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Basic Sourdough Bread Recipe

To guarantee health and quality as well as learn a healthful new skill, try making sourdough bread loaves in your own kitchen.

November/ December 2017

  • Though it may sound complicated, keeping a sourdough starter alive actually requires a minimal time investment.
    Photo by iStock/Sohadiszno

Total Hands-On Time: 2 hr 5 min

Preparation Time: 1 hr 10 min

Cook Time: 55 min

Yield: 12 servings

The recipes in this article were adapted from Mother Earth Living Food Editor Tabitha Grace’s book, Whole Grain Baking Made Easy, a guide for bakers who want to maximize the nutritional value of their breads and desserts while experimenting with the delicious flavors of a variety of whole grains. An excellent gift for the baker in your life, this book is available at Mother Earth Living Store — to get a 20 percent discount, use code MMLPAHZ5 at checkout.


• 1 cup fed or “ripe” starter (also known as leaven)
• 3 cups whole-wheat flour (any combination of whole-wheat and unbleached bread flour is fine, but you may not need as much water if you use more white flour), plus more for work surface
• 1-1/2 teaspoons salt


1. Feed starter according to process explained previously. Allow to ripen for 8 to 12 hours.

2. In a large bowl, pour 1 cup ripe leaven into 1-1/4 cups lukewarm water. Add 3 cups flour, stir until loosely combined, then mix thoroughly with wet hands. Cover loosely, and set aside for 45 minutes.

3. Sprinkle salt over dough and mix in using wet hands. It should be sticky. If dough feels dry, add a little water. With wet hands, push, pull and squeeze dough for 1 to 2 minutes. Cover loosely and leave at room temperature to undergo first rise, 3 to 4 hours.

4. During first 2 hours, gently stretch and fold dough in its container, pulling up one edge at a time, just to the point of resistance but not tearing, and pull it back over the center of the dough. Repeat until all sides of dough have been stretched. Repeat this process about every half hour, or until dough has relaxed completely from previous folding. Be extra gentle and take great care to keep built-up gases intact inside dough. (Note: The first rise is one of two possible times that you can slow down the sourdough process by refrigerating, or “retarding,” the dough for up to 12 hours.)

5. After 3 to 4 hours, scrape dough gently in one piece onto floured work surface. Let it rest for 1 minute. If dough seems strong and cohesive, take care not to overwork it. If it seems slack and tears as you stretch, follow this business-letter folding procedure once or twice: pat dough lightly into a rectangle. Fold left side of dough over middle, then right side of dough over middle (like folding a piece of paper in thirds). Let dough relax for 1 minute. Now fold top of dough over middle, then bottom of dough over middle (again in thirds). Let dough relax again for 1 minute before repeating this process once more.

6. On an unfloured portion of work surface, rotate dough until a round ball has been shaped. Cover loosely with damp towel and allow it to rest 10 to 20 minutes.

7. Shape dough into a rustic, round boule by putting it on an unfloured portion of work surface. Spin it gently with your hands around the outside. The bottom will grab the surface and create tension as you rotate. Another way is to hold dough in your hands, gently stretch four corners to the bottom and pinch them together lightly. Either way, you’re aiming for the ball to be taut all the way around. Let dough rest on floured pizza peel or flat pan dusted with cornmeal or wheat bran.

8. Dust a bit of flour over surface of dough and cover with kitchen towel. Let dough rise 2 to 4 hours at room temperature. (This is also one of the two times you might choose to refrigerate the dough to slow down the process, for up to 12 hours. But do not retard dough now if you did so earlier.)

9. Preheat oven to 500 degrees with a Dutch oven or other covered pot in the oven as it preheats. Remove towel and lightly mist dough with water. With confident motion and a sharp, serrated knife, quickly slash loaf with a few parallel cuts, an X or a box shape. You’re aiming for cuts about 1/4-inch deep, but know that this does take practice. You’ll probably need to be aggressive the first time you try. This process creates space for dough’s gases to escape as it rises. If you don’t slash well, you’ll still have good bread. It just may not rise to its fullest potential.

10. Reduce oven heat to 450 degrees. Carefully remove lid from preheated pot, slide dough down in, cover and bake 30 minutes. Remove cover and bake another 15 minutes. For crispest crust, carefully turn dough out of pot and place back in oven on its own to finish baking another 10 minutes or so. Let bread cool completely before slicing. (This is more important than you think!) Makes one 1-1/2-pound rustic, round boule.

Variation: Spelt or Kamut Sourdough

Spelt, an ancient grain, is sweeter, nuttier and more nutrient-dense than regular wheat — with no bitterness. Kamut is similarly nutritious, has a buttery flavor and lends a golden hue to the loaf’s crumb. Both grains absorb more water than other flours. Begin by using the least amount of water necessary, and add as needed after the resting period. Either option makes one rustic, round boule.

• 1⁄2 cup fed or “ripe” starter (also known as leaven)
• 3 cups spelt or kamut flour, plus more for work surface
• 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
• 2 tablespoons honey

Follow instructions for Basic Sourdough, but in Step 2 add up to 2 cups of water and mix in honey at the same time as salt.

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