Martin’s Bread Blog


How I make bread? During the course of the year I’ve had quite a few guests chat to me about our home-made bread and ask for recipes and instructions for making some for themselves. This normally ends up as a very brief scribbling on the back of a breakfast menu with the promise of more thorough instruction some day in the form of a blog on our website.

So here it is: all you want to know about my sourdough bread.

The leaven

Sourdough is a bread made without commercial yeast. It’s risen by naturally accruing yeasts and one or more bacteria. All of these can be found in the environment; all we have to do is to collect them up in a way that allows us to make bread. Sounds easy, and it is. All you have to do is to provide a suitable home, let it move in and make itself comfortable and you will never look back.

So, let’s make a leaven. This stage can be skipped if you know any friendly bakers who might give you some of theirs. Often a trade can be made: one bottle of fine malt whisky from you in exchange for a small jar of strange smelling stuff from the baker. If you trawl through the internet many strange ways of making a sourdough starter can be found, and most of them are rubbish. You don’t need anything apart from flour and water. Things like grapes, raisins or your toenail clippings are not going to make any difference apart from making it more smelly.

First we need flour. It’s best to start off with a mixture of fresh organic rye and wholemeal wheat flour. The bags that are sitting at the back of the cupboard won’t do. Even if they look tempting and full of life, it’s no good. Go to the shops; and when you are there treat yourself to a bottle of spring water as well.

Let’s get started. Ha-ha, bad joke.

Take 500g of rye flour and 500g of wheat flour; mix well and place in a Tupperware tub with a lid.

In a clean jar, measure out 50ml spring water and add 50g of your flour mixture. Mix these together until all the lumps disappear. Cover loosely with cling film or a lid (make sure it isn’t airtight).

Now we have to find a home for the jar. Ideally we want a temperature of 15-18°C . Not too warm. Get a thermometer out and try a few places until the right spot is found.

Wait 48 hours, or 2 days for the older members of the population.

Day 3. Have a look – if nothing is happening, all is fine. Now it’s feeding time: add 50g of your flour mixture and 50ml of spring water to your jar. Mix well and cover. Leave for 24 hours this time.

Day 4. Have another look – any bubbles yet? Today or tomorrow you should see the first signs of life. Feeding time again:  remove 100g of your mixture from the jar and discard the rest. Clean out the jar. Now add 50g of the flour mixture, 50ml spring water and the 100g of the leaven mixture. Mix well and leave until tomorrow.

Day 5 and 6 and 7, repeat as on day 4.

Now you should have some good signs of life: look for bubbles and an increase in the volume in the jar as it rises. If at feeding time it looks as if it’s collapsed down the jar then, well done, the leaven is healthy and ready to start life as your bread-making pet. If no life is seen it’s time to give up, wait a month and try again. Change something; maybe the flour or the place it was stored.

Once you have a healthy leaven looking after it isn’t too hard. The fridge is its long term home where it can be stored happily for months without any attention at all. It’s best to give a feed just before long term storage.

Leaven for sourdough bread

Ripe leaven ready for use

Making Bread

Once you have got your starter bread making is comparatively simple. Let’s start with making one kilo of bread. If you want to make more, then simply multiply up. In a lot of ways, the precise recipe is not hugely important. There are a couple of basics, but the rest is up to you.

Making our one kilo of dough: start with your leaven. 300-400g is required depending on the temperature of your house. Luckily I live in a nice warm B&B so 300g is good for me. Experiment and see what works for you. Add 12g of salt per kilo of bread; it’s possible to use a bit less if you wish, but not less than 9g.


300g lively leaven starter

12g salt

466g flour. Any kind you wish – I use a mix of white, wholemeal and rye.

230g warm water

Mix all the ingredients together to make a dough. This should be wet and sticky. Knead for 15 minutes until it fells quite elastic and less sticky. It should still feel soft, but still wanting to stick to your hands a bit.

Mixing sourdough bread

The start of the kneading process

If you have sneakily added more flour half way through the kneading process continue to knead for another 10 minutes… and don’t do it again! The biggest fault with home-made bread is making it too stiff. The dough needs to be slack so it can be kneaded properly. It’s very difficult to properly develop the gluten in a stiff dough by hand; this applies to all kinds of bread making.

Now oil a large bowl. Pop the dough in, cover with oiled plastic film and leave to rest for 4 hours. When you come back it should look like it has increased in size during it resting time. Ideally it should have doubled in volume but it’s always hard to gauge this kind of thing. As long as it looks a good bit bigger it will be fine.

Time now to shape up the bread – I usually use a colander (food drainer) to hold the loaf in whilst it’s rising. So, tip out the dough and gently shape it into a ball. Place in the middle of a heavily floured dish towel and place this in the colander, making sure that the smooth side is down and cover the top with the ends of the cloth. Leave to rise for a minimum of 2 hours; if it’s cool it might take appreciably longer. You can actually put it in the fridge at this stage until the next morning if things have taken longer than expected. It will actually produce a better result if it’s refrigerated; this is called retarding in the baking industry.

How will I know when it’s ready to bake?

OK, it has been sitting for about for 2 hours after shaping, or 4 hours out of the fridge. Poke the top of your lump of dough, going in maybe 2 or 3mm. When your finger comes out does the bread spring up any? Maybe just a millimetre? If it does, it’s not ready. If the dough doesn’t spring back, it’s baking time.

For best results you need a pizza stone. Put it on the bottom shelf of a preheated oven as high as it will go – say 240°c. If you have a choice it is better to use an oven with no fan as you will get a better rise this way. Put a heavy baking tin in the top of the oven (this is for water, you’ll need some steam). Make sure the oven has been up to heat for at least ten minutes before baking.

Sourdough loaf ready for baking

A loaf that has been slashed, ready for the oven

Now, tip out the loaf out onto bit of baking paper on a flat tin or any kind of thin flat board. Get a very sharp knife and slash the top of the loaf with a row of cuts about 5mm deep. Slip the bread, with its baking paper, onto the baking stone. Tip half a cup of water into the baking tin at the top of the oven to generate some steam, close the oven and wait 20 minutes.

After this time, open up and remove the tray with water in it from the oven. The bread should have risen up to fill up the slits that you made in the top of the loaf.  Close the door again and turn the oven down to 220°c. I can’t say how long it will take to bake your loaf. After about another 20 minutes try tapping the bottom – if it sounds hollow it’s a good sign. The best way to check is by measuring the internal temperature of the loaf. It should be 93°c or 200°f, which is easier to remember. So if you have a food thermometer stick it in and see what you get. Hopefully you’re now the owner of a fine sourdough loaf. If it doesn’t look to good, try again another day. Things like this take practice.

Some questions you may ask

If your oven won’t go very hot, ie over 200°c, the bread will still be ok.

If you have no stone for baking, a baking tin is ok.

Yes you can make sourdough bread in a normally loaf tin. It will turn out fine.

Can I use water from the tap instead of bottle water? Normally, yes, but it depends how much chlorine there is in your water supply. It can help if the tap water is boiled first as this helps to get rid of the chlorine.

How often is it necessary to feed a leaven in storage? Ideally feed it once a week but you can get away with neglecting it for months.  If you do, it will take 3 or 4 days of consecutive feeding before you attempt any baking

Some useful websites: