How Make Your Own Whole-Wheat Sourdough Starter and Artisan-Style Bread

By: Elisabeth Almekinder

Get fresh bakery-quality bread at home with this simple step-by-step guide to making homemade sourdough. Plus, find tips on caring for a sourdough starter and the nutritional benefits of sourdough bread.

The thought of making your own sourdough bread can be intimidating. Myths abound, and volumes have been written on the subject. The thing is, the ingredients and methods are simple and as old as bread itself. There is no reason why you can't master this healthy, delicious artisan whole-wheat sourdough bread. And it's the real thing, not the mass-produced "sourdough" with 20 ingredients and preservatives from the grocery store bread aisle.

Related: Make Instead of Buy—Homemade Recipes for a Clean Diet

What Is Sourdough Bread?

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Sourdough bread consists of flour, water, salt and sourdough starter. The starter is a combination of flour and water that has been fermented and populated with wild yeast and bacteria (Lactobacillus). The culture is maintained by feeding more flour and water on a schedule. Once the starter is established, a small portion of it is used to make bread. The wild yeast provides the CO2 to make the bread rise, and the bacteria create lactic acid, which gives the bread its unique tart flavor and many health benefits.

What You Need to Make Sourdough

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Chances are, everything you need to prepare sourdough is in your kitchen already.

  • 3 ingredients: water, flour and sea salt
  • 4-quart cast-iron or enameled cast-iron pot
  • 2 medium bowls or bread-proofing baskets
  • 12-quart food storage container with lid
  • 2-quart glass or plastic container with lid
  • Stand mixer

How to Make and Care for Sourdough Starter

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Whole-wheat flour and water. That's all you need to make sourdough starter. No need for exotic concoctions, or a 100-year-old seed starter from your grandmother. It takes about five days to get a new starter established. You can keep it living indefinitely, feeding it flour and water once or twice daily depending on the growth rate. It can also be refrigerated and only fed weekly.

Get the Full Recipe: Whole-Wheat Sourdough Starter

Day 1

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Combine 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour and 1/2 cup water in a 2-quart container. Loosely cover and let stand for 24 hours in a warm place, 75 to 85°F (the process will take much longer, 7 to 14 days, if the temperature is below 70°F).

Day 2

Discard all of the starter except for 4 ounces, and add 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour and 1/2 cup water. Mix and cover loosely. Store in the warm place again.

Day 3

The mixture should begin expanding and a few small bubbles should appear. Again, discard all of the starter except for 4 ounces, and add 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour and 1/2 cup water. Mix and cover loosely. Store in the warm place again.

Day 4

The starter should almost be mature. It should have a distinct, vinegary odor and bubbles should be visible throughout. Switch to feeding the starter twice a day, discarding all of the starter except for 4 ounces and adding 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour and 1/2 cup water at each feeding. Mix and cover loosely. Store in the warm place again.

Day 5

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The starter should have a ripe, sour odor. Small bubbles should be abundant throughout the mixture. Discard half the starter, leaving 4 ounces in the container. This time, feed with ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon whole-wheat flour and ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour and ½ cup water. Continue the 12-hour feeding schedule, discarding half the starter and using ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon whole-wheat flour and ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour and ½ cup water for each feed until you are ready to bake.

When you are ready to make bread, a sample should pass the water drop test: Drop a spoonful of starter into a glass of water. If it floats, it is ready to use for baking. If it doesn't, it either needs more time or it is past the peak of maturity and needs to be fed again.

To make bread, remove up to 8 ounces of starter for the recipe. The rest can be stored in the fridge for up to a week before the next feeding.

How to Make Sourdough Bread

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Now that your starter is ready and active (and has passed the water drop test), you can make your bread. This requires feeding the starter, making the dough and letting it rise, shaping the loaves and letting them rise again before baking. Here is a good schedule to follow: feed the starter at 2 p.m., make the final dough at 8 or 9 p.m., shape the loaves at 8 a.m. the next day, and bake around noon.

Get the Full Recipe: Whole-Wheat Sourdough Bread

Step 1: Make the Levain

Combine 8 ounces sourdough starter with ½ cup water, ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour and ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon whole-wheat flour in a medium bowl. Cover loosely and let stand in a warm spot until bubbly and doubled in size, 4 to 6 hours.

Step 2: Make the Dough

Combine 3 1/3 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour and 2¼ cups whole-wheat flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Set to the lowest speed and slowly add 2¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons warm water. Mix on low speed until the flour is moist, about 20 to 30 seconds, being careful not to overmix. Cover the mixing bowl and let stand for 20 minutes to allow the water to completely hydrate the flour before mixing the final dough. Then remove the mixing bowl cover and turn the mixer on low. Add salt, then spoon in the levain (from Step 1) and mix until combined, about 2 minutes.

Step 3: Fold the Dough and Let It Rise

At this point, the dough will be very sticky. It is best to dip your hands in warm water before working it.

Transfer the dough to a 10- to 12-quart plastic food-storage container. Reach under one end of the dough, pull up a handful until there is resistance, then stretch it back over the top of the dough mass and drop. Turn the container a quarter turn and repeat the fold. Repeat two more times for a total of 4 folds. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes. Repeat the folding procedure 4 more times, every 20 minutes, to build the gluten and strengthen the dough. Cover and let stand until doubled in size, 6 to 12 hours.

Step 4: Shape the Loaves

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Prepare the bowls or proofing baskets by seasoning them liberally with all-purpose flour. This prevents sticking and gives the finished boules those familiar white stripes.

Dump the dough onto a floured surface. Use floured hands (instead of wet hands) at this stage to work the dough. The dough mass will flatten out a bit. Sprinkle a line of all-purpose flour down the middle and cut the dough in half with a knife.

Work each half into a ball (they will be slack). Place the dough balls into the prepared bowls or proofing baskets. Cover with a clean towel and proof until the dough rises, 2 to 4 hours. To test, press gently with a floured finger. If the depression springs back to the original shape in a few seconds, allow it to proof longer. If it doesn't spring back, it is ready to bake.

Step 5: Bake the Bread

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While the dough is proofing, place a large cast-iron or enameled cast-iron pot with a lid in the oven and preheat to 475°F. Using a cast-iron pot is key to getting a loaf with a crisp outside and soft center, because it holds in heat and steam as the bread bakes. After the oven reaches 475°F, allow the pot to preheat for another 20 minutes before baking. This is critical for producing bread that rises fully and has a crisp crust. Carefully remove the pot from the oven and remove the lid. With floured hands, pick up the dough and carefully place the loaf inside the pot. (It is OK to gently drop it in from a height of 3 to 4 inches to avoid burning yourself.) Replace the lid and transfer to the oven. (Place the second loaf in the refrigerator while the first one bakes.) Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and continue baking until browned, about 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the oven and carefully transfer the bread to a wire rack. Let cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting. Repeat for the second loaf.

Put Your Sourdough to Use in These Delicious Recipes

Tomato & Smoked Mozzarella Sandwiches
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Take a classic combination like fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, add a couple flavor-packed ingredients like olives and sun-dried tomatoes, put it between two pieces of crusty bread and you'll have a satisfying weekend lunch or an easy warm-weather supper.
Cioppino
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Cioppino is a fish stew traditionally made by Italian fishermen who settled in the North Beach/Fisherman's Wharf section of San Francisco. It was originally made on fishing boats with whatever fish were at hand. This cioppino comes to us from California chef and cooking teacher John Ash, who has been an advocate for sustainable-food issues for years and has served on the board of advisors of Seafood Watch--the advocacy arm of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Ash chose a variety of shellfish for this recipe, all of which are Seafood Watch Best Choices or Good Alternatives.
Mediterranean Portobello Burger
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This mushroom sandwich comes topped with a luscious Greek-style salad. Make it a meal: Serve with cucumber spears and a glass of Firestone Gewürztraminer.
Spinach Soup with Rosemary Croutons
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Rosemary has a strong flavor, but offers only a subtle hint in this spinach soup. If you like, any seasonal greens you have on hand can be substituted for the spinach.
Grilled Tuna Sandwich with Lemon-Chili Mayo
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Sturdy “country-style” bread works best for this healthy tuna sandwich recipe with watercress and chili-mayo. Eat the tuna sandwich warm, straight off the grill, or wrap it up and pack it in a cooler for a picnic dinner. Serve with grilled bell peppers drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
More Healthy Recipes

Watch: Make a Mediterranean Portobello Burger on Sourdough Bread