough balls, but you can also use them as a clean-up tool for scraping bits of leftover dough off the counter, or cutting board.
How do you make your first sourdough bread loaf?
If you’re ready to jump right in and tackle your first sourdough bread loaf, then we have a super simple recipe that will help you to make the perfect loaf every time.
All you’ll need to get started is:
- Dried starter flakes
- Essential baking tools and equipment
Head over to our Step-by-Step Sourdough Guide for the full recipe and before you know if, you’ll be serving up slices of your own freshly-baked sourdough.
Alternatively, check out our short video for making sourdough using our Complete Sourdough Starter Kit, below.
After reading this beginner's guide to sourdough bread and checking out our Complete Sourdough Starter Kit, it’s time to start baking your own sourdough loaf. I’ve also got plenty of useful tips, tricks and recipes online at our Sourdough Stories blog to help get you inspired.
If you’re looking for some delicious serving ideas for your homemade sourdough, then have a look at one of my favourites: classic bruschetta on sourdough – it’s a classic for a reason!