Casual Sourdough Baker logoLove sourdough, but looking for a bit more flexibility and ease when you bake with a starter? In The Casual Sourdough Baker, PJ shows you just how wonderfully stress-free sourdough baking can be, from simple but richly flavored loaves to countless easy ways to use your discard. If you're just beginning your journey, our Sourdough Baking Guide lays out the basics you need for success — whether you decide to become serious or go casual!

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What do you get when you combine one of the oldest-known breads in the history of humankind (sourdough) with one of the newest technologies in yeast baking (the bread machine)?

A surprisingly happy friendship!

Maybe you’re a devoted bread machine baker who despairs of making a decent loaf of sourdough bread in your machine. Or perhaps you’re a sourdough purist who scoffs at the very idea of using a bread machine … but nevertheless still has a machine stashed in the closet.

Either way (and I’m including all of you folks whose experience falls somewhere in between), let me show-and-tell you how to use your bread machine to make wonderful sourdough bread: anything from crusty, flavorful baguettes to bagels to a high-rising sandwich loaf.

What your bread machine can (and can’t) do

First, the tough news: You’ll never bake an ultra-crusty artisan boule or other shaped loaf in your bread machine.

The machine makes a standard rectangular sandwich loaf. Period.

Loaf of sourdough sandwich bread on a cooling rack

And because of its low baking temperature (hovering at 300°F or just below) and small interior, the loaf undergoes a kind of yeast-bread braise as it bakes. Steam trapped by the baking bread helps it rise nice and high; but the bread won’t develop a deliciously crisp crust, which requires high oven heat and a dry (not steamy) oven at the finish.

Now the good news: You can use your bread machine to bake any kind of sourdough bread you like; you just have to understand its functions and then choose which one(s) to use.

Bottom line, your machine is a mixer, climate-controlled proof box, and small oven. If it’s programmable (as so many are these days), you can use your machine to perform one, two, or all three of its basic functions in pursuit of your ideal loaf.

Kickstart your starter

Before we talk about bread, let’s see how your bread machine can help you feed your sourdough starter. Your starter needs someplace warm and protected, which in winter can be a challenge. Enter your bread machine.

30 minutes before feeding, program your machine for a 30-minute rise (turning off all of its other functions); the baking chamber should heat up to about 90°F or so.

Sourdough starter in bread machine bucket being fed with flour and water
Starter, flour, and water in the bucket, ready to be mixed.

Begin the feeding process as you normally would, by discarding part of the starter. Remove the kneading paddles from your machine's bucket, and place the remaining starter in the bucket. Add the requisite amounts of flour and water necessary for feeding, and stir everything together with a rubber spatula or small spoon.

When the machine has completed its cycle and is toasty inside, place the bucket with starter into the machine. Close the machine's lid. Over the next 4 to 8 hours, the temperature in the machine will gradually drop to the mid-70s. Thanks to that cozy environment, your starter should happily double in size, at which point it's ready to use in any recipe calling for fed (or ripe) sourdough starter.

Loaf of bread machine sourdough bread sliced on a cutting board
This Bread Machine Sourdough Bread bakes right in the machine (Photo by John Sherman) 

How to bake sourdough bread directly in your bread machine

Let’s start simple: you can make sourdough bread start to finish in your machine. Just add sourdough starter and the rest of your recipe’s ingredients to the bucket, select your preferred cycle, press start, and come back 3 to 4 hours later to a loaf of golden sourdough bread.

While you may be tempted to take your own favorite sourdough sandwich bread recipe and convert it to baking in your bread machine, I highly recommend you first try our recipe for Bread Machine Sourdough Bread. It was developed specifically for baking in a bread machine, and the balance of ingredients will give you both great flavor and a reliable rise.

keypad of bread machine, with starter and flour in background.

To bake your own favorite sourdough recipe in your bread machine, first make sure the recipe includes commercial yeast; a loaf with nothing more than starter to leaven it won't have long enough to rise using your bread machine's preset cycles. Research the cycle selections as well; choose a cycle with longer rather than shorter rise times, in order to fully develop the bread’s flavor and optimize its rise.

How to make sourdough bread with the help of your bread machine’s dough cycle

Your bread machine’s dough (or manual) cycle, which kneads and raises your dough but stops short of baking it, is a time- and effort-saver — and a real blessing for those of us without a stand mixer, or who are uncomfortable kneading dough by hand.

Over the years we’ve tested the kneading capability of hands vs. stand mixer vs. bread machine, and the bread machine’s dough cycle produces well-kneaded dough and high-rising loaves. In fact, yeast dough prepared via the bread machine’s dough cycle consistently wins our “highest rise” test.

Three baguettes on a wooden table, one sliced crosswise.
Sourdough Baguettes (Photo by Liz Neily) 

If you prefer a crusty baguette or boule to a soft sandwich loaf, use the machine’s dough cycle to knead and raise the dough called for in your recipe. When the cycle is done, take the risen dough out of the machine and follow your recipe to shape, raise, and bake crusty bread in your regular oven.

Sourdough pizza crust topped with onions, tomato sauce, mushrooms, cheese, and fresh herbs.
Sourdough Pizza Crust (Photo by Erica Allen) 

The dough cycle is also perfect for sourdough pizza crust, rolls, pretzels, or any other kind of sourdough baking that doesn’t lend itself to a standard loaf shape.

Are all sourdough recipes compatible with the dough cycle?

In order to best play to your machine’s capabilities, choose a recipe that uses commercial yeast along with the starter, and calls for kneading followed by a short (1- to 2-hour) rise. If your recipe relies solely on starter for the dough’s leavening (no commercial yeast); calls for a series of folds rather than kneading; and is followed by a long fermentation period (say, more than 2 hours at room temperature, or 24 hours in the refrigerator), your machine’s dough cycle isn’t a suitable solution.

So does that mean you can’t use your bread machine to make doughs with little kneading and a lengthy fermentation time? Not at all!

Program your bread machine to match your recipe

What if your favorite sourdough bread is naturally leavened: i.e., it doesn’t use any commercial yeast? It may not call for any significant kneading either, so your bread machine’s dough cycle isn’t a good choice. Can the machine still help you out?

Absolutely — so long as it can be programmed.

Sourdough boule on a cutting board, sliced, one slice layered with figs and cheese and drizzled with honey with
Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread (Photo by Liz Neily) 

Our recipe for Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread calls for mixing the ingredients just until the dough comes together, giving it a rest (autolyse) for 20 minutes, and then kneading until smooth. The resulting dough rises for 1 hour, then is turned out onto a board and given a few folds before returning to the bowl to rise for another hour. After that, the dough is shaped into two loaves and allowed to rise before baking on a stone in a 450°F oven.

How can your bread machine help with this recipe? Program it to match the kneading and rising times. Here’s how I’d use the machine to help me make Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread:

  1. Disable the preheat option. You’re not using any cold ingredients, so it’s not necessary.
  2. Place the bucket with all the ingredients (except the salt, as per the recipe) into the machine. Knead for 5 minutes; the easiest way is to choose the basic bread cycle and hit start, then cancel the machine after 5 minutes.
  3. Let the dough rest in the machine for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, you can program next steps while you wait.
  4. Program the machine for 15 minutes kneading, 45 minutes first rise, and 45 minutes second rise. (The recipe calls for two 1-hour rises with folding in the middle; I’m opting for shorter rise times, since the Zo’s rising temperature is 90°F, quite a bit hotter than normal room temperature.)
  5. Program all of the machine’s remaining functions to “off,” including third rise, baking, and keep warm.
  6. OK, now you're ready: back to the dough. Once it's finished its 20-minute rest, add the salt and press start. When the machine has gone through its kneading and first rise cycles, turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and fold it as directed. Return the dough to the machine for its second rise.
  7. When the machine has completed its programmed cycle, it’ll turn itself off. Transfer the risen dough to a clean work surface and follow the recipe as directed to divide, shape, raise, and bake your crusty loaves.
Soft sourdough bread dough on a floured surface being folded with the help of a bowl scraper.
A bowl scraper is your best choice for folding soft dough.

Wait — this seems like a lot of work. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just follow the recipe using your hands or a stand mixer?

Not necessarily — and here’s why:

  • Not everyone can knead dough by hand; and not everyone has a stand mixer.
  • Especially in winter, it can be tricky finding a consistently warm, protected spot to let your dough rise; the bread machine solves that problem.
  • Once you’ve programmed your machine to follow a particular recipe’s kneading and rising times, you can go back to that cycle again and again. The Zojirushi gives you the option for multiple permanently programmed cycles.

So, have you learned something new today? If nothing else, I want this to be your takeaway: There’s more to bread machine baking than soft sandwich bread. So long as you’ve got a jar of starter on hand, artisan-style loaves, tender dinner rolls, delicious pizza crust, and more are within easy reach thanks to your machine.

Sourdough starter in a jar, bag of bread flour and spatula in the background.

Some final words of advice

  • Make sure your starter is up to snuff. While it doesn’t necessarily have to be newly fed (nor at its absolute peak of ripeness), starter that’s been fed within the past week will yield better results than starter that’s been starving in the back of your fridge for months.
  • Have your starter at room temperature, unless you plan on using your machine’s preheat cycle.  
Sourdough starter dripping from a spoon into a bread machine bucket.
This sourdough starter is fairly thin, so I'll be sure to check the dough's consistency midway through the machine's knead cycle, adding more flour if necessary.
  • The consistency of sourdough starter can vary a lot, from thick and pudding-like to easily pourable. Whatever cycle you’re using, check the dough midway through its kneading time and adjust its consistency, if necessary, to match what the recipe indicates (e.g., soft and sticky, firm and elastic, etc.)
  • Be aware of bucket capacity. Your 1 1/2-pound machine can comfortably handle and bake a recipe using 3 to 3 1/2 cups (360g to 420g) of flour. If you use the dough cycle, you can knead a recipe calling for up to 5 1/2 to 6 cups (660g to 720g) of flour — but any greater than the aforementioned 3 1/2 cups of flour, transfer the kneaded dough to a larger bowl to rise.
  • If you love an assertively sour loaf and you’re just not getting the flavor you want with your starter alone, try adding 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon sour salt (citric acid) to the dough along with your regular salt.
  • Finally, become very familiar with your machine. Some breads require extra-long kneading to develop their structure — what’s the longest amount of time your machine will knead? Is there a shaping option, which allows you to remove the dough, shape it into a braid, say, and replace it in the pan prior to baking? What temperatures does it use for rising and baking? The more you understand what your machine is capable of, the more useful it’ll be.

Think outside the box! Your bread machine can do more than bake bread or knead dough — in fact, it's an incredibly versatile appliance. Curious? See our blog post, Five great reasons to use a bread machine.

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About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was an award-winning Maine journalist (favorite topics: sports and food) before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. Hired to write the newly launched Baker’s Catalogue, PJ became the small but growing company’s sixth employee.PJ wa...
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