As a girl living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I used to always add loaves of French bread to the grocery list from our local grocery store. It was light, fluffy and was easily one of my favorite breads of all time. That bread, however, doesn’t exist in many parts of the U.S. so I decided to make my own loaf of French bread using 100% sourdough starter and no commercial yeast in sight. While the end product doesn’t taste exactly like the Bay Area store-bought version (which undoubtedly has commercial yeast, dough enhancers, etc…), it is a stand-alone delicious bread in its own right. This sourdough french bread is initially a little crispy on the outside. As it cools it softens and you cut into a tender, light and just slightly tangy inside. With just a few simple ingredients and an active sourdough starter, you can have this bread on your dinner table too!Jump to Sourdough French Bread Recipe
Power-Feed the Starter Before Baking
Before beginning to bake a loaf using 100% sourdough starter, make sure that your starter is active. I like to “power-feed” my starter before beginning a loaf that has no commercial yeast in it. Starters can be trained to rise bread predictably and giving them a little power-feed refresh is the best way to do this. In the past when I have not power-fed the starter, I tend to get a sluggish rise from my bread. There’s nothing worse than spending two days to make a loaf of bread and coming out with a sub-par rise. Note that if your starter is already doubling or tripling in size every time you feed it, you may not need to “power-feed” before mixing your leaven.
How to Power-Feed Your Starter
A day before you mix up the bread, feed your starter 2-3 times in a 24 hour period. To do so, discard all but a few Tablespoons of starter. Feed with ½ cup flour and ¼ cup water (may need a tad more water depending on how you scoop your flour). Mix, mark your jar and let rise. About 6-8 hours later repeat the process, noting how much your starter rose. Discard starter for the second time (all but a few tablespoons), feed the remaining starter again and mark the jar. Six to eight hours later, before you go to bed, repeat the process a third time, discarding and feeding. When you wake up the next morning, your starter should be doubling or tripling in size (check it out with the marked jar). This is the kind of activity you want to see from a starter to be able to raise bread.
Double Check With The Float Test
If you are like me and want to double check that your starter is ready to raise bread, you can always perform the float test. Fill a clear cup with some room temperature water. Take a little spoonful of bubbly starter and plop it in the cup. If it floats, you are ready to proceed with the recipe. If it sinks, give it a bit more time and test again in another hour. If your starter is still not floating, but it has doubled or tripled in size, it may be over-ripe. You can still use this starter, but your bread may end up with more “sour” notes. You can see a video of how to perform the float test here.
Making the Leaven
Once your starter is consistently doubling or tripling in size, you are ready to use it to mix up the leaven for the bread. I think of my sourdough starter as my “mother starter” that I constantly feed. To make any of my sourdough breads, I take some of the “mother starter” and add flour and water to it to create the amount of leaven I need to use in my bread. Technically you could directly use bubbly sourdough starter, but I find that recipes are easier to understand and come out more consistently when I use my starter in this way. To mix up the leaven, take 1 Tablespoon of sourdough starter and add to it flour and water. Cover it and let it sit 8-12 hours until it has risen and can pass the float test. Then it is ready to raise the bread.
Vital Wheat Gluten
I don’t always have bread flour on hand. To help combat this issue, I bought a large bag of vital wheat gluten (affiliate link). Vital wheat gluten is made from wheat flour and is almost pure gluten. I use this all the time in my bread recipes to increase the protein in bread, build structure and improve the elasticity and rise in my dough. A little goes a long way and I typically use about 1 teaspoon vital wheat gluten per cup of all-purpose flour, which makes a great substitute for bread flour. If you don’t have vital wheat gluten, you can substitute bread flour for the all purpose flour in this recipe and omit the vital wheat gluten.
Time and Health Benefits
As with all sourdough and natural yeast recipes, this recipe is going to take some time to rise. The cultures in your fresh yeast break down the bran of the wheat, making the bread more digestible and providing more health benefits than bread made with commercial yeast. The temperature of your kitchen will have an effect on the length of time the bread will take to rise. The recipe calls out a range of time because of those temperature factors. If you are making this sourdough french bread in the winter it may take closer to 6 hours for your loaf’s second rise (depending on the warmth of your kitchen). One of the reasons I love this recipe is that the bulk rise happens overnight, which means the starter is doing all the work while you are asleep.
A Sample Timeline: Sourdough French Bread
Day 1: Power-Feed Your Starter 2-3 times (omit this step if it’s already doubling/tripling in size regularly)
- 8-10 AM Mix the leaven. Cover and leave to rise until it has doubled in size and passes the float test.
- 6-8 PM Mix the dough using a stand mixer. Cover and let rise overnight.
- 6-8 AM Shape dough, cover and let rise in a warm place until puffy and almost doubled.
- 11-2 PM Score loaves and bake.
I often place my loaves on a parchment-lined baking sheet to rise and they turn out great. If you want your loaf to turn out similar to a traditional baguette and you are planning to bake a lot of baguette style loaves, investing in one of these (affiliate link) special baguette pans is worth it in my opinion. They help give a crispy crust with the air flow around the entire baguette and produce a superior product. This is not to say you can’t get a beautiful loaf on a traditional baking sheet and if you aren’t planning to bake much baguette, I wouldn’t worry about a baguette pan. To help either type of loaf get a crispy crust, I like to throw a few ice cubes into the bottom of my preheated oven right before before baking the baguettes. The ice cubes produce steam throughout the baking process which gives a beautiful crispy crust to these sourdough baguettes.
If you love sourdough or want an easy-to-follow recipe to use your starter with, this recipe is really a great one. The dough is mixed in a stand mixer, it rises overnight and produces a few delicious loaves of french bread. The only “tricky” part for sourdough newbies is just making sure your starter is active and able to raise a loaf of bread. I’m hoping these tips will help you feel confident to try it out! Before you know it you can be pulling out some beautiful loaves of sourdough bread to sop up some soup, enjoy with butter or just to tear apart on a a family picnic. Enjoy!
Soft Sourdough French Bread
Leaven: 8-12 hours before mixing dough
- 1 Tablespoon sourdough starter
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 3/4 cup room temperature water
- All of the leaven or 1 1/4 cups bubbly sourdough starter
- 2 cups room temperature water
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 Tablespoon salt
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- 6-7 cups all purpose flour
- 2 Tablespoons vital wheat gluten *see recipe notes
- Eight to twelve hours before mixing the dough, add 1 Tablespoon of ripe sourdough starter to a small bowl.
- Add 1 cup of flour and 3/4 cup water to the starter. Mix together and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit for 8-12 hours until it has doubled in size and passes the float test.
Mixing the Dough
- To the bowl of a stand mixer with a dough hook add the bubbly leaven, water, sugar, salt, and vegetable oil.
- Add 5.5 cups flour and the vital wheat gluten and mix. Continue adding flour until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl, the dough is tacky (but not overly sticky) and you can pinch of a piece of dough, roll it in your fingers and just have a little bit of residual dough on your fingers. Check out these tips to know if your dough is ready.
- Knead the dough for about 8-10 minutes (set a timer and let the mixer go) and add a Tablespoon of flour at a time as needed.
- Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 8-12 hours (overnight).
- The next morning the dough will have risen. The amount of rise depends a lot on the temperature of your kitchen. Don't worry, if your starter is very active, it will be okay.
- Transfer the dough to a countertop. Cut the dough in two sections for two large loaves or in three for three smaller loaves.
- Pat the dough into a rectangle and roll up cinnamon-roll style, pinching the seams closed as you roll.
- Repeat with the remaining sourdough loaves.
- Place the loaves on a parchment-lined baking sheet or use a baguette bread pan. Cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Let the loaves rise for 3-6 hours until puffy and almost doubled in size (the time will depend on the warmth of your kitchen).
Baking the Bread
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Throw a handful of ice cubes into the bottom of the oven while it preheats.
- Slash or score the loaves with a bread lame or sharp knife.
- Bake the bread for 35 minutes until a nice golden color. Brush with melted butter and let cool completely before slicing. Enjoy!
Please share this recipe if you enjoyed it! Post a photo and tag me @amybakesbread so I can see your bake.