This naturally leavened caramelized onion sourdough bread has a wonderful sweet-savory flavor from caramelized onions and a hint of sage. Yes, it takes a bit of time, but most is hands off and believe me, it's well worth it.
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As I mentioned when I shared my sourdough pancakes recently, I have been meaning to get a sourdough starter going again for a while and finally got round to it recently. For something that you make with only flour and water, it is almost magical in its ability to make a loaf rise and add flavor.
And don't get me wrong, I know if baking with yeast is intimidating then sourdough seems like a whole extra level of scary. Yet it's actually more forgiving than you might think.
I've tried a few experiments over the last few weeks. And while some were odd shapes, or with big air pockets, the bread was still delicious. And no bricks in sight.
This particular bread has definitely been our favorite by far recently. The flavor and texture were both so good.
The caramelized onions might seem like yet another thing to do, but they add a wonderful slight sweetness. I'll admit, the sage is less obvious. I was a bit nervous it might take over, as sage can do, and probably went under the amount needed to bring the flavor out fully.
Feel free to add more if you like, or you can skip if you prefer. You could also switch out the sage for thyme or rosemary. The herby flavor certainly complements the other flavors in this, but for me they are not the main event. The combination of slightly tangy sourdough and sweet caramelized onions is truly wonderful in itself.
How do you make bread without yeast?
Some non-yeasted breads using baking soda (like the famous Irish kind) or other leavener, but sourdough works differently.
It works by using "wild yeast" and bacteria from the air fermenting with the flour and water, producing gas (ie bubbles in the dough) and lactic acid that gives the sour flavor. That's horribly oversimplified, but it's an amazing process that largely happens on its own over a few days, with regular feeding of fresh flour and water to help it along.
Sourdoughs in one place may taste different from another since there are different naturally occurring bacteria in the air. Also if you want a more sour loaf of bread, you can leave the dough to develop over multiple days and not only do the air pockets grow, but so does the flavor.
Stages in making sourdough
Some sourdoughs help things along with some added yeast, but you absolutely can make a loaf without it, as I have here. This naturally leavened bread is sometimes called "pain au levain" and follows a fairly typical process. Yes, it takes some time but you can flex some of the times to suit your schedule better and most is not very hands on.
Here is an outline of the steps and approximate time commitments:
- Have an active starter - before you start making this loaf, your starter needs to be fed and bubbly. (time commitment: 5 min over min 5 days to get starter going)
- Create the 'levain' - this is in effect a very active starter, made using a little starter plus a good amount of flour and water. Some make this dry, others wet then add less water later. (5 min active time then leave min 6 hours or overnight)
- Mix dough ingredients, except salt - salt is necessary for flavor but slows the rise so comes slightly later. The dough will look pretty "shaggy". (5 min)
- 'Autolyse' - this is in effect a rest period where the full dough ingredients mingle together. (around 30 min, hands off)
- Add salt and give short knead - in the case of this dough, this is also when you add the sage & onions. You'll be able to mix them in evenly as you knead, in fact it's a good indicator it's evenly kneaded. (5-10 min)
- Proof the dough - this is like the first rise for a yeast bread, but two main differences here - it takes a little longer and you help build air by stretching and folding the dough around every 40-60min. At this point, you may not see many air bubbles. (2 hours approx with short intervals hands on)
- Form into loaf - fold the dough tightly on itself to form either a boule (ball) or bâtard (oval) then put in a proofing basket, if you have one, or simply on to parchment that you'll bake it on. (5 min)
- Second proof - leave the loaf to rise and form air pockets before baking. (2 to 3 hours room temp or overnight in fridge, hands off)
- Score and bake - score the top of the loaf right before baking at high heat until it sounds hollow. (40min approx)
I know that probably all seems like a lot, but honestly, it's easier than you might think. Sourdough is also more forgiving than the mystery that seems to surround it, too.
Sometimes it can seem like it doesn't have a lot of bubbles in the first proof. Don't worry - as long as you have indications of some activity, it will probably be fine. While it is possible to over-proof sourdough, you can leave it a little too long at various stages and it should survive. Generally, at worst you just get some bigger air pockets in there.
How do you cook this loaf?
You have a few options in how to cook the loaf - some opt for a baking stone while others use a Dutch oven. Personally I find in a Dutch oven or similar overproof dish with a lid is best to give it a steam covered at the start followed by taking the lid off to let it brown.
Why steam? Well the steam helps to give the loaf a crisp crust. If you don't use a closed dish, you can create a similar environment by making steam in the oven as you put the loaf in, but I have had less success in this leading to a crisp crust.
Whichever way you bake it, it's worth having the dish warm before you put the loaf in to help the crust get nice and crisp and have the loaf heat as soon as it goes in the oven.
If you're using a Dutch oven, I tend to let it rise on parchment, in the pan, then use the edges of the parchment to lift it out while I warm the pan in the oven as it heats up.
This caramelized onion sourdough bread has such a wonderful flavor - the classic sourdough tang with sweet bursts from the onions are such a great combination. Crisp outside, tender inside. It's truly a new favorite - make it yours too!
Like making bread? Try these other homemade breads:
- Japanese milk bread
- Pain de campagne - French country bread
- Sourdough rye bread
- Spelt rolls
- Fig and walnut bread
- Plus get more side dishes in the archives.
Sage and caramelized onion sourdough bread
For the levain/sponge
- 22 g sourdough starter
- 105 g all purpose flour plain flour
- 105 ml water lukewarm
For caramelized onions
- ½ onion
- ½ tablespoon olive oil may need a little more
- ¼ teaspoon sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt (or large pinch, as you prefer)
- ½ teaspoon fresh sage finely diced - or more to taste
To make loaf
- 230 g all purpose flour (plain flour)
- 115 g wholewheat flour
- 210 ml water lukewarm
- 8 g salt
Levain/sponge (night before or at least 9hrs before baking)
- Mix the levain/sponge ingredients together in a bowl, making sure they are well mixed. Cover the bowl with a cloth or cling wrap/film and leave in at room temperature overnight. Alternatively, leave for at least 6 hours at warm room temp, or around 8 hours more normal temp. You should see it noticeably have bubbles on top.
- During this time, finely dice the onions. Warm the olive oil in a small skillet over a medium heat and add the onion, sugar and salt. Cook for at least 15-20 minutes until the onions soften and start to caramelize. Reduce the heat and/or add a little more oil as needed to avoid the onions burning. Once the onions are starting to caramelize, add the chopped sage and cook for a few more minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. (Can make ahead and set aside.)
Making dough and initial rise
- After the levain's rise, mix in the additional flours and water but not the salt. Leave the mixture to rest for around 30 minutes.
- Add the salt, mix in (you'll feel the dough tense up), then turn the mixture onto a lightly floured surface. Spread it out slightly and top with the onion mixture. Fold in the sides to help hold the onions in the loaf then knead the dough for a few minutes, pushing one side out with the heel of your hand, folding over, then turn 90 degrees and repeat. As you do so, you'll naturally work in the onion and distribute it evenly.
- Lightly brush a large bowl with oil then form the bread into a ball and put in the bowl. Cover and leave to rise another 2 hours, opening it up to fold roughly every 30 minutes. For each fold, pull on one side of the dough, stretch it up pretty much as far as it will go and fold it over the rest of the dough. Turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat. Make at least 4 of these stretches for each fold (I sometimes do 6 if it feels like it needs it). During this time, line a Dutch oven or other large baking dish with a lid with parchment.
Forming loaf and second rise/proof
- After you have made three folds and let it have a further half hour (ie 2 hours total), turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Fold the sides over tightly in to the middle to form a tight ball (bring in to middle in 4 or 5 places). Repeat this process one more time with floured hands, picking it up and turning over at the end to bring it in to a ball or oval shape. Place the dough, smooth side up, join side down, in the lined Dutch oven/pan.
- Cover the pan with cling wrap/film and leave to rise approx 2 hours.
Baking the loaf
- When ready to bake, remove the cling wrap/film then hold the corners of the parchment to lift the loaf carefully out of the Dutch oven/pan. Let it sit as you preheat the oven to 450F/240C with the Dutch oven/pan warming in the oven at the same time.
- When the oven has heated, take out the Dutch oven/pan and carefully put the parchment with the loaf on into the pan. Score the loaf in the middle then cover with the lid and bake for around 20 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for another 20 minutes until the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow to tap.
- Transfer the loaf to a cooling rack and allow it to cool before slicing.
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline's Cooking Amazon store.
I first learned to make sourdough from the River Cottage series on TV and still refer to their sourdough guide to explain all the stages. For this I have also drawn on Karen's Kitchen Stories pain au levain with caramelized onion.
Baking Bloggers April 2020: Herbs
- Baked Spaghetti with Sausage and Meatballs from Palatable Pastime
- Ham and Herbed Potatoes Au Gratin from Making Miracles
- Herb Roasted Chickpeas from Cook with Renu
- Herbed Chicken with Charred Romaine Salad from A Day in the Life on the Farm
- No Knead Herb Bread from Karen's Kitchen Stories
- Oven-Braised Rabbit with Herbed Dumplings from Culinary Adventures with Camilla
- Quiche Lorraine with Herbs from Sid's Sea Palm Cooking
- Rosemary & Garlic Baked Potato With Sour Cream from Sneha's Recipe
- Tomato Salad Topped Baked Spinach Frittata from Food Lust People Love
My sage and onion bread just came out of the oven, looks perfect! Thank you
Yay! So glad to hear it came out well.
I will be baking this tomorrow. Will I be adding 140 grams of starter to the flour and water? Sorry if I just did not see that.
So I am not quite sure if I fully understand the question but hopefully this helps - you first make a 'levain/sponge' with some starter, flour and water as listed under 'levain/sponge' in the recipe. You make this mixture the night before or at least 6-8 hours before you add anything else. Then you use all of this sponge mixture and add the additional flour and water etc listed under "to make loaf". So you are not just taking an amount of starter, but an extra-active sponge you made with a small amount of starter a few hours before. Hope that helps clarify!
I extended the proofing time up to 6 hours in the kitchen's temperature (around 20 celsius) and it turned out perfect with ideal oven spring. Instead of the carmelized onion I used black garlic.
Glad t hear it turned out well, and black garlic sounds like a tasty variation, too.
I have a general sourdough recipe that is very much like your recipe and I created this and baked it today. IT IS FANTASTIC! Great new combo to add to our list of favorite flavor combos! Thanks for sharing!
So glad to hear you enjoyed!
Hi thank you! Getting ready to make. I’m curious as to total time including rises. Are we looking at 14 hours? Should I start at 4am for bread at dinner. Or Can I make the first leavin the day before? Will it be a problem if it stays at room temperature for 12 hours instead of 8? Thanks for your help!
So adding up, it looks about 10 hours, though it can be more depending how you do the initial levain. I'd say you can certainly leave the levain for longer as long as your room temperature is not too warm, so prep it late in the evening, leave overnight and then do the loaf prep and rises from mid-morning the next day. Another option is to do part of the second rise (so once the loaf is formed) in the fridge so it happens more gradually. So you could do levain overnight, first rise in the morning then leave out say for an hour for second rise then transfer to fridge. Take it out as you warm up the oven. Hope that helps!
I've made this bread 3 times this month. Shared with family & got rave reviews. I added poppyseed to the dough & it is now my husband's favorite. Love it.
So glad to hear you have been enjoying it. And poppyseeds sound a lovely addition.
I’ve made this several times, always delicious! I usually throw the salt in with the flours from the get go, not letting it rest, as I do this with other sourdoughs - wondering how it changes things? I’ve substituted thyme (delicious!) and rosemary (okay, doesn’t shine through as well) for the sage as I never have any around. I also like to do the 2nd “rise” overnight in the fridge due to timing.
Kids and spouse love it! It’s our go to bread for finger food Friday.
I'm so glad to hear you have been enjoying! Yes I have got into the habit of doing 2nd rise overnight in the fridge for a number of sourdough breads as well, and mean to do so with this one too next time I make it. Thyme sounds good in there as a sub. With other breads, actually, I often add the salt straight in. I only didn't here as from so much I had been reading, this is the 'right' way to do it but I should try a side-by-side at some point to see if it changes much. Either way, glad you enjoyed!
Please translate grams to ounces. I want to try this recipe but I am gram challenged. I have my starter ready to go but need help with gram conversions. Thank you in advance.
For most recipes, I will give cup/teaspoon measurements as well as grams to allow for different ways of measuring, but with bread in particular, it really makes a difference being more accurate. For some of the measurements, ounces just aren't accurate enough and it will depend on your scales whether it uses decimal, quarters etc on smaller amounts. I'd highly recommend a digital scale which you can then easily switch to grams for baking things like this.
Delicious flavor! Thanks for this recipe and the detailed instructions!
So glad to hear you enjoyed, and that the instructions were helpful!
I can’t find instructions on how to make the first ingredient, 22g sourdough starter. Am I overlooking something? Or must the reader do more research to learn how to make this. As this is a crucial and required ingredient, I’m surprised instructions are not included.
But I’ve never made sourdough before, so maybe this is normal to use multiple resources for a recipe.
I've not included instructions for the starter here as that's really a recipe in itself (and takes a little time to get started, though it's not difficult) - this is more intended as giving an idea to use a starter if you have one going already, though I appreciate it may be helpful to have a suggested resource. If you are looking for a starter recipe, there are many resources around, part of why I haven't published anything separate (yet at least, though that may change!), and one possible place to start is King Arthur Flour's recipe/post: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/sourdough-starter-recipe
This recipe sounds interesting. I was wondering if this could be cooked in a crockpot then finish in the oven? If so what specifications would you use?
I haven't tried cooking bread in a slow cooker though I know it is, in theory, possible. So I'm afraid I can't advise on specific adaptations for this bread. From what I have seen, slow cooker bread tends to not come out with as good a shape and doesn't usually crisp up. You can compensate a little on crispness by finishing under broiler but have to take care as it can burn in patches. If you have the option to do in the oven, I would certainly recommend this if possible.
Thank you for the recipe! I just made this bread and it is delicious! I was out of sage, so I substituted with poultry seasoning - worked great with the onions.
So glad to hear you enjoyed, and yes this definitely works with other herbs, too.
Carlos at Spoonabilities
Thank you so much for the detailed explanation about the sourdough making process. Reading your blog post helped me to understand many things. I'm thinking of doing a starter, but this is a bit away from my conforming zone.
You're welcome - it's really easier than you might think, I hope once you get your starter going you'll give it a try!
Yum and thanks for the recipe. I am baking my first sourdough bread today as I made the starter last week. I am looking out for recipes and this looks absolutely perfect to try on.
Sounds like perfect timing! It's definitely fun to try different things once you have a starter going - hope you enjoy this one as much as we did.
The perfect loaf of bread.
Thanks, we instantly love it!
What a lovely loaf of bread. I can almost smell it.
Thanks - if only you could have smells through the screen, right?!
Gorgeous crumb! What a beautiful loaf of bread and your instructions will teach any beginner how to make this loaf.
Rebekah @ Making Miracles
What a gorgeous loaf of bread! I know my family would devour this one - anything with caramelized onion goes over well here.
Thanks, it certainly went down very well here, so hope it would for you too!
I ADORE those airy pockets, Caroline! When I slice into bread and see those, I know the flavor will be incredible, even without your tasty add-ins. Gorgeous loaf!
Thanks, I know what you mean! Though I do highly recommend the add-ins here, the onions in particular add such a wonderful flavor.