My first foray into sourdough bread-making was as a teenager. I nurtured a starter from its humble beginnings as a shapeless blob of flour and water into an amazing loaf of sourdough. Then, when my second batch didn’t turn out as well, I abandoned it. I wasn’t up for the trial and error that is bread-making.
Fast forward to spring 2020 when the world came to grips with “2 weeks to flatten the curve” and my favorite bakery closed down, we were left high and dry without our organic whole grain sourdough we had loved so much.
At the time, my older kiddo was in a PB&J phase, so going without bread (which is not a big deal to me personally), was clearly unacceptable.
Thus began my re-introduction to sourdough bread baking. Although most pandemic sourdough makers ultimately decided the fuss wasn’t worth it (hey, I get it), I’ve come to enjoy the ritual of making sourdough.
Many of you have seen examples of my sourdough loaves shared on Instagram and have asked for the recipe.
I’ve hesitated many times about sharing my sourdough method. Why I’m resistant to sharing my sourdough bread method:
- For one, I’m not an expert baker. I make no claims to have figured out all the “ins and outs” of bread making. There are hundreds (probably thousands) of books devoted to the topic and countless forums online with both master and frustrated bakers sharing their successes and failures. There are a lot of contingencies with anything that’s naturally fermented.
- I’m not great at following recipes. Unlike most bread makers, I don’t own or use a food scale, so there’s naturally going to be variability in each batch. I kind of like that, but if you’re a perfectionist, my method might bother you and you may want to find one that gives ingredients in gram amounts and more precise instructions. No hard feelings.
- Bread takes time. I try to focus on non-fussy recipes that you can put together in 30 minutes or so. Traditionally fermented sourdough bread is not that. For many (including myself up until the past 18 months), it was far easier to just buy good quality sourdough from a small baker. We still do on occasion, actually.
- Grains are an optional food. You can have a perfectly balanced, nutritionally complete diet without grains. I try to highlight recipes/ingredients that provide the most nutritional bang for your buck (liver pate anyone?). That said, grains are delicious and can be made more nutritious (and less of a strain on your blood sugar) when prepared via traditional sourdough fermentation.
So here we are… I guess I have to share my sourdough recipe…
Is Sourdough Healthy? What Does the Research Say?
Phytate & Mineral Absorption from Sourdough Bread
One of the major benefits of sourdough fermentation is reduction in compounds known as phytate (also called phytic acid). Phytate is naturally present in whole grains and binds minerals (especially calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc), preventing their absorption. I talk about phytic acid more in this post about nuts.
The sourdough fermentation process involves yeasts and lactic acid bacteria which reduces the pH of the dough (makes it more acidic) and activates native phytase enzymes, both of which leads to a 70-90% reduction in phytate levels. This increases bioavailability of all of the above-mentioned minerals.
In contrast, non-sourdough yeast-fermented bread results in only a 38% reduction in phytate.
Gluten Content of Sourdough Bread
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley. Many find that it is difficult to digest. Some people have an adverse reaction to gluten beyond digestive distress, such as flare ups in autoimmune conditions. Others have full blown celiac disease, where they cannot tolerate even the tiniest amount of gluten without suffering severe damage to their intestines and a slew of other health issues.
While I recommend people with celiac disease NOT to consume my sourdough bread, those with mild gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance (such as non-celiac gluten sensitivity) may be able to tolerate properly fermented sourdough. Here’s why.
The sourdough fermentation process activates specific proteases (protein-digesting enzymes) that break down gluten. For example, in one study, gluten content of dough decreased 20-fold after sourdough fermentation. In another study, a 72 hour fermentation of wheat with sourdough cultures resulted in gluten concentrations less than 20 ppm, which meets the labeling criteria for being gluten-free.
As an anecdote, I generally choose not to consume much gluten because I find it challenging to digest. However, I’ve found that by using 1) organically grown wheat flour and 2) long fermentation times with my sourdough, I have absolutely NO digestive problems from this bread. Is it because of the decrease in gluten or something else? Who knows. But it works and it’s lovely to have the option of eating bread again.
Glycemic Index of Sourdough Bread
Traditionally fermented sourdough bread doesn’t impact your blood sugar as much as regular bread. In other words, it has a lower glycemic index.
There are several reasons for this:
- Starches are “eaten” by the bacteria and yeast during fermentation (meaning the resulting sourdough bread is lower carb).
- Acids produced during fermentation have physiological benefits. Lactic acid lowers the rate of starch digestion. Acetic and propionic acid delay gastric emptying.
- Fermentation changes what’s called “starch gelatinization,” which slows the process of breaking apart individual sugars.
- Amino acids produced during fermentation accumulate in sourdough bread, some of which may help regulate glucose metabolism.
- Phenolic compounds increase from fermentation, which may lower the glycemic index.
This is all awesome, but keep in mind that sourdough bread is still bread and still contains carbs, so it will raise the blood sugar to some degree, just not nearly as much as regular bread. I always pair my sourdough with fat/protein to further reduce the glycemic load (#nonakedcarbs is term I coined very early in my career as a dietitian and it’s still a practice I follow and recommend). My CGM experiments (with a continuous glucose monitor) show that sourdough in the context of a meal/snack with sufficient protein and fat does not spike my blood sugar. You’ll need to experiment yourself to see if and how much sourdough impacts your blood sugar. We’re all different!
Gut Health, Probiotics, and Prebiotics in Sourdough Bread
Upwards of 50 different species of lactic acid bacteria have been isolated from sourdough. While much of the probiotic bacteria are inactivated during baking, some survive. And even if some probiotics don’t survive baking, they leave behind beneficial “prebiotics” that further nourish our own microbiomes (in case these terms are new to you, a prebiotic is food for the probiotic bacteria in our gut.)
The microorganisms that are active in sourdough fermentation produce what’s called “exopolysaccharides” or EPS, which are specific types of carbohydrates (often serving as “prebiotics”) that offer gut health benefits. This includes glucan, fructans, dextran, propionic acid, and gluco- and fructo-oligosaccharides, which have been “postulated to have several beneficial effects, such as reduced cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and increased insulin sensitivity.”
Higher B-Vitamin Levels in Sourdough Bread
Many B vitamins are heat-sensitive, and therefore decrease in concentration when bread is baked. Sourdough fermentation has been shown to increase the levels of certain B vitamins — including vitamin B1 (thiamin) and B2 (riboflavin) — and better preserve the levels of these vitamins in the final bread after baking. One research paper points out that “long fermentations could favour a net synthesis of thiamine by yeast, which could compensate for losses during cooking.”
Keep in mind that longer fermentation times are required to give the yeasts enough time to work their magic. Researchers note: “Highest levels of B vitamins were achieved by long yeast fermentations.” This is why it’s important, if you’re buying sourdough at the store, whether the baker used a “cheater method”, such as combining a bit of sourdough starter with yeast for a quick rise but sour-tasting bread OR simply added acids to a standard yeast bread to give it a sour flavor.
This is why it’s important to ensure your sourdough is truly traditionally fermented if you’re purchasing sourdough (ingredients should just be flour, water, and salt; some will also list “sourdough starter”). If you see yeast on the ingredient list, it’s not a traditionally fermented sourdough.
How to Make Sourdough: Taking the Fuss Out of Sourdough Bread
Although I like to cook, I do not like fussy recipes. I’m also a notorious rule-breaker in the kitchen, so over the last 18+ months, I’ve broken probably every sourdough rule in the book, and yet every loaf I’ve made has still been edible.
Some loaves rise more than others. Some have big billowy holes in them and others have a dense grain. Some brown more than others. It’s par for the course when you don’t use a food scale, play around with different flours, fermentation times, and so on. Also, factors outside of your control, like the humidity and air temperature (or kids interrupting you and throwing off your timeline) can impact your final loaf.
The following method that I’m sharing here is the baseline recipe that has been my standby.
I personally make a recipe that yields 2 loaves. Twice the bread for the same effort. And I only have to bake once a week or once every other week (remember, I’m lazy in the kitchen). That means I keep my starter in the refrigerator between batches and factor in extra time to re-enliven the starter prior to starting the next loaves.
I also prefer a longer, cold fermentation for my sourdough, which gives me more wiggle room in the baking time (I don’t have to be in and out of the kitchen at specified times ALL DAY LONG) and it gives the bread a more pronounced sourdough flavor.
That said, if you WILL be in the kitchen all day and don’t mind a less sour flavor, you can do this recipe in a shorter time period. Just don’t skip the first overnight bulk ferment. That’s key to the best sourdough flavor.
Best Flour for Lily’s Sourdough Bread
Before I cover my method for sourdough, let’s talk flours.
Technically, you can make sourdough with any flour you like. I’ve played around with close to a dozen options, from einkorn to spelt to bread flour to all-purpose flour to whole wheat flour and more.
What I’ve settled on is mostly organic whole wheat flour (I prefer the nutritional profile of whole grains), but includes some organic bread flour (which provides a lighter texture). Organic is important to me because organic practices prohibit the use of glyphosate-containing pesticides (or the use of glyphosate as a harvesting aid to “dessicate” the wheat). Conventionally grown wheat is almost always contaminated with glyphosate residues, so this is one way I can minimize exposure. I’ve covered the many problems with glyphosate in Ch 10 of Real Food for Pregnancy.
Generally speaking, whole grain flours absorb more water, so if instead of using my recipe, you opt for more bread flour, you may need less water. If you do a 100% whole grain loaf, you’ll need more water.
King Arthur Flour is the brand readily available to me (no, I have no financial ties to them). Unlike some flours I’ve tried from local mills, the grind is very fine, which results in a fluffier loaf. I also like that their flours are unbleached (no chlorine residues in the flour), unbrominated (bromine is highly toxic to the thyroid), and un-fortified (I know enriched sounds good in theory, but I try my best to avoid synthetic folic acid, as covered in my very detailed post on folate).
Lily’s Sourdough Bread Method
My recipe is loosely based on King Arthur Flour’s recipe for Naturally Leavened Sourdough, however I’ve made quite a few adjustments, including increasing the whole wheat flour from a mere ¾ cup to 4 cups. I also do most steps of my sourdough method directly in the mixing bowl so I don’t make a huge mess of my counter & significantly extend the fermentation time (including a long bulk fermentation in the refrigerator) for a more pronounced sour flavor and lower gluten content.
You’ll need a sourdough starter. If you’re starting from scratch, like I did at the beginning of the pandemic, I made my own via this method. It will take about a week. If in doubt, keep feeding it. My only recommendation for making starter is to cut the proportions down significantly so you have less waste (i.e. start with 1/4 of the amount of flour and water suggested in the King Arthur Starter recipe). I set aside the discard in the refrigerator and used it in other recipes, like pancakes. I just can’t handle any food waste.
2 cups “fed” or “ripe” sourdough starter (as measured when stirred down)
2 cups water (if the dough is too stiff, you can add an extra 1/2 cup for 2 1/2 cups of water total)
4 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups bread flour
1 tablespoons fine sea salt* (yes, the “big” spoon; 1 tablespoon is equivalent to 3 teaspoons)
Day 1: Restart the starter, make the dough, cold bulk ferment begins
Day 2: Knead, stretch, continue cold bulk ferment, shape & cold rise
Day 3: Final rise, bake
*My preferred unrefined salt is Redmond’s Real Salt Use code LILY to save 15% on your order (affiliate code).
Lily’s Sourdough Bread: Full Instructions
Day 1: Restart the starter, make the dough, bulk ferment begins
Restart the starter (morning of Day 1)
I keep my starter in the refrigerator between batches of sourdough because I don’t bake that often, I don’t want to be a slave to keeping my starter alive, and I prefer a zero waste approach to baking. If you keep the starter on your counter, you’ll need to either find a use for all the excess starter or throw away a lot of it before each feed. Again, this is why I keep mine “dormant” in the fridge.
I keep about ½ to ¾ cup of starter in a 24 oz mason jar in the refrigerator, lightly covered (plastic bag and a rubber band around it works).
When it’s time for a new loaf, I allow about 8-12 hours to “restart my starter” with a feeding of flour and water before I begin the new loaf.
Simply add about 1.5 cups of bread flour + 1 cup of water to the starter jar. Stir to combine. This should bring the level of starter up to the 2 cup mark on the mason jar. Cover, and let sit for 8-12 hours or until bubbly and the contents have reached the top of the jar. Keep in mind it may overflow the jar (especially if your house is warm!), so you may do this in a large bowl (instead of the jar) or set the jar on a plate in case any spills over. Times may vary if your house is unusually hot or cold.
You can test to see if your starter is ready by filling a glass with water and dropping a tablespoon of starter into it. If the blob of starter floats, you’re ready to bake. If it sinks, give it some extra time (or possibly another small feed) and check on it again in a few hours.
Make the dough & begin the bulk ferment (evening of Day 1)
When your starter is bubbly and ready (bakers call this “fed”), stir it down and measure out ~2 cups of starter into a very large mixing bowl. (If you use the 24 oz jar method outlined above, you’ll end up with 2.5 cups of fed starter. I simply leave the ½ cup of starter in the starter jar and return it to the refrigerator at this point, lightly covered with a plastic bag or beeswax wrap to allow any gas bubbles to escape.)
Add your flour and water (but not the salt yet!) to the bowl. With a sturdy wooden spoon (or clean hands), mix and knead the mixture until it forms a shaggy ball of dough. It won’t look pretty. That’s ok! Just ensure all the flour is incorporated into the dough.
Cover with a damp tea towel and let sit for about 30-60 minutes. This step is called “autolyse” and it helps the dough become easier to work with and will result in a better rise later on.
After autolyse, sprinkle the salt on top of the dough and use a “stretch and fold” motion (folding it like a business letter) to incorporate the salt into the dough. Knead for a few minutes (I do this directly in my large bowl so I don’t make a mess of the kitchen) and cover for 30-60 minutes.
Stretch and fold the dough once more* and turn the dough seam-side-down into the bowl, shape into a ball by tucking under the ends, and cover with a beeswax wrap or plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator overnight.
*You can repeat the stretch/fold a few more times if time permits.
Day 2: Knead, stretch, continue bulk ferment, shape
Knead/stretch (morning of Day 2)
In the morning, remove the bowl from the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter for about 30-60 minutes (this makes the dough easier to work with).
Then, stretch and fold the dough, once again tucking in the edges of the dough to form a smooth ball (again, I do all of this in the bowl to avoid dirtying my countertop, but you do you!). Cover and return to the refrigerator to continue the bulk ferment.
Shape (evening of Day 2)
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and use a sharp knife to divide the dough into two. On a clean countertop, fold the edges of the dough into itself, like a business letter. Flip the dough seam-side-down and shape the halves into two rounds using the outer edges of your hands to “tuck under” the edges dough to form a firm ball.
Cover with a damp tea towel and let rest on the counter for 20 minutes.
After this short rest, reshape the balls of dough (gently “tuck under” the edges). Now, it’s time to transfer to your banneton or loaf pan to rise.
If you are making a free-form loaf in a banneton or bowl, dust lightly with flour and use your hands to evenly distribute the flour on top of the dough. Transfer the dough to a bowl (or banneton) lined with floured cloth with the dough seam-side-up. Dusting the dough with flour prevents it form sticking to the cloth (I’ve forgotten this step in the past and paid the price with quite a mess!).
If you are making bread in a loaf pan, there’s no need to flour the dough. Simply transfer to a greased loaf pan (I use coconut oil) with the dough seam-side-down.
I usually do one of each: one as a free-form loaf shaped in a banneton and the other in a loaf pan for sandwiches.
Cover the dough with a doubled-over, damp tea towel and place in the refrigerator overnight. (Alternatively, you could let these rise at room temperature for 2-4 hours and bake this evening.)
Day 3: Final rise & bake
In the morning, remove the rising bread from the refrigerator. If your loaves have not risen sufficiently overnight, let sit on the counter, covered, until they have risen enough. This may take several hours. You want the dough to be above the edges of your loaf pan or banneton.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
If baking in a loaf pan, score the top of the loaf with a knife or razor blade (a few large slashes is fine) and bake on a lower rack.
If your bread has risen in a bowl or banneton, you’ll need to transfer the bread to a baking sheet. Simply line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and gently invert the bowl/banneton. Use a razor blade or sharp knife to score the bread and bake.
I bake two loaves side by side on the lower rack of my oven for 15 minutes. Then I rotate the pans 180 degrees and return to the oven for ~10 more minutes.
As hard as it is, let the loaves cool to room temperature before slicing. This is important to lock in the moisture into the bread.
Once the bread is fully cooled, I wrap in a plastic bag and keep it in the refrigerator. We don’t eat a LOT of bread in our house (about 1 loaf per week unless the kids are really into bread at that moment in time), so keeping it in the fridge ensures that it doesn’t go moldy before we eat it all.
This all sounds like a ton of work when I write it out, but you’ll develop a rhythm after a few rounds of baking. Pretty soon you won’t even need my instructions!
Happy Sourdough Baking!
PS — Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever baked homemade sourdough? If so, was the method similar to mine? How did your bread come out? Any tips for novice sourdough bakers?
- Leenhardt, Fanny, et al. “Moderate decrease of pH by sourdough fermentation is sufficient to reduce phytate content of whole wheat flour through endogenous phytase activity.” Journal of agricultural and food chemistry 53.1 (2005): 98-102.
- Lopez, H. W., et al. “Prolonged fermentation of whole wheat sourdough reduces phytate level and increases soluble magnesium.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 49.5 (2001): 2657-2662.
- Thiele, Claudia, Simone Grassl, and Michael Gänzle. “Gluten hydrolysis and depolymerization during sourdough fermentation.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 52.5 (2004): 1307-1314.
- Loponen, Jussi, et al. “Degradation of HMW glutenins during wheat sourdough fermentations.” Cereal Chemistry 81.1 (2004): 87-93.
- Poutanen, Kaisa, Laura Flander, and Kati Katina. “Sourdough and cereal fermentation in a nutritional perspective.” Food microbiology 26.7 (2009): 693-699.
- De Angelis, Maria, et al. “Mechanism of degradation of immunogenic gluten epitopes from Triticum turgidum L. var. durum by sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases.” Applied and Environmental Microbiology 76.2 (2010): 508-518.
- Gänzle, Michael G., Jussi Loponen, and Marco Gobbetti. “Proteolysis in sourdough fermentations: mechanisms and potential for improved bread quality.” Trends in food science & technology 19.10 (2008): 513-521.
- Batifoulier, Frederique, et al. “Effect of different breadmaking methods on thiamine, riboflavin and pyridoxine contents of wheat bread.” Journal of Cereal Science 42.1 (2005): 101-108.