Clap for the NHS, make sure you stay 2m away from everyone at all times… and bake bread. The one certainty in this time of “staying alert” is that the nation is still in the throes of a sourdough revolution. If you haven’t already been cultivating your starter, it’s too late for you now. The other starters will be way ahead of yours, reciting their alphabets (backwards) and riding their bikes with glee. We’re joking, of course – it’s never too late to start your, er, starter.

And the real beauty is that it’s not a competition of how old yours is, how beautiful it looks or how many crumbs you’ve scattered for the photo – despite what Instagram will have you believe.

The only two questions you should be asking yourself after your first bake are: did I eating enjoy that? If yes, do I want to bake more? If no, do I see potential here and want to bake more?

We could’ve asked an expert chef to write this article, but we figured what do they know about the struggles of wannabe(ish) baker who is looking to kill some time, fill their belly and, crucially, be able to join in those passive-aggressive sourdough my-starter-is-better-than-yours competitions – sorry, conversations – with their mates?

We asked brilliant home cook Sophie Warner instead, because we followed her sourdough journey on Instagram and could actually relate to what she was talking about. Here’s her comprehensive guide to sourdough for beginners.

Sourdough for beginners, according to (expert-in-the-making) Sophie Warner

Sophie Warner Headshot
Sophie Warner

Everywhere you look on social media there’s a high chance you’ll find someone proudly posting a picture of their homemade loaf as if they have nurtured their first-born child. This is because, much like children, sourdough is temperamental and dictatorial and the “starter” needs love and care to help it do exactly what it wants to do when it wants to do it.

Sophie’s Sourdough starter baby

So, how do you start?

First of all, you need to create your starter, which is what will make your dough rise. To begin, sterilise a Kilner glass jar for your starter – you can do this by running it through a dishwasher, or washing them in hot soapy water, but instead of drying them popping the jar and lid (remove the rubber bits) into the oven at 150-180°C for about 15 minutes.

Once cooled, you can create your new baby with 50g of plain bread flour and 50ml of lukewarm water, making sure they’re properly mixed together (use a wooden spoon because the metal can deter the yeast). Leave semi-uncovered (we like covering ours with cheesecloth) at room temperature. Keep adding the same quantities of each ingredient for around five-seven days.

Around day four, things will be getting a bit bubbly and it’ll have grown in size. Don’t be alarmed if it has a ‘funky’ smell because this is the fermentation taking place. It’s common and isn’t a big deal. After a week of doing this, your starter is ready! You can keep it in the fridge, where it’ll stay dormant. 24 hours before you want to use it, remove it from the fridge and pour half the starter off, then feed it again, leaving it at room temp. The longer it’s been dormant the more times it’ll need feeding before you use it – you’ll know it’s ready when a teaspoon of the starter floats in warm water.

Once you’re ready to bake your first loaf, you need sourdough recipes to tackle.

Raw Sourdough
Attempt #1: Sophie didn’t dust the proving basket with enough flour. This led to the loaf getting stuck. Tip: use liberal amounts of flour!

Ed Kimber, the first Great British Bake Off winner, has a great blog post with a sourdough recipe. The instructions are simple and concise with a brilliant step-by-step video if you need some help.

Also, head to Instagram for another Sophie’s (@theScandicook) numerous sourdough recipes, tips and highlights reels on mastering the art. Top tip: she is also very helpful answering any questions on her Instagram stories. 

Sourdough for beginners: 3 tips for starting out

Close up of sourdough
 Sophie: “I was really happy with the blisters in this one as it means that has a good fermentation in the fridge which helps to increase the flavour.”

1. Take notes

As with all baking, sourdough is a science; different temperatures, flours, amounts of water and proving time all make a difference. Every house is unique – which means there are different levels of wild yeast in the air, which is what ferments the starter – so you need to find out what works for you.

A crucial tip when it comes to making sourdough for beginners is to keep a special notebook to write down exactly what you do for each bake (The Baking Bulletin?) This makes it easy to compare and see how you can improve with your next bake. Don’t forget to snap a picture (just for you) of the finished product and the crumb shot once you’ve sliced it open for future reference. The position of the bubbles inside can let you know if you’ve under-proofed or over-proofed your dough.

Sourdough leaf print
 Sophie: “I was unhappy with my scoring on this one but I experimented by leaving it in the oven longer to gain a darker crust. This really enhanced the chewy crust and something I will do again in the future!”

2. Experiment

The taste of the sourdough is all in the proofing method. The ‘sour’ taste comes from the fermentation which develops over time as you let the dough rest before baking it in the oven.

Try different rooms of your home for alternative proofing results. An oven with the light on or a turned-off microwave can be a good place. Alternatively, try leaving it in an airing cupboard or by a radiator. As the weather starts to get warmer, you will need to need to start all over again to find the perfect place. (Demanding, see?) 

Sophie advises uses the best quality flour you can get your hands on

3. Use the best-quality bread flour you can afford

There’s another reason sourdough is tarnished with the middle-class brush. Sourdough prefers bread flour over plain and self-raising. Organic bread flour is best because it’s unbleached, giving you a much tastier flavour.

Bread flour will help the all-important rise in the oven, offer the strongest gluten development and be the easiest to knead and shape. When you get good, you can try mixing a percentage of rye, wholemeal and spelt flours for a different flavour.