After weeks of contemplating and planning, I finally decided to take a plunge at sourdough bread. It has definitely been a long but very rewarding experience. The fact that I was able to make traditional small batch sourdough bread the way my ancestors did thousands years ago humbles me. This artisan sourdough bread is airy and chewy with a crisp crust and a mild flavour. Plus, it's perfect for beginners because there is no kneading involved. It takes about 15 minutes of actual prep, but a lot of waiting around time, so it is a recipe that you definitely need to plan ahead for.
This easy recipe produces a 70% hydration small batch sourdough bread, and uses a combination of two techniques: stretches and folds and slow fermentation in the refrigerator. By planning ahead, you can easily incorporate the recipe into your 9-to-5 work life by simply refrigerating the dough overnight or all day while at work.
What is Sourdough Bread?
Sourdough bread is made by the natural fermentation of dough using the wild yeast from the sourdough starter without introducing commercially available instant dry yeast. You won’t be able to make sourdough bread without a fully mature sourdough starter. There are many variables affecting the taste and appearance of your sourdough when you try to make sourdough at home such as ambient temperature and humidity, types of flour, flour hydration, starter ratio to flour and so on. Meaning, the sourdough that you make in your home will be completely unique.
It is quite typical for it to take a few failed sourdough breads to finally figure out how to make the perfect sourdough bread. It took me four attempts and much trial and error to finally achieve the perfect loaf. Through this process, I developed a fully proven recipe to make a beautiful and tasty small batch sourdough bread, perfected the kneading techniques in handling high hydration dough and learned three key valuable lessons for why my first attempts failed. So let me first share these key lessons with you so that you don’t make the same mistakes that I did.
Lesson #1: Use a Fully Mature Starter
Don’t start preparing your sourdough bread until you have a fully mature starter. You can check whether your starter is ready for baking by doing a float test. Simply drop a teaspoon of starter in a cup of water. If it floats, it is ready for baking. If not, continue to feed your starter a day or two more.
Here is exactly what I did on my first failed attempt at sourdough bread:
- I tried to make sourdough bread with 75% hydration dough using my 7 days old sourdough starter.
- The ingredients: 400 grams all-purpose flour, 300 grams water, 100 grams starter, and 10 grams salt.
- The sourdough starter was regularly fed, twice a day, with lots of bubbles after feeding. But it did not rise after 12 hours. After I added the starter in the dough with 3 sets of stretch and folds in 30-minute intervals, I let the dough sit for as long as 12 hours but the dough still had not risen. It was very sticky and slack, which means there wasn’t enough gluten strength in the dough either. Although the dough mixture had lots of bubbles on the surface, it clearly showed that the starter was not mature enough to fully make the dough rise. I didn’t want to waste the dough so I used it to make pizza and focaccia bread. It was quite good with good amount rise after all.
Lesson #2: Use a Smaller Ratio of Starter to Flour
Use a smaller ratio of starter to flour, typically 10% to 20% starter. A higher ratio of starter to flour will make your dough rise much faster but you will be risking over proofing the dough, which causes dough to deflate on its own and feel really sticky and soupy.
Here is exactly what I did on my second failed attempt at sourdough bread:
- My first attempt made me believe that my starter was not ready at the time, so I continued to feed my starter two more times the next day, 12 hours apart. I still saw lots of bubbles but still no rising after each feeding. I decided to increase the amount of starter in my next batch to make the dough rise faster.
- The ingredients: 350 grams all-purpose, 255 grams water, 150 grams starter, and 8 grams salt.
- After mixing all the ingredients with 3 sets of stretches and folds in 30-minute intervals, I let the dough sit for as long as 8 hours at room temperature. The dough had a little rise with lots of bubbles on top. It smelled much more sour than the first batch and it was still very sticky and slack. The dough simply wasn’t able to hold its shape. I added an extra 50 grams of whole wheat flour to make the dough less sticky and then shaped and baked the bread anyways. The bread did not rise enough.
Lesson #3: Do Not Over Proof the Sourdough
Do not let sourdough over ferment in warm area; in other words, do not over proof sourdough. You can avoid over proofing by letting the dough rise at cooler temperature or in the refrigerator overnight. Over proofing breaks down gluten in dough and makes dough sticky and slack, which causes bread to go flat and more sour.
Here is exactly what I did on my third failed attempt at sourdough bread:
- The ingredients: 300 grams all-purpose white flour, 30 grams whole wheat flour, 240 grams water, 80 grams starter, and 8 grams salt.
- After mixing all the ingredients, with 3 sets of stretches and folds in 30-minute intervals, I let the dough sit inside the oven chamber, which is warmer than room temperature. After 2 hours, the dough clearly rose with lots of bubbles but did not double in size. I let it continue the fermentation process in the oven for another 2 hours. It continued producing lots of bubbles but the dough felt sticky and won’t hold its shape.
My fourth and final attempt resulted in a perfect, beautiful sourdough boule with amazing oven spring (great rise).
Ingredients in the Perfect Small Batch Sourdough Bread
- 60 grams sourdough starter
- 300 grams all-purpose flour
- 30 grams whole wheat flour
- 220 grams water
- 8 grams salt
How to Make Small Batch Sourdough Bread
Here is a summary of how to make small batch sourdough bread. For the full recipe, scroll down to the recipe card.
- Prepare the starter. If your sourdough starter if not ready to go, and is stored in the fridge, take it out and feed it 12 hours in advance. Let it rise for 6 hours or until doubled in size. Do a float test to check if it is ready.
- Prepare the dough. In a large mixing bowl, add sourdough starter, all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, and water, and whisk to combine. Cover the bowl and let the dough rest for one hour. Add salt and fold into the dough for a few seconds to combine.
- Stretch and fold the dough. Apply some water on your hands and stretch and fold the dough in the bowl by folding the edges over to the centre, one edge at a time. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 30 minutes. Repeat this step two more times. After the final 30-minute rest, the dough should almost double in size.
- Shape the dough. Transfer dough to a floured surface and sprinkle dough with a little flour. Shape the dough into a tight ball by folding the edges over to the centre. Turn the dough over and use your bench scraper to push the dough back and forth to create a tight ball. Place the ball of dough into a medium bowl lined with a floured dishcloth. Cover the bowl let the dough rest at room temperature for 3 to 3.5 hours (OR transfer the bowl into the refrigerator and let it rest overnight for 8 to 12 hrs).
- Score the dough. Remove dough from bowl and place upside down into the centre of a 9x9-inch piece of parchment paper. Use a razor blade to score the dough. Place dough back into the bowl and cover until oven is preheated.
- Bake the sourdough bread. Place a small oven-safe cooking pot (6x6-inches) with a metal lid into the oven and preheat to 450° F. Gently place dough with parchment paper into the pot. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Then remove lid and continue to bake for another 20-25 minutes. Remove the bread from the pot, and allow it to cool completely for one hour.
Tips for Making the Best Small Batch Sourdough Bread
Before You Start
- Always make sure you have a fully mature sourdough starter before you start to prepare your small batch sourdough recipe. A lively and mature sourdough smells yeasty and a bit fruity. Confirm that your starter is ready by doing a float test (drop a teaspoon of starter in a cup of water and see if it floats).
- How to make sourdough starter. It takes an average of 7 days under normal room conditions (21 C and 50% humidity) to create a mature starter. Learn how to make sourdough starter in my detailed guide which includes the top frequently asked questions.
- The best time to prepare your sourdough is when your starter doubles in size at its peak after feeding. This could take 6 to 12 hours depending on room conditions and the type of flour used.
- Use a smaller ratio of starter to flour so that the dough rises slower and gives you more time to prepare and monitor the progress. In general, 15% to 25% starter to flour takes twice as long as 40% to 50% starter for the dough to double in size.
- Plan ahead. You can easily incorporate this recipe into your 9 to 5 work life schedule by simply refrigerating the dough for 10 hours (overnight or all day while at work).
- Use a digital scale. For the most accurate measurements, I highly recommend investing in a digital scale.
During the Sourdough Preparation
- Be patient and give attention to your dough every step of the way. Sourdough is fermented naturally by the wild yeast in the starter, so the bulk fermentation and final proofing stages take a lot longer (typically taking around 3 hours each). When you become more experienced, you can manipulate different factors such as temperature, moisture, and starter to flour ratio to speed up the process.
- Do not over proof the dough. Over proofing breaks down gluten in dough and makes dough sticky and slack, which causes the bread to go flat and more sour. You can avoid this by letting the dough rise at cooler temperature or in the refrigerator overnight. Slow fermentation in the refrigerator also develops a better and more pleasant flavour in the bread due to the activity of different enzymes in the cooler temperature.
- Use a bowl that is slightly larger (1-inch larger) than the size of your dough during final proof. This helps the dough rise upwards instead of expanding sideways. Same goes for the cooking pot used during baking, which yields great oven spring during the initial ten minutes in the oven.
More Sourdough Recipes
- How to Make Sourdough Starter
- Savoury Chive Pancakes with Sourdough Starter
- Sourdough Cinnamon Roll Twist Bread
- Artisan Green Olive Sourdough Bread
- Seeded Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
Did you make this recipe? I would greatly appreciate a comment and rating below, letting me know what you thought of the recipe. You can also snap a picture and tag me on Instagram @aheadofthyme or share it on the Pinterest pin so that I can follow along.