Here’s a simple 100% whole wheat sourdough bread machine recipe that uses just four ingredients, and doesn’t have any dairy, egg or store-bought yeast.
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A word of caution: If you’re looking for great-looking, Instagram-worthy bread, with a great crust and a light, fluffy texture, then this recipe isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for a simple, healthy, environment-friendly recipe that’ll give you great-tasting (if not great-looking) bread without too much fuss, then you’re in the right place.
Before you begin
100% whole wheat dough isn’t the easiest thing to work with, even if you’re not using sourdough. And making it in the bread machine is even trickier. All those lovely, airy loaves that you see on Pinterest and Instagram, even if they’re 100% whole wheat sourdough (which they usually aren’t) are kneaded by hand and baked in the oven. That gives the baker much more control over the entire process than the bread machine does, and lets them make the tiny adjustments needed to bake the perfect loaf.
Having said that, if you’re using a bread machine, chances are you’re looking for convenience rather than control. You’d probably prefer to put all the ingredients into the machine and let it make you decent-looking and decent-tasting bread, rather than slaving away to make that perfect loaf. I know I would.
My basic recipe for 100% whole wheat sourdough bread in the bread machine
- Whole wheat flour – 4 cups
- Drinking water (as chemical-free as possible) – 2 cups
- Active sourdough starter – 1 cup
- Salt (preferably rock salt/kosher salt) – 1 tsp
Note: The basic proportions are 4:2:1 of flour to water to starter, with salt to taste. I use an 8 oz cup that I found lying around, so 1 cup would roughly be 225 gm. You could use a weighing scale for better accuracy, but I’ve found this works well enough for me. Remember to budget for some extra flour and water to feed your starter. How much depends on how solid/liquid you prefer your starter.
How to make it
1. Feed your sourdough starter and take note of how long it takes to activate completely.
2. While your starter is activating, mix the flour and water gently together in a separate container (without kneading) to form a rough dough. This is called an ‘autolyse‘ and lets the flour particles soak in some water to soften the bran, help the gluten start developing, and get the enzymes in the flour start working. Don’t add any of your starter to the mix, and use separate utensils.
3. Once your starter is completely active, measure out as much as you need into your bread machine’s pan, along with the soaked dough and the salt; the sequence doesn’t really matter.
4. Use the default knead program to knead the ingredients together into a dough. If you need to, scrape down the sides with a spatula or wooden spoon while its kneading. You should end up with a ball of dough that’s slightly soft and sticky.
5. Turn off the machine, and allow the dough to rise in the pan inside the machine. The time it takes for your dough to rise completely is roughly equal to the time it takes for your starter to activate (for example, my starter is usually completely active in two hours, and my dough usually takes between two and two-and-a-half hours to rise at room temperature).
6. Once your dough has risen completely, use your machine’s bake program to bake it for one hour on the high heat/dark crust setting.
7. When it’s finished baking, let the loaf cool on a rack for at least three hours before you cut into it. This is so that the leftover moisture can evaporate and/or be absorbed. If you cut the bread too soon, it’ll be soggy on the inside.
Tips for making 100% whole wheat sourdough bread in the bread machine
- If you’re used to white bread, this bread will be a lot denser in comparison.
- You might need to tweak the proportions a bit, depending on how coarse or fine your flour is, and how much water it absorbs.
- Sourdough breads are a bit unpredictable, especially if they’re 100% whole wheat. The ambient temperature, how active your starter is, how fine the flour is milled, and whether your salt and water have added iodine or chlorine will all effect how your dough forms and rises. Don’t be disheartened by a few setbacks. Keep experimenting.
- You won’t end up with a good-looking loaf every time, so don’t worry too much about it.
- Almost every loaf you bake will be good to eat, though. The only way a loaf will be completely inedible is if it doesn’t rise, and that’s very rare.
- It’s better to let your bread rise too much rather than too little. It might not look great, but it’ll be much nicer to eat than a good-looking but dense loaf. It’ll collapse a bit, but not as much as other kinds of dough.
- The warmer the temperature of your dough is, the faster it’ll rise (and vice versa). If you think room temperature is too cool, you can put the bread pan in an oven or microwave and just leave the light on inside for warmth.
- The slower your dough rises, the more complex the flavour will be, though. Some bakers put their doughs in the fridge to rise overnight for more flavour. Your call.
- Because most bread machines don’t have overhead heating elements, the sides and bottom of your bread may end up browner and crunchier than the top.
- Your starter will add some extra moisture to your dough. If you think your bread is turning out too moist, you could try adding less water to your starter to make it a little less liquid.
- Once you consistently get good results from this recipe, you can move on and add things like nuts and seeds, and try using the custom programs on your machine.
- If you think your bread’s not rising as much as it could, try some of these:
- Sift out some of the bran from your flour; it tends to break up the gluten strands that help make wheat bread rise.
- Skip the autolyse. It can sometimes make the dough too dense to rise properly. If you’re doing this, put the water into the baking pan first, and then the flour, starter and salt.
- Use lukewarm water instead of room temperature; flour absorbs warm water better to form gluten strands.
- Substitute 10% of your whole wheat flour with white flour; white flour forms gluten strands much more easily than whole wheat.
- Use the Tangzhong technique (cook a little of the flour and water together to form a thick paste and add it to the rest of the ingredients). I haven’t used it myself, but I’ve heard it works wonders.
- Add a little more water to the recipe. A wetter dough will rise better, but might retain more moisture after baking.
- Use a little less salt. Salt tends to inhibit yeast activity, especially if it has added supplements like iodine.
Use freshly-milled flour from your local miller or grocery shop to do away with the plastic packaging that flour usually comes in.
Also read: Quick and easy honey mustard vinaigrette
Getting started on your sourdough starter
A sourdough starter is a culture of wild yeast that you can make at home and mix into your dough to make it rise, instead of using yeast bought in a shop. The ‘sour’ comes from the lactobacillus bacteria (the same ones in curds/yoghurt) that grow together with the wild yeast in the starter. Anything baked with a sourdough starter will have a slightly sour flavour.
Note: I’m just using the term ‘starter’ for this recipe. Many bakers use an extra step called a ‘levain’ or ‘leaven’, mixing some of the main starter with some more flour and water to make a sort of mini-starter, which they then mix into their dough. They do this so they don’t deplete their main starter. If you’re going to bake many times a week, you might want to do this, too. But if you’re not going to be baking too often, you can just use your main starter. That’s what I do.
Basic whole wheat sourdough starter recipe
To make your own whole wheat sourdough starter, you’ll need three ingredients: whole wheat flour, water and patience.
A sourdough starter is a small colony of wild yeast that lives in a mixture of flour and water. To make one, you need to coax the wild yeast that floats around in the air to settle in your flour-and-water mixture and start a colony. Once that happens, the yeast will start digesting the flour and creating bubbles of gas (it’s these bubbles that make dough soft). Once the colony’s thriving, you can then use some of it to make your dough rise. It can take anywhere from five days to a week before your starter is ready to use.
Here are the basic steps to make your own whole wheat sourdough starter (for more detailed instructions, check out this post on The Perfect Loaf).
Steps to make your own sourdough starter
- Mix together a cup each of whole wheat flour and drinking water in a clear glass or plastic container that’s at least twice the volume of the mixture. The mixture doesn’t need to be smooth.
- Cover it with a loose-fitting lid or a cloth (to keep the fruit flies out but let air in), and leave it in a warm, quiet corner where it won’t be disturbed.
- Once a day at roughly the same time, take out half the mixture and ‘feed’ it with another cup each of flour and water. You can compost the discarded mixture, or use it to make other stuff like pancakes or waffles.
- Soon, you should see bubbles forming and the mixture will rise a little and then fall again. This means your yeast culture is starting to come alive.
- You might see lots of bubbles and rising right on the first day or two. Don’t use it yet. That’s just all the strains of yeast and bacteria competing with each other for space. Keep discarding and feeding on schedule, even if it looks like your culture’s died after the initial surge.
- By the fifth or sixth day (sometimes sooner), you should see a doubling in size of your culture within three or four hours after every feeding. At this point, discard-and-feed at 12-hour intervals for a day or two. If it still doubles after every feed, your starter culture is ready to use. If not, keep up the 12-hour schedule until it does.
- Once your starter culture is ready, feed it, wait until it’s completely active (i.e. doubled in size), take out as much as you want and use it immediately. Store the rest in the fridge until the next time you want to bake.
- If you’re not going to bake again for a long time, feed your refrigerated starter once a week to keep it alive. Alternatively, you can dry it out completely by spreading it out on a covered plate or tray for a few days. Once it’s completely dry, break it into pieces and store it in a tight container in a cool place. Your dormant starter will last for months or even years. Once you’re ready to bake again, dissolve it in water and feed it a few times to revive it.
Tips for making your own sourdough starter
- Put a bowl or plate under your starter container, in case it bubbles over after feeding.
- Use a rubber band to mark the level of your culture before a feeding so that you’ll know when it doubles.
- Sourdough starters can have a pretty strong beery, yeasty, smell. They can sometimes even smell like nail polish remover or old socks! But as long as your starter doesn’t smell like cheese, you should be OK.
- When you’re first creating your starter, you might see some patches of mould in the mixture before the yeast is strong enough to fight off other microorganisms. Carefully scoop out and discard the mould, and keep working on your starter. If the mould keeps coming back, you’ll probably need to start all over again.
- Fruit flies seem to love sourdough cultures. Keep your starter covered or you’ll quickly find fruit fly maggots in it.
Why I bake in the bread machine
The main reason I started baking with a bread machine is that I was sick of the flimsy plastic packaging that most commercially-baked bread comes in here. Every loaf we ate would mean another bunch of plastic in the landfill (or even worse, the ocean). That’s when I got the idea to make bread at home. But I didn’t want to put in the time and effort it takes to knead, proof, shape and bake it the traditional way. That’s why I got me a bread machine (I’ve been using my Sharp tabletop bread maker for almost a year, and I’m pretty happy with it).
Unfortunately, I quickly realized that the flour I needed to bake my bread also came in plastic packaging, which defeated the purpose. So to be as environment-friendly as possible, I decided to get fresh-milled flour from our local organic grocery shop. But they don’t stock white flour, so I didn’t have much choice but to start using whole wheat flour.
Of course, store-bought yeast also comes in plastic packaging. So, sourdough baking was the only way to go if I wanted my bread to be plastic-free. And then I ran into a real hurdle!
How I figured out my recipe
I found that there are virtually no recipes on the internet for 100% whole wheat sourdough bread for the bread maker. They’re either not 100% whole wheat, or they’re not for the bread maker, or they use both commercial yeast and sourdough starter (if you’re not sure what sourdough starter is, check out ‘Getting started on your sourdough starter‘). So I had to experiment, using bits and pieces of recipes from all over (like from The Perfect Loaf, a great site dedicated to sourdough baking).
Finally, many months and lots of trial-and-error later, I’ve figured out my basic 100% whole wheat sourdough bread machine recipe. This uses only the four most basic ingredients: whole wheat flour, water, salt and sourdough starter. So this recipe is great if you’re vegan or vegetarian, or are allergic to dairy and/or eggs. It’s not gluten-free, though.
I spent a long time looking for a recipe like this. So if you’ve been looking too, I hope my basic 100% whole wheat sourdough bread machine recipe if what you’ve been looking for. If you like this recipe, or if you think I should make some tweaks or additions, leave a comment and let me know!