If you think yeast is scary — how about sourdough starter? With its unfair reputation for exploding from the confines of its crock, or having to be fed on a regular schedule like a baby, it’s no wonder that many bakers decide to give sourdough a pass.
But honestly, sourdough isn’t nearly as fussy as you think. Sure, you can make it into a science project complete with feeding spreadsheets and growth graphs. But you can also ignore your starter for literally weeks on end (or even months). When guilt finally overcomes you, give it some love in the form of flour, water, warmth, and time and watch it come back to life.
That’s starter; it’s endlessly resilient. But it can be trickier to bake a high-rising loaf of crusty bread with sourdough starter alone, no commercial yeast (e.g. our Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread). If you expect your starter to do all the legwork of rising, you first have to give it a solid leg to stand on: which means keeping it healthy.
How do you maintain a good, healthy starter? By feeding it regularly and knowing what an optimally active, fed ("ripe") starter looks like. You can then craft the perfect loaf by combining that ripe starter with all the key elements of yeast baking: choice of ingredients and hydration, thorough dough development, well-considered fermentation, and a good bake.
With so many options for taking a misstep, making “natural” sourdough bread (without commercial yeast) can be an acquired talent: a prime example of practice makes perfect.
But for those of you just starting out (or even you seasoned sourdough bakers looking for a slam-dunk loaf), there's a quick solution: add some commercial yeast to your dough.
Abetting your starter with instant or active dry yeast isn’t a sin; it’s simply a smart solution. Call it the belt and suspenders approach to sourdough bread baking.
This failsafe pairing of starter and commercial yeast is one of the reasons our recipe for Rustic Sourdough Bread is the most visited sourdough recipe on our site, with hundreds of thousands of readers checking it out every year — and the vast majority giving the recipe a top 5-star review. Despite being sourdough, it’s a simple, easy to execute, practically foolproof recipe.
You may be happy to rely on commercial yeast as the backbone for your bread's rise, adding starter (well-fed and ripe, or not) as a supplement. Still, it's useful to know what healthy sourdough starter looks like — and how to get there.
A step-by-step guide to the well-fed starter
I keep about 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces, 340g) of sourdough starter in the refrigerator and try to remember to feed it every week. Pictured above is my starter straight from the back of the fridge. Bad Mama (me) hasn’t fed it in a month. See that layer of liquid on top? That's alcohol, a byproduct of fermentation, and it's a sure sign that my starter is hungry.
I do the usual feeding: remove (but don't discard) all but 4 ounces (113g), and feed that 4 ounces with 4 ounces (113g) each King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour and lukewarm water. (Henceforth I’ll refer to everything in grams, rather than ounces; metric measurement is more accurate, and it’s also globally understood.)
What about the "discard" starter — do I throw that away? Perish the thought! I either make Sourdough Waffles or substitute it for some of the flour and water in my favorite sandwich bread; for details see our blog post, Adding sourdough to a recipe.
Our Rustic Sourdough Bread recipe calls for 1 cup (227g) of ripe (“fed”) starter. I’ve fed my starter, so let’s see what happens. Starter that’s ripe and ready to go should double in volume between 6 and 8 hours after its flour-and-water meal. Note: Rubber bands are an easy way to track how much your starter has grown. Place a band at the starter's original height. Measure that height, then place another band at double the height. When it reaches the second band, your starter has doubled in size.
Here’s my starter prior to being fed (left), and 8 hours after feeding (right). Has it doubled? No. I could use it in the recipe now (thanks to the recipe's added yeast), but since I have time I’ll feed it again. Typically, since I tend to forget about it in the fridge, I have to feed my lazy starter several times before it’s truly up to snuff.
Ah, that’s better! After its third feeding the starter has doubled in size in just 6 hours. See how it's domed a bit? That's a sure sign it's ready. Ripe starter should show fat bubbles, some of which might even be popping on the surface, like the top of a pancake on the griddle.
Another sign: the starter has a "bumpy" surface, kind of like swells on the ocean. These bumps are air bubbles on their way to the surface.
My starter is ripe and ready to use. But what if I'd let it go longer — would it be even better?
Here's some starter I forgot about overnight; it rose for about 12 hours. Nice and bubbly and ready to go, right?
Wrong. Lots of foamy bubbles are a sign your starter has passed its prime and needs to be fed again.
Still, can I use this sub-prime starter in my Rustic Sourdough Bread? You bet. Commercial yeast will ensure the dough's rise while the starter, though not able to contribute to the bread's structure, will provide some sour tang.
Want to know more about feeding your sourdough starter? See our sourdough baking guide.
So, (starter) ready or not — here we go!
Let's make Rustic Sourdough Bread
Combine the following in a large mixing bowl, the bowl of your stand mixer, or the bucket of your bread machine:
*Use just 1 teaspoon yeast if your starter is strong and vigorous; up to 2 teaspoons if it seems a bit poky.
First of all, if you don’t have any starter, here’s a recipe for homemade sourdough starter. If you're making it from scratch, you'll need to feed it for 5 to 7 days before it’s ready for baking. Want a head start? Purchase our classic fresh sourdough starter – it’ll be ready for baking about 24 hours after it arrives at your door.
Make the dough
Mix everything together and then knead to make a soft, smooth dough. It may be soft and slightly sticky, but you should be able to round it into a ball.
Let it rise
Allow the dough to rise, in a lightly greased, covered bowl or other covered container, until it's doubled in size, about 90 minutes. If you're using a bread machine, simply let the machine complete its dough cycle.
Since conditions can vary so much (warm vs. cool kitchen, a dough that's slightly stiff vs. slightly slack), go by how the dough looks rather than your kitchen timer. If it's doubled after an hour, proceed. If it takes 2 hours, be patient and let it happen.
Gently divide the dough in half; it'll deflate somewhat.
Shape two loaves
Let the loaves rise
Cover the loaves and let them rise until quite puffy, about 1 hour.
Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 425°F.
Spray the loaves with lukewarm water. This will keep their crust soft and flexible longer in the oven, allowing them to rise as high as possible in the oven.
For an artisan look, sift a thin layer of flour atop the loaves.
Slash and bake the loaves
Make two or three fairly deep diagonal slashes in each loaf; if you have a lame, use it. If not, a serrated bread knife or sharp chef's knife, wielded firmly, will work well. These slashes allow the bread to expand quickly in the oven without tearing along the sides.
Bake the bread for 25 to 30 minutes, until it's golden brown and its internal temperature is about 200°F on a digital thermometer.
Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it on a rack. Store the bread for a few days at room temperature, wrapped loosely in plastic; freeze for longer storage.
For crustier bread, bake in a Dutch oven
My fellow blogger Kye has written two wildly popular articles about baking crusty artisan bread in a Dutch oven or bread-baking crock. If you're interested in pursuing this technique, I suggest you read the following: Bread baking in a Dutch oven, and Baking in a cold Dutch oven.
Using a closed container (Dutch oven, bread pot, or the like) to bake bread traps steam, which in turn gives the crust wonderful crackle and crunch. Understand this is a baking technique rather than a specific recipe. Through experimentation, you'll discover the best way to pair your favorite yeast bread recipe with the Dutch oven or crock you have on hand, determining optimum oven temperature and baking time, plus when to remove the lid.
I've experimented with Rustic Sourdough Bread baked in an Emile Henry 4.2-quart artisan bread baking crock, and the process makes a lovely loaf.
I take the entirety of the dough, shape it into a round ball, and place it in the lightly greased (cold) crock.
Some folks like to preheat their Dutch oven, then add the dough. I prefer putting the dough into a cold crock; I just feel there's less chance of it scorching. (This from someone who's carbonized several loaves using a black cast iron Dutch oven: once burned, twice shy!)
I cover the crock with its lid, and let the loaf rise. When it's fully risen, I flour it, slash it, and put it in my cold oven. I set the timer for 45 minutes, and turn the oven on.
When the timer goes off I remove the crock's lid, and let the bread bake for an additional 15 minutes or so, or until it's nicely browned and its interior registers about 200°F.
Finally, I turn the loaf out onto a rack and let it cool before slicing — difficult as it is to wait!
What about swapping out flours?
Want to make this bread gluten-free? It's not possible to match the crusty chew and high rise of a gluten-full sourdough loaf using gluten-free flour. That said, our Gluten-Free Sourdough Flatbread is pretty darned tasty!
Can you use whole wheat flour in place of some or all of the all-purpose flour? Yes. But be aware your loaves may be drier, and probably won't rise as high. We suggest you start out by substituting 2 1/2 cups (284g) white whole wheat flour for 2 1/2 cups (301g) of the all-purpose flour in the dough. If you like the resulting bread, substitute a greater percentage of whole wheat flour next time around.
I hope I've convinced you that baking sourdough bread isn't as daunting as you might have thought. Start with this Rustic Sourdough Bread and once you've mastered that, you'll be ready for anything from Sourdough Baguettes to Fig and Walnut Sourdough. And be sure to check out Sourdough: Beyond Crusty Bread, a collection of some of our favorite non-bread recipes: pizza crust, crackers, chocolate cake, and more!