The ultimate guide to sourdough

Want to learn how to make your own sourdough starter? Or sourdough pizza? And do you know what the benefits of eating sourdough are? Read our brilliant guide here

What is Sourdough?

The word sourdough may conjure up images of bearded hipsters riding unicycles, but it is in fact the oldest way of bread leavening known to man. 


The first dough ever made was just flour and water, baked until crisp like a flatbread. And so it continued until one day thousands of years ago (or so the story goes) when someone forgot to bake their flatbread and left the dough overnight by mistake. What they found next morning was a dough that had bubbled and risen – when baked, it rose and had a much lighter crumb. 

It was a sourer loaf than normal breads, as the wild yeast and lactobacilli fed on the carbohydrates in the flour to create lactic acid. Not only did it result in a more complex and slightly sour flavor, it also created a bread that kept for longer and travelled further whilst remaining a tradeable commodity. And so sourdough became the original leavened bread, and got its name from its sour flavour characteristics.

The sourdough process was fazed out during the Middle Ages, particularly in Northern Europe where they started to use the ‘barm’ leavening technique – a byproduct of the beer-making industry. This stood until commercial yeast was invented, which meant that bread could be made and fermented quicker and could be lighter and softer than ever before. However, what was gained in speed many felt was lost in flavor. 

At around the same time the gold prospectors of the American West started making their own sourdough. San Francisco now prides itself as the modern home of sourdough, with their American football team mascot being named ‘Sourdough Sam’. In Alaska ‘a sourdough’ is a nickname for someone who spent the winter north of the arctic circle; to make sure their dough starter survived the cold weather, they would carry it around in a pouch strapped to their body and snuggle up to it at night!

What are the benefits of eating sourdough?

Sourdough bread is made up of just three ingredients: water, flour and salt. It’s slow food, which means flavour is built in layers slowly over time. As already mentioned the lactic acid present in the fermented bread means that it keeps for longer and has a more complex and refined flavour. 

The fermentation and lactic acid means that more of the complex carbohydrates present in the bread have been broken down during this slow process. So it’s much easier for your body to break down than bread made using commercial yeast. The acids present also ensure that the minerals and nutrients in the bread are more available to you; and they slow down the rate that glucose is absorbed into the blood stream. 

Unfortunately the majority of sourdough breads will be made with wheat, rye or barley flour, which all contain gluten and so are not suitable for people with coeliac disease. There are gluten-free flour alternatives available though, if you wanted to make your own at home.

How do you make a ‘starter’?

Making sourdough bread is easily achievable at home. First, you need to make your ‘starter’, also known as a ‘leaven’. This is simply a 50-50 mix of strong bread flour and water stirred together to create a paste. Once left out at ambient room temperature for 2-3 days, you will begin to see the fermentation process take place. 

Wild yeast present in the flour will activate an enzyme that can break down the starch into consumable sugars for the yeast. You will recognize this by your leaven having a slightly sour smell, plus the presence of small bubbles on the surface. The starter is the most important part of making sourdough – it’s what makes your bread rise; gives it that beautiful light texture and crumb; and determines the sour flavor of your loaf. Once you have this made you are well on your way to making your first loaves. 

Are there good cookbooks for making sourdough at home?

One of the best books for making your own sourdough at home is ‘Tartine’ by Chad Robertson. It details every step of the home sourdough making process through description and pictures. It teaches you the science, the hands on processes as well as detailing exactly what you’ll need to make sourdough bread successfully at home. 

They also use four different examples of people who have made sourdough at home, showing how they made it fit around their busy schedules. Tartine bakery in San Francisco is the Holy Grail of the sourdough world, so this book comes from the world leaders.

Other excellent books include ‘Sourdough’ by Sarah Owens, ‘Bread’ by Richard Bertinet and also ‘Bread’ by Jeffrey Hammelman.

Where can I buy good Sourdough?

In the UK there is a high concentration of sourdough bakeries in London, but it is available all over the UK. In London excellent bakeries include Lonzo, Brickhouse Bakery and E5 Bakehouse, the latter of which uses its own in-house mill (under a railway arch in Hackney) as part of the bread-making process. 

Outside of London Hobbs House Bakery in Bristol is great, as is Forge Bakehouse in Sheffield. There are bakeries all over the UK who are crafting delicious loaves in a time-honoured way when everyone else in the country is fast asleep. Seek out your nearest one and enjoy their hand crafted goods.

How do I make sourdough pizza dough?

You make sourdough pizza dough in a relatively similar way to making both the bread and regular pizza dough. Start by making your ‘starter’ or ‘leaven’: just mix equal parts of OO pizza flour with water and leave this to ferment for several days so that it’s nice and active.

Once active and fermented, make your pizza dough by mixing the leaven with extra virgin olive oil and water, and then OO pizza flour and salt. Then it needs a lot of mixing in a machine with a dough hook or a lot of elbow grease! Once thoroughly mixed and the gluten has been developed, it should be weighed into balls of between 150g and 200g depending on the sizes of your pizza. Leave to slow ferment for as long as possible in the fridge, preferably overnight, as this will develop the sour character of the dough even more. 

When ready to cook simply spread out until nice and thin, layer with your favourite toppings and bake in a hot oven atop a pizza stone if possible (although an upturned baking tray works too, apparently).

Inspired? Try one of our sourdough recipes here

Written January 2016 by Adam Bush; all bread images by Adam Bush

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