How To Bake Your First Sourdough Loaf

Sourdough loaf
Don't be daunted please. Sourdough bread need not be complicated. 

You've got your sourdough starter and you're ready to make your first loaf. Let's keep it simple.

Of course, there is a lot of information out there about how best to bake sourdough bread. It can all seem overwhelming. The same could be said for commercial-yeast breads too. The more you read, the more you realise you don't know. Rest assured, people have been making bread very simply for centuries with cooking facilities much more basic than yours. Sure, you can read and read (and read): it can be fun and exciting to learn more and hone your technique. But if you're just starting with sourdough and you want to make a loaf of bread as simply as possible, read on.

Last week, I wrote about how to make a sourdough starter from scratch, and introduced you to Bernard. This week, Bernard has fulfilled his destiny and become several loaves of bread.

Making the bread

The method, in brief, is this:

  1. Incorporate some sourdough starter into your dough: mix flour, water and starter until you have a dough that feels good to work with. The more starter you use, the quicker your dough should rise (theoretically)
  2. Allow the dough to ferment until doubled in size
  3. Shape the dough
  4. Prove the bread
  5. Bake the bread
This is all as per The Master Method, only slower.

You can do this two ways: measured and accurate, or by feel.

Measured and Accurate

I began measured and accurate. This is my reasoning:

Bernard was made with a ratio of 1:1 flour to water (100% hydration). He contained 200g of wholemeal flour and 200g water. Each day I would remove 200g of Bernard and refresh him with 100g flour and 100g water. It was easy, therefore, to calculate how much flour and water would be required to make Bernard into my standard 63% hydration dough. One loaf is usually 500g flour and 315g water. Using 200g of Bernard, I just needed to make up the difference: 400g more flour and 215g more water.

By Feel

Over the course of the last week I have been experimenting with hydration. Bernard was smelling quite alcoholic and the resulting bread was quite sour. I wanted to encourage Bernard to be less sour and I wondered if changing his hydration could help. At first I added lots of flour and reduced his hydration to 50% to make what is known as a 'stiff starter'. That seemed to be working out ok but then I read somewhere that you can leave your stiff starter in a pool of water to somehow draw out the acidity. Naturally, by morning, I had soft starter on the outside and stiff starter in the middle and my carefully measured hydration levels were lost in a puddle.

Then I decided it was easier to work with a looser starter so I increased the hydration again, this time up to about 70%, which I gauged by feel since I no longer knew for sure how much flour and water I had, exactly.

Next time I made a loaf, I incorporated 200g of starter into my mixture, again adding 400g of flour and adding the water by feel until the dough felt soft enough.

Whether by measuring or by feel, the instruction is simply to mix some of your starter into your bread dough and that starter is (obviously) the raising agent, in place of bought yeast.

A Note on Salt

Some people advocate not adding salt immediately to your sourdough mixture. Salt can be thought of as putting the brakes on the yeast, which might not be kind to your delicate little sourdough. It is, perhaps, better to add the salt after the first fermentation stage, prior to shaping and proving. With Bernard, I've found that it has been fine for me to add the salt at the start, along with the starter, flour and water. You choose. But don't forget the salt!

A Note on Sponges

Many sourdough bread recipes start with a 'sponge'. A sponge is a mixture of the starter with some of the flour and water for the recipe, mixed together and left for a while - overnight, maybe. The purpose of the sponge is, as far as I can tell, twofold. One, it is to check that the starter is nicely active before you potentially waste ingredients in a mixture that will refuse to rise. Two, it is to develop flavour since a longer fermentation time leads to a more developed taste.

I did not make a sponge. One, Bernard is very active. I'm feeding him daily and he is clearly bubbling and ready to make my bread rise. Two, I don't want my bread to become too flavoursome. My children are not keen on the taste of sourdough so I'm more interested in a quicker process resulting in a milder taste.


Once you've got your dough, it needs to ferment, as you would expect. Commercially available yeast can work very fast. On a warm day the first fermentation stage could be as short as an hour. Bernard is not so fast. With sourdough, you must be prepared to wait. The first loaf I made with Bernard was a little brick. I just couldn't believe it was taking so long, gave up waiting and baked the bread. Oops.

Two round loaves, one considerably smaller than the other

That's the 'little brick' on the right, compared to the same quantity of dough, properly risen, on the left.

You can follow the fermentation 'rule' of allowing your dough to double in size. If you are feeling doubtful about how much expansion you are seeing, take a small sample of the dough and place it in a container with straight sides, and somehow mark the level of the dough (an elastic band works well, or a pen mark if you like). I have a container with gradations on it.

A small container with dough in the bottom

This dough took all day (it was a chilly one) to double in size.

The same dough from the previous picture, doubled in size

After the dough has doubled in size you can divide it into the required portions if you're making smaller loaves or rolls and go ahead with the shaping. (Ah, shaping. We may need more information on this. My tutorial package "How To Bake Beautiful Bread" has clear instructions on several shaping techniques. there's also a little video on loaf shaping in The Master Method.) At this stage you could pop your loaf into a tin. I have been enjoying making free-form loaves this week so my dough went into a make-shift proving basket (a bowl lined with a tea towel - I should maybe buy a proving basket* but I haven't yet).
*Affiliate link - purchases made via this link may earn me a commission and help to support my work - thank you.

Your dough then needs to prove (What Is Proving And Do I Need A Basket?), as usual, only not quite 'as usual' if you're used to commercial yeast because this stage can also been quite slow. The easiest way around this, I have found, is to put the proving bread somewhere cool (the fridge, the garage) overnight and bake it in the morning.

The dough is properly proved when it is springy to the touch (How To Know If Your Dough Had Risen Enough) and passes the 'prod test'. The prod test is about giving the dough a poke and seeing how readily it springs back. I've found conflicting opinions online: should the dough spring back immediately or is that too much proving? I'd say it has to be quite springy (see the video in the article linked to above) but I can understand the desire to leave something more 'in the bag' as it were, for the oven spring.

My overnight proving (in the fridge) has been enough. I get the dough out of the fridge in the morning and keep it at room temperature while I heat the oven, then bake it immediately.

Note: if you're transferring the dough from a proving basket to the oven, it's useful to use a piece of baking paper or reusable tray liner* to help the move go smoothly. Place the paper on top the proving basket and gently tip the dough onto the paper. You can then pick the paper up by its edges to lift the dough onto the baking surface. This is advantageous over handling the dough directly as it prevents tearing of the dough and allows you to place the dough onto a preheated baking sheet without burning your hands.
*Affiliate link.

Baking the Bread

When it comes to baking your sourdough, it's the same as any other bread. For best results, you need to get the dough into contact with as much heat as possible in the first few minutes of cooking whilst also preventing the crust from forming too fast. Delaying the crust allows the bread to expand more, resulting in a lighter texture/more open crumb/less brick-like effect. Placing the dough in a hot oven on a pre-heated tray helps to maximise the heat energy getting into the loaf. Delaying crust formation can be done in several different ways, involving steam. For more details please read "How To Achieve An Amazing Crust."

Et Voila

I had a few attempts to bake with Bernard this week and, with the exception of the aforementioned brick, the bread has been pretty good. Here's the crumb shot from the first properly successful Bernard loaf:

Half a loaf with even crumb

Here's another batch of two loaves I made at the same time:

A round loaf with an open score line

One opened up nicely along the score line, the other did not.

A round loaf where the score line has hardly expanded at all

The dots, incidentally, are the result of proving this bread in a bowl lined with a paper towel.

The texture was good :o)

A loaf cut in half showing a good textured crumb

And I made a fruit bread, since it's Easter (any excuse!). The fruit and some mixed spices were added at the shaping stage: I fermented the dough at first with just starter, flour, water and salt. When I came to shape the bread, I flattened out the dough and sprinkled on the fruit and spices, folding the dough over into fruity, spicy layers.

A loaf of fruit bread

Fruit bread cross section

Did you make a sourdough starter? Have you made your first loaf? Let me know: I'd love to hear how you got on.


  1. I too have been having fun experimenting with my starter (unnamed) I started my starter a week before you and have never had my starter look anything like the pics I have seen on the net. I was tempted a couple of times to ditch the whole lot but determination prevailed and I just got on with it. Keeping my starter in the fridge after every feeding it never really rose as I thought it should. After 8 days of waiting I took the plunge but secretly added a half a teaspoon of dry yeast and voila the result was perfect. I have subsequently learned a few tricks too. I now make my dough at night and leave it in the fridge till morning. Carefully move it to a baking tray and let it continue rising and then a bake till ready. The smell of baking bread is always a welcome in the morning. I have also been reading up on adding just a pinch or two of bi-carb to the dough before shaping and baking. Misting the oven and spraying the top of the bread with warm water also helps. Apparently the addition of a bit of bi-carb also reduces the 'too sour' taste of bread. I tried this as my husband is also not keen on the very sour taste. Such fun experimenting with this lively little jar of mush.

    1. Thanks for your detailed comment! It's very interesting to compare experiences. I too have attempted to start starters in the past and then given up. It seems to me that warmth helps with the starting of the starter. I used to have a really chilly kitchen in which sourdough didn't seem to ever do anything. This time round I have used sunny windowsills and spring sunshine to boost the process but, as I said, perhaps speeding it up too much has made it too sour. I agree with you that overnighting the dough is a great way to use sourdough and let it do its thing slowly. I also remember reading something about bicarb. I'm definitely going to try that. If I could reduce the acidity of the taste, my daughter would love it, I'm sure. I love your description of your sourdough as a 'lively little jar of mush'! It is fun to experiment!


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