What is sourdough?
Discover everything you need to know about sourdough bread. See our sourdough bread recipe, how to make sourdough starter and sourdough pizza.
Sourdough is naturally leavened bread, which means it doesn’t use commercial yeast to rise. Instead, it uses a ‘starter’ – a fermented flour and water mixture that contains wild yeast and good bacteria – to rise. This also produces the tangy flavour and slightly chewy texture you’ll find in sourdough. Wild yeast has more flavour than commercial yeast, and is natural in the sense that it doesn’t contain any additives.
How to make sourdough
Basic sourdough is made from nothing more than flour, water and salt – here’s what you need to know about each.
- Flour – sourdough can be made with many types of flour, but for our basic recipe, we’ll be using strong white bread flour. It’s the most readily available, and means you’ll only need to buy one flour to start. But, we know ingredients are hard to come by at the moment, so you can also use strong wholemeal bread flour.
- Water – good old tap water is absolutely fine, and it’s the only thing we’ve ever used to make our sourdough. Don’t waste money on mineral.
- Salt – fine, pure sea salt is the best, but if you don’t have it, you can use any type of cooking salt you have, except rock salt – that will need to be crushed before using.
You can use different flours in our basic recipe without changing the amount of water you use or the method in any way, other than adding less strong white bread flour. Here are the ideal proportions:
- For wholemeal, granary, seeded or malted flour use 350g strong white bread flour and 150g of the other flour so you still have 500g total.
- For rye, spelt, emmer, buckwheat or Khorasan flour use 400g strong white bread flour and 100g of the other flour so you still have 500g total.
You can experiment with different proportions, but bear in mind that other flours will be ‘thirstier’, so you’ll then need to adjust the amount of water accordingly. But once you know what texture you’re looking for in the dough, this will be easy to do.
The basic dough is a blank canvas to which you can add anything you like. Flavouring ingredients should be scattered over the dough, or worked into it during the final two folds. We’ve added seeds, nuts, grains, olives, herbs, chillies, chunks of cheese and dried fruit to our sourdough.
Sourdough bread recipe
This white sourdough recipe makes two loaves, but it can be halved to make one or increased to make as many loaves as you need. Once you’ve mastered this white loaf, adapt it using other flours, or use the dough to make pizzas or flatbreads.
Sourdough pizza recipe
The dough for the basic loaf can also be used to make pizza. This sourdough pizza recipe is a classic margherita, but you can customise the toppings.
Is sourdough gluten-free?
No – as most recipes require plain flour, sourdough bread is not gluten-free.
If you’d prefer a different bake, see our gluten-free recipes.
Is sourdough vegan?
Yes – most recipes consist of plain flour, water and salt, all of which are vegan.
Always check the ingredients when purchasing a loaf.
For more plant-based projects, see our vegan baking collection.
Can you freeze sourdough?
Sourdough bread freezes really well, so if you know you won’t eat the whole loaf, freeze half for another day. Defrost on a wire rack, covered with a tea towel, so the bread doesn’t dry out or develop a soggy bottom.
How to make sourdough starter
The original starter will take four or five days or possibly longer to make, but it only requires a few minutes of your time each day. Once it’s active, you’ll be able to use it again and again to make bread, as long as you keep feeding it. We’ve used strong white bread flour for ease, but many recipes will recommend starting with wholemeal, rye or a mixture of white and wholemeal – whichever you choose, the method is still exactly the same.
How to shape sourdough
Sourdough comes in two basic shapes: round (or boule) and long (or bâtard). Our basic loaf is round, but to make a long loaf, all you need to change is the final shaping. Pull the dough onto itself into a tight sausage instead of a round ball before lifting it into a long, loaf-shaped basket. To bake, use an oval-shaped casserole dish that will hold the longer loaf.
How to score sourdough
- If you’re only making simple slashes in your loaves, there’s no need to buy a lame. But, if you want to make fancier patterns, you’ll need one.
- To make the scored pattern stand out, first dust the loaf with flour using a small sieve.
- The bread needs to be able to expand somewhere, and you need to control where this happens or it will ruin your design. A series of big slashes, like a criss-cross design, will allow this. But, if you’re doing a more intricate pattern, you’ll need to balance it with a big score somewhere, often down one side.
- Where you want the bread to expand and open a lot, hold the lame or knife at a 45-degree angle while scoring. This will give you the trademark ‘ear’ shape. Where you want the bread to expand just a little, slash the bread straight down.
Find more information see our guide on how to score bread.
Sourdough has been made for thousands of years without any modern equipment. However, there are now a few basic pieces of kit available that help to make the process easier. We’ve also suggested everyday alternatives where we can.
- Scales – precision is key, and there’s no better way to ensure accurate measurements than using digital scales (or at least accurate kitchen scales).
- Starter container – use a glass jar or reusable plastic container to house your starter.
- Scraper – a cheap, flexible plastic scraper will prove invaluable and last forever. Can’t get hold of one? You can make your own by cutting up an old plastic container.
- Mixing bowl – a glass mixing bowl is good to use as you can see through it, but a sturdy, wide, plastic bowl that’s easy to clean is also good.
- Jug – all liquid ingredients should be weighed out, but a jug is still useful for neatly pouring out water.
- Baking baskets (bannetons) – these are available as either plain wicker (they leave a lovely pattern on the dough) or cloth-lined baskets. The lined version is easier to work with, but if you don’t want to invest just yet, use bowls lined with clean tea towels.
- Casserole dish – it might seem odd, but the best sourdough is baked in a casserole dish or other ovenproof dish that has a lid. You could even use an ovenproof bowl with a baking tray for a lid if that’s what you have.
- Lame – this is an exceptionally sharp, fine blade used specifically to score the top of the bread just before baking. Or, use a very sharp knife.
- Wire rack – bread is best left to cool on a wire rack, the same as a cake. If you don’t have one, a cold upturned oven rack works just as well.
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