Simply Sourdough: Starting from Scratch

Sourdough bread—a delight to the senses with its tangy flavor, chewy texture, and crisp crust—is a time-honored craft that has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Unlike bread made with commercial yeast, sourdough relies on wild yeast and bacteria to rise. This process not only contributes to the unique taste and texture of the bread but also makes it more digestible and nutritious for many. Whether you’re a baking enthusiast or a novice looking to delve into the world of fermentation, this article will guide you through the journey of creating your very own sourdough starter from scratch and turning it into a beautiful loaf of bread.

Understanding Sourdough

Sourdough bread is unique because it does not require commercial yeast. Instead, it relies on a live fermented culture often referred to as a “starter.” A starter is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and wild yeast, which are present in the flour and the environment.

As these microorganisms feed on the carbohydrates in the flour, they produce carbon dioxide, alcohol, and organic acids. The carbon dioxide creates the air pockets that make the bread rise, the alcohol evaporates during baking, and the organic acids give sourdough its distinctive tang.

Creating Your Sourdough Starter

Gathering Your Supplies

Before getting started, you’ll need a few simple tools:
– A digital scale for accurate measurements
– Two glass or plastic containers to hold your starter
– A wooden spoon or spatula for mixing
– A breathable cover such as a cloth or paper towel
– Whole grain flour (whole wheat or rye are excellent options)
– Water (filtered or dechlorinated is best)

Mixing Your Initial Starter

To create your starter, mix equal parts by weight of flour and water in one of your containers. For instance, start with 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. Stir until you have a thick, paste-like consistency. Cover it with the breathable cover and let it sit at room temperature.

Feeding Your Starter

Your sourdough starter will need to be fed regularly. This process involves discarding a portion of your starter and replenishing it with fresh flour and water. After the initial mix, wait 24 hours before the first feeding. You may start seeing bubbles and smelling a slight tang—signs that the wild yeast is active.

For the feeding, discard all but about 25 grams of your starter. To the remaining starter, add 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water, mix well, and cover again. You’ll continue this feeding process once or twice a day for about a week. Each time, you should notice more activity—your starter will increase in volume and have more bubbles, indicating a stronger colony of yeast and bacteria.

Testing Your Starter’s Readiness

The Float Test

After about a week of regular feedings, your starter might be ready to bake with. A common way to test this is the float test: drop a teaspoon of your starter into a bowl of water. If it floats, it’s likely ready. This indicates that it’s filled with enough gas to give your dough a good rise.

Looking for Consistency

Another indicator is the consistency of your starter’s behavior. A mature starter should predictably rise and fall after feedings. You’re looking for it to roughly double in size within 4 to 8 hours of feeding.

Preparing the Dough

Autolyse: Mixing Water and Flour

Once your starter is active, you can begin making your dough. Start by mixing flour and water and allowing them to rest. This process, known as autolyse, hydrates the flour, breaks down gluten, and makes your dough easier to shape. Mix your main dough’s flour with water (minus the amounts you’ll be later adding with the starter and any additional water) and let it sit for about 30 minutes to an hour.

Adding Your Starter and Salt

After autolyse, add your sourdough starter and salt. It’s crucial to distribute the starter evenly, so squish it with your fingers or use the “stretch and fold” technique where you stretch one end of the dough and fold it over itself. Do this several times in different directions.

Bulk Fermentation

This is the first major rise of your dough, during which it will roughly double in size. It’s good to give your dough a series of stretch and folds every 30 minutes to an hour during the first 2-3 hours of this process. This helps build strength in your dough and ensures an even fermentation.

The total time for bulk fermentation can vary from 4 to 12 hours, depending on your kitchen’s temperature and the activity level of your starter. A warmer environment will speed things up, while a cooler one will slow them down.

Shaping the Dough

Pre-shaping and Resting

Once your dough has finished its bulk fermentation, pour it onto a lightly floured surface and pre-shape it into a rough ball. Let it rest uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes. This resting period makes the final shaping easier as it allows the gluten to relax.

Final Shaping

After resting, shape your dough more tightly into its final shape. This could be a boule (round), batard (oval), or any other desired shape. Shaping creates surface tension which gives your dough the structure it needs to rise upwards rather than flattening out.


Proofing is the final rise before baking and can be done at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Cool proofing in the fridge (also known as retarded proofing) can help develop more flavor and makes the dough easier to score, but it will take longer—usually overnight.

Scoring the Dough

Right before your dough goes into the oven, it needs to be scored. Scoring is the process of cutting the surface of the dough with a sharp blade or lame. This allows the dough to expand easily during the baking process.

Baking Your Sourdough Bread

Using a Dutch Oven

One of the best tools for baking sourdough bread is a Dutch oven. It captures the steam from the dough and creates an environment similar to a professional steam-injected oven. Your bread will get a nice rise and develop a crisp crust.

Preheat your Dutch oven at the temperature of 450-500°F (232-260°C) as the oven warms up. Once it’s heated, carefully transfer your scored dough into the Dutch oven, put the lid on, and bake for 20-30 minutes, then remove the lid and continue to bake until your bread is a deep golden brown, usually an additional 20-30 minutes.

Cooling and Storing Your Bread


Resist the temptation to cut into your freshly baked bread immediately. Allow it to cool on a wire rack for several hours. This ensures that the crumb sets and you don’t end up with a gummy texture.


Store your sourdough bread in a breathable container, like a bread bag or a paper bag, to prevent it from getting too soft. Avoid plastic as it traps moisture and can make the crust soggy.

Finishing Thoughts

Making sourdough bread from scratch is a rewarding experience that is as much art as it is science. It requires patience, attention, and a willingness to embrace the naturally occurring variables like temperature and humidity. Don’t be discouraged if your first few loaves aren’t perfect. Baking is a journey, and each loaf teaches you a little more about the process.

Embrace the rhythm of maintaining your starter and the tranquil satisfaction of turning simple ingredients—flour, water, and salt—into an edible masterpiece. Creating your sourdough starter is just the beginning. With each batch of dough, you’ll become more attuned to the nuances that make sourdough baking so fascinating. Enjoy the crisp crust, the rich flavors, and the sense of achievement that comes from baking this ancient, wholesome bread. Happy baking!“`html

Frequently Asked Questions

What is sourdough and how is it different from regular bread?

Sourdough is a type of bread that is leavened using a natural fermenting process with wild yeast and bacteria, rather than using commercial yeast. The sourdough process gives bread a tangy flavor, a chewy texture, and a crisp crust. It can also make the bread more digestible and nutritious.

How do I create a sourdough starter from scratch?

To create a sourdough starter, mix equal parts flour and water in a jar and let it sit in a warm place. Feed it daily by discarding half the starter and adding fresh flour and water. Within a week or so, your starter should begin to bubble and develop a tart smell, indicating that it’s active.

How often do I need to feed my sourdough starter?

A sourdough starter should be fed at least once a day if it’s kept at room temperature. If you’re not planning to use it daily, you can store the starter in the refrigerator and feed it once a week.

Can I use any type of flour to make my sourdough starter?

While you can use any type of flour for your starter, whole grain flours like whole wheat or rye are often recommended for the initial mixture because they contain more nutrients and wild yeast that help kickstart the fermentation process.

What is the ideal temperature for fermenting sourdough?

The ideal temperature for fermenting sourdough is between 75°F and 80°F (24°C and 27°C). Sourdough fermentation can occur outside this range, but the process will speed up or slow down accordingly.

How do I know when my sourdough starter is ready to use?

Your sourdough starter is ready to use when it has doubled in size, has a bubbly and frothy appearance, and has a pleasant, slightly sour, and yeasty smell. A simple test is to drop a spoonful of starter into a bowl of water; if it floats, it’s ready to use.

Can I make gluten-free sourdough bread?

Yes, you can make gluten-free sourdough bread using gluten-free flour blends that are designed for bread-making. Be aware that the texture and flavor may differ from traditional sourdough bread.

What should I do if my sourdough bread is too dense?

If your sourdough bread is too dense, it could be due to a variety of factors such as insufficient fermentation time, not enough water in the dough, or inadequate kneading. Experiment with longer rise times, adjusting hydration levels, or more thorough kneading to resolve the issue.

How do I store sourdough bread?

Sourdough bread is best stored at room temperature, wrapped in a cloth or in a breadbox for up to a few days. For longer storage, you can freeze sliced bread and toast it directly from the freezer.

Can leftover sourdough bread be used in other recipes?

Yes, leftover sourdough bread is great for making croutons, breadcrumbs, stuffing, or even for use in recipes like bread pudding or French toast.