As a teenager I lived 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 sourdough french 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
A Sample Timeline: Sourdough French Bread
This sample baking schedule is what works for me. Your schedule could definitely look different than mine, and that’s okay – do what works for you.
|8:00 PM-8:00 AM||Mix Levain. Cover and ferment about 12 hours until doubled, bubbly and ripe (overnight).|
|8:00 AM||Knead dough in a stand mixer for 10-15 minutes until smooth.|
|8:15 AM – 9:45 AM||Begin Bulk Fermentation|
Rest 30 minutes
Stretch and fold the dough every 30 minutes, 3 times total
|9:45 AM- 12:00 PM||Continue Bulk Fermentation|
Optional: After an hour of the bulk rise, the dough can be covered and stuck in the refrigerator until the next morning.
|12:00 PM||Divide and shape. Proof in a warm place (75- 78 degrees)|
|3:00 PM-4:00 PM||Bake: ONLY once the dough has doubled in size and risen above the loaf pan. If the dough is too cold, it won’t rise quickly – move it to a warmer location and wait for the bread to rise. Don’t bake the bread until it has properly risen.|
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.
Looking for more Natural Yeast Recipes?
Mixing the Levain
Once your starter is consistently doubling or tripling in size, you are ready to use it to mix the levain for the bread. Read more about the relationship between sourdough starter and levain here. To mix up the levain, take 12 grams of sourdough starter and add to it 120 grams flour and 120 grams water. Cover it and let it sit for about 12 hours at 76-78 degrees F. Once the doubles in size, peaks and is very bubbly, it’s ready to use.
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.
Mixing Soft Sourdough French Bread Dough
To the bowl of a stand mixer, add the ripe levain, honey, egg, warm water, coconut oil, salt and bread flour. Mix for about 10 minutes until the dough is tacky and strong. Remove dough to a bowl or container. Cover with a plastic shower cap (the best tip!) or a kitchen towel and place in a warm place (75-80 degrees Fahrenheit) for bulk fermentation.
Pro Tip: The temperature of the water can have an effect on how quickly the sourdough ferments. If you are baking this bread in the summer, you will want to use cooler water to balance out the warmer ambient temperature in your kitchen. If you bake during the winter, a warmer water (nothing over 98 degrees–temperature of baby’s bath) can help increase the activity and fermentation process of the natural yeast.
The total bulk fermentation time should be about 4 hours, with the dough’s internal temperature staying around 78 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the bulk rise. You are looking for the dough to almost double in size before proceeding to shaping the dough. During the first hour and a half of bulk fermentation, perform three sets of stretch and folds every half hour. This helps give structure to the dough and will make for a better finished loaf of bread.
Shaping Soft Sourdough French Bread
After bulk fermentation, turn the dough out onto a countertop. Using a bench knife cut the dough into 2 or 3 sections. Pat one pieces of dough out into a rectangle. Starting on the side closest to you, roll the dough up tightly cinnamon-roll style. Pinch the seam of the dough closed together, rounding the edges up and pinching the dough closed. Flip the dough over and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet or baguette pan. Repeat with other pieces of dough. Cover and let rise in a warm, 76-78 degree F place. I like put the rising dough in the oven with the light on. Do not turn the oven on! At this temperature the dough will take about 3-4 hours to puff up and rise.
Baking Sourdough French Bread
Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees. Using a sharp knife or a bread lame, score the dough by making quick slashes on the risen baguettes. Throw a handful of ice cubes in the oven to create steam. As the ice cubes melt, they produce steam throughout the baking process which gives a beautiful crispy crust to these sourdough baguettes. Bake at 375 degrees F for about 35 minutes. Top the fresh bread with melted butter and cool completely before slicing.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I store soft sourdough sandwich bread?
This bread will store at room temperature for 24 hours. After 24 hours (or once the bread cools), slice the bread and freeze sliced bread for up to 3 months.
Can the sourdough french bread dough be refrigerated?
After the bulk fermentation you can refrigerate the dough for 18-24 hours before shaping and baking.
I don’t have bread flour. What can I substitute?
If you don’t have bread flour, you can add 20 grams vital wheat gluten to 840 grams all purpose flour.
My sourdough french bread didn’t rise. What happened?
Check to make sure you are using ripe, bubbly sourdough. Click for more information on keeping an active sourdough starter. If your starter is active and bubbly, the temperature may be the culprit. Read all about how temperature affects sourdough here.
Looking for More Sourdough Recipes?
Soft Sourdough French Bread
Levain: 12 hours before mixing dough (overnight)
- 12 grams sourdough starter
- 120 grams all purpose flour
- 120 grams water
- 200 grams ripe levain
- 430 grams water
- 55 grams granulated sugar
- 24 grams salt
- 70 grams vegetable oil
- 860 grams bread flour see recipe notes
- Twelve hours before mixing the dough, mix together the levain. Cover and let rise for 12 hours or overnight until bubbly and ripe.
Mix the Dough
- To the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook add the ripe levain, water, sugar, salt, and vegetable oil. If the ambient temperature and temperature of the ingredients are below 78 F, use warm water. If they are above 78 F, use cooler water.
- Add the flour and mix. The dough should pull away from the side of the bowl, and feel tacky (but not overly sticky). Add a little more flour if the dough is overly sticky, a Tablespoon at a time.
- Knead the dough for about 8-10 minutes (set a timer and let the mixer go).
- Bulk Fermentation 3-4 hours: Transfer the dough to a container. Cover and let rest. The dough temperature should be right around 76-78 degrees F during this time.
- Stretch and Fold 1: Starting on one side of the bowl, reach down and grab the bottom of the dough. Pull it up and stretch it over the top of the dough. Turn the bowl 1/4 turn and repeat the whole process 3-4 times. Cover the dough and let rest.Stretch and Fold 2: After 30 minutes, repeat the stretch and fold process, stretching and folding about 3-4 times. Notice how the dough is strengthening and starting to rise.Stretch and Fold 3: After 30 minutes, repeat the stretch and fold process for the last time, stretching and folding about 3-4 times. Cover the dough and finish the bulk fermentation.
- Bulk Rise: Let the dough rise until puffy and almost doubled in size for 2.5 hours (a lot of this will depend on the temperature of your dough–about 75 degrees is the sweet spot). The dough should rise and almost double in size during this time. If it does not, take the temperature of the dough and make sure it is warm enough. Let it continue rising in a warm spot until about doubled in size. At this point you can also stick the dough in the refrigerator after a couple of hours for a long cold bulk rise. See recipe notes.
- After 4 hours of bulk fermentation, transfer the dough to a countertop. Cut the dough into two sections for two large loaves or in three for three smaller loaves.
- Pat the dough into a rectangle and roll up tightly 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 3-4 hours at 78 degree temperature. Use a bread proofer or your oven with the light on (don't turn the oven on) to keep the dough warm while it rises. If the dough does not rise, do not bake it. Give it some more time and let it puff up and rise.
Bake 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!