Beginners Guide to Sourdough Bread

Let this beginner’s guide to sourdough walk you through the tools, ingredients, and process of baking beautiful sourdough bread right in your kitchen.

grid of 4 sourdough images

So you’ve seen the beautiful pictures of browned sourdough loaves with big crumbs, deep slashes, and dustings of flour. You want to make them too! You’re ready.

And then the weirdness starts. A starter? Feeding it? Autolyse? A banneton? What are all these words?

You do a little research, and it seems like you need a lot of tools, too. A Dutch Oven. Parchment paper. Strange special flours.

And you start to think that just maybe… sourdough is not for you after all.

But wait! It doesn’t have to be so complicated! Let’s walk through the sourdough process together and go over what you need, what you don’t, and how to get started baking sourdough bread without all the confusion.

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The ingredients you need

  • Flour
  • Water
  • Salt
  • An active sourdough starter

That’s it! I bet you were with me right up until the last one. But don’t be alarmed. A sourdough starter is simply a fermented blend of flour and water. Like how yogurt is fermented milk, sourdough starter is fermented flour. This fermentation adds flavor to the bread and makes it rise without needing commercial yeast.

How to get a sourdough starter

sourdough starter in  weck  jar

There are two ways: get one from a friend or make your own. If you live in Virginia, send me an email and maybe we are close enough that I can share some with you!

If not, ask around. Most sourdough bakers are absolutely delighted to share because there is always extra.

But let’s say you don’t know any sourdough bakers. That’s okay too! You can make your own with just flour and water. If you want more information on that, see my guide to making your own sourdough starter.

Tools you will want:

  • A digital kitchen scale
  • A proofing basket (ONLY if you want to to work with wet doughs and get big holes)
  • A sharp knife or lame for slashing the bread.
  • Parchment paper to keep the bread from sticking
  • A Dutch oven for baking round loaves

The sourdough baking process

If you are used to baking yeast bread, you’ll see that there are a lot of differences between yeast baking and sourdough baking. But there are also a lot of similarities!

To make to break it down simply, these are the steps of the sourdough baking process.

  1. Mix up the ingredients, except the salt, let them rest
  2. Add the salt and knead the dough
  3. Let it rise in a warm place until nice and puffy
  4. Gently shape and let it rise in a cool place (this takes a long time!)
  5. Bake and let it cool

Measuring the ingredients

If you have a scale to measure your ingredients, it is very, very helpful; measuring starter by volume is messy, and the size of the air bubbles will affect your measurements. If you don’t have a scale, that’s okay, just do the best you can and keep in mind you might need to add a little more flour or water as you knead.


The first step is usually called autolyse which just means combining the ingredients, except for the salt. You let them rest, covered at room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.

sticky dough mixed in bowl.

Why? This step allows the flour to become hydrated by the water and start developing gluten. This means the dough will be become soft and stretchy all on its own without kneading.

But to be perfectly honest, the times that I forget to do it I don’t notice a big difference in the finished loaf, and there are many sourdough bakers who skip it.

Kneading the dough (or not)

The next step of sourdough baking is to knead the dough. For most recipes, this will not be a traditional kneading process like with yeast dough, but will be gentler.

Sometimes you will knead for a just a minute, sometimes you will do what’s known as a “stretch and fold”, to help build structure in the dough.

Some recipes will indeed be kneaded like a regular yeast dough.

brioche dough in stand mixer.
This sourdough recipe is kneaded like any other bread recipe.

Your recipe will tell you which kneading technique is necessary.

Bulk fermentation

A scary word for a simple process. This is the dough’s first rise, in a bulk shape, which just means rising as a big ball. I always like bulk fermentation to happen in a warm place. You will want the dough to increase noticeable in size, although it may not necessarily double in bulk.

To see if it’s ready, poke the dough with your finger. You are looking for an indent that fills in partially. If it doesn’t fill in at all, it needs to rise longer. It is totally fills in, it rose too long.

After a while, you will be able to just eyeball it and see that your dough looks “right”. It will be puffy and beautiful and ready to shape.

Folding during bulk fermentation (only for some recipes)

Now, if you are working with a very wet sourdough, the rising process will be a little more complicated. It will spread out, rather than rise up.

For recipes like this, you will often have to “fold” the dough every so after during. bulk formation. Every hour, you’ll reshape the dough into a ball, and then cover it up again to keep rising.

Recipes that use this technique tend to be more advanced and will help you get those big artisan-style holes in your loaves.

Shaping the loaf and the final proof

Now that we have nicely risen dough, it’s time to shape it. Don’t go mashing it down, ruining that rise that we worked so hard for. Gently shape it into the shape that the final loaf will be.

Remember, if you are working with an advanced, wetter dough, it has a tendency to spread out. So, to get a nicely shaped round loaf with a wet dough, you need to place it in something that will hold its shape. That is where the banneton comes in. It’s simply a basket that holds the dough into a round shape while it does its final rise. If you don’t want to work with wet doughs and get those big holes, you’ll never have to buy one.

I always like the final proof to be a long, cool proof. It helps give the sourdough more flavor. So I typically do this final proof in the fridge overnight. You’ll want to make sure that you cover the loaf with heavily greased plastic wrap do it doesn’t stick as it rises. Trust me! If you go to pull off the plastic wrap and it sticks, the loaf will be ruined.

Before you bake, slash the loaf with a sharp knife or lame. This will help control where the loaf opens up. And it’s pretty!

Now we bake!

artisan sourdough boule on cooling rack

Okay, we’re almost there. I know it’s been a while here. Sourdough is typically baked at a pretty high temperature, but your recipe will tell you.

The most important part of this is after the loaf has baked, let it cool! If you cut into a loaf before it’s cool, it will seem gummy. It needs that cooling time for the best texture.

For detailed information on storing homemade sourdough bread, see this post for my recommendations

Troubleshooting sourdough bread

  • Starter Isn’t Active Enough:
    • Problem: Your sourdough starter isn’t bubbling or rising.
    • Solution: Ensure your starter is being fed regularly with the right ratio of flour to water (typically 1:1 by weight). Keep it in a warm environment and give it more time. Sometimes starters take a few days to a week to show consistent activity.
  • Dough Is Too Sticky or Wet:
    • Problem: After mixing, the dough is too sticky to handle.
    • Solution: Add flour gradually until the dough reaches the right consistency. Be careful not to add too much as it can make the bread dense. Wet doughs are common in sourdough; a dough scraper can be helpful.
  • Dough Is Too Dry or Tough:
    • Problem: The dough is too hard and not pliable.
    • Solution: Add a small amount of water and knead it in until the dough becomes more supple. Do this gradually to avoid making the dough too sticky.
  • Bread Isn’t Rising:
    • Problem: The dough doesn’t rise during bulk fermentation or proofing.
    • Solution: Make sure your starter is active. Check the temperature of your environment – it might be too cold. Try placing the dough in a warmer spot. Give it more time, as sourdough will rise much, much slower than yeast bread.
  • Bread Is Too Dense:
    • Problem: The finished loaf is heavy and doesn’t have the desired airy crumb.
    • Solution: Ensure proper gluten development through adequate kneading/folding. Avoid adding too much flour during shaping. Ensure the starter is fully active before using.
  • Crust Is Too Thick or Hard:
    • Problem: The crust comes out too thick or hard to chew.
    • Solution: Steam the oven during the first part of baking by placing a tray of water at the bottom of the oven, and/or reduce the baking time or temperature.
  • Bread Collapses or Spreads Too Much:
    • Problem: The bread loses its shape during baking, becoming flat.
    • Solution: This often happens due to over-proofing. Reduce the final proofing time. Also, make sure your dough is properly tensioned during shaping.
  • Sourdough Is Not Sour Enough:
    • Problem: The bread lacks that characteristic sour flavor.
    • Solution: Longer fermentation times can increase sourness. Try a longer bulk fermentation or extend the final proof in the refrigerator.
  • Bread Has Large Holes or Uneven Crumb:
    • Problem: The crumb has large, irregular holes.
    • Solution: Ensure more even fermentation and gluten development. This can be achieved by consistent folding during bulk fermentation and gentle handling during shaping.
  • Crust Is Too Pale:
    • Problem: The crust lacks a rich, golden-brown color.
    • Solution: Increase the oven temperature, ensure sufficient steam during the initial phase of baking, and extend the baking time slightly.

I’ve read the beginners guide to sourdough, what do I do now?

  1. Get, or make, a sourdough starter.
  2. Start baking easy sourdough recipes like sourdough rolls or discard recipes like sourdough carrot cupcakes.
  3. Try intermediate recipes like bread machine sourdough or sourdough sandwich bread.
  4. Work on a high-hydration artisan sourdough boule
  5. If you run into any trouble, consult the sourdough troubleshooting guide.
  6. Share your starter with your friends.

Be patient. It takes time for your starter to become active enough to work independently. And each loaf takes time to rise. You can’t rush it!

Don’t be afraid!

And if you have any questions, just let me know.

Beginners Guide to Sourdough Bread

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  1. I am just in the process of baking my first loaf with homemade starter. What do I do with the leftover starter so I can make more in the future

  2. This is a really good explanation of the stages of making a sourdough loaf and most of all why they matter and what they do. I am still learning but I think that I will make less mistakes having read this. Thank you.

  3. Neighbor gave me sm amount of starter, don’t find any instructions what to do with this starter? Help please, I’m ready to try. Do I just feed this starter!? What???

    1. yes just start feeding it. if your neighbor has been using it for a while its safe to assume its mature. just move straight to maintenance mode. you can search my site for “maintaining starter” and you’ll see a guide for it

  4. This really is the best intro to sourdough that i’ve read. Thank you so much! I’ve made a few loaves now and never really know why I’m doing what I’m doing. And all other guides only mention “their” way. Ie it simply must be the only way!
    Thank you.