The Nature of Things

No starter? No problem. How to make sourdough bread, from start to finish

Baker Vanessa Kimbell explains how to make a fresh loaf in 10 minutes of active time, over several days

Baker Vanessa Kimbell explains how to make a fresh loaf in 10 minutes of active time, over several days

In less than 10 minutes of active work, you too can make a classic sourdough boule with this recipe from British sourdough queen Vanessa Kimbell. (CBC / Chef Secrets: The Science of Cooking)

Vanessa Kimbell is the queen of sourdough. 

For over a decade, she’s taught her secrets through the Sourdough School in Northamptonshire, U.K. Bakers from around the world have come to learn from the French-trained master. 

In Chef Secrets: The Science of Cooking from The Nature of Things, Kimbell shares the traditional method for making sourdough. It’s a lengthy process that relies on the chemical breakdown of sugars during fermentation.

But Kimbell knows most of us don’t have all day to bake bread. In her latest book, 10-Minute Sourdough: Breadmaking for Real Life, she explains how to make sourdough bread from scratch in 10 minutes of active time, spread out over a few days. (If you don’t have a stand mixer, it will take about 40 minutes.)

For over a decade, baker Vanessa Kimbell has taught her secrets through the Sourdough School in the U.K. (CBC / Chef Secrets: The Science of Cooking)

Ingredients

Sourdough Starter

  • 1 cup (150 g) organic stone-ground whole-grain flour
  • Warm water (28 C/82 F)

Basic Sourdough Boule

  • 1⅔ cup (380 g) warm water (27 C/81 F)
  • ⅔ cup (150 g) bubbly, lively second-build starter
  • 3¼ cups (400 g) organic white flour
  • ½ cup plus 2 tbsp (100 g) organic stone-ground whole-wheat flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1¾ tsp (10 g) fine sea salt
  • 2 tbsp (20 g) polenta

Equipment | For the starter

  • Kitchen scale
  • Measuring jug
  • Thermometer
  • 2 clean jars
  • Spoon

Equipment | For the basic sourdough boule

  • Kitchen scale
  • Thermometer
  • Banneton (proofing basket) or large bowl lined with a tea towel
  • Bread cloche or Dutch oven
  • Bread lame, razor blade or very sharp knife

Preparation

First up: Make your starter

A strong starter is essential to baking successful sourdough. It’s very simple: all you need is warm water, organic flour and a little time. 

Use the best organic stone-ground flour you can find. According to Kimbell, although organic flour is more expensive, it will give you a more robust starter since the microbes won’t be compromised by pesticides. 

This is a sample schedule; use a start time that works for you!

Day 1

8 a.m. | Place ½ cup (118 g) warm water and ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (100 g) flour in a clean jar. Stir until well combined and no dry flour remains. 

Cover the jar with a loose-fitting lid and pop it somewhere warm for 24 hours. 

Day 2

8 a.m. | Refresh the starter. In another clean jar, add ⅓ cup (50 g) flour and ¼ cup (60 g) warm water. Add ½ cup (100 g) of the original starter to the new jar (it should be starting to bubble) and stir well. This is now your starter. 

You will have 210 g (just under 1 cup) of starter. Cover it loosely and leave it somewhere warm for 12 hours. 

Discard the remaining starter from the previous jar. Wash the jar with soap and hot water so it’s ready for the next time you refresh. 

8 p.m. | Repeat the process above to refresh your starter.

Days 3 to 6

Repeat the process twice a day for a further 3 to 6 days until your starter is ready. The number of days will depend on your environment and how microbially active your flour is.

You can tell it’s ready when:

  •  It’s bubbly and lively.

  •  It doubles in size within about 5 hours of being refreshed. 

What if something goes wrong?

If your starter is not bubbly after a week, ensure the following:

  • You are using organic stone-ground flour. 

  • The water you are adding is at 28 C (82 F).

  • You are leaving your starter at an ambient temperature of about 21 C (70 F).

Once your starter is active and ready, you’re ready to move on to making a boule.

Basic Sourdough Boule

Makes 1 large boule (850 g; nearly 2 lbs)

A boule is a classic rounded loaf. Making one quickly is not just about the recipe: it’s also about technique and understanding how to use time as your ally. A boule needs optimal fermentation to have the right structure (unlike a loaf or cake, which is more forgiving because it’s held up by the pan). 

The more yeast in your bread, the more carbon dioxide they make. The more carbon dioxide they make, the bouncier and more open your crumb structure. Learn more about the science of sourdough in 'Chef Secrets: The Science of Cooking.' (CBC / Chef Secrets: The Science of Cooking)

The dough for a boule needs to be strong enough to proof (the final rise before baking) in a short time and hold its shape during baking. 

The secret is mixing the dough over the course of 3 hours and leaving it to rest in between, thereby mixing and proofing at the same time. This allows the flour to take up the water, then time will mix the dough for you. 

But just hydrating the dough isn’t enough to achieve the necessary gluten structure, so I also use slightly more starter than I would for a classic boule.

My top tips are to:

  • Mix hard. 

  • Rest the dough.

  • Keep the dough warm. You need to keep the dough at about 27 C (81 F) to optimize fermentation. 

You need a stand mixer, a thermometer and patience to develop the gluten in 10 minutes of active time.  

You can mix the dough by hand if you prefer, but the dough temperature will drop faster and it will take longer. 

Refresh your starter

Before you mix your dough, you will need to refresh your starter twice, as above. This will take about 24 hours.

Mix

In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk 1½ cups (350 g) of the water and ⅔ cup sourdough starter until well combined. 

Add the flours and sprinkle the salt evenly overtop. Using a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, knead vigorously for about 2 minutes, until there is no dry flour left and the mixture comes together to form a stiff ball. This initial dough can seem tight, but by not adding all the water at once, you’ll ensure the gluten develops well. 

Cover the dough and let it rest for 1 hour so the gluten can form. Meanwhile, refresh the remaining starter and set aside.

Bassinage

After the gluten has had an hour to develop, you can begin your bassinage, a traditional technique where water is worked into the dough in increments during the bulk fermentation. 

In this recipe, we are using it as a way of mixing and proofing at the same time, so it’s important to keep the dough temperature at 27 C (81 F). If your dough temperature starts falling, use slightly warmer water. If it rises, use cooler water. 

For this recipe, you will use a stand mixer for the bassinage rather than your hands. 

Add 4 teaspoons (20 g) of the remaining water to the bowl. Mix on high speed for 1 minute, then rest for 20 minutes.

Add the remaining 2 teaspoons (10 g) of water and mix on high speed for 1 minute, then transfer the dough to a wide bowl, cover and rest for 1 hour.

Shape

After your dough is rested, oil your hands. Taking the side closest to you, fold the dough in half, then fold the left side across two-thirds of the dough and bring the right side on top of that.

Flip the dough over and dust the top with flour. Place your shaped dough, floured-side down, into a well-floured banneton or a large bowl lined with a clean kitchen towel. This way, you have flour on both the banneton and the dough — a belt-and-braces approach to stop it from sticking.

Proof 

Cover the banneton with a damp kitchen towel and rest for another 40 minutes at 27 C (81 F), then put it in the coldest part of the fridge (5 C/41 F) overnight.

Bake

The next morning, place a cloche in your oven and heat at 425 F for 30 minutes.

Taking great care, remove the hot cloche from the oven and put the dome to one side. 

Scatter the polenta over the base of the cloche (it will act like tiny marbles and stop the dough from sticking). 

Turn the dough out onto the hot cloche base, gently removing the banneton. Score the dough using a bread lame and cover immediately with the dome. 

Place the cloche in the oven and reduce the temperature to 400 F. Bake for 50 minutes. Remove the lid of the cloche and bake for a further 1 to 7 minutes, depending on how dark you like your crust. All ovens are different, so be sure to check your loaf toward the end of the baking time. 

Carefully remove the cloche from the oven and let your loaf cool on a wire rack. Alternatively, you can leave the bread in the oven as it cools, with the door open. This will give you a really crusty loaf. 

By now, your starter should be ready to store in the fridge until you’re ready to make another loaf. 

Once cool, wrap your loaf in a clean, dry tea towel for storage. It’s best enjoyed within 3 days.

Summary

When Step Action Active Time
Day 1 | 8 p.m. First build Refresh your starter 1 minute
Day 2 | 8 a.m. Second build Refresh your starter 1 minute
Day 2 | 7 p.m. Mix Using stand mixer, combine water, starter, flours and salt. Knead for 1 to 2 minutes, then cover and rest for 1 hour.  1 - 2 minutes
Day 2 | 8 p.m. Bassinage Add 4 tsp (20 g) of the remaining water and mix on high speed for 1 minute, then rest for 20 minutes. 1 minute
Day 2 | 8:20 p.m. Bassinage Add the remaining 2 tsp (10 g) water and mix on high speed for 1 minute. Add any mix-ins. Rest for 1 hour. 1 minute
Day 2 | 9: 20 p.m. Fold and shape Fold and shape dough, then cover and rest for 40 minutes, keeping the dough at 27 C (81 F). 1 minute
Day 2 | 10 p.m. Transfer Transfer to the fridge and leave overnight. 1 minute
Day 3 | 8 a.m. Bake Heat oven and bake. 1 minute
Day 3 | After baking Finish Remove from oven 1 minute

The science of sourdough | Chef Secrets: The Science of Cooking

16 days ago
Duration 1:12
Meet Vanessa Kimbell, Britain’s popular queen of sourdough. She bakes her passion for nutritional science into every loaf. 1:12

Vanessa Kimbell shares her passion for baking bread in three books and classes at the Sourdough School in Northamptonshire in the U.K. She’s also the author of two cookbooks (not about bread!). She’s pursuing a PhD in nutrition and the digestibility of bread, researching the effects of fermentation on the gut microbiome and mood. 

Watch Chef Secrets: The Science of Cooking on The Nature of Things.

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